Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Different Point-of-Hue: L.A. Stories 2008 (Prologue)

I really have little idea where this is going. The one thing I DO know is that things will be different this time — well, at least that’s my intention going in, anyway. Unlike previous yarns of my travels, this will be a relatively short series, although it could easily be one of ‘AJ’s Epics’ from the standpoint of my activities calendar in this, my latest incursion into the land of my past; my fourth homecoming to Southern California in the past five years, just completed during these last ten days of August 2008.

And though it may seem as though my visits to SoCal have practically been annual events, that’s really not the case. The first two trips of this period were only months apart; beginning with Michelle’s and my visit in May of 2004, then again three months later, when I made a second, solo trip in August.

The ‘L.A. Stories’ theme continued with my visit the following August of 2005, however without nearly the same steam as before. Seems my motivation (not to mention my enthusiasm for the subject matter — and that’s honestly no slight to my pal Gooch — I’m just sayin’…) went into hibernation about halfway through the writing of that ’05 series, which I’m finally — with much inner-coaxing — finishing just this week.

In between the two elapsed exactly three years’ time; three significant years in my opinion. Either my personal sensibilities, or L.A. as an inhabitable environment — or both — seem very different to me now. Either I’ve changed, or L.A. has — and in fairly significant measure in my opinion.

While I indeed had a great time here during my extended, nine-day vacay, I’ll have to admit, it wasn’t as great as I remembered from those landmark visits of 2004 and ’05; and as of the writing of these words, I haven’t figured out just why that is as of yet. And while it could easily be singled out as an excuse, I don’t think the untimely and in many ways personally tragic loss of my camera, and with it some wonderful photos I took last week is the sole culprit for my less-than-sunny disposition right now. I just honestly felt this creeping sense of disappointment throughout the week that I’m still unable to shake.

I dunno. Maybe I’ll figure it all out here as I write out my thoughts. Then again, maybe what I’m writing right now will never even see the light of day.

It just seems as though my focus is different now than in years past. Perhaps the rose colored shades I have for years worn while gazing upon my erstwhile homeland have finally lost their hue.

Perhaps the f-stop on my internal camera lens no longer limits the depth of field as I survey that which once surrounded me. Maybe I’m now just seeing everything clearly for the first time. Maybe things really have changed in Southern California, and unfortunately, none for the better.

However, to borrow a phrase from a soon-to-be-mentioned protagonist in this series, take heart, gentle readers; it’s not all gloom and doom. I actually had a terrific time for the vast majority of this visit. It’s just that I won’t be waxing quite so rhapsodic as in the past; I’ll be doing my best to keep it real, yo.

Next: Getting right to the good part…

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ptt-ooey…I Spitz Upon You!

Erasing the Mark
Unless you live in a cave, you know that a good part of the world has been glued to their living rooms watching Mission Impossible on the tube for the past week or so.

You know…the show where Mr. Phelps and his team take on improbable odds to accomplish the impossible goal no one else could possibly achieve?

But this time it wasn’t only that melodramatic taped message that self-destructed in five seconds. That was also about the amount of time it took me for to lose absolutely all respect for another cast member; one from a previous season; the person who performed the impossible half a lifetime ago: Mark Spitz.

Now obviously, the Mr. Phelps I’m referring to is Michael, not Jim, and the Impossible Mission was the eight gold medal mark he smashed on Sunday at the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.

Michael Phelps reestablished a standard few believed would or could ever be again visited, let alone broken. The entire world has celebrated his effort, climaxing in the gold medal he earned along with his U.S. 4x100 Individual Relay teammates. Phelps made that victory possible with a blistering 100 meters in the butterfly, the penultimate stroke in the race’s four-leg sequence, bringing the Americans back from a third place position to first, leaving freestyle anchorman, Jason Lezak, a comfortable, if not insurmountable lead to bring home the history-making hardware for his teammates and for Phelps.

The feat capped a week of world records and gold medals for Phelps and his U.S. teammates. The excitement was simply unfathomable. In both the 4x100 Freestyle Relay and the 100 Meter Butterfly, the fragile margin of victory required a pair of absolutely inhuman comeback efforts; first by Jason Lezak, catching Alain Bernard and the trash-talking French squad (Hey, Big Al, smash THIS!) in the last 10 meters of the anchor leg. Then on Friday night (Saturday AM locally), in the only final Phelps was involved in that didn’t produce a world record in these games (and unfortunately for me, the only one I didn’t see live on TeeVee), proved the indisputable mettle of a champion.

