Sunday, August 24. 2008
I wasnít expecting to be at the Beijing police station 4 hours after my 10K race, so when I ended up there, frantic and confused, it felt like I had just participated in a particularly grueling portion of the ďAmazing Race.Ē Unfortunately, my journey was not for television entertainment, rather it was to prevent my family from getting deported immediately. I want to send a big ďThank You!Ē to the female students from the University of Columbia that tried to mess with the Beijing authorities and, in so doing, caused an enormous international incident that affected quite a few Americans in Beijing.
So hereís how it got started. A few girls from Columbia University wanted to share their political persuasions with the world at the Birdís Nest. They had made signs with a political agenda that we typically see on bumper stickers in America (particularly in California and Santa Barbara) supporting a region that has been at odds with the Chinese government. The local authorities didnít like the political display at all and deported the girls immediately. Unfortunately my family had been renting a short term apartment in the same complex as the girls and, since weíre all Americans, my family started to look rather suspicious. The authorities demanded that everyone in the group report to the local police station immediately for an interrogation. Unfortunately, the demands from the Chinese authorities were made during my 10k race, so immediately after I was done swimming my family had to frantically hurry away from the venue to follow the orders.
The ordeal that my family endured opened my eyes a bit. I suppose I was under the presumption that criticism is essentially a human right. A few weeks ago, when I mused about the seemingly silly blogging laws during the Olympics, I believed that the Chinese warnings were more about posturing than anything else. It seemed to me that the Chinese authorities wanted everyone to have a positive Olympic experience without a bunch of bickering about cultural differences. The reality, however, is quite different. There are real consequences behind the threats of obedience, and both foreigners and natives are subject to punishment for disobedience.
Sadly, I lost a bit of my enthusiasm for China. When I first arrived here 2 weeks ago it seemed like the culture was firm but pleasant. For instances, instead of using the word ďNoĒ the Chinese people use the phrase ďIím sorryĒ constantly, and it seemed like a very polite way of communicating. I now realize that ďIím sorryĒ actually means ďYouíll be sorry.Ē No one in the group was deported and they all got to experience the rest of the Olympic Games, but it did put a damper on the festivities.
In other news, the Olympics ended yesterday. The Closing Ceremonies were fun, I didnít feel nearly as hot as I did at the Opening Ceremonies (thanks to a more manageable parade uniform) and there was plenty of room to sat down on the field and enjoy the show from a more relaxed setting.
In the days after the race I got to watch a few sports (beach volleyball and water polo significantly) and got to eat everything that Iíve been preventing myself from enjoying for the past few months. At the USA House, an exclusive location for American athletes and their family members, I had 3 pieces of cheesecake at one sitting. I also became an avid user of the Beijing mass transit system and got to enjoy the swap meet that ensues at the Olympic Village (athletes trade pins, T-shirts, warm-up jackets and whatnot with each other).
Iíve had some nice moments with my family as we reflect on the significance of the moment, and reminisce about the journey that brought us here.
Iím going to end rather abruptly because I need a bit more time to process how I feel about the experience, and I also have to go to the Silk Market Ė a truly bizarre shopping experience. My family leaves Beijing to go back to America this morning, but Diana and I are going to stay in China for a little longer to see some famous spots. Thanks for reading all the posts. Itís been a pleasure writing them and receiving your responses.
Saturday, August 23. 2008
Things are happening at warp speed right now. I'll write about it in a future post but I thought I'd share my thoughts on the race today and then tell you about the craziness since the race in a couple of days.
I havenít seen a replay of the race on television but Iíll do my best to recount what I thought happened.
The story of the day starts about 5 minutes before the announcer said ďTake your markÖĒ Unfortunately, athlete family members and other 10k swimming fans were relegated to seating areas far from the start location and so the 25 athletes stood on the waters edge waiting to get introduced to the members of the media. The excitement of being announced to an Olympic crowd was thus diminished greatly but we were all preoccupied with the task at hand. That task was not the upcoming race, but rather the need to relive ourselves of a full morning of hydration.
Prior to the introductions the athletes had been sequestered in a ready room, then herded to the starting location, and then told to stand at attention in front of the cameras in the media section. The whole process took about 20 minutes and by the time the athletes were finally introduced the only thing we really wanted to do was find the restroom, which of course was not an option. Thus, there was quite a bit of eagerness to get into the water as quickly as possible. At the beginning of the historic race, levity triumphed over tension at the starting dock.
Nothing of significance happened in the first lap of the race and all I really remember was trying to establish a good drafting position, which I believe I did. The race was physical from the start with a lot of jostling for position within the pack for the entire first lap. At the start of the second lap I was the unfortunate recipient of an elbow to my shoulder blade that, now 2 days later, still hurts. I donít know who it was that got me, but I must have made an aggressive retaliation move because I was given a Yellow Card a few moments later. The race official blew his whistle at me, held up a yellow flag and produced a board with #18, my number, written on it. I was a bit confused about what I had done to get a Yellow Card, but there really isnít any time to get an explanation from the official. The only thing you can really do is adjust your race strategy accordingly, knowing that a second infraction will result in a disqualification from the race.
