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

Julie Jag: Long legacy, short attention span for gold-medal gymnast Gabby Douglas

U.S. gymnast Gabrielle Douglas performs on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women’s individual all-around competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)


LONDON — Squirrel!
Flying Squirrel to be more specific. That’s one of the nicknames for Team USA gymnast Gabby Douglas, and it was impossible not to be distracted by her as she dominated every facet of the Olympic women’s individual all-around competition on her way to winning gold Thursday at the O2 Arena in the riverside borough of North Greenwich.
“My little squirrel fly extra high today,” said national team coordinator Marta Karolyi. “What I admire is she performs with extreme lightness and I think that was one of the qualities that actually the international judges appreciated. She wasn’t struggling, she wasn’t just barely pulling through the skills, she was really flying through the air — just like her little name says.”
The 4-foot-11 Douglas held a strong lead heading into her final event, the floor exercise, where she hopped, bounced and, yes, flew to the gold medal. Russia’s Victoria Komova, who recorded the top score in qualifying, finished with silver. In a heartbreaking moment for the U.S. team, Aliya Mustafina, also of Russia, was awarded the bronze medal on a tiebreaker over Team USA captain Aly Raisman.
Raisman and Mustafina each finished the four-station event with scores of 59.566 points. Yet Mustafina edged the American on the sum of her three highest scores, the first tiebreaker, and mostly on the strength of a jaw-dropping 16.1 she posted to win the uneven bars. Likewise, a shaky balance beam performance realistically cost Raisman the medal.
“I’m definitely really sad,” said Raisman, trying to put on a brave face, “but I’m really excited for Gabby.”
Douglas shined on each apparatus, but her performance on the balance beam really set her apart. Karolyi said that as recently as five months ago, Douglas — whom she called an “average-good gymnast” at the time — would get easily distracted whenever she mounted the beam, using the opportunity to search for friends and family in the stands. With the individual title on the line, and with an arena of close to 20,000 fans — many of them waving American flags and chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A” — to search, Douglas tried to keep herself disciplined.
“It’s very tough for me to focus. I’m kind of like ‘Focus! … Oh, something shiny. Focus! … Oh, there’s a butterfly,’” Douglas said. “It’s hard for me to maintain my focus, but if you want to stay on top then you have to do it. You have to learn to focus and train your body. Every time someone went, would turn my back and focus and take it one routine at a time.”
But what else would you expect from a 15-year-old?
Douglas, who will turn 16 on Dec. 31, is the second-youngest girl to win the all-around title in Olympic history. The youngest, of course, is gymnastics legend Nadia Comaneci, who at 14 won gold for Romania in 1976.
That’s not the last of Douglas’ firsts, either. She holds claim to being the first to win gold in both the individual all-around and the team championship, which the USA’s Fantastic Five did Tuesday. She gave the U.S. its third straight women’s Olympic all-around champion, a first for a nation since the Soviet Union won the first three in 1952, ’56 and ’60.
And there’s that one other thing, perhaps her most significant first.
“People keep saying I’m the first African American to win the (individual) gold medal,” said Douglas, who still has a chance to add to her medal collection in the individual uneven bars and balance beam events, “and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot about that.’ It’s amazing.”
Douglas actually was the only African American in the competition. To her credit, she stood out more for her performances than her skin color.
Douglas started the afternoon on top, winning the vault with a score of 15.966. She placed third on the uneven bars behind the Russian pair. Then, after a long wait as the judges tallied a beam score for Mustafina, who had fallen off the apparatus, she took the top score in that event too. All that was left was the floor routine, the same one, performed with the same big smile that won her the U.S. Olympic Trials title in June.
“She demonstrated today that she can handle the toughest job,” Douglas’ coach Liang Chow said. “Wonderful effort, wonderful performance under huge pressure for 15 years old. That was fabulous.”
Throughout the competition, Douglas’ coach had commanded Douglas not to look at her scores. Speaking to the press after the medal ceremony, Chow commended her on being so disciplined.
“I kept my eye on her every single minute and she never looked up,” he said.
Well, that might not exactly be true.
“I snuck a peak,” Douglas said. “I looked up after vault and after bars … and after beam and after floor.”
OK, maybe the Flying Squirrel wasn’t as focused as she could have been throughout the competition. But she certainly held her own attention — and that of the audience and the judges — when it counted.
Contact Julie Jag at or follow her on twitter @julie_jag. For more Olympics coverage, visit the Across the Pond blog at

Categories: Athletes, Events, Gabby Douglas, Gymnastics, Olympics | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Olympic Photos: Day 7

Outside the O2 Arena where Gabby Douglas of the USA won gold.

