How the first 2016 U.S. Olympians maintained their focus

Sarah True placed fourth at the 2012 Olympics and knew she made the 2016 team in August of last year. Warren Little/Getty Images

More than 500 athletes will represent the U.S. this summer at the Rio Olympics. Many are qualifying now and in the coming weeks. But a few made the team more than a full year in advance. That is a long time to focus on a faraway goal. How did they do it?

We asked three athletes to reveal their tricks: table tennis player Wu Yue, the second athlete (and first woman) in any sport to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team; swimmer Haley Anderson, the fifth athlete to earn a berth; and triathlete Sarah True, the seventh U.S. Olympian.

Simmer, then turn it up

True, who finished fourth in the 2012 Olympic triathlon said, "The hardest thing is to avoid burnout. In 2012, a lot of my peers who qualified early for London were too fit too early and overcooked themselves by the time August rolled around. So don't go full boil at the start. Just stay on simmer, keep turning up the dial a little bit and, toward the end, finish at a high heat."

Set small goals along the way

Anderson, the 10K open-water swimmer who captured a silver medal in London at age 21, said, "Make sure there's smaller goals or smaller races throughout the year to use as stepping stones. That's what I do. Set a goal, make it, reach for the next step, and keep doing that."

Find tricks to make it fun

"I've never been big on practice. But I enjoy racing," Anderson said. "So I started pretending practice was a race -- like, I'd race people at practice every single day. That's how I got better. That's what makes it fun for me. And then I started enjoying practice more."

Don't settle

For Wu, making the team wasn't enough. She maintains her laser-focus in practice because, she she said, "Playing in the Olympics is not my final goal. I want to do my best in the Olympics."

Even though she qualified for Rio on July 25 at the 2015 Pan American Games, "sometimes," she said, "I even feel like I don't have enough time," despite training five to six hours a day -- including four hours at the table.

Aspire for more than a result

Wu also takes a macro view. Because no American has ever placed higher than fifth in table tennis at the Olympics, she knows it "is not a very hot sport in the U.S." -- especially compared to in China, where she was born and where table tennis is huge.

"I think if I can play better, maybe more people are going to watch table tennis," she said.

Mindful of the potential to popularize the sport, the 26-year-old New Jersey resident has been seeking the best training partners in the world -- first in Japan (for three weeks) and then in China (where she spent most of April and May). After that, Wu plans to sharpen up on the pro tour in Croatia and Slovenia.

Stay with it through the bad times

In 2013, Anderson failed to make the U.S. national team in her best event, the one in which she had earned an Olympic silver medal one year earlier.

"The 10K was the first day of nationals -- it was actually the day of my college graduation. It was terrible. I swam badly [8th place]. I didn't get to walk [in USC's graduation ceremony]. And it was my first race as a professional," she said. "It was like: Did I really accomplish all that stuff, or was it a fluke? Is this really what I want to do? Am I doing it for the right reasons? Or am I doing it just because I've succeeded?

"My dad was like, 'Well, you can't end on a bad note.' I said, 'I don't want to do the 5K. It'll be a mess again.' He told me: 'Just do it. Have fun.' Two days later, I ended up winning the 5K, going to worlds for the 5K and won my first world championship medal that summer [gold]. I'm glad he told me not to give up after that 10K.

"Ride the lows. Just because I did bad in one race didn't mean I didn't like the sport. I realized I wasn't in it just because I was doing well. I was in it because I loved it."

Know when to really get going

"You don't have to have that razor's edge focus for an entire year," True said. "It's unsustainable. For me, 100 days out marks the point where I have that really acute focus. ... Until this point, it's been about building a strong foundation -- staying healthy, staying consistent and making sure I have balance in my life -- to set the stage for that period of time when it's just about the Games."

Enjoy the process, whether it's new or not

First-time Olympian Wu is savoring all the novelty en route to Rio: "This will be my first chance to play in the Olympic Games," she said. "I'm very much cherishing it!"

Meanwhile, veterans such as Anderson are finding sustenance in reflection. "The first time came so quick," she said. "The second time around, I'm trying to enjoy the moments more and enjoy the process, instead of just running through everything."