Checking Olympics, and other items, off my bucket list

USA’s Serena Williams celebrates after beating Russia’s Maria Sharapova 6-0, 6-1 for the Women’s Singles Tennis gold medal match at Wimbledon, Centre Court for the London 2012 Olympics in London, England on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012. (Nhat V. Meyer/Mercury News)

Julie Jag

Gabby Douglas, 15, sat in a conference room, surrounded by reporters and Olympic officials with at least 20 years on her. One dusted off the cobwebs and mustered the saliva to ask Douglas, who days earlier became the first African American girl to win the gold medal in the gymnastics individual all-around competition, what she expected the impact of her historic victory to be.
“I’ve always wanted to inspire people,” replied Douglas, as she held court over the group.
“The thing about the Olympics, [there’s] this quote you see: ‘Inspire a Generation.’ You know, now I can check that off my bucket list.”
That moment near the end of my expedition into covering my first Olympics got me thinking about bucket lists. I hadn’t ever really made a physical list of the things I wanted to experience in life, nor taken an inventory. But Douglas’ remarks unlocked a mental file I had apparently stored away in the recesses of my brain. Attending the Olympics in an official capacity was right near the front.
While in the process of fulfilling that wish over the past month, though, I got the opportunity to places checkmarks next to several other life experiences — some of which I didn’t even realize were in the bucket until I’d experienced them for myself. This is the short list:
Serena Williams wins gold with authority
Whatever the reason, this stands out as one the highlights of my Olympic experience. Part of it can be explained by the intimate confines of Wimbledon’s Centre Court, where an entire crowd of 15,000 can share in an inside joke like friends at a dinner party. Part of it related to Williams’ demeanor, more powerful and amped up than ever in her 6-0, 6-1 dismantling of Russia’s Maria Sharapova. What really made it memorable, though, were the post-match antics — Williams dancing on the grass in excitement over her gold-medal performance and the American flag fluttering to the ground in the midst of the national anthem.
USA women’s soccer team gets revenge on Japan
This moment also had more to do with the building and buildup than the game itself. The USA and Japan entered with a tense history, especially from the Americans’ point of view. We were on the losing end of the same matchup for the Women’s World Cup championship in a game that went down to penalty kicks. The USA women made no bones about wanting revenge, plus they had barely escaped Canada in their semifinal. That led to the teams packing 80,200 vocal, flag-waving, sign-hoisting fans — an Olympic record for a women’s game — into Wembley, already one of the world’s iconic soccer venues.
The teams made the game almost as riveting as the anticipation. It was a close, well-played contest full of skillful shots and a couple rub-your-eyes-in-amazement saves by Hope Solo. As far as memories go, of course, it didn’t hurt that the USA came out on top.
Watching the fastest man alive with my own eyes (and seeing him be too slow to escape a gaggle of autograph seeking reporters)
Twice I headed to Olympic stadium to see Usain Bolt prove, again, he’s the fastest man alive. The first time I completed my own sprint, weaving through the thick crowds in my wedged sandals as I tried to get from the jam-packed Stratford train station to the stadium before the 100-meter final. When I got there, I was told the press seating was full. I’m more stubborn than that, though, so I sneaked into the back of an open-air broadcast booth and knelt down until the gun went off. Bolt finished not 100 feet from where I stood, the clear winner, albeit in a close race.
I thought about waiting around to hear his reaction in the press conference. One look at all the time he took “bolting” around the track and the long line of broadcast outlets waiting to interview him, and I figured it would be midnight and he would be exhausted, before the lowly print media got their time with him. Little did I know he planned to stay up until 3 a.m. celebrating with members of the Swedish handball team.
The second time I saw him may have been his last Olympic race. He was gunning for a trifecta by adding the 4×100 to his golds in the 100 and 200. Luckily, I was already at the stadium to cover the women’s 800 final and had snagged a nearly front-row seat. The seat became even better when I discovered that to my right sat an amicable reporter for the London paper The Sun, who happened to be a veritable expert on Bolt, having just finished writing a biography on the runner.