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Live from the women’s gymnastics all-around final

Here we go, the women’s gymnastics all-around final is beginning now. I will update posts here.

Gabby Douglas breaks in the vault with a solid performance with just a small hop and a big cheer afterward. She and teammate Aly Raisman are wearing sparkly magenta outfits. Gabby might have gotten an even bigger cheer than the British girl on the beam. She also scored 15.966.

Raisman is up next on vault. Much more height, but a big bounce afterward. she gets a 15.900.

Those are the two highest scores recorded so far in any event.

The camera that zips alongside the vaulters is really crazy. It shows you that they really are running fast, but reminds me of an old-school typewriter.

Japan’s Tanaka has a really crazy and kind of cool zebra striped red, black and white unitard on, while dancing to the Pink Panther theme on floor exercise. Very animalistic.

We’re on to the second rotation with Douglas still leading. Raisman is in second and Komova of Russia sits in third with 15.466 points after also competing in vault. Aliya Mustafina of Russia, 15.233, is in fourth.

Raisman’s about to go up on the uneven bars. Lots of cheers of Go Aly! and American flags in that corner, so that’s good for the USA girls.

Superb. It looked just about perfect to me. Lots of height, some difficult moves and she nailed the landing. She scored a 14.333 for a total of 30.233

Here comes Komova. She leapfrogs Raisman for a total of 31.432 to lead all competitors. Douglas hasn’t gone yet. She’s last on UB.
Deng Lin of China just put up a nice uneven bars routine.

Here comes Gabby …
Beautiful, that’s not going to hurt her chances. Yep, 15.733. That puts her first in that event and first overall with 31.699 points. Komova second, Mustafina third and Raisman in fourth.

Komova up second on beam. Fairly major loss of balance, but she recovers beautifully. I have to give it to these girls for now graceful they are and focused. Perfect landing by Kosmova. She gets a 15.441.

Douglas needs a 15.174 to regain the lead. Raisman needs 16+.

Mustafina scores 13.633 … she’s not happy.
Gabby’s up next She’s had to wait quite a while for Mustafina’s score, but her coach keeps her company and is smiling. She’s beautiful up there. A few wobbles, but solid overall.
She lands to cheers with nothing else happening at the same time. her score ….15.500, but no smile from the usually bubbly girl.

Raisman follows immediately. A less than perfect routine. It starts with her losing balance on a backflip and leaning over to nearly touch the bar as she balances on one leg. That started a chain of wobbles and a step to the left on her landing. Not good for her chances. She’s being comforted by her coach. She moves to fifth with 44.433.

Douglas leads with 47.199, the Komova 46.873, Mustafina with 44.966 and Deng Linlin with 44.466.

This is it. If Gabby Douglas can nail this, she’s the all-around champion.
Barely stayed int he lines there for a second, but she managed to do it. In fact, that seemed to energize her. She completed it to a huge roar and unless Komova does something out of this world, she’ll be the third straight USA All around champion. How crazy is that?
Douglas’ score …15.033, giving her 62.232.

Raisman’s fighting for a medal with this floor routine. She nails a 15.133, putting her in third ahead of Izbasa of Romania. But there area couple more girls to go, including Komova, who is up next.

I guess Komova didn’t like getting 28th in this event in qualification. She’ll likely knock Raisman out of the medals, but will that bump off Douglas?

NO! Douglas wins! 62.232 points. Komova second with 61.973. Mustafin ais third and Raisman fourth.
Raisman actually tied for fourth, but she lost on a tiebreaker. Heartbreaking.

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U.S. women’s gymnastics line-up for qualification round is set

You watched them at the trials in San Jose. Now, they’re ready for an even bigger stage. Here are the events in which the individual USA women’s gymnasts will be competing, straight from a press release. The most interesting point is that McKayla Maroney will only compete in vault.

LONDON, July 28, 2012 — The line-up for the U.S. women for the qualification round at the 2012 Olympic Games has been submitted. The women compete in the third of five subdivisions on Sunday, July 29, at 2:45 p.m., held at the North Greenwich Arena. The teams and individual gymnasts who will advance to the final rounds will be determined at the conclusion of the final subdivision.

