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Sochi Olympics

What’s It Like to Go Last at the Olympics?

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The BRA-1, Brazilian four-man bobsled team, take a turn during a training run at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Feb. 5, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. The four-man bobsled finals takes place on the last day of the winter games. Dita Alangkara / AP

Remember in college, when you had a final on the last day of exams? Everyone else on campus seemed to be goofing off, partying or packing up to head home. And there you were, stuck in the library.

That’s kind of what it’s like to have an event in the second half of the second week of the Olympics.

"You can definitely tell it's a lot more relaxed as more and more people on a daily basis are finishing their events. You can feel the tension disappearing," says bobsledder Steve Holcomb. "The anticipation, the anxiety is starting to subside, but at the same time we've got to stay focused since we're one of the last events."

Holcomb is mostly holed up in his room, catching up on "The Killing," "Revolution," "Elementary" and "Game of Thrones." People ask about how much fun he's having, and he tells them, "the Olympics are actually really boring. I don't go to events. I watch a few of them on TV. But I'm here because I've dedicated the last four years of my life for this event. I'm going to stay focused and buckle down."

Just like being the last person to give a presentation at a high-pressure meeting, a longer waiting period can make the anxiety worse for some, including Olympic athletes, says psychologist Sian Beilock, a professor at the University of Chicago whose work focuses on performance in high-pressure situations. It’s because the wait gives them more time to think about things; highly skilled athletes like Olympians have trained for so long that their movements come automatically. When they start to think about the movements, they get into trouble.

“So, one of the ideas behind why people perform poorly in high-pressure situations, especially highly skilled athletes, is that they start thinking too much about their performance, when they should be performing on autopilot,” says Beilock, the author of the 2010 book “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveals About Getting It Right When You Have To.”

“And having a lot of time gives you the opportunity to rethink things, in a way that might be counterproductive,” she says.

"As much as I wish we could have fun and go around and party and live like an Olympian and Olympic medalists who we are now, we've got a job to do still."

When gold medal ice dancers Meryl White and Charlie Davis go last in a competition, "We don't watch the other people. We ideally don't know what's happened with the other skaters, and we focus on ourselves."

The anxiety of going last sort of goes against intuitive thinking: More time to get ready should be a good thing, right? And, indeed, some athletes do take that perspective. “It’s kind of nice to have the extra week for preparation and to see some of the other events, check out the Olympic Park,” said bobsledder Nick Cunningham.

Four-man bobsled, men’s mass start cross-country and the men’s ice hockey finals all take place on the very last day of the 2014 games — just hours before the closing ceremony.

"As much as I wish we could have fun and go around and party and live like an Olympian and Olympic medalists who we are now, we've got a job to do still," Holcomb says. "We've got to wake up early tomorrow for training. We'll have fun today, going to the USA House after this. But 11:30 when our car departs, it's back to business."

If you ever find yourself in a similar waiting game, Beilock says it can help to distract yourself. “Athletes might do this by listening to music,” she says. And she also has this advice:

“When you’re in the moment, when you’re about to perform, just get up there and think about the end results, rather than all the steps that you have to take to get you there,” she says.

Steve Veres and Vidya Rao contributed to this report from Sochi.