At first I didnít think that the Yellow Card would really affect my race strategy. Every 10K swimmer believes that he swims a docile race, but the reality is that there are times when the situation demands that you get a bit physical. A Yellow Card makes the athlete more apprehensive at the critical moments, and there was one critical moment where I had to back down when I normally would have stood firm.
Going into a turn on the third lap the Russian and I were battling for position. 25 meters until the turn buoy we were side by side. I had an inside position (technically the better position) but the Russian was making it clear that he was going to try and angle me inside the course. His goal was to try and slam me into the buoy instead of going around it cleanly. I knew what he was trying to do and, under normal circumstances without a Yellow Card, I would have held my position. However, holding position would have required a lot of physical contact, and I didnít want to draw the attention of the race officials. So, I backed down, lost my position, and had to try and scramble to get back into the thick of the pack.
(I realize that the previous paragraph was gibberish to a lot of you, but it was necessary for me to explain it to the 10K swimming enthusiasts.)
Up until I got cut off at the buoy on the 3rd lap I was in the hunt, or so I thought. The upside of my position was that I was drafting really well, but the big downside of my position was that I was taking a physical beating. In retrospect I should have abandoned the desire to draft in favor of getting clean water, but I didnít know this at the time.
At the start of the 4th lap the pace picked up tremendously, and this is when I knew that I was in trouble. My heart rate shot up, my technique started to flag, and my mind lost a bit of coherency. This isnít abnormal to 10K races, in fact it happens every time, but in good races I can usually keep my composure at least until the 9,000 meter mark. I fought like crazy from the 7,500 to the 9,500 to stay in the race but I kept getting tangled with the Dutchman (the eventual winner) the Russian (previous world champion) and a whole bunch of other swimmers.
At around the 9,200 I saw the red flag go up right next to me and for a split second I was worried that I was going to be kicked out of the race. It turned out that the race officials gave a Red Card to the Russian world champion Vladimir Dyachin for his physical contact on me but I wasnít carded for similar contact. I donít know why he was carded and I wasnít, but I do know that the physical contact took itís toll on me because with 800 meters to go Ė when I needed to make a surge to the front Ė I didnít have the energy.
I scrapped my way through the last very painful 800 meters, and the closer I got the more it became apparent that I wasnít going to win a medal. I won a small battle by out-touching a few of the other competitors at the finish line, but my 8th place finish was about 20 seconds behind the winner. I put my hand on the touchpad 1 hour 52 minutes and 13 seconds after the start of the race.
The winner of the race, Martin VanderWeijden from the Netherlands, is a great guy. It would have been unfortunate for the sport of Open Water swimming if the Russian (who was the odds on favorite to win the race) had won. He doesnít speak English and he isnít friendly at all. Martin, on the other hand, is without a doubt the most popular guy in the sport. Heís funny, very well-spoken, and he has a great story before he became the Olympic champion.
Hereís a good story. This past May Martin and I raced to a photo finish in the 25K in Seville. (He beat me by 4 tenths of a second in a 5 hour race.) At the 20,000 meter mark of the race Martin and I happened to be next to each other and breathing towards each other. We made eye contact through our goggles and Martin smiled at me. It was a really funny gesture considering the circumstance of our location.
Now, fast forward to the race here in Beijing. Just before the pace picked up at the 7,500 meter mark I happened to be next to Martin when the guy did the same thing. It was only a split second of a grin this time, but it was noticeable, and it made me shake my head and laugh a little. That moment, just before the pain really increased, was one of the highlights of the race.
Looking back on it now I feel good about my race experience. No I didnít win a medal, but I was in the race the entire time and I gave it my best effort. To wrap up the race analysis I thought Iíd share the Olympic Creed: The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as in life the most important thing is not the triumph but the struggle,. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.
I have a lot more to write about but I'm working on some frayed emotions. Here's the teaser: I was at the police station in Beijing 3 hours after my race worried that Diana might get deported. Everything's fine now but it'll make for a good story once I sit down to write it.
Sunday, August 17. 2008
This is my last post until after my race. Iíll have a lot to write about on the 22nd and Iím looking forward to sharing my experience over the next couple of days with all of you.
The race is at 9 am local time on the 21st. Iíve told most people that this means 6 pm Pacific on the 20th, but thereís no telling when NBC is going to air the race. Thereís a guarantee that NBC will not show the entire race and itís likely that youíll get to see 5 minutes here or there throughout the night (it may also be on MSNBC or USA or another channel so check the local listings). If you want to ensure that you are watching the race LIVE then youíll have to go to nbcolympics.com and watch it on the internet.
The posts over the past month have covered a number of topics but I left out matter that is important for me to share and may be interesting for you to read. Itís a testament of faith in relation to anxiety before big swimming races.
One of the great dangers of a successful athlete sharing his faith is the backlash reaction of an occasionally hostile audience who may think that I believe that God took my side in the competition. I donít believe that, but I do believe that God gave me peace when I asked for it. Hereís the story:
Back when I was a pool swimmer I would get very anxious before big races. Behind the blocks I told myself that I had spent so much time swimming and I had made so many sacrifices that if I didnít do well in the race those sacrifices would have been wasted. I would stand up on the blocks and my heart would be beating out of my chest. My muscles would tighten and my confidence would sink. I was paralyzed by anxiety in the moment, so much so that I couldnít perform when the gun went off.