We’d seen Phelps dominate in each and every individual final prior to the 100 butterfly. However this time, the doubters appeared to have the last ‘I told-you-so.’

Serbia’s Milorad Cavic, who swam admirably, and in any other Olympics would probably have gone home with at least one and perhaps two gold medals, led Phelps in the Individual 100 Meter Butterfly by a quarter body length with just a few meters to go, yet somehow, Phelps powered one final giant sweep from his six-foot-seven wingspan at the wall to out-touch his opponent by a mere one-one hundredth of a second. Only by video replay review was it finally determined that he had in fact completed this amazing theft of probability. That was the gold medal that tied Spitz’ formerly impregnable mark of seven in the 1972 Munich Games. The 4x100 IM relay the following day sealed the deal.

Snatching History
I picked up on a swimming term this Olympics that I had never heard before, but that I think can understand if not physically identify with. NBC’s chief swimming event analyst, Rowdy Gaines, on more than one occasion made reference to a swimmer ‘hurting’ as they appear to labor physically during the latter stages of a race. On most occasions this slow fade of speed and propulsion can prove disastrous to the swimmer’s efforts.

Such was the experience of Alain Bernard of France. He was ‘hurting’ in the final few meters of the 4x100 free relay, and Jason Lezak made him pay for that discomfort.

It’s an obvious circumstance; the burning muscles, your lungs feeling as though they might burst from within your chest. Anyone who has ever participated in a sport that involves endurance — like running or swimming — knows the feeling well. Everyone is subject to it in varying degrees; everyone ‘hurts,’ and it’s the ability to manage that pain that largely determines ultimate success. Even in the shorter-distance sprints, the ability to give all your body can give is what separates the champions from also-rans. Like I said, no one is immune to the phenomenon (that is of course, unless your name is Usain Bolt…but then, that’s another story…).

It was no different for Michael Phelps. By his own admission he was “hurting a little more than usual” in the 100 Butterfly, as he fought the fatigue that everyone who doubted his ability to realize his incredible quest said he would. I mean, there’s a good pretty good reason Spitz’ feat had never been duplicated. The timing of the race schedule is the chief bugaboo; giving the would-be successor to Mark Spitz’ Olympic immortality sometimes less than two hours to recover between races, but always less rest time than most of his competitors.

Phelps himself had tried and failed to win eight golds in Athens in 2004, coming up short at six. To be certain, it was a far-flung goal to be sure, but one he felt driven enough to attempt again in Beijing.

Yet Phelps knew that even his usually dominant effort might not be enough. It was, however, his superlative effort that will go down in the annals of Olympic history as one of it’s most special.

As Cavic, rightfully optimistic of his impending victory, completed his final butterfly stroke just less than a body length from the wall, as is the case with most swimmers, he ‘glided’ in the last few inches for the touch. He knew he had the lead going into his last stroke. What he didn’t know was that he wasn’t racing an ordinary human.

In what would ordinarily be a fruitless last flail for a lesser being, Phelps employed that monstrous reach to propel his body out of the water, lurching to the finish to snatch history by tips of his fingers. “I just wanted to get the best time I could,” he would later tell the press.

Yeah, Michael, and Superman just likes wearin’ that cool blue underwear.

Spitz in a World of ‘Hurt’
But as inebriated as I was on the Michael Phelps kool-aid, something I read this morning made me really wake up and smell the coffee. No, it wasn’t some scandalous revelation that would taint his accomplishment. It wasn’t the piss-in-the-punch gossip story that I’ve been bracing myself for — ‘cuz you know, there’s got to be a catch here, right? I mean this 23 year-old kid couldn’t possibly be all that good, could he?

Well to be perfectly honest, no; no he isn’t. He’s had his share of growing pains and has made his requisite payments of stupid tax like most of the rest of us.

In November of 2004, after attending a Baltimore Ravens game in which he was introduced to the crowd, Phelps, just a few months off his six gold medal performance at the Athens Olympics was stopped and charged both with a DUI and drinking under the legal age of 21 in Maryland; he was 19 at the time.

So we knew this goin’ in. He’s not pure as the driven snow; he’s made mistakes in his personal life, but has apparently learned from them. So the story I read wasn’t an attempt to muddy the waters of his otherwise squeaky-clean image.

The story instead was about the man whom Phelps chased, caught and passed, and who now is showing his true colors to the world: Mark Spitz.

