Race Day Brings Excitement, People, Surprises

Today is unquestionably the biggest day of the year in Bellingham.  An estimated 35,000 people come to watch or participate in the Ski to Sea race.  It’s a seven-leg 93-mile relay race that starts at the top of the 10,000 foot Mount Baker and finishes in Bellingham Bay at Marine Park.  During the course of it, competitors ski, bike, canoe, run and kayak.  It’s likely to be one of most demanding and grueling competitive races in the country.

The race began more than one hundred years ago in 1911 as the Mount Baker Marathon organized by the Mount Baker Club as a way to call attention to the area’s spectacular scenery.  But it was suspended when a racer fell into one of the mountain’s crevasses.  Then, in 1973, it was resurrected by Bellingham’s Chamber of Commerce with 177 people competing on 50 different teams. This year, there are 414 teams entered in the race of eight people  each.

A few years ago, I was one of those.  My team, the Angst-Ridden Mamas, made its first appearance in the big race in 2004.  I had decided that to be fully considered as a Bellinghamster, I needed to do the race at least once.  So I signed up a few of my most active friends, paid our entry fee and started to train.  This is a race that attract not only local and amateur athletes but professionals and Olympians who come to be on teams sponsored by local business.  Ours wasn’t one of those.

Team member Terri early on the morning of the race about to head up with other team members to the mountain where the race begins.

There are several different categories under which a team can enter.  We chose to skirt the ultra-competitve professional categories and opted instead to put ourselves into the Whatcom County Women’s Recreational division.  Not only did we think this gave us our best shot at not coming in last, we thought it best fit the skill level and activity of our team members, who like myself were all mom’s with school-aged kids.

That didn’t mean, however, that we didn’t taken ourselves seriously as competitors.  Each of us were signed up for a leg in the sport that we competed or participated in regularly.  As a kayaker who frequently paddled in Bellingham Bay, I took that, the final leg of the race.  Mine was a five-mile course that started at Bellingham’s marina and ended at Marine Park across the water in the historic section of town known as Fairhaven.   In some ways, I felt I had one of the lighter legs in the race compared to the 8-mile run down Mount Baker or the 18.5 mile canoe paddle on the Nooksack River.

The reality is, that each of the seven legs presents its own set of challenges so that none are a ‘piece of cake’ when it comes down to it.

Connie, on her cross country skis, got us started at 8 a.m. on Mount Baker.

My paddling partner, Pat, who also entered on another team that same year, and I increased the frequency of our kayaking practices out in the Bay and lengthened the amount of time that we were in the water as the weeks leading up to race day drew closer.  We tried to improve our stroke technique and build up the distance we could get on each one.  We usually put in our boats early in the a.m. or late in the day when the water conditions are most optimal and the wind less likely to be a major factor.

On race day, however, you don’t have the luxury of choosing your time and the conditions can be considerably treacherous with wind, waves and currents.  While the first professional and Olympian-level teams often enter the water about 1 p.m., we were left sitting by our kayaks, waiting for our mountain biker to arrive well into the afternoon.  I don’t believe I got the hand-off from Carolyn, my mountain biker that first year, until after 4 p.m.

Waiting to go out on race day is one of the hardest parts of the race

The water was choppy but thankfully without white caps. I must note here that no one is allowed in the water without wearing a certified life vest.  You’re also supposed to verify that you know how to get back on or into your boat should you capsize.  I had both qualifications, as did my co-competitor Pat.  Even with all the official chase and spectator motor boats along the course, there was a possibility that you’d need to be prepared to be in the water.  The first turn around the buoy way out in the bay was especially difficult when the wind, coming from the west this particular year, kept pushing you off-course.

I rounded that buoy giving the other nearby paddler plenty of room.  My heart was thumping pretty hard as I did so.  Just as I completed my turn, one of the racers ahead of me dumped out.   Kayakers are also required to stop and assist if another racer needs help but as one of the observation boats was already headed towards that paddler, I kept on course.

The wind was the biggest factor on the second of the three legs of my course.  It seemed to pick up and kept shoving the bow of my boat back and forth .  My rudder was almost ineffective at countering the force as my boat bounced up and down over the waves like a bucking bronc trying to toss its rider.  One thing I knew was that I didn’t want to wind up in the water.  I wasn’t concerned about passing other paddlers, I just wanted to get to that second buoy, safely go around it and start down the final leg which I thought might be calmer water since it was more protected.

Valerie, our team’s road cycler, after finishing up her 40-mile ride.