About a year ago, before the USA Olympic Trials in Fort Myers, I realized that I needed to confront my anxiety instead of hoping that it wouldnít surface at the last moment. I offered up a simple prayer of thanksgiving, and asked the Lord to give me peace of mind in those horrible moments before the race. And, thatís exactly what happened - I wasnít anxious at any point before or during the race.
That moment in Fort Myers stuck with me when I went back into training for the World Championships, but I didnít really put all of the pieces together. I knew that I had taken a major step in my faith, but the larger picture of what it all meant was still a bit hazy. Then, as the race in Seville approached, I came across a song that I really enjoyed - Mat Kearneyís ďUndeniable.Ē
On the day of the 10K, the race that would determine the Olympics, I looked at the race course and said to myself ďby lunchtimeÖ.youíll know.Ē I put on my Ipod and found ďUndeniableĒ on the list. I stood there listening to the song and the words of the chorus jumped out at me:
Itís undeniable how brilliant You are
In an unreliable world You shine like a star
Itís unforgettable now that weíve come this far
Itís unmistakable that Youíre undeniable.
The line that got me most was ďItís unforgettable now that weíve come this far.Ē I stood there just a few feet from the water and it dawned on me that my long journey was a deliberate path to realize something that day: The highs of my career (1999 World University Games) had been necessary to make the lows (everything from 2000 to 2006) even greater. The lows were necessary to make me realize that the highs were fleeting and that joy in life doesnít come from winning or losing. The joy of winning is temporal, the joy of the Lord is everlasting. Not only did I have peace in the moment in Seville, but I experienced an incredible amount of joy before and during the race. (At least until the pain got to me).
In the year leading up to the race I did make the request to God to give me the strength to do my best performance, but the realization of peace and joy before the race is the testimony. I had always been such a nervous wreck in my career, but at the most nerve-packed moments Iíve ever been apart of, I had complete peace.
I believe that God is looking over all of us right now. I donít know why one person makes the Olympics and another doesnít but I do know that whatever happens in the 10K here in Beijing Iíll be at peace. If I am successful or not I will leave the race knowing that God was with me on the journey that got me here and heíll continue to be with me long after Beijing.
My testimony is my own, so itís probably not going to help you a lot if youíve got anxiety issues. Aside from reading the Bible, which from my own experience can be incredibly difficult to follow at times, a good resource is ITunes sermons. (You get the benefit of the information without all the heavy lifting). The sermon that really helped clear up a lot of my issues was ďThe Umpire of PeaceĒ from 10-22-06 at Reality Carpentaria.
Friday, August 15. 2008
Itís Friday night in Beijing and weíre less than a week away from race day (Thursday morning the 21st). My wife Diana, accompanied by my brother Paul and sister-in-law Anna, will be departing LAX on a red eye very early Saturday. My parents, with my sister Kara, lifelong family friend Dave Thoreson and my coach Gregg Wilson will be leaving out of SFO later in the same day.
Thereíve been quite a few significant moments in my Olympic experience thus far, but theyíve been enjoyed without those that I hold most dear. Iím ready to share the remainder of the experience with the people that have made tons of sacrifices in their personal lives to make this Olympic dream possible.
Significant among those making sacrifices is my wife Diana who, amongst other things, orchestrates the daily happenings of our lives with sensitive care to my swimming schedule. If you donít know a dedicated swimmer Iíll inform you of a little insider information right now - living with one can be very demanding. An unassuming bride 5 years ago, Diana married me and got my lifestyle, and sheís done it all with a beautiful smile.
Also, my parents, who have been tremendously supportive over the years. My mom was so nervous in both Fort Myers and Seville that she couldnít watch either race. That may sound silly at first, but itís completely understandable when you remember that between my dadís decathlon career and my swimming career she had to endure 6 Olympic Trials of heartbreak before experiencing the other side.
Now, before I get all weepy, lets move on to the main event.
10K pre-race analysis. Iím currently ranked 7th in the world.
First, the good news.
My learning curve over the past year has been enormous, and in terms of tactics and strategy I donít think anyone has an advantage over me. The water is going to be a very hot 84 degrees, which plays to my advantage. Iíve never worn a full body suit, but many of the swimmers in the race have grown accustomed to the full body suit and those swimmers will have to make the choice: go with the full body suit they usually race in, or go with a smaller suit that wonít make them overheat. Body temperature is going to play a huge part in the race.
Now, the bad news. Everyone else is really fast and itís going to take the swim of my life to win a medal. Here are the significant contenders that Iím going to have to take down.
1. Vladimir Dyachin is brilliant and fast. Heís the Russian World Champion and he will swim a nearly perfect race.
2. David Davies, from Great Britain, got second at the World Championships, heís very fast and his learning curve is about a great as mine.
