Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ah the smell of rulers and tape.

It's that time of year again. The time of year when my nice lazy summer schedule comes to an end and I have to start getting up at the crack of dawn to make sure that I can find a place to park in the same zip code as the building where I work. This time is also known as "The Students are Back".

When the students come back, it means that parking once again becomes tight. It means that traffic in the morning, evening, and pretty much all day is horrible. It means that you have to eat lunch before 11:30 or after 1:00 if you want to get into any restaurant including the Delis on campus. It means that driving down Nicholasville Road is like playing a real life game of Frogger.

But it also makes me just a little nostalgic for my college days. I really enjoyed college and every year as I watch all the students move into the dorms and start back to class, I start to miss those days. There was just something fun about the excitement of starting new classes and meeting new people. The first of the semester fun of sorting out the best way to get from class to class and where to spend your down time.

It was one of those times in life when you don't realize how good things are until much later when you are looking back. These days I would kill for a schedule that didn't start until 9am and was done by 2pm with a two hour lunch break and Friday off. Even with the homework and exams and my part-time job it still felt like I had more free time then than I do now.

I also miss that laid back life-style. That sort of in-between time where you aren't a kid anymore, but you aren't really an adult either. You are just kind of stuck in the middle and no one really expects all that much from you. Of course I still don't really feel all that grown up. I wonder when you finally start to feel like an adult and not like a dumb kid? Because really, most days I just feel like a kid pretending to be a grown-up.

Anyway, that was a little more rambling that I thought when I started out, but oh well. I'm trying to keep this updated more, and hope to post at lest once week soon. I'm starting a pretty cool project on my birthday, but I'll have more detials on that later.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow....

So, the Olympic are finally over. And I watched as much of them as I possibly could (even while I was at the beach on vacation). But now I have to go back to regular TV, which doesn't seem to have quite the same drama as the games.

And oh, was there drama:

Plenty to go around in Gymnastics with Nastia and Shawn battling it out in the All Around as well as on the Floor Exercise and Balance Beam. And don't forget the drama of the team competition or the absurdity of Alicia Sacramone's finishing behind the Chinese gymnast on the Vault final.

Or you might like the drama of Men's Gymnastics with the US team, injured and inexperienced, winning a bronze medal when no one thought they could. Jonathan Horton on the High Bar was great to watch as was Sasha Artemev on the Pommel Horse (even that final routine where he fell was spectactular).

Track offered it's own drama with both US relay teams dropping the baton (literally) in the 4x100 meter relay and Jamacia's Lightening Bolt winning both sprints in spectacular fashion (while Lexington's Tyson Gay failed to make the final in the 100). But the US made up for it's short commings with the Men and Women winning the 4x400 meter relay (the women with a great come from behind victory).

And Men's Volleyball had a great story line with the coach dealing with the death of his father-in-law at the start of the games and the team going on to win gold.

My boy Tayshaun Prince helped the US men's basketball team to a redeeming gold this Olympiad after the disappointment of Athens, but there was little drama there since they blew out everyone in every game until the final.

But perhaps the most drama was at the pool.

Michael Phelps' stunning 8 for 8 Gold Medal performance will forever be known as the highlight of the Beijing Olympics. It was, perhaps, the greatest feat in all of sports. And I don't know if it will ever be equaled. And while his great run was full of great moments, the greatest thing which will come from his performance isn't tangible.

What Michael Phelps did for the sport of swimming can't be measured in Gold Medals or World Records. He took a sport that habitually languished in obscurity--relegated to the late night tape delayed status in Olympic years--and made it a prime time event. They were cutting away from Women's Gymnastics to show swimming! He had his own heading running at the bottom of the ESPN crawl. He was the lead story on the news! These are things the swimmers just don't do. You don't have an entire stadium full of NFL football fan stay after the game to watch a live feed of a swimming event half a world away. You don't have a swimmer as the final image of the Olympic games. You don't find a swimmer doing commercials for Rosetta Stone, VISA, and Johnson and Johnson. But Phelps changed all that.

