A Swedish Birthday Surprise, Relatively Speaking

Birthday surprises usually come in the form of parties or gifts. I’ve received both. But last year for my birthday, I was surprised to learn about a new relative.  And fortunately, it came as a welcomed surprise.

The news arrived not with someone standing on my door, but in the form of a large mailing envelope sent from Sweden. I immediately recognized the return address as that of Bo, cousin to my aunt Marie who was married to my father’s brother, Dale. I’ve known Bo nearly my entire life. His family and my own have become like extended family. I spend time with them whenever I go to Sweden, as I did earlier this summer.

When I opened the envelope from Bo, I expected to find a birthday card, but was surprised to find much more.  Inside was a letter that read:  “As you are very like Pippi Longstocking in many ways there is some connection to her in you I must say…As the author Astrid Lindgren who wrote the book is a kind of relative to your mother.” Along with the letter was a family tree linking my mother to the Swedish author as a fourth cousin.  My mother’s fourth cousin?

The books of Astrid LIndgren on display here in a shop window in Vimmerby have been translated into 70 languages.
The books of Astrid LIndgren on display here in a shop window in Vimmerby have been translated into 70 languages.

What a discovery! Astrid Lindgren is one of Sweden’s most treasured authors. Her books about the freckled-faced, pig-tailed girl, Pippi Longstocking, has become a children’s classic throughout the world. Her books have been translated into 70 languages and made into several films and television series. There is even an Astrid Lindgren’s World, a children’s theme park and a popular family destination located outside Lindgren’s hometown of Vimmerby.

Families leave Astrid Lindgrens World after a day at the popular theme park.
Families leave Astrid Lindgrens World after a day at the popular theme park.

Lindgren herself was honored last year when her picture was placed on the 20 Swedish kronor, replacing that of another beloved Swedish children’s writer, Selma Lagerlöf. Bo had enclosed one of the freshly printed bills inside my letter. In addition, Lindgren and the characters from her books became the subject of a set of shiny silver commemorative coins.  One of these, along with the folder with spots for the other coins, I also found in Bo’s package. I want to collect the entire set.

Children's author Lindgren was honored in 2015 when her picture was placed onto the Swedish kronor. There is also a commemorative coin set.
Children’s author Lindgren was honored in 2015 when her picture was placed onto the Swedish kronor. There is also a commemorative coin set.

Having learned about my Lindgren connection, I of course made it a priority on my recent trip, to visit Lindgren’s hometown of Vimmerby where she was born, where she is buried and where Pippi’s adventures are set. It was a part of my trip to which I was most looking forward.

I drove into Vimmerby mid-afternoon on a Saturday. It was only a 48 minute drive inland from Vastervik, where my husband and I had disembarked from the Gotland ferry. The shops in Vimmerby’s town square had closed at two o’clock. I would not buy any Pippi Longstocking souvenirs to carry home. We strolled into the charming square, empty except for a handful of visitors like ourselves.

Play strutures like this child-size cottage sit in Vimmerby's town square for children to explore.
Play structures like this child-size cottage sit in Vimmerby’s town square for children to explore.

At one end of the square sat the old, mustard-colored Town Hall and opposite is a lovely hotel with patio tables on the porch.  In the center of the square, near the hotel, are several small play structures taken from Lindgren’s books:  a sailing ship,a cottage, Kindergarten-sized children were crawling in and out and climbing up and down in delight.

I meet Astrid LIndgren's lifestize sculpture which sits in he hometown of Vimmberby, Sweden.
I meet Astrid Lindgren’s life-size sculpture which sits in he hometown of Vimmerby, Sweden.

On the other side of the square, nearer the Town Hall, is a life-size sculpture of my famous cousin sitting at desk with a typewriter. It felt a little odd to meet my newly found relative in this way, but was quite an honor at the same time.

I next sought out her resting place in the neatly kept, hilltop cemetery. Thanks to some local residents, I found her gravestone, alongside that of her parents and sister. It was a simple stone for such a celebrated figure, quite humble and unassuming. I wondered if it reflected her personality in life.

The famous author's grave stone is a simple stone in the Vimmerby cemetery.
The famous author’s grave stone is a simple stone in the Vimmerby cemetery.