The race was riveting. Team USA and Jamaica quickly emerged as the leaders, but the chance of disaster cropped up at every handoff [in fact, the third-place Canadian team was disqualified for an illegal one]. It came down to the final leg, with the USA’s Ryan Bailey and Jamaica’s Bolt — who doesn’t usually run the anchor leg — taking the batons at the same time. But in a head-to-head footrace, Olympic rookie Bailey, who took fifth in the open 100, couldn’t keep up. Bolt not only broke the tape first, but had the consciousness of mind to immediately form an “M” atop his head in tribute to his friend and adored British distance runner Mo Farah, a two-time gold medalist in London.
The press conference that followed more than an hour later proved with the wait. In fact, it might have been more of a spectacle than the actual race. In it, Bolt’s relay teammate Yohan Blake said of the team: “We are not normal guys. We are from space, I am from Mars.” In a more bizarre outburst, “journalists” from around the globe asked Bolt everything from how did he expect to live a normal life now that, as they put it, he is “truly and by far the greatest athlete to ever live” to whether he would tweet a picture if he found himself in the company of Norwegian women’s handball players that night. As the capper, at least a dozen of these “journalists” rushed the stage after the conference to ask for autographs, while the rest of us cringed.
Feeling the bond of beach volleyball’s gold medal winners (even as the floor falls out from under them)
Standing on top of the podium together for the third time in as many Olympics, Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor still couldn’t hold back the tears during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner.” The best known beach volleyball players in the world went out on top, and this time they did it the hard way.
Life had changed so much for the two of them since winning in Athens and Beijing — two kids for Walsh, an Achilles injury for May-Treanor — that they needed couples therapy to get through it. Like any relationship worth fighting for, though, the tests only brought them closer, and that was clear in their cooperation on the court.
It was illustrated even more not 30 minutes after the medal ceremony, when they found themselves on rock-bottom once again. Actually, it was plywood bottom.
The floor of the packed “mixed zone” interview area collapsed under the weight of the unexpected mass of reporters who showed up to cover a sport they could no longer ignore now that the duo had hammered harder than one of Walsh’s spikes into the national spotlight. Walsh managed to hop to level ground and she quickly helped her teammate out of the hole she’d fallen into.
Hey, what are partners for?
“The bond we have and understanding we have for each other is so special,” May-Treanor said. “Kerri said it a couple of times, the first two medals, I think it was more volleyball. The friendship we had was there, but it was all volleyball, volleyball. This was so much more about the friendship, the togetherness, the journey, and volleyball was just a small part of it.”
Holding a historic Olympic medal
The Olympics revolves around medals — those who get one and those who don’t. Still, it didn’t occur to me to want to get a close look at one until Abby Johnston, half of the duo that won silver in 3-meter synchronized diving competition, noted how heavy her hardware was during a post-win interview.
How heavy is it? This question led to one of my coolest first-person experiences. There is something magical about a medal, even a silver one. They’re a piece of art and yes, they are heavy. In fact, they weigh about 14 ounces.
Somehow, though, they carry more weight when put into perspective. It was the United States’ first medal in synchronized diving since it became a sport in 2000.
Experiencing the pride of a country (or what moved Mo Farah)
All we heard heading into London for the Olympics was what a disaster they were going to be. The masses weren’t happy about having to pay for these frivolous stadiums and improvements to the train system, especially during an economic downturn. Then, once we got there, they weren’t happy about being turned away while empty seats glared at them from the TV screen. Making matters much worse, several days of competition passed without the Brits bringing home a single gold. Panic started to set in.
But on Day 6, a couple of female rowers broke the golden spell for the host country. Three days later, local darling Jessica Ennis nearly brought down Olympic stadium when she won the heptathlon. It bolstered the Brits’ the national spirit, uniting them in ways even they didn’t expect. When the medals started piling up, each one dusted off a little more pride. Londoners even started talking to each other on the subway, which apparently never happens.
By the time Mo Farah raced to victory in the 5,000 on the eve of the close of the Games, the country practically glowed with glory. They sent the Somali runner — considered by many a true symbol of the nations-uniting purpose of the Games — and the Olympics out with ear-rattling cheers that clanged through the 80,000-seat Olympic stadium.
Nice thing was, when they weren’t cheering for the home team, they respectfully applauded and lauded outstanding athletes from other countries, even the big, bad USA.

