Hear Them Roar – Women of the 2012 Olympics

Four years. One thousand, four hundred and sixty days.

That’s a long time to wait. A long time to work towards redemption.

Image Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

At the age of 12, Dana Vollmer was the youngest swimmer at the 2000 Olympic Trials. She didn’t make the team but four years later, at just 16, she helped the U.S. team win an Olympic gold medal in the 800m relay – while battling a congenital heart condition that required her to carry a defibrillator to every practice and meet in which she swam. Coming into the 2008 Olympic Trials, where she was scheduled to swim four events, the talented twenty-one-year-old was expected to be a major force.

But she didn’t make the Olympic team – not in a single event. In two of them, she didn’t even make it to the trial finals.

After such crushing disappointment, Dana didn’t know if she ever wanted to swim again. For many athletes, the Olympics are the single greatest measure of their talent. Ahead of Dana stretched fifteen hundred days of grueling work and little payoff. Athletic training isn’t cute, no matter which gender you are. It is gritty and monotonous and agonizing. It goes on day after sweaty day, with plenty of setbacks. Progress, when it comes, is incremental.

Sometime during the bleakness of 2008, Dana decided to keep training. For four long years, she got into the pool every day. And last Sunday, she became the first woman in the world to swim the 100m butterfly in under 56 seconds, earning not just an Olympic gold medal but a world record, and a place in history.

Sixteen years. Five thousand, eight hundred and forty days.

That’s a long time to labor. A long time to maintain an elite edge.

Image courtesy of People.com

Kim Rhode had just turned seventeen when she competed in her first Olympics in 1996, in the sport of double-trap shooting. When she won the gold, she became the youngest female to do so in the history of Olympic shooting. In the next several Olympics, spanning a dozen years, she won a bronze, another gold, and a silver. Kim’s sport isn’t one that people tune in to watch on TV (although they should – it’s a treat, watching her shoot with laser precision). Before this week, few people knew her name. Nobody would have recognized her on the street.

Kim had to make plenty of adjustments along the way. After her sport was eliminated from the Games, she switched to skeet shooting. In 2008, the shotgun she’d used for eighteen years was stolen from her truck. Shooter’s guns are like an extension of their arm and trying to adjust to a new one, Kim said, was like “a swimmer going from the backstroke to diving.” But adjust she did, while shooting 500-1000 rounds daily, seven days a week.

And when she won another gold medal this week, Kim became the first American in history – male or female, in any event – to medal in five consecutive Olympic games.

Forty years. Fourteen thousand, six hundred days.

That’s a long time to hope. A long time to yearn for a place at the table.

Image courtesy of The Washington Times

Saudi Arabia entered its first Olympics in 1972 with an all-male team and in the four decades since, the country has never allowed women to compete. This year, after months of intense pressure by the International Olympic Committee, which threatened to ban Saudi Arabia (and Qatar and Brunei) altogether if they didn’t let women on their teams, those nations scrambled to find some female athletes.

Saudi Arabia came up with two teenagers, Sarah Attar, a runner who attends college in America, and Wojdan Shaherkani, a judo wrestler. These women have no shot at Olympic wins – their scores and times aren’t nearly good enough to even qualify them for the Games (they were given a special dispensation by the IOC). And they’re still an agonizingly long way from equality. They marched at the back of the pack during Friday’s opening ceremonies. Their clothing is regulated and their movements are monitored. Their very inclusion is largely a “saving face” move by Saudi Arabian authorities.

Still, they have taken a tiny but important step forward for their gender, in a country where women still suffer appalling indignities. They are quiet pioneers, giving a face to millions of their sisters who still have no voice. One desperately hopes that these two modest, veiled women are that “cloud the size of a man’s hand” that Elijah saw in a barren desert, the promise of a deluge of progress to come.

These Games are chock-a-block full of strong, beautiful women.

Like Allison Schmitt, the effervescent swimmer who has brought such cheer to the entire U.S. team, including her more famous buddy Michael Phelps. A fierce competitor, she’s already earned four medals this week. After swimming a blazing relay anchor leg on Wednesday that brought her another gold medal, she sounded adorably like Buddy the Elf. “I think this is the biggest smile I’ve ever had in my life, and that’s saying a lot, because I love smiling.”

Or the astonishing British heptathlete (in seven! track & field events) Jessica Ennis, one of only ten women in history who have high-jumped a full foot above their own height. She hurdles. She jumps. She throws. She runs. Two years ago, running the 60 meter hurdles in an international meet, she actually beat a chagrined Lolo Jones – the U.S. champ whose only event is the hurdles. Jessica has pushed through fractures in her foot and inflamed muscles, and she’s filled her walls with medals and trophies and awards. Her 2012 Olympic quest begins on Friday.