3. Thomas Lurz, from Germany, is also highly intelligent and also very fast. The guy is legitimate.
Now for the news that is neither good nor bad.
Everyone in the top 10 is pretty much equally fit, so thatís a draw. The variables of the Olympics could determine everything: who ate what in the week before the race, who stayed focused in training, and who will get nervous before the race. And, significantly, who will make a mistake in the race. Thereís always mistakes made in a race, it could be any of us, and thereís no way to tell who is going to be kicking themselves afterwards.
This is the second to last post until after the race.
Tuesday, August 12. 2008
First things first: 10K swimming.
The prep for my race is going well. I did a pulling set yesterday:
1000 went 10:49
10 seconds rest
2000 went 21:15
20 seconds rest
3000 went 31:14 (last 1500 was a 15:32)
Other than that there isnít much to report. Iíll give you a pre-10k race analysis in a few days, but at this point itís simply maintenance work until the 21st.
If youíve been watching swimming on NBC hereís my take from the venue itself. The saddest part so far is that weíve been so spoiled by Michael Phelps breaking World Records that we have become desensitized to a certain extent. Donít get me wrong, we all cheer like crazy in the stands, but thereís always a feeling that the World Record time make sense, when in reality it makes no sense at all. Itís stupid how fast that guy swims. Today I saw him race the 200 Freestyle, a race that I used to consider my best event, in a time that is totally obnoxious, and the reaction in the team section was ďThatís a fast swim.Ē Weíve grown so accustomed to watching it that we start to take it for granted.
And hereís the part that proves the point - Phelpsí individual performances arenít even the highlight of the meet. The swim of the Olympics thus far was obviously the 4x100 Free Relay. Jason Lezak just put himself in a very special place historically. Itís a race that will go down in swimming lore as one of, if not THE greatest race of all-time. The USA National Team, watching from the stands, reacted the way that Oprah Winfrey audience guests typically act when Oprah starts giving things away. It was, by far, the most excited Iíve ever been as a spectator of anything.
Changing gears now, I want to give you the background story to the NBC piece that youíll see sometime in the next week.
The day after the Opening Ceremonies I was contacted by the same NBC producer that organized the ďMark Warkentin: Avocado FarmerĒ story. He wanted to film another story, this time with me doing something that is native to China. The original idea was to take me to get a Chinese massage. I liked this idea, but for some reason Mark Schubert (National Team Coach) did not share my enthusiasm, so NBC came up with a different idea Ė teach me how to do Tai Chi. And thatís what happened.
The next day I met the NBC television crew who were accompanied by a Tai Chi master, and we went of in search of a suitable place to do Tai Chi. We eventually came upon a grassy field with bamboo in the background and the Tai Chi master started demonstrating the moves of skill. He demonstrated the skill in slow-motion, all very elegantly, and it only took a few minutes to realize my preconceived fear that I was going to look very stupid when I tried the same moves.
Hereís where things got crazy. After about 10 minutes the guy was done showing me the general idea of Tai Chi, and I took my position about 4 feet behind him with the plan of shadowing his moves. The Tai Chi master had a different plan. He wanted to demonstrate the moves ON ME. He came up close to me, grabbed me by the arm, did something fast and crazy and I was on the ground. The scene was straight out of a movie: a Neanderthal bad guy (in this case me) gets dropped by the older, shorter Asian guy that is faster and smarter than anyone else alive.
I got up, brushed off the grass from my shirt, and prepared for whatever was going to happen next, which turned out to be him taking me down again. This time he wanted to SHOW me how he was going to take me down. There was a lot of Chinese grunting that I think I was supposed to understand, which I didnít, and then a few seconds later I was on the ground again. This scenario repeated itself about 10 times before the NBC people decided that it was time to stop the contest. I think the NBC producer was anticipating non-combat Tai Chi lessons rather than full contact Tai Chi so he told the guy to stop the beating and to teach me something that didnít involve me ending up on the ground.
So, I took a shadow position behind the Tai Chi master and started to mimic his moves for the NBC camera. Unfortunately, we didnít get very far into the lesson. The guy was a perfectionist and he kept stopping the demonstration to scold me for incorrect technique. He would scold me every 5 to 7 seconds for incorrect form such as not having my fingers relaxed enough. At one point the guy stopped trying to teach me proper form and went to have a word with the interpreter. I didnít know what was happening, but a few moments later the interpreter came over to me and told me that the Tai Chi master was upset that I wasnít learning Tai Chi fast enough. He told me, and I am not making this up, that I should ďtry harder.Ē
I realized that I had offended the guy so I told the interpreter to relay the message that I was an idiot and that my inability to learn Tai Chi was no reflection on his teaching. He liked hearing this and we were much better friends for the rest of the day.
I donít know when the piece is going to air on NBC, but I was told that it would probably be shown nationally. The attached picture tells the story.
(I'll be on the Hugh Hewitt show on Tuesday at 3:20 pacific)
Sunday, August 10. 2008
The Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics. Where to beginÖI suppose Iíll start with a schedule of the early evening:
5 pm take shower and put on deodorant (significant information for later in post)
5:15 get on bus with American Delegation. Sit with Peter Ueberroth on bus.
