Among the countless pieces of high-performance gear the U.S. swim team is schlepping to the Rio Olympics, the most important may be these: blackout curtains, fitted sheets, and pillows from home.
Even as worries mount about security, terrorism, and a global health epidemic, the fear keeping U.S. swimming officials awake at night is the possibility that their star athletes won’t be able to get enough sleep.
The issue is a new schedule, driven by the desire to feature swimming on prime-time television broadcasts, that will start finals races at 10 p.m. and therefore keep some swimmers at the pool well past midnight. That means athletes will be returning to their beds in the early morning hours, and will need to be deep in REM sleep when the rest of the Olympic Village roars to life.
In response, the U.S. team has developed a new protocol it calls LNATP: Late Night at the Pool.
“If our athletes don’t sleep, they’re not going to perform,” Lindsay Mintenko, the swim team’s managing director. “A lot more emphasis has been put on that part of it because of the schedule.”
The swim team won 31 medals at the London Olympics in 2012, the most of any sport and nearly 30% of the U.S. team’s medal haul. The chance to feature Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Katie Ledecky when television viewership is highest is the main reason for the schedule shift, even if it hasn’t been popular in the swimming community—Australia’s head coach Jacco Verhaeren last year called the move “irresponsible.”
All U.S. swimmers will be given blackout curtains in Rio, and they’ve been issued eye masks and earplugs with instructions to practice with them so they don’t snooze through an alarm on a race day.
USA Swimming officials have told athletes to take a pillow from home for familiarity, and are bringing entire sets of bedsheets despite the fact that the Rio rooms already have them.
“Honestly, one of the biggest concerns I get from athletes, in most games I’ve been a part of: They don’t have fitted sheets,” says Mintenko, who won gold medals as a swimmer at the 2000 and 2004 games as Lindsay Benko. “It’s very uncomfortable for them not to be in fitted sheets.”