I managed to do just that and though the water was still choppy, I no longer was battling the wind as much and could actually start to make some headway towards the final buoy and the stretch to the beach in the park.  I could hear voices from the shore cheering on those of us in the water. I even heard someone who recognized my yellow kayak and me call out my name.

With the hardest part of the race behind me now, I felt a surge of adrenaline in my tiring arms and lateral muscles, from where a kayaker really generates their power.  I could make it.  My team might not place but I we wouldn’t be the last ones in either.  I expected that we would end up about in the middle of pack in our division.  I had passed one other woman who I knew was also in that division.  My friend Pat, was somewhere behind me.

As I neared the last buoy and I could now see and hear the crowd that had collected on the beach to watch the finishing leg.  I pushed harder, grabbed the sides of my kayak with my thighs and put everything I had left into the homestretch.  I wasn’t likely to make up much time on this last approach but I was determined not to lose any more either.

Our team’s canoers Sue and Joanne bring their boat up to the finish line of the canoe leg with a little help from Carolyn, our mountain biker who took over from there.

With a few final strokes, my kayak rammed into the pebbly beach where Boy Scout volunteers were waiting to grab the bow and help stablize the boat so I could get out.  My legs wobbled and quivered as I lifted myself outside of my cockpit and scarmbled up the sloping bank to the big brass bell waiting for me at the finish line.  I grabbed the cord still swinging from the previous competitor and gave the bell one big clang.  I had made it. And I hadn’t capsized or lost my paddle or come in last.

My teammates waiting for me rushed over to give me a group hug. There was Connie who had started us off at 8 a.m. that morning on the cross country ski leg on the mountain, and Kathy, who took over from her for the downhill ski portion.  Terri, who’s now on the Board of Directors for the race, had run down the mountain.  Valerie gave us a big lead during her road biking leg to put Sue and Joanne in good position when they took off in their canoe.  And Carolyn delivered to me the sweaty orange elastic wristband that we were all required to wear when she rolled across the finish line of the mountain biking leg. And our support crew–Marla and Gaye.

In my kayak, giving it my all to push through the water on race day.

I was weary and dehydrated but felt exhilarated by the race, the camraderie of my team and the sense of having accomplished and completed something I wasn’t entirely certain I’d be able to do.  Now, came the best part–the party!

I carted my boat back to the community storage shed then went home to quickly shower off the salt water and sweat before going to the party.  I put on my yellow competitor’s t-shirt, given to each team member registered in the race, and walked around the corner to Vicki’s house where we were joining two other teams and friends for food, drink and fun The parties are what many regard as the best part of the race!

I had barely stepped in the door when my teammates surprised me with the declaration:  “We won third place!!”

Much to our surprise, the Angst Ridden Mamas took third place in our division in the Ski to Sea race in 2004.

“What?” I said in disbelief.

“Yes, we came in third,” one of them explained.

Then someone slipped the bronze-colored medal attached to the blue ribbon over my head. They weren’t kidding.  We had managed to medal in our first race ever.  None of us were expecting it. We all just wanted to finish.  So when the “Angst-Ridden Mamas” was called out by the race officials to come to the podium and receive our medals, only one of our team members was still there to receive them.

The third-place medals taken by our team in a surprise ending to our first race.

In my wildest dreams I hadn’t thought we’d place in a race of 300 teams with 2,400 competitors!  I was so surprised, as were my teammates, and proud of what we had done together for fun and so that I could feel a full-fledged Bellinghamster.

Our team competed in the race the following three years. While we didn’t repeat the glory of our inaugural appearance, we had a lot of fun and pride in participating and giving it our best on this one big day.  As I watch racers come in today, I’ll be thinking of how it felt, how hard it was and what a great time I and my team had being part of a very memorable Memorial Day weekend!

 

 

Tour de Whatcom is Tour de Force

Bellingham is a town that loves its bicycles but even more of them than usual could be found all over the surrounding streets and roads this last Saturday when hundreds of cyclists pedaled between 22 to 100 miles in the Tour de Whatcom.  The popular charity biking event is in its 13th year and this year benefited the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition.

The back of a cyclists racing jersey says it all.

It’s a colorful display of bicycles and cyclists as they whip across county roads, past lakes, through farm country, by rivers and along beaches with views of snow-capped Mount Baker rising in the distance all the way. The tour started and ended at the award-winning Boundary Bay Brewery in downtown Bellingham located directly across from the Bellingham Farmers’ Market which was also in full swing yesterday.  In fact, that’s why I was there. I spent two hours yesterday distributing postcards to people to promote the upcoming July 26th outdoor adventure film evening–Sports Shorts–being presented by CASCADIA International Women’s Film Festival at Fairhaven’s Village Green.

