The dream starts innocently enough.

The dream starts innocently enough.

Young athletes start to have success, rise above their peers and begin to focus their dreams on a single goal: competing in the Olympic Games.

A lot of youth sports stories are like that — full of wishful thinking and blind ambition, raw talent and uncharted potential.

But what does it really take to be an Olympian?

Certainly good genes and a positive training environment are essential. Mostly, it takes an unwavering commitment that an athlete truly does not understand until he or she goes through it.

"Trust me, they do not know what it takes to get there,'' said Kingston's Phil Brown, who came up short in two Olympic trials bids in wrestling. "Now, if they have that thought, if they have that dream, if they are willing to listen, I always say it's possible.''

Roscoe's Russ Hodge made up his mind when he was 13 years old. His mom, the former Alice Arden, competed in the high jump at the 1936 Berlin Games, but it was Burt Lancaster's portrayal of an Olympic champion in "Jim Thorpe — All-American" that inspired his pursuits.

"I knew I would be an athlete at that time,'' said Hodge, who years later competed in the decathlon at the 1964 Tokyo Games and held the world record briefly in 1966.

During his college days, Hodge trained six hours a day, in addition to taking a full load of classes and working at a saloon six nights a week to pay the bills. It was a taxing schedule but it never swayed Hodge from giving up. "That stuff never even entered my mind,'' he said.

His decathlon pursuits took him around the world, and he figures he put in at least 60,000 training hours over the years.

"Nobody knows what it takes until they do it,'' Hodge said. "You can have intellectual knowledge of something but until you experience it, you don't know.''

Hodge, 69, also had his share of bad luck — he suffered injuries right before the 1968, 1972 and 1976 Olympic trials.

He competed into his 60s and even won medals at the Empire State Games, the Olympics of New York state, in 2001.

"It takes God-given ability, the ability to never give up and a tremendous amount of perseverance,'' Hodge said. "When I coached at UCLA, for example, I worked with thousands of athletes. So many (of them) came through there who had the greatest (skills) but didn't have the mentality.''

Anita Allen was just 7 years old when she made up her mind.

"It's when I saw (gymnast) Mary Lou Retton in the 1984 Olympics,'' Allen said. "I didn't know how I was going to do it but I knew I wanted that, I wanted to be in the Olympics. Even at that young age, the mystique of the Olympics ... I was still able to get it, that it's bigger than you, it's bigger than anything in the world. It's the one moment where all the things in the world stop for this sporting event.''

The nearest gymnastics center, though, was an hour away from her Indiana home so that ruled out her being the next Mary Lou. She eventually ended up running and became one of Army's top distance runners. Following graduation from West Point in 2000, Allen was introduced to the obscure sport of modern pentathlon — a combination of running, fencing, horse riding, swimming and shooting.

"My fascination with the Olympics stayed with me throughout college,'' she said, "and I guess I never gave up the dream. When (the opportunity to compete in modern pentathlon) presented itself to me, it just made sense. I knew this is what I was meant to do.''

Inside of three years, Allen competed at the 2003 Pan- American Games and earned a berth for the 2004 Athens Games.

The sacrifices were plentiful, not least of which was moving into athletic training instead of joining her West Point classmates while the nation went to war — ultimately, that curtailed her advancement in the officer ranks, as well.

"I had to learn how to swim all over again. I had to learn how to fence, how to shoot and ride a horse. For six months straight I spent two hours on the back of a horse every day. There were days when I had 14 or 15 hours of training in one form or another.

"There are a lot of things in your life that you unfortunately have to let go: relationships, friendships go to the back burner. Some people I watched completely lost touch with the outside world because their world consists only of sport.''

Allen finished 18th in Athens, and wishes she had done a little better. She dropped the sport completely upon her return, reasoning she has "already slayed her dragon.'' She misses the competitive aspects and has a tinge of regret about not giving it one more try in 2008, knowing four more years of experience would have aided her development. Instead, she has turned to recreational pursuits in tennis, golf and downhill skiing.

She's taking master's courses at Notre Dame and doing non-profit work as she finishes out of her Army Reserves duty. Her Olympic experience is just a bullet on her resume. "It was a personal thing for me,'' she says. "I don't bring it up.''

Was it all worth it?

"I wouldn't change anything in the world,'' she said.

Timing is everything, says former Kingston resident Dave McGovern, a world-class racewalker. Next week, McGovern will be competing in his sixth U.S. Olympic trial, a 50-kilometer qualifier in Miami. He also wants to compete in this summer's 20K qualifier — his best event — in Oregon. So far, he is 0-for-5 in Olympic bids, but he knows what it takes.

"It really is a single-minded focus,'' he said. "You have to do absolutely everything every day. You have to wake up every morning and say, 'What am I going to do today to make the Olympic team?,' and that is four years out.''

The free-spirited McGovern says the Olympics have never been his ultimate goal. "My goal was always to go fast,'' he said, and if that led to the Olympics, fine. He has made numerous U.S. World Cup teams over 20 years.

