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The Olympics Are Upon Us: And what a “Games” it will be!!!!

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Another four years has come and gone since the summer games of 2004 in Athens. My enthusiasm has certainly waned a little from what it was in my younger days, due in large part to the influx of professional athletes. (There was just something to be said for overcoming the adversity our amateur athletes faced in the old days.) However, there are several individuals/events/sports that have truly sparked my interest and motivation. I am looking forward to seeing how all the stories unfold. Here are my own picks for the games and why:

> Gymnastics – Of course I do have a bias here since my competitive days in high school and college were spent in this sport; however, there are other good reasons to be watching in ‘08.

- Our teams, especially the women’s team, are strong this year and there should be medals on both ends.

- A new, more open-ended scoring system for the sport is in place (adopted 2006). No longer will a 10.00 be the mark of perfection. Top scores will range from 15 – 17 depending on the event, difficulty of skills performed, and execution. For specific details and explanations see this post, http://www.momsteam.com/node/1417, and the referenced articles within.

- Gymnastics is always a fan favorite during Olympic years. The combination of strength, balance, flexibility, power, difficulty of movement, and creativity, in addition to being able to put all of this together on a variety of apparatus, just seems to hold a certain amount of mystique for spectators.

> Swimming – In my mind, there are several interesting stories going on in the pool in Beijing for 2008.

- Dara Torres’ phenomenal feat of not only making the Olympic team for her 5th time but winning the U.S. trials in the 100 and 50 meter freestyle (setting a new American record in the 50) against competitors half her age is simply astonishing. I will be watching her performances with great anticipation and interest.

As many of you may know, I have a special interest in athletes who are able to reach high levels of performance and are able to do it cleanly with their character and integrity intact, meaning steroid and PED (Performance Enhancing Drug) free. The position Dara has taken by encouraging the Olympic committee to test her more stringently, more frequently, and to save her specimens for future testing is exactly the same position I would have taken. It was refreshing to see her take this initiative.

Anyone and everyone in sports today, and in the future, who seems to defy the odds in their quest for greatness will forever be bound to speculation of cheating through chemical enhancements. This is the future environment that those who have broken trust have created. Never again will anyone be able to look at extraordinary performances without asking the question, did they or didn’t they?

- Michael Phelps’ quest to break Mark Spitz record of 7 Gold Medals won in a single Olympic games will certainly be of interest. And Mark Spitz, the owner of the record with 7 (1972), thinks he can do it. We will all know soon enough.

- The LZR swim suit from Speedo (and other suits like it from other companies) has raised a good deal of controversy. Their ability to reduce drag for the swimmer is what many are saying has led to the breaking of so many records right before the games. It is unprecedented. It will be interesting to see how this all pans out at the games themselves.

> Basketball – The 2004 games in Athens proved to be a much tougher challenge than anticipated, at least on the men’s side.

- Being the supposed dominant power on the planet in men’s basketball, to many, it seemed much more like a loss than an accomplishment to have won the bronze medal. Will this year bring the U.S. back to prominence (and dominance), as expected? We shall see. The gap is most certainly closing between us and the rest of the world.

- The bronze medal win in the 2006 world championships has put the women’s team in a more cautious mode with regard to their current #1 world ranking. Great talent abounds on the team with a combination of experienced veterans and great athletic newcomers. With fellow Napervillian Candace Parker, along with a host of other gifted players, it should be a joy to watch this U.S. team dominate the competition. But anything can happen in the games. In the end, it takes more than talent to win gold.

> Volleyball – Here, my personal interest falls with watching our U.S. women’s volleyball team play. The women’s game is as much about strategy and technique as it is about power, and it is the sport of choice for my youngest daughter (who plays the libero position at the University of Louisville), so I do have a bias.

Being that the defending women’s Olympic Champions are the Chinese, it should make for an exciting event. There was a lot of pressure on the U.S. team in Athens and things did not work out so well, so with the pressure off (in comparison), hopefully, they will have a great showing in Beijing.

> Boxing – It always seemed that boxing got a large amount of television coverage during the Olympics when I was a kid. With sports personalities like Howard Cosell and boxing talents like Mohamed Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, Lennox Lewis, along with many other top U.S. fighters, its popularity simply cannot be denied. Because of this, and the fact that my brother is the boxing coach for many of the MMA fighters out of Jeff Curran’s gym in Illinois (in addition to being selected as the head boxing coach for the Illinois team at the National Golden Gloves this year), I am looking forward to seeing how our team stacks up against the rest.

> Tennis – This is a sport I am an avid fan of. If it wasn’t for my involvement in gymnastics, it would have been my sport of choice (either that or wrestling). With Rafael Nadal’s win over Roger Federer at Wimbledon this year, and his bid to take over the #1 world ranking, the U.S.’s Williams’ sisters (and a host of other great players), it looks to be a loaded field. I am sure there will be some great matches, along with a surprise or two, during these games.

> Softball – With U.S. women’s softball being so dominant at the Olympics, outscoring all competitors by a combined score of 117 to 16 (yes, that is not a misprint), in addition to the sport being scheduled for elimination from the games after 2008, it is a strong possibility that our team will want to leave their mark on history forever. I am pretty sure there will be some media attention given to this sport in Beijing because of this, and the controversy as to why it is being eliminated (some believe it is due to anti-Americanism and/or the dominance of the U.S. in the sport). I, for one, do not like to see any athlete (or athletes) lose an opportunity to compete at the Olympics, and would have a hard time understanding any justification for their elimination. All I can say is, “best of luck girls,” and leave a mark on the games of 2008 that know one will ever forget.”

> Soccer – As with women’s volleyball, I have a biased interest in the U.S. women’s soccer team. My oldest played the game for many years, all the way through high school and on into college at Marquette University. Sitting on the sidelines as a spectator watching your kids play a sport for so many years, especially as they reach the higher levels of play, you just can’t help but develop a desire to follow the upper echelons of that sport. I found this true for both soccer and volleyball.

The U.S. women’s team has won a medal in every single Olympics that women’s soccer was played, and they are the defending Olympic champions. They did fall short at the World Cup last year but now have a new coach (first foreign coach ever) and have retooled the team. Will an influx of some new players and a new philosophy be all that is needed to bring back a Gold from Beijing? With a somewhat shaky start, a loss to Norway and win against Japan, only time will tell if they can pull it all together.

Well, those are my picks to watch in Beijing; however, please feel free to comment leaving your own “best picks” for the games. It would be great to see where everyone else’s interests lie. And as far as the unexpected, I am sure there will be many remarkable and unforgettable stories as the games progress, especially after watching the spectacular show that China put on for the opening ceremonies. It was nothing less than awe-inspiring.