Behind the Covers: Martin Schoeller’s Portraits of the 2012 U.S. Olympians

Martin Schoeller for TIME
Martin Schoeller for TIME
Swimmer Ryan Lochte, 27.

We’re accustomed to seeing Olympic athletes in their elements: gymnast Gabby Douglas tumbling across the balance beam; runner Lolo Jones mid-hurdle on the track. But in his portrait series of gold-medal hopefuls for TIME’s 2012 Olympics special issue, Martin Schoeller shows three U.S. team members—Douglas, Jones and swimmer Ryan Lochte—whose passion for sport isn’t contained by training center walls.

(For daily coverage of the 2012 Games, visit TIME’s Olympics blog)

In Des Moines, Iowa, where Gabby Douglas has lived since 2010 with a host family to train with legendary Olympic coach Liang Chow, Schoeller met a young athlete who was a role model in the gym and in her home. “It was inspiring to see Gabby with the family who has taken her in so that she can pursue her dream of being an Olympic athlete,” the photographer said. In one picture, Douglas is posed in a full split against her family’s refrigerator, a move that Schoeller says isn’t uncommon for the 16-year-old gymnast as one of her quotes about strength. “She’s always stretching around the house to stay limber—you see what it means for these athletes to live and breathe their sport,” Schoeller says. “And then to watch the little girl clinging to Gabby’s leg and playing with her like a new sister was really lovely.”

In Baton Rouge, La., Schoeller photographed track and field athlete Lolo Jones, who finished a disappointing 7th in the 100-meter race at the 2008 Games in Beijing after she clipped a hurdle during the race. “Lolo made me realize how much pressure is on these athletes,” says Schoeller, who, in one image, captured the athlete training for hurdles with her dog. “One little misstep in her last Olympic performance caused a big disappointment, and that is devastating when these athletes have given up everything to become an Olympian.”

Watch behind-the-scenes footage of Martin Schoeller’s cover shoot with swimmer Ryan Lochte

Swimmer Ryan Lochte has become somewhat of the poster boy for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team after appearing on the June cover of Vogue and on the front page of the New York Times’ style section. It’s not surprising, then, that Schoeller found a confident, self-assured athlete in Lochte when he photographed the swimmer in Gainesville, Fla. this May. “He was very nice and very nice-looking, almost like a model,” Schoeller says. “But he is also obviously an incredible athlete—to watch him swim back and forth, turn at the edge and create those ripples in the pool made for a great photo.” With just an hour and a half to shoot, Schoeller tapped a professional diver to lay a black sheet and several lights at the bottom of the pool to create the contrast seen in his photos. “I’m not even a big sports person, but athletes’ bodies are mesmerizing,” Schoeller says. “They’re constantly putting themselves in pose and doing something interesting with the physical expressions, and I love to photograph them because they’re natural performers at heart.”

Martin Schoeller is a New York City–based photographer. See more of his work here.

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