"My wife has desperately wanted to make the Olympic team,'' McGovern says of his new bride, 2007 Millrose Games winner Loretta Schuelleim. "I never had that drive.''

In 1992, McGovern placed fifth at the U.S. Trials. In 1996, McGovern was the fastest racewalker in the nation and a trip to the Atlanta Games seemed quite attainable. "I guess you're supposed to have the urge to make the Olympic team,'' said McGovern, who decided to leave his Atlanta home and instead train at high altitude with outstanding Mexican racewalkers. He got in the best shape of his career but wilted when he returned to the heat and humidity of Atlanta for trials.

It was a training mistake, he says, something you can't afford in Olympic pursuits.

"In retrospect, it would be great to say you are an Olympian,'' McGovern said. "Now it's my goal to coach one.''

Roscoe's Carrie (Gorton) Ciripompa knows about bad timing. She was at the trials for the 1996 Atlanta Games, and getting off the best throws of her javelin career during the warmups — that's where she left them, she can laugh years later. A computer scoring problem delayed the competition, and she said she lost her rhythm. Instead of getting her tosses past a white arc that would virtually guarantee a berth in the finals, Gorton threw an "average" series some 15-20 feet or so under the eventual winning throw.

Now married and expecting twins, Ciripompa isn't crushed about her only shot at Olympic glory since it wasn't a childhood dream of hers, but it was an unsatisfying end to a pursuit that consumed her life for several years.

"It definitely became a main focus for me,'' she said. "It really became the runner's high that you hear about. There was a feeling of elation to get out to the track every day and train six to eight hours. I loved the intensity of it. It became addicting. I loved it and wanted more of it. At the time it was very exciting and very intense.''

The whole experience left Ciripompa feeling empty. She had no coach, and her shoulder and elbow injuries grew progressively worse (she continued to compete, and won 14 gold medals at the Empire State Games). A year before the 2000 Sydney Games, Ciripompa entertained the thought of trying again.

"Can I do it? Do I want to do it?'' she asked herself. "For me, the answer was no. Let's focus on work and building a career and getting on with my life.

"Having worked with many (Olympians) and seeing the other side of things, to this day I can pretty much bank on the fact that some of them are still struggling with finding a career, many of them didn't bother to finish college and they are struggling with getting on with their lives. To me, I am the lucky one. I went to college, got my bachelor's and master's degrees and found the greatest husband.''

Kingston's Phil Brown was a late arrival to the dream. He was 29 years old and two years into his active duty with the U.S. Army when his wrestling pursuits took on added importance. He was competing for the All-Army team and tasting success, which automatically put him in contention for the 1988 Trials.

"When you get to the Olympic trials, you have a bunch of individuals that can qualify, but not a whole lot,'' said Brown, who wrestled at 163 pounds. "You get to a certain level and everybody is basically the same: they have different styles and different techniques and they have the same drive. They have to go through the same trials and tribulations of the thousands of hours of practice, the hundreds of pounds of sweat, the pain, all that. In a sense, it's all the same, but it's God's will be done.''

Brown said he lost a match to an Olympic-bound wrestler with five seconds to go. Four years later, Brown again reached the next-to-last stage of qualifying only to be felled by a broken right cheekbone.

"A little fate steps in,'' Brown shrugs. "Hey, you didn't do it on the day that it needed to be done.''

Dealing with his narrow misses was not easy for Brown.

"In one way it feels super great to come that close,'' he said, "but at the same time it feels terrible, absolutely terrible, to come that close and all you have is this consolation thing. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't at least try.''

Lindsay Benko was 9 years old when she announced, "I am going to be an Olympian, and it's going to be great.''

"Little did I know it would take the time, the commitment and the patience,'' she said.

The Indiana native was good enough to earn a scholarship to Southern California. She blossomed in the Trojans' program, earning her first national team berth in 1997 and making a believer in her Olympic pursuit.

Benko figures she was in the water 4½ hours per day, swimming anywhere from 6,000-8,000 meters per practice, 10 times per week. Then there was the lifting and the running — all for a 200-meter race that was less than two minutes long. "That was all odd to me,'' said Benko, who set a world record.

"The commitment level has to be high across the board, especially in swimming,'' she said.

The training paid off — Benko won Olympic gold at the 2000 Sydney Games (800 freestyle relay) and won gold (800 free relay) and silver (400 free relay) at the 2004 Athens Games, in addition to earning five golds, four silvers and one bronze at three World Championships.

Having an Olympic gold medal draped around her neck remains her favorite athletic moment.

"It's everything you can dream of,'' she said. "It's our NBA Finals, our Super Bowl of swimming,'' she said. "It's pretty amazing getting that dream and making the team and then to get on the podium and have them put the gold medal around your neck ... that is another level.''

Now married, Lindsay Mintenko is the U.S. national swim team managing director.

"Looking back on it, there are lots of things that I may have missed in high school: the dances, the basketball game and all that kind of stuff,'' she said. "In college, there are things I could have done that would have put me on a different path. But I have a lot of experiences that a lot of people don't have. Every inch of it was worth it.''