As we walked back through the streets of Vimmerby we noted the spots where Pippi and her sidekick, Tommy, had their adventures. Then we headed out to the Lindgren family home, where Astrid was born and lived as a child. The little house is located on a farm known as Näs in Vimmerby.  It stands exactly as it was when Astrid grew up there, having been restored by Lindgren herself. Tours of the house are available almost daily except when closed for the winter from mid-December until March. Unfortunately, we arrived after hours. Had someone been around I might have told them that I was a ‘cousin’ from the U.S., in hopes that they would take pity on me and allow me inside.

In the Exjoibit Jaöö. Lindgrenäs life and achivements are presented for visitors.
In the exhibit hall. Lindgren’s life and achievements are presented for visitors.

Also on the property, owned by the city of Vimmerby, stands a modern glass-walled exhibition hall where her life and achievements are displayed. But again, we were too late and unable to go in. I was disappointed but until only a year ago, I didn’t even know that the woman remembered here was even remotely related to me. Now that I do, I will return the next trip to see both the house and the museum.

Back in Stockholm, three long, large banners hung down from the city’s concert hall.  On two of the red banners were the words: Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award with the name and image of the winning author—Meg Rosoff—printed on the center banner. The award is presented annually to presented to authors, illustrators, oral storytellers and reading promoters to honor her memory and promote interest in children’s and young adult literature. It is the largest such literature award in the world.

Banners of this year's Astird Lindgren Memorial Aware stream down in Stockolm's Concert Hall.
Banners of this year’s Astrid Lindgren Memorial Aware stream down in Stockholm’s Concert Hall.

Lindgren’s apartment  in Stockholm where she lived for 61 years, is also open for tours but reservations must be made in advance. Even though we were unable to secure reservations, Bo accompanied me to apartment. The apartment itself looks out over a large park, Vasa Park, bustling with children. Lindgren would be pleased, I’m sure, to hear their gleeful shrieks and young laughter outside her window.

Next time I visit Sweden, I will return to these places for an inside tour. For now, however, I have the commemorative coins Bo sent to me and the 20 kronor bills that I collected and carried home to share with my family. How many people can say that their cousin appears on their national money? What a birthday surprise that was!

 

Crewing for TIME at ’84 Olympics

I wasn’t a kayaker in 1984. I had never sat in a kayak, never seen a kayak (except on TV), and didn’t know the first thing about paddling one. It wasn’t until I moved to the Pacific Northwest that I became a passionate paddler.

Likewise for rowing. Growing up in the Midwest, rowing just wasn’t the sport that it was on the coasts even though my youngest brother was on a crew team for Washburn University which had and still does have a respectable rowing team.  I never had the opportunity to watch a race firsthand.

Canoeing was something I may have tried once or twice as a kid on a lake with my Girl Scout troop or vacationing with my family somewhere. But I have little memory of it so the experience must not have been impressive.

The Olympic venue at Lake Casitas was a colorful place as you can see here in this photo of me walking through one of the main entrances.
The Olympic venue at Lake Casitas was a colorful place as you can see here in this photo of me walking through one of the main entrances.

Given my extensive background in each of these sports, I seemed the natural choice to be the reporter to cover those events for TIME Magazine when the 1984 Olympics came to Los Angeles. Once again, my home location then, on the north side of the San Fernando Valley, proved to be to my advantage. To me, this was plum assignment. I had to drive every day during the competition up to the Ojai Valley, about 90 minutes north, to Lake Casitas Lake where the kayaking, rowing and canoeing events were staged. The drive was relatively traffic free as I whizzed up the north side of the Valley and cut across to the 101 freeway to head on up towards Santa Barbara and Ojai.

Traffic during the ’84 Olympics was one of the big fear factors.  People were urged to work from home, to stagger their work hours if they had to go into the office, to take the time off and go to the Olympics in order to help minimize clogged freeways. In fact, many Angelenos left town, renting out their homes to Olympic ticket holders and cashing in on the demand for housing. So the dreaded deadlock on the freeways and city streets never materialized.  In fact, it was some of the fastest-flowing traffic that I could remember in all the years that I lived in that car-loving city.

Men compete in the kayak singles on Lake Casitas. The venue was like a 'mini-resort' to the athletes.
Men compete in the kayak singles on Lake Casitas. The venue was like a ‘mini-resort’ to the athletes.

The athletes competing in the Lake Casitas events were located in the Olympic Village in Santa Barbara. Initially, many of the teams complained that the distance between the Village and their venue was too far. But those concerns too soon vanished as people settled in and began to enjoy both the venue and the trip there.