I grew up swimming in a town where swimming wasn't all that popular. Our high school swim team was a meager 10 strong. We had to furnish our own uniforms and, until my senior year, our own transportation to the meets. We got no funding and even less support from the school system. In fact, several years when I had to miss a day of school because I qualified for the State Championships, I was told that I would not be allowed to make up the work I missed since that counted as an unexcused absence. I missed 2 days of class a year for swimming--the football team missed every Friday from August until November. Our team didn't get a yearbook page. The teacher in charge of the yearbook committee told me that since "swimming wasn't a real sport" it wouldn't get the same 2 page layout that every other sport got. Instead we got a tiny 2x4 group photo along side the Pep club, the History club, and the Astronomy club (which only had a 5 members). I wonder what that teacher would say to me now? I know what I would say to her: "If swimming isn't a real sport, they explain to me why the most talked about athlete of the Olympics was a swimmer?"

Yes, Michael Phelps did something amazing in Beijing. But what he did for swimming will extend far beyond the closing ceremony.

Friday, August 15, 2008

How's the View from the Top?

So last night (or really, I suppose it was this morning in Beijing) the US had a stellar day. At the water cube, there were 4 Finals. The US won 3 and collected a total of 6 medals overall (3 gold, 1 silver, 2 bronze). Michael Phelps brought home another Gold in the 200 IM bringing his total to 6 gold medals and 6 world records in 6 swims. Only 2 more to go. The 100 Fly and 4x100 Medley Relay.

But probably the best thing about last night was Nastia Liuken and Shawn Johnson going 1-2 in the Women's Gymnastics All-Around Final. It is the first time in history that the US women have won the Gold and the Silver medals in that event. In fact, Nastia joins a very short list (Mary Lou Retton and Carly Patterson) of US women who have won the Olympic All-Around Title. It was billed as an epic battle, and it was. I should know. I stayed up until 1am watching it. A great moment for the US.

Anyway, here are a few articles about this year's Olympics that I like:

Thursday, August 14, 2008

All That is Gold Does not Glitter

But all of Michael Phelps' gold does. In his quest for 8 gold medals at one Olympic Games--one more than the legendary Mark Spitz--Phelps is 5 for 5. He has won gold (and set the world record) in the 400 IM, 200 Free, 200 Fly, 4 x 200 Free Relay, and that spectacular 4 x 100 Free Relay. Coming up he has the 200 IM, 100 Fly, and 4 x 100 Medley Relay. Three events between him and history.

Although, he already hold the record for most career Olympic golds with 11, and the record for most career Olympic medals of any color with 13 (11 gold, 2 bronze). He also has 30 World Records to his credit. Not too shabby.

Still.....Gold Watch: 5 down, 3 to go.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Champions are made from something they have deep inside them -- a desire, a dream, a vision.

I love the Olympics. I always have. I remember being a kid and sitting down with my mom to watch gymnastics or track or figure skating and being mesmerized by the drama of it all. One chance every 4 years to win gold. One mistake and it's all over. One chance to do something extraordinary.

Once I started swimming at age 11, I became an even bigger fan of the summer Olympics because it was the one time that I could watch my sport on TV. Swimming, not being one of your mainstream sports, it a bit hard to find on the tube between Olympic years. Even now, with dozens of sports channels, you are lucky to find anything more than the Olympic trials and the Olympics themselves broadcast.

But the Olympics are here. And now, with Michael Phelps as the poster boy for the entire US delegation and swimming for an unheard of 8 gold medals, swimming isn't just on TV, it is the main attraction. Swimming has gone from an afterthought broadcast at 2am in Sydney to a semi-popular Phelps watching event in Athens to Prime Time viewing in Beijing. Thanks to Phelps, the swimming events are not only broadcast in prime time this Olympics, they are also shown live (since the Olympic organizers decided to put the finals in the morning (Beijing time) to accommodate the US viewing audience.

