WHAT MAKES them a team exactly? A team is a close-knit group of individuals working together toward a common goal, and at first sight the U.S. Olympic squad doesn't seem to fit that definition. Close-knit? With 530 athletes from 44 states competing in 25 sports, some members of Team USA will probably never meet. Diver Kelci Bryant, from Chatham, Ill., and boxer Rau'shee Warren, from Cincinnati, may never get to know each other in a meaningful way. Common goal? They don't even compete on common ground. While Michael Phelps and the other U.S. swimmers try to beat the rest of the world in the water, pole vaulters such as Jenn Suhr will go for gold in the air and sprinters such as Tyson Gay will try to win on England's terra firma.
Most of the U.S. athletes will live in the Olympic Village and take a lap together around the track at the opening and closing ceremonies while wearing matching red-white-and-blue outfits. That will make them neighbors—even friends, perhaps—but not teammates.
So what makes them a team? In part we do—those of us who view the U.S. Olympians as our representatives. As much as anything else, it is national pride that blankets them, bonds them, makes them feel like a true team. "We're all tight within our own groups, the track and field people, the gymnastics teams, the swimmers and divers and what have you," says sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross (page 94), the gold medal favorite in the 400 meters. "But when you hear that U-S-A! U-S-A! chant go up, it doesn't matter what sport it's for. You realize that all athletes on this team are trying in different ways to do the same thing: make America proud."
That unity of purpose transforms a group of individuals into a real unit, yet the beauty of an Olympic team is in its differences. It includes different body types and backgrounds, different personalities and styles of preparation. It is man and woman, teenage and middle age, pixie and behemoth. Although this might sound like every political speech you've ever heard, the team symbolizes the U.S. in all its diversity—of races, of ethnicities, of socioeconomic backgrounds, of skill sets. It is a quilt, disparate pieces stitched together to make a unified whole.
On what other unit could 17-year-old swimmer Missy Franklin and 52-year-old equestrian rider Rich Fellers—both first-time Olympians—be teammates? Or LeBron James, bred in Ohio, and women's archer Khatuna Lorig, born in the Republic of Georgia? Where else could men's archer Brady Ellison, who has been known to rise at 6 a.m. to go bow hunting for wild game, be on the same squad with synchronized swimmer Mary Killman, who has been known to rise at 6 a.m. to begin applying to her hair the gelatin that will keep every strand in place for competition?
Cyclist Dotsie Bausch is a former runway model and recovered anorexic who consumed only 30 calories a day during the depths of her illness more than a decade ago. "There were days when my entire intake consisted of a portion of a muffin," Bausch says. At the other end of the spectrum is 340-pound weightlifter Holly Mangold, younger sister of Jets center Nick Mangold, for whom eating has never been a complicated issue. "I don't avoid food," Holly says. "I embrace it." So different and yet teammates.
So this cross section of Americans will represent the U.S. against the world on foreign soil. That makes them sound something like a battalion heading off to war, but fortunately the stakes only feel like life and death—to the athletes, that is.
Better still, the outcome is usually clear. Part of the appeal of watching Team USA is seeing the U.S. measure itself against other countries in competitions that, unlike so many international conflicts, usually have an indisputable winner and loser. We can debate which kind of government is the best, which nation's health-care system gives the best service to its citizens, but with luck there will be no arguing which country's eight-man shell rows across the finish line first at Eton Dorney just outside London. You can cheer your lungs out for the U.S. if you like, know clearly whether its athletes have won and, best of all, know that no matter what the outcome, the only casualty will be the pride of the losers.
IN A way, an Olympic team is the reverse of most other squads, which usually have a relatively short preparation time—a training camp, a spring training—before a long season. For the athletes who will represent the Stars and Stripes in London, there have been at least four years of work (much more, in some cases) for the chance to spend 17 days as a member of Team USA. It is an enormous investment for such a brief opportunity to compete.
Marlen Esparza, 22, a projected medal contender in the 112-pound flyweight class in the new Olympic sport of women's boxing, has been training for the Games for half of her life. Before she could fight opponents as a young woman, she had to fight stereotypes as a little girl. Though her father encouraged her two younger brothers to box and watched tapes with her of former champion Julio César Chávez, Marlen had to beg her dad before he finally allowed her to put on the gloves herself.