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Earning a place on the United States Olympic team is tough at the best of times — but booking your ticket to a third, fourth or even fifth games during a pandemic is an enormous challenge.

For those bidding to get another outing with Team USA, after navigating unprecedented challenges in the COVID-19 era and lingering uncertainty over whether the games would even go ahead, the experience that comes with age is invaluable.

“Whether it’s a wreck on the road that makes you delayed getting to a game, whether it’s rain causing you to have to stop in the third inning, things are out of your control,” twice Olympic softball player Cat Osterman said. “You learn how to adapt.”

The 38-year-old pitcher picked up gold at the 2004 Athens Games and silver at Beijing 2008, before softball was removed from the Olympic program for two cycles. She came out of retirement when the sport was added to Tokyo’s agenda.

“In ’04, I was 21 — super young, super just kind of naive to the whole process,” said Osterman, who has partnered with Dick’s Sporting Goods to bring awareness of the sport to a new generation. “I’ve been through a lot of experiences since then.”

Starting pitcher Cat Osterman of the U.S. reacts after striking out a Japan batter in the first inning of their gold medal softball game at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games in August 2008.     | REUTERS
Starting pitcher Cat Osterman of the U.S. reacts after striking out a Japan batter in the first inning of their gold medal softball game at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games in August 2008. | REUTERS

It is no secret that Olympic sport is unforgiving when it comes to age. Of the 558 athletes named on the U.S. team in 2016, 189 were returning Olympians, according to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC).

Abdi Abdirahman has managed to qualify again. The marathon runner is entering his fifth Olympics aged 44, a year older than reigning Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady.

“Out of all of the athletes it’s more satisfying when (you make it) at this point of age because you know there’s not that many races left for you to run,” said Abdirahman, who is releasing a memoir of his experiences called “Abdi’s World: The Black Cactus on Life, Running, and Fun” in July.

“I never thought in 2000 that I would be in the starting lineup in the Tokyo Olympics.”

The oldest U.S. runner ever to book a spot on the team, Abdirahman punched his ticket to Tokyo by finishing third in the trials in February 2020, only to face months of waiting as the games were put on hold for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s just been a difficult year,” said Abdirahman, who spent much of the intervening time learning to train alone. “It’s not something we have dealt with before.”

Jenny Simpson, a Rio bronze medalist in the 1,500 meters who is bidding for her fourth trip to the games as the U.S. athletics trials kick off this week, told reporters her long tenure in the sport prepared her well for the months of uncertainty.

“The level of nerves, whether you’re a high schooler or toeing the line for the Olympic games — it’s just part of the process,” said the 34-year-old. “And if you’ve got through an Olympic trials and made the team, you’ve learned to be good at it.”

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