As I wrote for TIME: “The site itself inspired festivity. Bright, Olympic pink roadside banners mark the two-lane highway as spectators near the north short venue. The spectator viewing area is bursting with vivid color. More than 31,000 annuals, marigold and petunias were trucked in and planted along with several sycamore and alder trees to create park-like setting. Spectators spread their blankets on a grassy knoll where they have apanoramic view of the 2,700 acre lake.”

The Swedish women's team give each other a big hug on the podium after receiving their gold medal for the 500 meter kayak doubles. Canada took silver and West Germany the bronze.
The Swedish women’s team give each other a big hug on the podium after receiving their gold medal for the 500 meter kayak doubles. Canada took silver and West Germany the bronze.

To the athletes, it was, as then Olympic rowing commissioner Barry Berkus put it: “almost like a resort.”  Because their primary quarters was located 28 miles away, a mini-village was created at the sight that overlooked the lake complete with a pool built especially for them.

The big names on the U.S. rowing team that everyone was pinning medal hopes upon were John Bigelow from Seattle. Bigelow’s chance for a medal chances was washed away by Finland’s powerful Pertti Karppinen but Brad Lewis from Los Angeles and his partner, Paul Enquist, also of Seattle, considered ‘dark horses’ surprised many by taking the gold in their doubles race. All three rowers figure prominently in journalist and author David Halberstam‘s masterful book about the ’84 men’s eight row team, “The Amateurs: the Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal.”   I recently read Halberstam’s book, right after having finished another good book about the sport, “The Boys in the Boat,” by Daniel James Brown. Both are excellent books, set in different time periods (Brown’s takes place before and up to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin) and detailing the drama behind the dream.

A member of the Australian women's coxed four rowing team shows off her bronze medal to an admirer.
A member of the Australian women’s coxed four rowing team shows off her bronze medal to an admirer.

But it was the women’s eight who  thrilled the crowd by taking the first gold medal in for the U.S. in that event. Champagne flowed. Fans cheered. Autographs were signed. As I overheard one observer say:  “How things have changed in rowing. They’re getting autographs. It used to be lucky to get anyone to come.”

Olympic team members signed autographs for the fans.
Olympic team members signed autographs for the fans.

Indeed, the sport of rowing has grown even more popular. In 1981-82, only 43 NCAA schools had women’s rowing teams. Today, that number has more than tripled to 143, including Western Washington University in Bellingham, where I live. Over the years, I’m proud to say that several members of the women’s Division II championship crew teams have worked with me as my studio assistant.

As for the ’84 Olympic teams, the U.S. took home eight medals tying with Romania, one of the only Eastern bloc countries to participate in those Summer Games.  In fact, the Romanians took home more gold medals in rowing than any other country. They also cleaned up collecting ‘gold’ onshore from spectators as they sold Romanian t-shirts and model wooden shells to earn money to buy and take back with them stereo sound components.

The Romanian crew team sold miniature wooden sculls to spectators to earn money for stereo equipment.
The Romanian crew team sold miniature wooden sculls to spectators to earn money for stereo equipment.

Lake Casitas is again vying for to be the venue for the Olympics in 2024 if Los Angeles is selected in what would be the 40th year reunion of the Olympic Games. If it’s successful, I might see you there!

 

 

Covering a ‘Hot’ Topic at ’84 Summer Olympics–Men’s Water Polo

American swimmer Michael Phelps is making a big splash at this year’s Olympic games but at the 1984 Olympics it was a water polo player named Terry Schroeder and the men’s Olympic water polo team who were catching the eye of fans, especially female fans.

Members of the 1984 U.S. Mens Waterpolo team await their turn in the pool.
Members of the 1984 U.S. Mens Water polo team await their turn in the pool.

That year, the men’s water polo team was anticipated to take the gold medal and I was assigned by TIME Magazine to cover their games.  The assignment had nothing to do with my knowledge of the sport, which was zero at the time, but everything to do with its proximity to where I lived.  I simply was closest to where the water polo events were being played, at Pepperdine University‘s pool in Malibu.

I had only to drive over Malibu Canyon Rd or Topanga Canyon Road from my home in the San Fernando Valley, drop down to the ocean side town and make my way to the pool that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. From my spot in the stands, I watched the men’s team battle it out each day while I got a good tan and enjoyed the view, both in the pool and beyond.