Now, I'll have to admit, I don't follow the sport as closely as I once did. I am more familiar with names like Gary Hall Jr, Summer Sanders, Alexander Popov, and Ian Thorpe than I am with most of this year's Olympic team, although a few names (Amanda Beard, Dara Torres, Natalie Coughlin, Aaron Piersol) are familiar to me. But I still love the sport. And I still love to watch it. Especially during the Olympics. I love watching Michael Phelps go for his 8 gold medals. I love watching Katie Hoff trying for 5 golds. I love watching Aaron Piersol do just about anything. But my absolute favorite part of any swim meet, including the Olympics, is watching the relays.

I love Relays. I love swimming them and I love watching them. There is just something almost magical about watching a good relay swim. And last night in the Men's 4x100 freestyle relay, it was magic.

In an event that the US men had dominated in the past (7 straight Olympic golds before the 2000 games), the US was a rather larger underdog. Despite the presence of Michael Phelps. Despite being the top qualifier. Despite setting the World Record in the Prelims. France was the favorite going into the race. They had taunted the US team in the media (much like Gary Hall did to the Aussies before the 2000 games) saying that they would "smash the US". But in the end, the only thing that got smashed was the World Record with the top 5 team finishing under the mark set just the day before.

Phelps led off with a new American Record time of 47.51, but touched just behind the Aussie who set a new World Record with a 47.24 split. Garrett Webber-Gale entered second and gave the US the lead at the half way point with an impressive 47.02 split. France was second 0.43 seconds behind and Australia was third only 0.15 seconds behind them.

Cullen Jones, only the second African-American to ever make the US Olympic swimming team (Anthony Ervin in 2000 was the first and he tied with Gary Hall Jr to win gold in the 50m Freestyle) entered the water for the third leg. He had earned his place on the relay the day before with his great split during prelims which helped the team to set a new World Record despite not having their 3 top sprinters on the team. Cullen split a 47.65 for his leg, but lost ground to Bosquet of France who swam a 46.63, the fastest relay split in Olympic history.

France went into the water 0.59 seconds ahead of the US with World Record Holder (at least before the race) Alain Bernard. It was up to Jason Lezak to make up the difference. At the turn, he was still behind and didn't appear to be gaining ground. But he wasn't ready to quit yet. Lezak dug in and slowly inched up on Bernard throughout the last 50 meters. He gained ground with every stroke, just out touching Bernard at the finish by 0.08 seconds in 3:08.24, shattering the old world record (3:12.23) by 4 seconds, and splitting an incredible 46.06 the fastest relay split in history.

It was one of the most incredible feats I have ever seen in the pool. 0.59 seconds in the 100 free is an eternity, especially at the Olympic level. At the US Olympic trials, the top 4 finishers were separated by only 0.54 seconds at the finish and Lezak swam at 48.05 (although that was with a flat start). But there are two kinds of swimmers: individual swimmers and relay swimmers. Individual swimmers can be great athletes. They can turn in impressive times. They can hold world records. Alain Bernard is an individual swimmer.

A relay swimmer will lay it all on the line for a relay. They will turn in incredible performances during relay swims. They will some how find a way to pull it out, even when all seems lost. Jason Lezak is a relay swimmer. He is the guy you want anchoring your relay.

Traditional wisdom says you should structure your relay like this: 1. Your second fastest swimmer 2. Your slowest swimmer 3. Your second slowest swimmer 4. Your fastest swimmer. Most relays are put together that way, although there are many that aren't. Using that wisdom, the US relay should have looked something like this: 1. Garrett Webber-Gale, 2. Cullen Jones 3. Jason Lezak 4. Michael Phelps.

But you can crunch the numbers all you want, times aren't all that goes into making a great relay team. You have to factor in heart as well. And Jason Lezak is a relay swimmer. He is a closer. He is a finisher. He is the man you want to bring things home. And bring them home he did. In spectacular fashion.