6:30 arrive at USA Staging Arena and become a member of the self-paparazzi
7:00 meet the 41st and 43rd Presidents of the United States
7:30 arrive at the International Staging Arena talk with New York Knicks coach
8:00 start to recognize that there is an odor in the air that I am not particularly fond of
8:10 get restless when I realize that the odor is me
8:30 get picture with Kazakhstan volleyball team
9ish get ushered from my seat in the Staging Arena and slowly shuffle to the Birdís Nest
The chronology of rest of the night is a bit of a blur, but I know the night didnít end until 2 this morning - so a lot happened. This is going to be a long post.
Backtracking to the beginning. Because the night is so long and crazy, and because swimming starts competing the first day of the Olympics, most of the swimmers do not partake in the Opening Ceremonies. Only 6 men and 2 women decided to be apart of the night. Iím tired, dehydrated and my entire body aches, but I donít compete for another 2 weeks, so the experience was worth it. For people like Michael Phelps, who compete today, the Opening Ceremonies would be a disaster.
After the USA Swimming Opening Ceremony Delegation team took our group pictures we all got on the bus to go to the USA staging arena. I got to sit next to the United States Olympic Committee Chairman, Peter Ueberroth, on the bus ride from the village to the staging arena. We talked about spear fishing in Laguna Beach. Mr. Ueberroth, other than being a very successful businessman and philanthropist, is also a very dignified man and Iím really glad that our conversation took place at the beginning of the night when my deodorant was still putting up a fight.
A short bus ride took us to the Fencing Arena, the location that the American athletes would meet President Bush. Fortunately the President was a bit late in his arrival, so all of the American athletes got to loiter around and take pictures with one another. This is when I became a member of the self-paparazzi. Here is the transcript of almost every conversation that took place:
ďHey, can I get a picture with you?Ē
ďSure, can I get one of us with my camera too?Ē
The whole experience took me back to my high school prom, and, just like prom, the coolest kids in school arrived last. Just as soon as we had finished exhausting ourselves in self-adoration, the most recognizable athletes on the planet arrived. I succumbed to temptation and joined the other athletes as we tried, as maturely as we could, to get photos with NBA stars.
The hype of getting a picture with the NBA stars weakened dramatically when the President walked in the room. Itís a rather funny commentary on our culture: weíre always looking for one person better than the one weíre with. Weíd have been perfectly happy taking pictures of ourselves until we saw the NBA players, and weíd have been happy with our picture with Kobe Bryant until we saw we could get a picture with the President.
My first great photo was with the First Lady, who was really nice, and we engaged in a bit of chit-chat on swimming. I then made my way over to the First Daughter to get a picture and, absentmindedly, I nearly asked someone in the Secret Service to take the picture. Fortunately I caught myself before asking the serious man to do something very silly. I stopped, reminded myself that I was acting like an idiot, and then found a person not carrying a gun to take my picture.
I then got a picture with the former President, a man who wasnít really interested in me at all, but gave me the obligatory 3 seconds needed to get a photo with him. Afterwards I tried to imagine how much of his life has been wasted waiting those 3 seconds for the camera to take a picture.
After about an hour of waiting it was time for the Swimming delegation to get a picture with the president. Erik Vendt and I had exchanged cameras a few minutes earlier when we hatched a plan to each get a personal picture with the President even though earlier in the evening we had been told that this would not be possible. We were told that a group picture would be taken and then mailed to us. However, we noticed that some of the athletes in the other disciplines had managed to get personal pictures anyway, and so Erik and I were determined to get ours as well. If you know Erik it will not surprise you when I recount what Erik told me just before we met the President:
ďMark, no matter what ANYONE says, you get a picture of me with the President.Ē
For some crazy reason this actually made sense at the moment. It wasnít until afterwards that I thought about the insanity of DEMANDING on getting your way when youíre 2 feet from the President of the United States.
Erik got to the President before I did and thus he engaged Mr. Bush in this conversation:
Erik: Mr. President will you be at the swimming finals on Sunday morning?
President Bush: Sorry, but Iíll be going to church on Sunday morning.
Erik: I thought there wasnít church in China.
President Bush: Thereís church alright, itís just underground.
Somewhere around that last line I took the picture for Erik, and then, lacking anything really profound to say at the moment I gave Erik the signal to hold up his end of the bargain. I said:
Mark: ďMr. President can I get a picture with you?Ē
President Bush: ďSure you can.Ē
I know, Iím pretty weak. But, I got a picture with the President at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics, so Iím okay with being tongue-tied in the moment.
Swimming was the last group to get pictures with the President and we were behind someoneís schedule so after the cameras were put away we were encouraged to hustle outside to go from the USA staging arena to the international staging arena. It just so happened that we were exiting the USA staging area at the same time as the basketball team, and we were now walking with Kobe Bryant. I bring this up not because I was star-struck, but rather because there were thousands of Chinese people lining the streets chanting ďKobe! Kobe! Kobe!Ē and pretty much going completely crazy. Iím quite certain that my mug is in thousands of Chinese digital camera pictures right now, and equally certain that Iím getting cropped out of those pictures thousands of times over.