In the game against Yugoslavia, the U.S. team races towards its goal while being chased by their opponents in the dark caps.
In the game against Yugoslavia, the U.S. team races towards its goal while being chased by their opponents in the dark caps.

Water polo, which has grown in popularity in the U.S. since then, was largely dominated by European teams at the time. But the ‘84 American team played in a style that was said to be ‘revolutionizing’ the sport. As then coach Monte Nitzkowski explained to me, they borrowed a lot of their technique from American basketball and football to make their playing look “creative and instinctive.” That, plus the fact that they were fast and highly mobile, put their chances for winning the gold medal better than in any previous Olympic Games. (Sadly, Nitzkowski just died recently on July 28 at age 86.)

But while their athleticism was exciting, their physiques were, how to put it, well quite explicitly, ‘hot.’ The poster of the 16-man team posed poolside instantly sold out its first run of 10,000 with two additional printings equally as popular.  The team had to set up a special toll-free number just to handle the order requests. And the poster, along with my reporting about it, appeared in TIME’s People section of the magazine.

USA player Terry Schroeder is interviewed poolside by a member of the television media at the 1984 Olympic games.
USA player Terry Schroeder is interviewed poolside by a member of the television media at the 1984 Olympic games.

Sculptor Robert Graham, was also struck by the water polo players’ perfect  physiques. He selected one of them–Terry Schroeder–to pose for the giant sculpture of a headless male figure, very controversial at the time, that towered before the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the Opening and Closing Ceremonies took place. The model’s identity was to have been a secret, but somehow it was disclosed that Schroeder had been chosen.

Goalie Craig Wilson of the U.S. team leaps out of the water to stop an anticipated attempt at a goal by the Yugoslavian team. Wilson is considered to be the best goalie to have played the sport.
Goalie Craig Wilson of the U.S. team leaps out of the water to stop an anticipated attempt at a goal by the Yugoslavian team. Wilson is considered to be the best goalie to have played the sport.

Water polo‘s a fast game, one that demands an excellent backstroke, strong legs to propel the player up and out of the water with the ‘eggbeater’ kick in order to pass the ball to teammates and speed to out swim the opponents when attacking the goal.  I had to be a quick study to learn the basics of the game and understand the qualities that made the players so good. It helped that I was, and still am, a swimmer myself. Despite expectations, the 1984 team lost in the finals to Yugoslavia to capture the silver instead of the gold medal.

This year’s Olympics’ men’s water polo team didn’t make it through to the Quarter Finals but the women’s team (which didn’t exist in 1984) will be playing this week as they advanced in the competition.  Although a difficult game to watch on television as much of the action occurs underwater,  tune in and I think you too will discover how exciting the game is and just how strong and skilled the players must be.

Me, on the job, as a reporter for TIME Magazine's Los Angeles bureau covering the waterpolo competition at the 1984 Olympics.
Me, on the job, as a reporter for TIME Magazine’s Los Angeles bureau covering the water polo competition at the 1984 Olympics.

The 1984 mens team captured the imagination and eye of America’s Olympic fans across the country and no doubt, raised the awareness for the sport. And, I’m pleased to say, I watched it happen while reporting on them for the magazine.

 

 

Let the Games Begin

With the Summer Olympics set to open on August 5, I thought it might be fun to write a couple of posts about the year that I covered the Summer Games as part of TIME magazine’s staff. I was reminded of that summer after receiving my copy of this week’s TIME with  the Summer Olympics on the cover.

TIME was still a major media force and a far heftier magazine in 1984 than it is now. (Nancy Gibbs, the magazine’s current managing editor is doing a terrific job with it.) The proliferation of the Internet as an immediate source of news and information, has eclipsed the magazine’s role as a definitive news outlet that served to ‘wrap up’ and put into perspective the week’s worth of news and current events.  It still fills this purpose but not nearly to the degree that it did in 1984 when the Summer Olympics descended upon Los Angeles.

Press pass, contact book, guides, maps along with copies of TIME's Olympics issues from 1984.
Press pass, contact book, guides, maps along with copies of TIME’s Olympics issues from 1984.

You may remember that the ’84 Olympics had its share of controversy too.  Four years earlier, the U.S. and 65 other countries had boycotted the Games held in Moscow over protest of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan (how things do change). In response, the Soviet Union and 14 Eastern bloc countries refused to send its athletes to Los Angeles in ’84.

