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

Olympics photos: Day 6

Kristin Armstrong of the USA successfully defends her Olympic Time Trial title at Hampton Court Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012 in London. Her final time of 37:34 was 15 seconds ahead of the field. (Anthony L. Solis/Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Kristen Armstrong of Team USA finished the 29km route in 37:34 to finish 15 seconds clear of the field.

World champion Judith Arndt of Germany finished in 37:50 to place second, with Russia’s Olga Zabelinskaya third in 37:57 for her second bronze medal of the Games.

Great Britain’s Emma Pooley, the 2010 world champion and silver medallist in Beijing four years’ ago, finished in 38:37, placing sixth.

Lizzie Armitstead, Britain’s first medallist of London 2012 after winning silver in Sunday’s road race, clocked 39:26 to place 10th.

Categories: Athletes, Cycling, Events, Kristin Armstrong, Olympics, Photos, Press Release | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Luck runs out for Scotts Valley and Olympic cyclist Shelley Olds


LONDON — Shelley Olds knew she wanted to be an Olympian.
She might have gone in soccer or running, both of which she excelled at in college. But by chance she took a tandem mountain bike ride in 2005, and the Scotts Valley resident, who previously had sold cell phones, decided a life on the bike was for her.
Track cycling caught her fancy, but just as she was reaching her peak in her best event, points, the International Olympic Committee unceremoniously axed it from the Games. That didn’t stop Olds. She took to the road and, on Sunday, nearly wound up on the podium.
A flat tire knocked Olds back to seventh on the 89-mile course that wound through London and finished up at the Mall near Buckingham Palace. That’s the best finish for an American woman since Jeanne Golay placed sixth in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992, when Olds was 11.
But Olds found that as little consolation after being so close to taking home a medal.
“Seventh place, I guess I can be sort of happy with that,” said Olds, who formerly raced under the surname Evans and recently moved to Gilroy, “but when you’re that close to a medal and then you’re in seventh, then it’s different.”
Olds had a three-in-four chance of winning some hardware when she sagely jumped with a late breakaway that included eventual winner Marianne Vos of Holland, silver medalist Lizzy Armistead of Great Britain — who delivered the host country its first medal — and bronze medalist Olga Zabelinskaya of Russia. With 40 kilometers to go, the women worked together to put space between them and the main peloton.
That is just where Olds wanted to be. The points race in track cycling features a sprint every 10 laps, and Olds had transferred those skills to the road. She had said before the race she was hoping it would come down to a dash.
Then, her front bike tire, along with her dream of medaling, came up flat.
A mechanic made the change, but even with the help of her USA teammates, as well as the German and Italian teams, pushing to catch the leaders, the effort fell short.
“That’s just bike racing,” Olds said. “I had to stop and wait for a wheel change. It wasn’t a very fast wheel change. I was almost chasing to get back on to the end of the bunch. At that point, I thought there was still hope because Italy, Germany and the US weren’t represented. I thought the three teams could chase enough to bring it back.
“Those girls were just riding too strong and they never came back. It’s really a disappointment.”
Olds almost deserves a medal just for reaching the 2012 Olympics after the IOC cut her track event in 2010. After the decision, she immediately switched exclusively to road riding, which she had dabbled in previously. She joined the professional domestic team Peanut Butter & Co. TWENTY12, now Exergy TWENTY12.
“She started out with us as a category 4 rider and through to cat 1 and national champ and also track world cup multi-time medalist,” said Nicola Cranmer, the general manager for the TWENTY12 team.
Still, the Olympics loomed as the goal.
Olds found quick success. She joined a European team, started training in Spain and won stages of the Tour d’Italia and the Tour of New Zealand. But it couldn’t be that easy for Olds.
Just as the time for selecting the four U.S. Olympic team was drawing near, she fractured her wrist while racing in Italy. The injury required a cast and doctors’ orders to not race on it for six weeks.
That gave Olds one race in which to secure her spot: a UCI World Cup race on Chongming Island in China in May.
“When I broke my wrist I wasn’t able to climb for a long time because of the cast. I couldn’t stand and move around,” Olds told “I focused all my energy on the race in China because I knew that was what I could use to qualify for the Olympics. It was completely flat. So, I focused all my training on flat racing, sprints, power work on the flats.”
Olds knew she wanted to go to the Olympics, so she made it happen. She found an opportunity late in the cold, windy and rainy race and seized it and the victory, and later the final spot on the Olympic team.
When met with the same conditions at the Olympics, Olds seized it again. This time, her luck just didn’t hold out.
“ I’m really devastated because I believe I definitely could have medaled,” she said. “That was the winning move and I was in it.”

Categories: Athletes, Cycling, Events, Olympics, Shelley Olds | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Former Scotts Valley cyclist top USA finisher in women’s road race

Former Scotts Valley resident Shelley Olds, center, came in seventh place and was the top U.S. sinisher during the Olympic Women’s Cycling Road Race on Suunday, July 29, 2012 in London. (Anthony L. Solis/Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Former Scotts Valley track and road cyclist Shelley Olds, now of Groton, Mass., finished in seventh place in the Olympic women’s cycling road race, which was staged in London Sunday afternoon.

The gold medal went to the Netherlands’ Marianne Vos, who covered the route in 3:35.29. Elizabeth Armitstead gave host Great Britain its first medal of the London 2012 Olympic Games with her silver medal finish, while Olga Zabelinskaya of Russia won the bronze in 3:35:31.

Other American finishers were: Evelyn Stevens (Acton, Mass.), 24th, 3:35:56; Kristin Armstrong (Boise, Idaho), 35th, 3:36:16; and Amber Neben (Irvine, Calif.), 36th, 3:36:20.

More info to come!

Categories: Athletes, Cycling, Events, Olympics | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Olympics photos: Day 3

Soaked. The weather here switches from very hot to cold and rainy in a matter of minutes. I froze while standing in front of Buckingham Palace waiting for the Women’s Cycling race to head to the finish line. Staked out a great spot but when the rain started, the umbrellas went up and I could see anything anymore. Oh well. I made do.

Categories: Athletes, Cycling, Events, Olympics, Photos | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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