The primary purpose of the international staging arena was to make us as hot and sweaty as possible. USA was shuffled up to the highest spot in the indoor arena to a place where it was certain that all the hottest air would accumulate. I sat next to Mike DíAntoni, former Phoenix Suns basketball coach now coaching the awful New York Knicks. After the obligatory introductions I asked him about how the NY media had been treating him and we talked about the perils of coaching in New York. Somewhere in the middle of this conversation I realized that my deodorant had fought the good fight and had lost and so I started to become incredibly self-conscious of the situation.
Fortunately LeBron James saved me when he came over to the coaches and told them to follow him out of the USA seating area. There was some confusion about where they were going and why, but Coach Krzyzewski summed up the matter by saying: ďI donít know what he wants, but we canít win a gold medal without him, so lets go.Ē I was tempted to follow, but thought better of it for a number of reasons.
The next hour or so I wandered around the arena observing people as we all waited for our country to be called for the Opening Ceremonies procession. I got a picture with the Kazakhstan womenís volleyball team and with a shooter from Kuwait that reminded me 3 times in 45 seconds that Kuwait and America are friends. Iím trying to determine his reasoning for the repeatedly enthusiastic friendship reminders.
Eventually Americaís turn came and we shuffled from the staging arena into a maze of barricades and into the Birdís Nest. I put my camera away at a certain point and just started to take it all in. The walk to the arena was similar to inching towards the biggest roller-coaster ride youíve ever been on: the adrenaline increases as you move closer and closer.
I got out into the arena and immediately felt a difference. I looked around the stadium and the whole scene felt so big and awe-inspiring that it almost seemed like a Hollywood movie. I walked in slow-motion, not really looking for anything in particular, but rather in a daze of wonder at the moment. I waved at everyone, smiled at everyone, and just enjoyed the moment. It was incredible.
After America had made it around the track we got into our spots in the field and watched the rest of the teams file in. On television Iím quite sure it looked good, but down there on the field it was disgusting. The smell of sweat hung in the air and dominated the mood of the athletes for remaining hour of the ceremony. Thousands of athletes had waited so long to get to that point and all we could think about was when it would be over.
The rest of the night wasnít anything incredible that you didnít see as well. The lighting of the torch was amazingly creative. Cheers to the Chinese, they did a great job with that moment.
After the ceremony we were bused back to the village. We spent a lot of time in traffic and at various security checkpoints and I felt terrible for the guy from the Dominican Republic that was forced to sit next to me on the bus. Incredibly I think I sat next to the only guy NOT sweating like crazy. And so began the Olympics.
Friday, August 8. 2008
A couple of days ago I was walking to the training pool here in Beijing and I saw my former coach Larry Liebowitz. Our first handshake here at the Olympics was one of the true highlights of the trip so far. Larry was my coach when I was a young swimmer in Santa Barbara back in 1993, and it was at that critical time in my life that Larry and I forged a life-long relationship. I can attribute a good portion of my success in this sport to Larry.
During my swim practice that day it occurred to me that many of the coaches that have had a huge impact on getting me to this point are going to be in Beijing for the Olympics. Following is a list of my personal coaches that are here in Beijing and the years they coached me:
Larry Liebowitz 1993-1995 (here coaching a Japanese swimmer)
Mark Schubert 1998-2003 (here as USA National Team Director)
Frank Busch 2003-2004 (here as USA National Team Coach)
Gregg Wilson 2004 to present (will be here to watch the 10K)
John Dussliere 2006 to present (here as USA Open Water Menís Head Coach)
I havenít said much about my current coach, John Dussliere, who is here as the Open Water Menís Head Coach for USA Swimming, but Johnís been with me for all of major events since 2007. Aside from the daily grind in Santa Barbara, John and I have gone to Brazil, Spain (twice), London, and all over America for 10k races. Johnís been with me through all the training camps up to the Olympics, and heíll be on the feeding dock during my race. In less than 2 years John has become one of the premier voices in the 10K Open Water community in America and around the world. I have a tremendous respect for Johnís knowledge in regards to race preparation, race strategy and race analysis. Having him as my personal coach and as the Olympic coach has been really beneficial and fun.
Report from the pool. Training is going fine. I had two bad practices in a row so I decided to go back to the training tool that got me here Ė pulling. I love pulling sets with a passion, and I would have quit this sport a long time ago if it werenít for paddles and a pull buoy. (Pulling, for those of you lost right now, builds upper-body strength in the water and is really much more enjoyable than swimming.)