And of course the glorious Gabby Douglas, who last night led the women’s gymnastics competition from beginning to end, becoming the first black woman to win the gold all-around medal. In a sport where frayed nerves usually cause even the most confident athletes to stumble, she sailed through every rotation with terrific skill and pizzazz.

Women athletes often don’t get as much attention as their male counterparts, who are stronger and faster. But they train just as hard, and their stories are just as extraordinary. They have earned their place in history. My gorgeous sisters inspire me and make me proud.

I am woman. They smile, as bright as the stadium lights. Hear the crowd roar.

Photo courtesy of Bleacherreport.net

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In Defense of Paper Pages

To Kindle or not to Kindle? That is the question.

I have no quarrel with e-readers. Since I am a die-hard fan of learning, any medium that gets people reading is fine by me. Read on a papyrus scroll or an overhead projector or a Minority Report-esque glass screen, it makes no difference to me. But I have no plans to buy an e-reader.

I don’t just love reading, you see. I love books.

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When I was in grade school, we lived for a time in a small, rectangular house where the ugly carpet was the exact color of rust. We didn’t own a television. When the weather was nice, I sometimes pedaled around the neighborhood on my bike, but most often I was curled up somewhere in our house, reading from a stack of books. I commandeered a corner of the living room, near a window, and dragged a pillow and a sleeping bag there. Lying on my stomach on the rough carpet, I read the hours away as specks of dust swam in the sunlight.

I owned a precious few books, perhaps thirty, and I read these over and over. Others were checked out from the library – I read those over and over too. I was careful with books, never smashing the covers flat, never turning the corners down to mark my place. Every now and then a paper cover would tear slightly, at one of the outside edges, and I would scotch-tape the rip. I still have many of these books. The strips of tape are yellow and brittle now.

To a shy girl whose family moved often, books were treasured companions, tangible comforts. I loved them as deeply as you could love a pet or a playmate. Then as now, their covers, their particular sizes conjured up the stories inside and the hours I’d spent with them. Some books were fat (I liked those best.) Some were tall and thin. Some had glossy covers, some plain. Some had unusual or pretty artwork on the outside.

My handful of childhood books stayed with me through college and marriage and moving across the country and back again. Along the way, they were joined by lots of other books – more than a thousand by now. In many cases, looking at a particular book makes me think of the person I was shopping with at the time, or the loved one from whom it was a gift.

In the late 70’s, my Dad’s sister occasionally came to visit us during the holidays. She seemed exotic, with her long hair and tall boots and her once-upon-a-time residence in France. Pretty and smart, she remained unmarried in her 30’s, which was not common then. She always came bearing gifts of books. She would read to us in the evenings, with a dulcet voice that broke off into a wonderfully throaty laugh.

One year she brought The Gifts of the Child Christ, a two-book collection of the great George MacDonald’s fantasy stories for children. It would be impossible to guess how many hours I spent poring over those two books, over the next few years. I never picked them up, never looked at the familiar illustration on their gray-edged covers and felt their specific heft, without thinking of my aunt, and those hours by the fireplace.

Those books sit three feet from me, now. Volume One has become delicate – the glue in the binding has failed a little. I keep them on a top shelf and away from my small children. But soon my boys will be old enough to understand these stories. They can snuggle up under my arm and carefully turn the pages, studying the woodcut illustrations at the beginning of each tale. They will be able to tell which ones were my favorites by how easily the pages fall open.

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While on vacation in the 1990’s, my best friend and I ducked into a bookstore. It was raining. After shaking out our umbrellas we wandered around looking at stacks of books, our wet shoes squeaking on the wooden floor. Susan had recently read a novel that she said I simply had to read. But I don’t like that genre, I said. When she couldn’t convince me, she insisted on buying a copy, and handed it over. (She was right. The Sparrow would become one of my favorite books.) My vivacious friend died three years ago, just before her fortieth birthday. As I write this, the book she pressed into my hand that night lays in my lap. Every time I look at it, I think of her.

Books remind me of the places I bought them. From decades ago, I remember the barn-like Christian bookstore that carried Bibles and frightening tracts and the kid’s serial books that I loved. The store is still in business in my childhood hometown, and still smells like mildewed old pews.

I remember the tiny bookstore in the fancy mall in Atlanta, where they kept the rare books locked behind a glass case. I bought my brother an early edition of Hansel & Gretel there.