The aluminum arch of the Tour de Whatcom’s finish line spanned across the street from the Farmers’ Market Railroad Depot buildings.

Afterwards, I wandered over the market and Boundary Bay for a closer look at the activity.  Boundary Bay’s beer garden was filling up with cyclists who had just come in and were thirsty and hungry.  Outside, a long line of cyclists strung down the street as they checked in their bikes into the secured bike parking lot set up in the street. Other muscle-weary cyclists were receiving  rubdowns under the purple canopy of the Massage Envy tent.  And some, as did my friend Audrey who rode the 22-mile route in the tour, mingled with the marketgoers to have a bite of lunch there.

Following a long ride, the massage tent was a popular place.

The entire place was bubbling with bikers, beer and booths full of farm fresh food and crafts.  It brought back memories for me of the summer my family and I spent a month in Bellingham prior to deciding to move here permanently.

We had rented a house from friends (long before VRBO or Air BnB existed) for the month of August. It gave us a chance to explore the area and experience it as if we lived here.  One Saturday, we strolled down to the historic Fairhaven area where we discovered a road bike race was about to get underway.  At that time, the race–the Old Fairhaven Bicycle Race–began on Fairhaven’s main street and the course tracked up and down the hilly Fairhaven area to eventually finish a little further down the street from where it started.

Cyclists line up in the Fairhaven Bicycle Race.

We nabbed a ringside seat with two of our sons at an outdoor table in front of the Colophon Cafe. The Colophon was favorite spot with my sons because of its ice cream counter where big scoops of the cold dairy delight were heaped on top of waffle cones for a dollar or so. The boys ordered peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, my husband and I had bowls of clam chowder.  We ate and watched as the nearly 20 riders whizzed around the corners.  Other race watchers stood behind or sat upon the hay bales that had been places along the street for the purpose of blocking off the streets and marking the course.  It was truly a fun afternoon and one that I’ve long remembered.  The photos I took that day preserve the day not only for me but for my sons who have long since grown up.

Racers round the corner while competing in the Old Fairhaven Bicycle Race.
Sporting his new helmet, my son readies to take off on his own bike ride. Notice the training wheels on the rear.

That was the same summer too, that my oldest son, Matthew, learned to ride a bike.  Neither I nor my husband recall now where we got the bike, but unlike in Los Angeles where we lived, the sidewalks of Bellingham’s South Hill proved a great place for him to hop on and take off.  He wasn’t a particularly coordinated kid when it came to physical activities but once he figured out how the chain drive of the bike worked, riding it was no problem.  He returned to L.A. ready to ride with his friends and we returned to L.A. convinced, in part by community events like the bike race, that we wanted to make Bellingham our new home.

Battling It Out on the Court

A new movie comes out this week based on the 1973 tennis match between women’s tennis legend Billie Jean King and former men’s pro player, Bobby Riggs.  Both the movie and the now historic match is known as the “Battle of the Sexes” that pitted the athletic talents and skill of a woman, Billie Jean, against those of her male competitor.

Billie Jean King at Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament, 1975

But before Billie Jean and Bobby played took to the court on Sept. 20, 1973 for their televised match before 30,000 live spectators, there had been a far lesser known, less viewed such match in my small Kansas hometown.  I know because I was one of the two on the court facing across the net my high school’s boy’s tennis champ, John Hoffman.  John probably doesn’t even remember this less publicized event. Neither did I until I heard an interview on television’s CBS Sunday Morning with King.

I started playing tennis in junior high school, learning to swing a racquet and hit a ball by batting it against the concrete block wall of the gas station next door to my parent’s motel with a chalk mark indicating the height of the net.  To practice my serves, I’d go to the high school tennis courts and hit ball after ball over the net into the service court on the opposite side. On one of these occasions, I noticed an older, thin, almost gaunt gray-haired man, leaning against a black Cougar car with hounds-tooth checked rag top, watching me practice.

One of the few photos of me competing on the court was taken during a tournament in Scottsdale, Az. in 1974.

The man introduced himself as Jimmy Dodds. And Jimmy, formerly a tennis pro and coach in Los Angeles (Beverly Hills to be specific), took me on as one of his protégés. I will write another future blog post about him.