Warning for those watching the Opening Ceremonies on Friday night. So, hereís the story. A few months ago NBC wanted to get some footage of me in the new TYR swimsuit and interview me about all the new technology in the sport. During the interview I was asked what I do in between practices, and I responded ďIím an avocado farmer.Ē This wasnít a lie, but it also wasnít really the truth. The truth was that over the past 2 years I have planted about 50 avocado trees at my parentsí house. The trees were purchased at Home Depot in 3 gallon pots and, since Iím not very good at avocado farming, the trees havenít grown very much. Itís not like Iím enjoying avocados every night, let alone selling avocados by the pound. Well, when I told NBC that I was an avocado farmer they were interested in the story and the producer told me ďMark, weíre coming to Santa Barbara to film you on your avocado farm.Ē Thus, in the hour before the Opening Ceremonies on Friday night I will probably be on television. It may or may not be on nationally, but NBCís LA affiliate is almost certainly going to show footage of Mark Warkentin Ė 10k swimmer and avocado farmer.The funny part of the story is that some of the trees could still be mistaken for overgrown weeds, and the most prolific ones appear to be shrubs. Living in Santa Barbara with REAL avocado farmers, and the fact that Diana is from Fallbrook, the worldwide capital of avocado farming, I realize I am setting myself up for a great deal of ridicule at home. This e-mail is a warning.
Finally, Opening Ceremonies are just a few hours away. Iím getting my suit pressed as we speak, and at around 4 pm local time I will head over to the Birdís Nest for what may be the most elaborate performance ever. To put it in perspective, there are over 16,000 couples getting married in the Beijing area today (a Friday) because people wanted to start their marriage on the same day as the beginning of the Olympics. If thereís one thing to watch at this Olympics (besides the 10k swim race) itís the Opening Ceremonies. Hope all is well with all of you. I really appreciate the e-mails that Iíve gotten over the past few weeks during this trip.
Wednesday, August 6. 2008
I had lunch today with Bob Bowman, Batmanís coach, and we were talking about being appreciative of the situation. He said: ďThe athletes from the larger countries may complain about this or that, but there are people here that are going to live better during these two weeks than they have ever lived before.Ē I thought about it for a moment, and even though I knew he wasnít talking about me I said: ďWell, I think I may be one of those people.Ē Iím a spoiled American, I know that, but Iím having an incredible time so far. I donít want to gush too much, but the following post (which covers the first two days here) is pretty much an advertisement for the Beijing Olympics.
First thoughts from Beijing. August 5th 2008
I donít know what youíve heard or read about this Olympics, but I can assure you that this place is about ready to burst with excitement. Everything is huge, everything is organized, everything is planned and prepared and just in case thereís a problem thereís 50 Chinese standing on every street corner willing to help. Iíve never been to the Olympics before, but from what I can tell, China wants this Olympics to dwarf everything that came before it.
The people are motivated, friendly and well-spoken. The facilities are state-of-the-art. The food is spectacular. Basically, if you read my last post, you can disregard the word substitution keyÖbecause this place is awesome.
Monday was travel day to the Olympics, and I decided to dress for the occasion. I donned the sweater vest again because itís so outrageous, but this time I wore the white shorts instead of the white pants to go along with the white shoes. Before departing Singapore Dara Torres noticed I was dressed for success and asked me: ďMark, why are you so dressed up?Ē and I responded ďDara, Iím going to the Olympic Games, I thought I should look nice.Ē
It was a good thing I did dress well because the flight to Beijing, onboard Singapore Airlines, was the nicest flight Iíve ever been on. I believe the plane was the largest commercial aircraft in the world, the service was incredible, and the food was worthy of a fine dining restaurant. I am not making up the next sentence: I could live in my seat on the Singapore Airlines plane for at least a month without a single complaint.
We arrived in Beijing in the afternoon, and hundreds of people were waiting for us at the airport. (Actually they were waiting for Batman, but everyone else got a lot of attention too.) We were hurried onto buses and taken by police escort through Beijing. In preparation for the Olympics, Beijing did a bit of an environmental makeover. Thousands of trees line the sides of the freeway from the airport, so much so that it felt like we were going away from a city rather than towards the city. A thick blanket of greenery was our only view until we were in the middle of Beijing.
The Olympics dominate every aspect of Beijing and for a tourist coming to the city youíd probably miss out on the typical cultural experience. The city in clean as a whistle and the streets are free of congestion. The planning for this event is obvious at every turn, and, with the barricades, high-tech name tags, and general security presence, Beijing has the feel of a post-apocalypse city.
On Monday night we went to the Water Cube, which is only a couple of hundred meters away from our dorms, but takes 20 minutes to get to because you have to walk to the bus depot and then drive around the village to get to the venue. Weíve all seen the Water Cube and gawked at it for the past 2 years, but finally seeing it was pretty special. It really is different than any other pool Iíve ever seen because the architecture of the building was given more planning and thought than any natatorium before it. (If youíre a Gene Hackman fan rest assured that the pool itself is regulation size.)
The interior of the Water Cube is beautiful, and the spectator seating goes up and up and up. I was however a bit disappointed to see that so many of the prime seats in the natatorium have been reserved for media. China wants these Games to be broadcast to the world, which is fine, but Olympic tickets for swimming are scarce, and many of the athlete families will have to watch their loved one swim from a television screen rather than in person because the journalist section takes up half the seating.