I remember the bookstore near the wharf in Baltimore, where I wandered in the evenings while on business trips. The store was in an old factory, with huge exposed pipes hanging overhead. When I’m adrift in a strange city, I seek out the nearest bookstore for comfort. Looking at books piled on tables and wedged onto shelves makes me feel like I’ve arrived home.

I remember the bookstores in nearly every airport I’ve ever been in. I remember bookstores in strip malls, and in Victorian houses by the ocean.

Nowadays most bookstores smell like roasting coffee (which always makes me want to unwind my scarf, even when I’m not wearing one). But I still sometimes pick up books and furtively sniff them, to get a whiff of that papery, inky, heavy smell that whispers, Oh, honey, just wait’ll you get me home. We’re going on an adventure.

Granted, as with humans, a book’s essence is found inside it. I understand that. But people’s faces and voices and smells are evocative of all that we love about them.

For me, it’s that way with books, too.

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I actually wrote the bulk of this post in 2010, then filed it away. A few months ago, I read this gorgeous piece by one of my favorite writers…and knew I wasn’t alone.

If there is a book that evokes memories for you, I’d love to hear about it!

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Quiet Time

I saw a woman at the park the other day who held forth to a group of her friends, no kidding, for at least an hour solid. I kept looking up from my book, in astonishment – Yep, she’s still talking. Her friends seemed content to be her audience. I was equal parts amazed and exhausted, watching her. She was still going, when I left.

It was like watching a creature from another planet. But let me explain. Continue reading

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Whatchoo talking ’bout, Hilary?

I don’t usually do opinion pieces on this blog, for a variety of reasons.

Nevertheless. When one begins to fear that a significant percentage of the populace has lost their ever-loving minds, one feels obliged to speak up.

In the byte heard ‘round the world on Wednesday, Hilary Rosen, a democratic “strategist” who was being interviewed by Anderson Cooper, stated that Ann Romney, the wife of one of the wealthy politicians lobbying for the Republican presidential nomination (a woman who happens to be the mother of five children), had “actually never worked a day in her life.” Continue reading

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Death By Molasses

Evidently, part of this blog’s mission is to bring you weird wonderful bits of history that you may not have learned about in school. Paul Revere’s midnight dash, Mrs. O’Leary’s pyromaniac cow, and Boston’s tea party? The U.S. Department of Education handled those. The Dionne quintuplets, the Collyer brothers, and Boston’s deadly wall of molasses (see below)? I’ve got you covered.

(It occurs: this makes me a slightly more literary version of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Ah, well.)

Next Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and there is no shortage of tributes taking place this week, on television, in magazines, and on the internet – James Cameron even re-released his epic movie in 3-D.

I have nothing useful to add to the Titanic lexicon. Sorry. But I can give you a recap of a lesser-known (okay, just lesser) tragedy that occurred 7 years after the Titanic sank.

Since you asked. Continue reading

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Huhns in Space

As you may have heard, that intrepid man-about-town Richard Branson has developed a spaceflight program for civilians, Virgin Galactic. Anyone who can cough up $200,000 is now eligible to venture into the great unknown. (The latest person to sign up was Ashton Kutcher. Don’t ask me; I have no idea.) (Side note: is anyone else concerned that nearly every member of VG’s official “Team” is touted as a leader of business or finance? Shouldn’t someone working on this program have, I don’t know, worn a space suit at some point in their lives?)

Anyway, you would think Virgin Galactic would be a perfect fit for my brothers and I, because even before we discovered we had an honest-to-God astronaut as a cousin (that’s him on the right, in the picture below), we were utterly transfixed by everything having to do with outer space. Astrophysics. The Final Frontier. Light years and black holes and strings, oh my.

And astronauts are frickin’ rock stars to us. Continue reading

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Gay Writes

America lost a national treasure on Thursday, when the brilliant writer William Gay died of heart failure at the age of 68.

I’d never heard of Gay before I picked up the 2007 edition of The Best American Short Stories, which included his story “Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?” From the first sentence (“The Jeepster couldn’t keep still.”), I was hooked.

In the story, Gay wrote in the third person but altered his writing style to reflect the texture and pulse of the story. (This is not something writers attempt very often. The best example I’ve read is Annie Proulx’s wondrous The Shipping News.) Gay’s protagonist, referred to only as “The Jeepster,” is a crazy drug addict whose ex-girlfriend has been killed, and he’s on a mission to see her body at the funeral home. The prose matches his state of mind: jittery, taut, hopped up on adrenaline and who knows what else. Continue reading

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