Categories: Archery, Athletes, Badminton, Beach Volleyball, Bevan Docherty, Boxing, Cycling, Events, Gabby Douglas, Gymnastics, Kerri Walsh, Olympics, Soccer, Swimming, Table Tennis, Tennis, Track & Field Events, Triathlon, Volleyball | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

USA boxer Queen Underwood makes history, but not the Olympic quarterfinals

Quanitta “Queen” Underwood of the United States, left, and Natasha Jonas of Great Britain, fight during the women’s lightweight boxing competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday in London. Jonas won 21-13. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)


LONDON – By the end, Queen Underwood was swinging wildly, trying to keep her Olympic hopes alive.

But the Team USA veteran would have to settle for a place in history, not a place on the podium.

Underwood, a 28-year-old from Seattle, became the first woman from the United States to box in the Olympics as soon as she stepped through the ropes at the ExCel Centre on Sunday for her first-round lightweight [132-pound] bout against Great Britain’s Natasha Jonas. This is the first year women’s boxing has been included in the Games, and Underwood’s teammates, flyweight Marlen Esparza and middleweight Claressa Shields, drew first-round byes.

When she stepped back out, her Olympic dream and amateur career had ended in a 21-13 loss.

“History doesn’t mean anything to me,” Underwood said. “The gold medal meant everything to me.”

“I don’t think it’s enough,” she added.“I gave away half my life for this. Just to feel the reward of being here isn’t enough.

Underwood, wearing red shorts and jersey emblazoned with USA, looked like she might have a shot at moving on after the first round when the judges gave her the 4-3 edge over crowd-favorite Jonas. In the next round, however, the five judges favored Jonas 4-2 in what otherwise looked to be an even fight.

When asked if he thought Jonas may have curried some favor as the local girl in the scoring, Team USA coach Charles Leverette said he thought the scoring was fair.

“I wasn’t really suprised by the scoring. I was more suprised by us being up in the first round,” he said. “They were two outstanding female boxers.”

The scoring again favored Jonas in the third round, 6-3. As Underwood felt the match slipping away, she ditched the plan Leverette had laid out and started going for bigger swings, especially with her hook.

“I felt I didn’t have any chance being down with the home crowd if I would have sat back,” Underwood said. “I was trying to throw that big haymaker. I wanted to be able to say I fought for it.”

Underwood’s big roundhouse hits rarely landed on the side-stepping Jonas, however. Meanwhile, Jonas kept racking up the points with jabs Underwood said she barely felt. The boxer from Liverpool, who had beaten Underwood before in an Olympic test event, won the final round 8-4.

“She came out very strong. I just had to box. The crowd got behind me and that settled me down,” Jonas said. “The crowd were amazing. It makes a change to fight with 10,000 people behind you rather than your 10 teammates. How can you not want to perform?”

For the record, Elena Savelyeva of Russia became the first women ever to win an Olympic boxing match when she beat flyweight opponent Hye Song Kim of North Korea, 12-9.

Underwood has been in the spotlight since she revealed she and her older sister had been sexually and physically abused by their father, for which he served six years in prison. She said she plans to turn pro, a career she put on hold just so she could compete in the Olympics. When she started the sport at age 19, she had hoped they would become part of the 2008 Games. She said she thought she would have had a better chance at the medal as a younger boxer.

“I guess this is the end of my journey. It’s time for me to start a new chapter in life and start a new goal,” she said. “I think I will take this home with me and probably later on will say, ‘Hey, I did good in the journey and kept going,’ but I will always say I could have done more.”

Today in the flyweight [112] quarterfinals, Esparza, who sparred with Watsonville pro Carina Moreno to prepare for the Olympics, will fight Venezuela’s Kariha Magliocco, a one-point winner over Brazil’s Erica Matos on Sunday. Team USA middleweight [165] Shields will step into the ring against Anna Laurell of Sweden, who pummeled Naomi-Lee Fischer-Rasmussen of Australia in the first round.

Categories: Athletes, Boxing, Events, Olympics | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Moreno, women’s boxing to benefit from Olympic debut




LONDON – History will be made Saturday when a pair of women climb through the ropes and into the ring for the first women’s boxing match of the modern Olympic era.

Carina Moreno wanted to be there. And in a small way, she will be.

The Watsonville boxer sparred with Marlen Esparza, who will represent Team USA in the flyweight [112 pound] division, to prepare Esparza for the hard hits some of the European fighters will deliver during the course of the next week. More significantly, as one of the first generations of female boxers, Moreno beat back obstacles on the way to helping the sport make its debut in the 2012 Games.

“I think it’s great, it’s about time they make it in the Olympics,” Moreno wrote in an email. “I just don’t know why it took so long.”

Moreno took up boxing in 1999, two years before the creation of the first women’s world championship. Even then, she dreamed of being an Olympian. By the time the International Olympic Committee approved women’s boxing as an Olympic sport 10 years later, however, she had, for financial reasons, already turned professional. In Olympic boxing, unlike basketball, beach volleyball and a myriad of other sports, that makes her ineligible to compete.