I was reporting from the Los Angeles bureau of the magazine, whose ranks numbered about 7 or 8 full-time staffers, nearly an equal number of  full-time stringers, and a handful of L.A.-based photographers, including one staff photographer, who were called in for assignments. When the Olympics came to town, those numbers swelled with additional editors, reporters and writers imported from the New York office as well as a couple of correspondents who specialized in sports coverage.

Along with others in the Los Angeles bureau, I covered the 1984 Olympics for TIME Magazine. On one of my day's off, I visited the L.A. Coliseum, where the opening and closing ceremonies and some of the track and field events took place.
Along with others in the Los Angeles bureau, I covered the 1984 Olympics for TIME Magazine. On one of my day’s off, I visited the L.A. Coliseum, where the opening and closing ceremonies and some of the track and field events took place.

Each publication was given a limited number of press passes and tickets for the Games, not nearly enough to cover every event. Whatever the magazine lacked in ‘press’ tickets, it had to purchase like everyone else. And though we may have had a media pass to give us access behind-the-scenes, we sat with the rest of the spectators wherever our seats were located during the event itself. Our vantage point was that of crowd’s.

For the most part, our assignments were divided up according to either one’s knowledge of a particular sport or the location of our home. The top events were assigned to either one of the New York sports writers or one of the bureau’s senior correspondents.  Because of where I was living at the time, I ended up with four water sports–rowing, canoeing, kayaking and water polo.

As taken from my seat in the stands, the U.S. Waterpolo team, silver medal winners, congratulate the gold medal winners from Yugoslavia at the 1984 Olympic games.
As taken from my seat in the stands, the U.S. Waterpolo team, silver medal winners, congratulate the gold medal winners from Yugoslavia at the 1984 Olympic games.

I knew next to nothing about any of these sports and so had to do some ‘crash course’ learning to bring myself up to speed about what I was to be covering. TIME actually prided itself then on being able to plop down its reporters wherever news was breaking and  have them cover the given event as well, if not better, than anyone else. (One reason, perhaps, that I became the L.A. bureau’s medical reporter even though I had a college degree was in music.) Becoming an overnight expert of sorts in these four sports was not only essential to doing the job, it was required.

Before the ’84 games, I had never heard of an ‘egg-beater’ kick, knew what was meant by ‘fours’ and ‘pairs’ or had never seen a crew team compete even though my youngest brother had been on a college crew team. I did what I could to quickly become versed in these sports so that when I headed out to my venues, I knew what to watch for.

Upon receiving their gold medals, the Yugoslavian water polo team greeted their fans in the stands. Yugoslavia opted not to join the 14 other Eastern bloc countries that boycotted the '84 Olympics.
Upon receiving their gold medals, the Yugoslavian water polo team greeted their fans in the stands. Yugoslavia opted not to join the 14 other Eastern bloc countries that boycotted the ’84 Olympics.

We were given our press packets, lanyard with our media pass attached, and various other media materials and dispersed to our various locations. Filing our reports was much different from it is today, as well. Some of had desktop computers, but there were no laptops, cell phones or other mobile devices on which we could instantaneously write our files and send them off to the editorial office in New York. We had to return to a desk somewhere to write and send our files.  I, no doubt, returned to the office in my newly purchased home, where I probably wrote my reports upon the dinosaur of a desktop computer.

Sweden's king, Carl Gustav is interviewed by members of the press following one of the rowing events at the 1984 Olympics. I was among the media covering those competitions.
Sweden’s king, Carl XVI Gustaf is interviewed by members of the press following one of the rowing events at the 1984 Olympics. I was among the media covering those competitions.

Covering the Olympics was without question one of the high points of my career as a journalist. Never had I dreamed as a young reporter that I would or could one day be chasing down world-class athletes for a ‘telling quote’ or asking the King of Sweden if he pleased with his country’s team’s performance, or getting close-up access to Olympic events. But it was all part of the job.

Technology has vastly changed the way we watch the Olympics today. With ‘streaming’ videos, blogging, live 24-hour broadcasting, the mainstream media, like TIME, has scrambled to find new ways of covering the Games.  With all the issues surrounding the host country this year, as well as controversial athletes who have been barred from participating, some of the lustre and thrill of the Games themselves have perhaps been diminished. For most of us, however, the heart and spirit of the Olympics remain in athletes themselves who train for lifetime, who dedicate themselves to reaching the highest level of their sport, who sacrifice other pursuits just for the chance to represent their country and wear its uniform in the Olympic Games.

Let the Games begin!