The U.S. Women’s Team features: Gabby Douglas of Virginia Beach, Va./Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute, McKayla Maroney of Long Beach, Calif./All Olympia Gymnastics Center, Aly Raisman of Needham, Mass./Brestyan’s American Gymnastics, Kyla Ross of Aliso Viejo, Calif./Gym-Max Gymnastics, and Jordyn Wieber of DeWitt, Mich./Gedderts’ Twistars USA.

The U.S. women’s line-up is:

Vault: Raisman, Douglas, Wieber, Maroney

Uneven bars: Raisman, Wieber, Ross, Douglas

Balance beam: Ross, Douglas, Wieber, Raisman

Floor exercise: Ross, Douglas, Wieber, Raisman

Gymnastics begins today with the men’s qualification round, and the U.S. men take the floor in the second of three subdivisions at 3:30 p.m. The members of the U.S. Men’s Team are: Jake Dalton of Reno, Nev./University of Oklahoma; Jonathan Horton of Houston/Team Hilton HHonors (Cypress Gymnastics); Danell Leyva of Miami/Team Hilton HHonors (Universal Gymnastics); Sam Mikulak of Newport Coast, Calif./University of Michigan; and John Orozco of the Bronx/Team Hilton HHonors (U.S. Olympic Training Center).

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Another photo from the gymnastics trials

Jordyn Wieber

I went back through my gymnastics photos just to see if I missed anything and this shot jumped out at me. It’s Jordyn Wieber focusing on her routine just before doing the balance beam. She was getting loose and doing the arm parts of her routine. Then she took a deep breath and as she opened her eyes, this was her look. I suspect I’ll be seeing this look on a lot of athletes’ faces in a few weeks.

And yes, it’s in black and white. Monochrome photos resonate with me a lot due to their timeless quality. It reminds me of old-school photojournalism. So you’ll probably be seeing quite a few black and white posts from my time in London.

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Photos from the gymnastics Olympic Trials in San Jose

I had a lot of fun covering the Gymnastics trials in San Jose Sunday night. The camera woes I talked about earlier were still there but I was able to make do and get some decent shots. I covered Jordyn Wieber mostly since she was the favorite, but Gabby Douglas came up and took the lead. She was in a different group than the one I was following, so I didn’t get many of her except from across the arena. In the press room, though, I found that she had a million dollar smile. She’ll be fun to watch in London. Anyway, enjoy some of the photos I took.

Categories: Gymnastics, Olympics, Photos | 1 Comment

US Gymnastics women’s team announced

Wow, talk about a tight race. Gabby Douglas beat out Jordyn Wieber by .1 point — 123.450 to 123.350 — for the all-around title.

Douglas and Wieber will be joined by Alexandra Raisman, Kyla Ross and McKayla Maroney on the Olympic team. They are coming to the stage in a deafening roar from the crowd. Anna Li is an alternate along with two others.

Douglas literally vaulted her way to the top, making up the majority of her .3 deficit heading into the second day of the trials in her first event. Douglas scored a remarkable 16 in the vault — the best score of the day in any event — but still trailed Wieber after the first rotation. Douglas then added a nearly as good score of 15.9 on the uneven bars to take the lead, the highest of the day in that event. She finished with a 14.85 on the beam and a 15.3 on the floor routine to cap her winning performance.
Wieber, meanwhile, had the competition in the bag until she wavered on the balance beam. She scored 14.9 on that event.

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Spoiler alert — gymnastics all around champ is crowned

The scores are in, and, as it seemed from her final performance, Gabby Douglas has taken over the lead and will claim the all-around title and the guaranteed spot to the Olympics. Douglas scored a 15.3 on the floor exercise, the third highest of the night (Wieber actually scored the highest with 15.6, but it wasn’t enough to fend off Douglas.

So, Douglas is in, and Wieber will definitely be as well. As for the other two? Well, Alexandra Raisman, Elizabeth Price and Kyla Ross have been bouncing up and down between third and fifth, and Anna Li put up some stunning performances as a darkhorse. Also, the team may want some experience in Alicia Sacramone, who also had a solid showing. Stay tuned ….

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The gymnastics all-around showdown begins

Jordyn Wieber is standing on the vault runway. Gabby Douglas is at the floor exercise mat. It’s coming down to these two.

Wieber’s lead is big, but with a small hop on the landing. Wieber scores 15.8 on the vault.

Douglas kills it on the floor exercise. Her spunk and smile are contagious and all of her tumbles seem spot on. It’s going to be close.

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