“It’s very disappointing to see all the attraction and endorsements they are getting, because if they would of had it when I was an amateur, I know for sure that I would be in their position,” wrote Moreno, referencing Esparza’s sponsorship by Nike, Coca-Cola, Proctor and Gamble [Cover Girl] and McDonald’s. “But this doesn’t affect me at all. I think it will help all the women boxers.”

Many expect the addition of the women’s boxing to the Games and the attention sponsors are paying to vault a sport that has been experiencing waning interest on both the male and female sides back into the spotlight. Team USA men’s and women’s coach Basheer Abdullah said the Olympics will give young girls someone like them to look up to in the sport, someone to show them there is a future for them in it, whether it be at the amateur or pro level.

“I think after this Olympics our gyms are just going to be flooded with women boxers,” he said. “I think the timing of bringing women on board in an Olympic sport and the sport of boxing is great because the talent has improved immensely.  I think that we’re going to see some great, exciting boxing in the women’s program at this Olympics.”

Neither Moreno nor most of the 36 women fighting for the first gold medal in each of three weight divisions, knew of a female fighter they could look to for guidance as they grew up in the sport.

Moreno mimicked a male cousin who boxed. Team USA veteran Quanitta “Queen” Underwood, a 28-year-old lightweight [132 pound], found a role model in Muhammad Ali. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Claressa Shields, Team USA’s welterweight [165 pounds], modeled herself after Sugar Ray Leonard and Joe Lewis.

In fact, Shields doesn’t even like to be compared to other female fighters.

“I figure I’m the best female boxer out there,” she said. “I know there’s not one male in this world that’s seen me box that’s said I fight like a girl.”

Esparza, meanwhile, now admires Lucia Rijker, but she grew up idolizing Horace Chavez.

“That’s who I tried to emulate when I was little. That’s how I learned about boxing,” said Esparza, 23, who took up the sport at 11 at her boxing-fanatic father’s urging. “I used to call boxing ‘Chavez’. I’d say, ‘Chavez is on, Chavez is on!’ and my dad was like, ‘Those are just boxers.’

“I definitely only knew about boxing when I was little. I’m talking about as far as I can remember, like until 5 years [old]. I thought that was part of everybody’s life. I thought that was life. Guess I was a little wrong.”

So few girls boxed at the time that Esparza says she now realizes how lucky she was to find a trainer, Rudy Silva, who would take her on as a student. Unfortunately, she added, not much has changed since then.

“It’s still hard. My trainer literally gets attacked for time,” said the Houston native. “He got laughed at a lot for paying attention to me. He got told one time, ‘Why do you even pay attention to her? She’s just going to get pregnant.’ That sort of thing, and he didn’t care. To run into something like that was close to impossible.”

Esparza, who got started around the same time as Moreno, said she hasn’t enjoyed being a trailblazer.

“It would have made my life a lot easier growing up” to have a female role model, said Esparza, who plans to give up the sport after these Olympics and her degree at a university. “There were so many days of: Am I doing the right thing? Should I just go to school? Should I just forget about this? Am I going to go anywhere with this? Is it going to be worth it? So, it was a lot of those days where it was like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ If I would have had somebody there, it would have given me something solid to go on versus just wishing and hoping and gambling.”

In the long run, though, that wishing and hoping and gambling worked. It delivered her right where she wanted to be – fighting for an Olympic medal. She and Shields received first-round byes, so their opening bouts will be Aug. 6. Underwood will fight in the first day of competition Sunday.

But Esparza is one of the lucky ones whose weight class will be featured. The Women’s International Boxing Federation features 18 weight classes, but only three made the Olympic cut.

So, the women of boxing aren’t taking their hand wraps off just yet. In fact, they’re warming up for another battle: to bring in all weight divisions..

“It’s always a struggle. They‘ve been fighting for this moment for years. And I don’t think they’re finished fighting,” coach Abdullah said. “I think they want more and they deserve more. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some more weight classes emerging, too.”

Just getting boxing into the Olympics is a start, though. In addition to creating more competition, it presents something both veterans like Moreno and burgeoning starts like Esparza can be proud of.

As Abdullah said, “The Olympic Games don’t define them as role models. They were role models before they got to this point.”

Categories: Athletes, Boxing, Events, Marlen Esparza, Olympics, Photos, Your neighbors | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Team USA boxing photos

Just a few quick shots from the Team USA Boxing training. More will come late with a story Julie is writing.

Categories: Athletes, Boxing, Events, Marlen Esparza, Michael Hunter, Olympic Preparation, Olympics, Photos, Rau'shee Warren | Leave a comment

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