Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Olympic Experience Experienced

The 2008 Olympic Games is not an August 8-24 experience. For team members, the Olympic experience has already begun. Sure, they were sailing all the time before the US Trials, and now they're sailing all the time, but it's different now.

I checked in with Andrew Campbell—to me, he's a San Diego boy, but Andrew spent so much time at Georgetown U. that D.C. wants to claim him—and the U.S. Laser rep mused about the comparisons between sailing in college, post college, and as a member of the US Olympic Sailing Team: "I went from college, where people put me in a position to win, to a post-college situation where I had to position myself to win. I didn't have much coaching going into the Trials, and there was a whole new step-up in administration. You have to learn how to make a budget; you have to learn how to market yourself. That got easier after I won the Trials. For the first time in my Olympic campaign, I'm comfortable with the amount of money that I'm spending."

The expenses, we might note, now include intense coaching to meet new international norms. St. Mary's sailing coach
(formerly at Georgetown with Campbell, and current US Sailing coach of the year) Bill Ward is coming on board next month. "A year ago it was more important to go to regattas," Campbell says. "Now money for coaching is money well spent."

Also changing, the faces: "A year ago the racing was as hard as it gets. Now you go to a regatta and maybe there's one Swede, one Brit. The other people are staying home. The competition is thinning out, not accelerating."

John Dane's Star crew, Austin Sperry, frankly admits it was irritating ("I was a bit grumpy") to be required to fly to Chicago for a day of ambassador training. But everyone, not just sailors, had to do it, and if nothing else he came away with factoids that don't often make the rounds: "Did you know there are 6,000 living Olympians in the USA?"

And, actually, he took away a lot.

The idea of "ambassador training" was two-fold, to give our athletes a few clues regarding Chinese culture, and to help them learn how to manage themselves in uncomfortable situations by placing them in same. Sperry recounts, "Imagine being stood up in a circle, a group of 12 or 15, and there's a teacher—an actor, I guess—who tells you that your task is to whoosh power to somebody else in the circle. You can whoosh it left, right or across, and no way are you feeling anything but stupid, but everybody's in the same boat, and everybody in this circle is an Olympic athlete, and somehow, before it's all over, it becomes kind of cool."

(Dang. Now I realize that I didn't ask Andrew Campbell, a graduate of Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, how the ambassador program went for him.)

Tornado silver medalist Charlie Ogletree, returning for his fourth Olympics, has seen it all before, but he allows, "The shades of Bode Miller may have been driving the ambassador program. The USOC was a bit put out by the performance of their golden boy at the Winter Games in '06. Common sense is what most of this is about, but some people need help with that. And we're going to a very foreign country with a very different culture. And Communist."

That's Charlie far right, with skipper Johnny Lovell.

Getting granular: Austin learned that in China you never point the spout of a teapot at a table companion ("very rude"), and this early-Olympic experience also afforded him the opportunity to meet people outside of sailing. First it was the water polo team and then the friendly wrestler who finished Austin's dinner for him.

Austin! Dude! It was a setup. Of course the wrestler guy kept asking you questions about boats . . .

This phase of the Olympic experience continues for U.S. sailors, with training trips to Qingdao planned for June and July, to coincide with tides similar to those predicted for the Games. As Austin says, "To make it as much like game day as possible."

August 8, 2008. Not so far away on a path strewn with controversies over the torch run and Tibet. I had my own moment as the torch passed the marina in San Francisco . . .

On its way to Everest . . .

And eventually, like our athletes, to the opening ceremonies in Beijing in China's new national stadium. It's a fascinating structure . . .

Include the Aquatics Center and you have to awards marks for architectural exuberance and, how's this word, optimism . . .

Even without a terrible earthquake, the leaders of China would be living in interesting times (the ancient curse)—Kimball