Maybe this is old news. Maybe people who know him, or have taken more time than I to read up on his personality and makeup aren’t even a fraction as shocked as I was when I read the AFP (French international news service Agence France-Presse article that details Spitz’ recent tantrum that he wasn’t invited as a VIP guest to witness the long-awaited passing of the torch of Olympic immortality that he alone possessed for 32 years.

Thanks to MakeMineMike for featuring it is his blog this last week (which I actually only came across yesterday).

I won’t bother detailing the entire story for you; I’m having a tough time holding my virtual tongue as it is , and I don’t want to say something I might regret. The fact is, this is an article from a foreign news agency which likely relished the opportunity to make Spitz appear petty. It was written on August 11th, early in the week and well before it even appeared Phelps would be successful in his second attempt to eclipse Spitz’ gold medal record.

However last Friday, August 15th, nearly a week later, after the shootin’ match is nearly over and Phelps has tied his seven-medal mark, Spitz did an about-face. No doubt ‘hurting’ over the fallout over his perceived pettiness of the previous article, Spitz probably hoped the likely greater distribution of the AP article would make it the one most people would see.

Will the REAL Mark Spitz please sit down (and go away)?
The Associated Press story reports Spitz as “almost giddy” in his excitement for Phelps’ achievement. He might as well have been sporting pom-poms and a tight sweater as he gushed, “I'm ecstatic,” he said. “I always wondered what my feelings would be. I feel a tremendous load off my back.

“Somebody told me years ago you judge one's character by the company you keep, and I'm just happy to be in the company of Michael Phelps. That's the bottom line.”

Compare that to this from the earlier APF artcle:

“I won seven events. If they had the 50m freestyle back then, which they do now, I probably would have won that too,” he said.

Now is this actually ego speaking, trying to minimize what up to that point was still only an outside chance that Phelps would ultimately prevail? Or is it justifiable hubris, as that from which Walter Brennan coined the famous line from the 60s TeeVee series, The Guns of Will Sonnet: “No brag; just fact?”

I don’t know for sure, but at this point I really don’t care. Even if it is justifiable, it wasn’t necessary. It served no purpose than to unnecessarily elevate himself at the seeming expense of the possibly greatest Olympic story our country has ever seen.

My question is why? Why poke the sleeping pit bull of an international press that would likely enjoy nothing more than to make the U.S.A. look bad? The obvious answer is, (invoking Austin Powers) that Spitz can’t bear the thought of losing his mao-jao.

It’s sad; it’s pathetic; it’s an embarrassment to him and to his country.

I find it amazing that the man had enough good sense to lose the porn moustache years ago but not enough to keep his yap shut now. So in that regard I do feel sorry for him. However in the grander scheme of things, I couldn’t be happier — if this is indeed the kind of man he truly is.

He’s getting what he deserves.

Suffice it to say, the respect I held my entire adult life for Mark Spitz is history; kaput; banished to the bottom of the pool. He is dead to me.

Ptt-ooey — I spit upon his smoldering, narcissistic, pile of yesterday’s ashes.

If this is what Mark Spitz is really all about, then shame on us for worshipping the ground he walked upon for so many years.

Shame on us for assuming that with greatness comes requisite personal honor.

Shame on us for believing that he likely ever considered the concept of team as even being in the same area code as his own China-sized ego.

But in the demonizing of ego, let’s make one thing perfectly clear.

This is not to say that Michael Phelps is bereft of a healthy ego; far from it. Ego is a mandatory component of any kind of sustained achievement. Self-confidence is the grease that the wheels of committed training need to get anywhere; one must first truly believe he’s worthy of the mantle of greatness to someday wear it. No doubt Michael Phelps believes he’s earned that mantle; and rightfully so.

But please note that I refer to a healthy ego — not to The Ego That Swallowed Munich.

In the AFP article Spitz all but holds his breath ‘til he turns blue-in-the-face over his assumed ‘diss’ from the U.S. and/or International Olympic Committee. He insisted that he should have been there to preside over Phelps’ successful assault. He in fact, according to the article, believes he should have been the presenter of Phelps’ record tying and/or record-breaking medal achievement.

But he wouldn’t dream of going to the game on his own dime; oh the humiliation!

“I never got invited. You don't go to the Olympics just to say, I am going to go. Especially because of who I am," Spitz told AFP in Hong Kong.

“I am going to sit there and watch Michael Phelps break my record anonymously? That's almost demeaning to me. It is not almost -- it is.”

WWSD (What Would Spitzy Do?)
Earlier I mentioned that ‘healthy ego’ of Michael Phelps. It bears mentioning that ego and kindness aren’t mutually exclusive. And in the persona of Michael Phelps, the two seem to work hand-in-hand.