The dorm situation is great. Itís new, clean and organized. I think I canít tell you who my roommate is by name, but heís the world record holder in the 100 Butterfly and an incredibly cool guy. You figure it out. The dorm buildings are neatly organized into rows and each country has a group of rooms together in one building or, in a few cases, the entire building. (USA and China, the two largest delegations, have at least 2 full dorm buildings.) Every nation puts flags outside their windows and doors so that as one walks around the village you are aware of which building houses which country. Actually, thatís not entirely true: every nation displays the flag except for America. Because of security issues, America is absent from the dorm flag display. Finland is here, Australia, Switzerland, and Brazil are as well, but based upon flag representation America hasnít showed up yet. The funny thing is, because everyone knows that America IS here, and because thereís only 2 buildings in the entire village without any flags, itís certainly obvious which buildings house the American athletes.
I know this post is getting long so Iíll finish with a quick analysis of the Village cafeteria. Think of a room the size of Costco. Now, put about 5 buffet restaurants in there and add a McDonalds. Throw in a couple of thousand chairs and you have your Village cafeteria. The food is excellent and there are Chinese people everywhere interested in making the experience enjoyable. Six people, all doing different jobs, served me one piece of chicken and a scoop of rice, and when the sixth and final person handed me the plate they all looked at me, smiled and said ďEnjoy your lunch.Ē
Iím enjoying everything.
Sunday, August 3. 2008
This is my final post from Singapore, and tomorrow I will be in the Olympic village in Beijing. I feel like I Aubrey Montague from ďChariots of FireĒ writing home to his mum. Actually, at various points over the past few months, I can identify with all four of the major characters from that movie. Iíd love to write that during the journey thus far Iíve emulated the life of Eric Liddell, but often times I find that I am behaving like Harold AbrahamsÖ
We leave for Beijing tomorrow and there is a logistical item I wanted to share before I get there. Apparently blogs are monitored quite strictly (some are getting this as an e-mail some are reading it on a blog). Not only are there China laws, but there are also Olympic laws and both sets of laws carry with them a punishment for lawbreakers.
The China laws are pretty straight forward. Donít write anything bad about China. I donít know exactly what that means, but I donít plan on being critical of Beijing just in case. However, if criticism is warranted and necessary, Iíve created a word substitution key for readers. If I have something critical to write about Beijing Iíll refer to it as Stockholm, as in ďThe smog in Stockholm is really bad.Ē (Word substitution key at end of post).
The Olympic laws are totally obnoxious. There are restrictions on the use of the word ďOlympics,Ē and restrictions against posting pictures, so if youíre reading this at swimroom.com, usatoday.com, wsj.com or 10kswimmer.com you wonít be able to see any of the pictures I may be referencing. (I may have just broken a rule in the previous sentence by advertising websites). Also, I canít write anything about any of the other swimmers so, hereafter, Michael Phelps will be referred to as Batman.
The point is that there are lots of rules and I hope the administrators of those sites are able to censor me when I forget.
Additionally, if you want to get more information on the particulars of the race in Beijing and of Open Water Swimming in general, go to 10kswimmer.com. Steve Munatones, one of the most knowledgeable members of the 10k swimming community created a website with up-to-date info of everything pertaining to the race. Thereís a popularity contest currently underway and I am in a close battle with a guy from Egypt - your support in my favor would be appreciated.
Final thoughts from Singapore
Iíve got to give credit to the people of Singapore. When I was back in Palo Alto I signed quite a few autographs, but most of the fans wanted my signature because they recognized I was in the same costume as Batman. Here I have people coming up to me saying ďMark Warkentin, could you please sign my autograph book? Good luck in the 10K in Beijing.Ē They even pronounce my name correctly.
The autograph books themselves are incredibly impressive. Many of the people would take a picture one day then return with the developed photo the next day. All the athlete photos would be organized alphabetically and next to each photo was an accompanying athlete biography. Itís not hard to see why Singapore is an incredibly successful country.
On Saturday the USA Team was invited to a 6 course dinner at the country club weíve been training at for the past week. I sat at a table with Chinese people who lived in Singapore because itís a more financially advantageous location. At least thatís what I gathered from our somewhat spotty conversations. I was given another crash course in Chinese and again I forgot almost everything, except now I also know ďThank YouĒ which is pronounced ďShea Shea.Ē The attached picture is of me enjoying a Singapore country club salad, or as I call it ďA culinary garage sale in a glass.Ē
My final practice this afternoon was pretty good. Coach John gave me a set that weíve done a few times over the past year.
50 Ez 50 Strong Ė 29
100 Ez 100 Strong Ė 1:00
200 Ez 200 Almost Fast 2:02
400 Ez 400 Fast 4:07
800 Ez 800 Fast 8:28
At the end of a long week of training, working with less sleep than I normally get, I was pretty happy with the result. Next stop - Beijing
Word substitution key in case I need to criticize China
Beijing = Stockholm. As in ďThe smog in Stockholm is really bad.Ē
Chinese people = Norwegians people. As in ďThe Norwegian guy that I stood next to in the elevator could have used a shower.Ē
Chinese food = Danish pastries. As in ďIím sick Danish Pastries.Ē
Chinese bathroom = Soviet Gulag. As in ďA Soviet Gulag is a place one doesnít want to spend a lot of time.Ē