Among the thousands of words that could be used to describe the Olympic experience, Seth Kelsey sums it up with a handful:
"The best thing about being an Olympian is that you always get to be one."
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Kelsey should know. The 30-year-old Brush Prairie native is headed to the Olympics for the third time, representing the United States in fencing at the London Games.
He is one of two Clark County athletes competing in London — along with women's javelin thrower Kara Patterson, a 26-year-old graduate of Skyview High School. And he again will be taking his place among the world's elite athletes.
According to sports-reference.com, 7,297 athletes have represented the United States at the Summer Olympics since the inception of the Games in 1896. Out of the millions upon millions of athletes who have aspired to the Olympics over the years, the number who have achieved that dream still could fit into a small arena — and each of those has had their life changed forever.
Local athletes in the 2012 Olympics
• Who: Native of Brush Prairie.
• Age: 30.
• What: Fencer competing in his third Olympics.
• Background: Graduate of Oregon Episcopal School and the Air Force Academy.
• Residence: Colorado Springs, Colo.
• Event: Individual men’s epeé. Competition is Aug. 1.
• Who: Native of Vancouver.
• Age: 26.
• What: Track and field athlete competing in her second Olympics.
• Background: Graduate of Skyview High School and Purdue University.
• Residence: Chula Vista, Calif.
• Event: Women’s javelin. Preliminaries Aug. 7; top 12 qualifiers compete in finals on Aug. 9.
"It turns people's heads when you say you were an Olympian," said Clem Eischen, 85, who came out of Vancouver High School and Washington State to run the 1,500 meters at the London Games in 1948. "I was an All-American several times, but being an Olympian takes it up another notch.
"I didn't really think much about it at the time. As I get older it becomes more of a precious thing."
Eischen's Olympic experience reflects the vast changes in the Games over the decades. The London of his Olympics was still recovering from the ravages of World War II, and sports were far from the worldwide media obsession they would become.
"We stayed at an RAF (Royal Air Force) base," he said. "We didn't get all the bells and whistles they have now."
Friday's opening ceremony, along with the track and field competition, will take place in a new $753 million stadium. And a vast majority of the athletes representing the United States makes a living competing in their chosen sport.
"If we took a candy bar, we were considered a professional," Eischen joked about the amateurism of his day.
While the trappings of sports have changed over the years, the goal of every Olympian remains the same — to win a medal.
Clark County has produced medal-winners in the past. Gretchen Fraser captured a gold and a silver in skiing at the 1948 Winter Games; Lance Bade won bronze in shooting at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
But the vast majority of athletes will leave the Games with nothing more than memories.
"In 2008, I was very wide-eyed and amazed," Patterson said of her first Olympic experience, when she was unable to reach the 12-person final in the javelin. "Just being a little bit overwhelmed is something that sticks out."
Now Patterson, who trains in the San Diego area, is a seasoned veteran. She holds the American record in her event, has won four national titles, and has competed in two World Championship meets in addition to the Olympics.
She comes into London nursing a sore knee that was injured during the Olympic trials, but retains high hopes.
"I know there's untapped potential in me that could mean a medal," she said. "I would be satisfied with top eight; anything else and I know I'm not performing my best."
Kelsey, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, will compete in individual epeé, an event in which he is ranked 20th in the world. But his best medal chance likely was scuttled by a quirk in the rules.
Kelsey helped the United States win a world championship this year in team epeé, but that event won't be contested at the Olympics because of a limit on the number of medal events that may be held in fencing.
"Medals are great," Kelsey said, "but there is so much more involved than one day every four years."
There is, after all, the right to call yourself an Olympian for the rest of your life.