Case in point, after winning ‘only’ six of his first seven medal swims in Athens, Phelps knew he could not break Mark Spitz’ record, but he could have tied it. Still ahead was the 4x100 individual medley relay, a race the U.S. had never before lost in Olympic competition. Well the U.S. did indeed win that race, but without the services of Michael Phelps.

Why the Phelps no-show? Did he come up with a debilitating hangnail the moment he realized he couldn’t accomplish his goal? Did he pull a ‘Manny’ and sulk because he didn’t want to merely share the glory? I’m sure some people might have pulled something along those lines, but not Phelps. And perhaps, had he competed in it, we would already be ‘over’ Mark Spitz.

Ian Crocker, the American 100 meter butterfly specialist and good friend with Phelps had finished out of the running for the final for his medal race, which Phelps went on to win.

With the opportunity to still tie Mark Spitz’ record of seven golds with the team 4x100 IM, Phelps decided to abdicate his position on the relay team to his teammate Crocker, so that he could have a chance to experience a gold medal and fulfill his Olympic dream as well.

The question comes to mind: would Mark Spitz have done this? Perhaps, perhaps not. But what do you think?

From the AFP article:

And Spitz thinks Phelps will succeed -- for one very good reason.

"He's almost identical to me. He's a world-record holder in all these events, so he is dominating the events just like I did," Spitz said. "He reminds me of myself."

Just between you, me, and the lamp post…I’m thinkin’ ‘not.’


Friday, August 15, 2008

The Olympics Ate My Homework...

Blame the Flame
Yeah, I know, same song, nineteen-thousandth verse. Despite my good intentions, I’ve just not had time to get any really productive writing done now for more than a month. I’ve written some parts, but no complete posts. Oye. Whatcha gonna do…

For the past week, my chief rationalization has been the Olympics; it has dominated Michelle’s and my imagination (as well as our evenings) every single night since Opening Ceremonies one week ago.

I really can’t remember a ‘Big O’ that I’ve enjoyed so much (or paid as much attention to) since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. And of course we were right in the middle of it back then; living in SoCal at the time, the Games were a local event.

But in recent years, the Olympics seemed to have lost their luster for me somewhat; I don't know why — save for the feeling that its significance was diminishing in in our culture. Fact is, the world has caught up, and the good ole' U.S. of A. no longer has its way with everyone as the Olympic power it once was. Not that we ever completely lost our Oly-Mojo, but it was clear that the U.S. Olympic Committee needed to take a step back and regroup a bit.

And this time around, things definitely seem different. Uncle Sam’s got his groove back, but no longer with the swagger he once had — and that's a good thing IMO. The Americans seem to be much more humble; much more respectful of their counterparts from other countries.

Even the dominance of Michael Phelps has a different sheen to it than that of something similar (yeah, as if...) that might have happened 20 or 30 years ago. Phelps’ blitzkrieg attack on Mark Spitz’ gold medal record has been a thing of beauty for both Americans and competitors alike to behold. Phelps has handled himself with grace and aplomb in the media, with his teammates, and with his rivals from around the world.

But the Michael Phelps story aside, for me there’s just been a buzz about this Olympic Games that seems so much more palpable than in recent years.

Old Acquaintances, Never Forgotten
I’ve been so proud of all our U.S. athletes' efforts, but particularly those of the Men’s and Women’s Gymnastics squads, both of which overcame tremendous setbacks to capture the Team Bronze and Silver medals, respectively, this week.

Of course the soft spot in my heart for Team USA’s gymnastics success has much more to do with personal experience than patriotism. I was a competitive gymnast for fifteen years, and with that perspective, the 1984 Men’s Team Gold medal accomplishment was incredibly satisfying for me personally.

The reason is that the members of that team were my contemporaries; most were a few years younger than me, but I had competed against a number of them throughout my gymnastics career.

NBC’s chief color commentator for gymnastics, Tim Daggett, attended UCLA during the 80s, and I went up against him in at least one invitational that I can recall (I actively competed in invitational meets until 1986). Bart Conner (who throughout the late 1980s and early 90s preceded Daggett in the TeeVee color analyst’s chair) and I went head-to-head twice; once in a duel meet (in which I came out on top) and again a couple years later in an invitational meet (when he nosed me out of a medal by a couple tenths of a point). He was always extremely cordial with me whenever we crossed paths; just one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet. He would go on to capture the Olympic Championship on the Parallel Bars in 1984, and I couldn’t have been more ecstatic.

