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...

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