Peter Vidmar, who was another of America’s top competitors in L.A., was another Olympian I prevailed against in duel meet competition — although at the behest of full disclosure, it may have helped that he was only in 8th grade at the time, while I was a junior in college.

Ehhhh…details, details)…

Additionally, the circumstance wasn’t even a regular meet, but a joint practice event in 1977 between my alma mater, Long Beach State, and USC. Vidmar was a local high school phenom in Los Angeles and used to hang out at the Trojan gym after school. USC’s coach asked him if he wanted to throw a few routines with the older guys and so he did.

I don’t remember what my margin of victory was, but I can tell you it wasn’t much. I remember thinking how lucky I was that I would never have to meet up with this kid in legitimate competition. It was no surprise that Pete would go on to become one of the leaders of our Olympic effort six years later with a Gold medal in Pommel Horse and a Silver in the All-Around.

Of course, those ‘84 Games were also the ones in which the U.S.S.R. returned the United States’ 1980 favor by staying home. And while the fact that the top Men’s Gymnastics power in the world would be a no-show certainly helped the Americans in the final standings, it no doubt tainted the impressiveness of their long-awaited accomplishment.

Nonetheless, that Gold Medal seized by the Men in Tights was their first since the previous time the Games were held in LaLa Land: 1936; so it was a proud time for anyone with a heart that beats red, white, and blue. It was a particularly proud moment for me, because these were my boys; my friends. It puts a lump in my throat just thinking about it even now.

I couldn’t help but think about that last night as Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, who became the first one-two finishers in U.S.A. Olympic Gymnastics history, stood there on the podium. I was so proud and happy for them. No, there’s no six degrees of separation story here — other than the fact that I revered Nastia’s father Valeri, a great Russian gymnast in his own right throughout the 80s and 90s — rather, it was the look of overwhelming pride and accomplishment in her eyes as she stood atop the victory stand during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. You could see the considerable effort in her countenance to fight back the tears, something that most of the ’84 Men’s team either could not or did not try to do — weeping openly on the medal stand with a gush of emotion that only something so grand, so wonderful, so fulfilling as an Olympic medal earned for one’s country could induce.

Witnessing that, lying on my living room floor in front of the television, was one of the transcendent moments of my lifetime. I’ll never forget it. I bawled like a baby, right along with Bart Conner.

I knew how Nastia felt last night, as I too felt as though I’d swallowed a softball, watching the proceedings from my favorite red leather chair. All week I had felt the nervousness; the in-the-pit-of-your-gut pang so familiar from my own experiences in waiting for the judges to raise that green flag, in anticipation of delivering another routine in competition.

I performed on the National stage twice — as NJCAA Still Rings Champion my in sophomore year of 1976 and again, qualifying for NCAA Finals in my senior year of ‘78. However, I never had to deal with the weight of performing for that grandest audience of all, the Olympics, saddled on my shoulders as these young men and women did this week. I can only imagine the intensity of their experience.

What I went through was tough enough, and the reward of my limited success was more than enough for me. But again, I can only imagine the incredible level of satisfaction Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson, and the rest of the U.S. Men and Women must be feeling right now. Although there were plenty of misses on their collective part, all experienced at least some level of once-in-a-lifetime transcendence in their efforts, either in team or individual competitions this week.

It was a wonderful thing to see, as well as to feel.

Goin to California
The bad news is, in a week’s time, I’ll be out of pocket for the climax of the final Olympic events, as well as again not being in a position to get any writing done. The good news is, I’ll be vacationing in my old stompin’ grounds.

I’m leavin’ on a jet plane next Thursday to sunny SoCal for nine days of family, friends and fun — the highlight of which will no doubt be the wedding of my best buddy of the Blogosphere, Michael, and his blushing bride, Adelphia.

Our fellow Blogland neighbor Aimee is making her way down from Oregon as well to attend the nuptials two weeks from today. I sure hope that yarmulke looks good with black socks and bermuda shorts…

I’m also looking forward to continuing my tradition of meeting new Blogland friends in realtime whenever possible. So along with seeing Michael and Aimee, whom I’d pressed the flesh with previously, this trip I’ll also be brunching with a duo of more recent cyber-acquaintances, Kay and (the other) Michael, the two newest adds to my blogroll. Both are tremendous writers and very intriguing people. It should be an interesting meet, and one of which I’ll certainly be writing later…

Shh’yeah…whenever can I find the time...