Under Jimmy’s tutelage and inspired by women tennis stars of the day, especially Billie Jean, I became a better and better player until I was competing in and winning local tournaments. I would have been on the high school girls’ tennis team but there were no girls sports teams then in that pre-Title IX era. Instead, I had to play for the local community college whenever I could or play against the boys, which I often did.

Women were making their voices heard about wanting the same recognition and opportunities men received in the workplace as well as everywhere else. And none of them were stronger on the tennis court than Billie Jean King. Billie Jean campaigned for equal prize money for women in the pro tournaments and led the efforts to establish a women’s pro tour.  She became the first President of the women player’s tennis union when it was founded in 1973.  And, with her then husband Larry King, created the Women’s Sports Foundation and launched the magazine, womenSports, for which I would later submit and write a feature or two.

Billie Jean King and Margaret Court head back to the court after a brief court side breather between games at a Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament, 1975 in Phoenix.

So it was against this early 1970s background that I stepped onto the court with my Wilson aluminum frame racquet to play a match against John.  The challenge came as the result of a friendly feud between the high school’s two gym teachers, Coach Martin and Ms. Stokes.  Ms. Stokes had compete confidence in my tennis talents and I don’t think cared much for Coach Martin. The exact details now escape me but at some juncture, Ms. Stokes told Coach Martin that she thought I could beat John on the court. Martin, being a bit of a sexist himself, of course scoffed at the idea. But when it was suggested that the two of us duel in a tennis match, Coach Martin accepted. I don’t remember that John and I had much to say about it except to agree to participate. I had, after all, played a lot with and against John at the City Park tournaments and open court nights.

The match took place one afternoon after school, I remember. Few, if anyone was there to watch except Janine and Coach Martin. John had a strong, fast serve and I always felt fortunate to be able to return it, let alone place the return shot somewhere strategically on the court.  He had a lanky body that disguised his muscle strength but was perfectly suited for tennis, and golf, the other sport he enjoyed.  Plus he was smart, (he was one of our two class valedictorians) and understood game strategy so that his was not just a game of power.

Billie Jean King returns a shot at the Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament which I covered as a young reporter in 1975.

We both played hard.  I honestly don’t remember much about the game itself except that it was hot.  I lost. I don’t recall the game score or whether we went three sets or not. There was no press coverage, no cheering crowd, no book deals afterwards. Women’s lib gained no victory that afternoon. I’m sure Coach Martin gloated but I didn’t feel that I had let anyone down. I had played my best although when it came to tennis, I was pretty hard on myself when defeated.

John and I remained friends. He went on to become an attorney.  I became a journalist and worked for a couple of metropolitan newspapers in Phoenix.  Phoenix is and was a mecca for tennis. I continued to play while living there. Occasionally, I covered women’s tennis for the suburban daily that I was writing for at the time. One day, the Virginia Slims women’s pro tennis tour came to town with, you guessed it, Billie Jean King. I was sitting court side to report on the action. Billie Jean had already played and won her big match against Bobby Riggs.  Women’s tennis was taking off at lightening speed.  After her match against Margaret Court, I snagged an interview for the paper with Billie Jean.

Billie Jean King and Margaret Court Smith shake hands following their match at the Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament in Phoenix in 1975.

Even before The Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean was winning as many battles in women’s tennis as she was trophies. Her willingness and courage to demand that women be treated equal to men in the sport encouraged others of us facing similar challenges in our own careers. So while the movie about her famous match and endeavors off the court is just now coming out, her story inspired a generation of women, young women then, to stand up and speak out on and off the tennis court.

The Last Game

When we moved to the Pacific Northwest from Los Angeles nearly 21 years ago, we were Kings hockey fans. We became hockey fans when the great Wayne Gretzky took the city by storm and turned Los Angeles into a hockey town. But with the move north, we soon started attending the games in Vancouver, B.C., just 45 miles across the border and soon traded our Kings sweaters for Canucks colors.

At the time, we had three little boys, one of whom was already playing hockey and a second who began not long after we relocate. Travelling to Vancouver for a hockey game became a special family outing. The boys quickly memorized the names of all the players and, in the case of my oldest son, even recognized the referees.

Together with two of my sons who, like me, became Canucks fans at one of the games we attended together.

Gradually, we learned the best route into downtown Vancouver where the arena is located, the places to eat before or after the game if we didn’t want stadium food, the time to leave to insure we arrived in time for the first face-off, and, most importantly, where we could park the car for without paying a hefty $20 to $30 lot fees near the arena. For a while, we took the Sky Train in and out. And after the Olympics in 2010, the adjacent neighborhoods changed bringing new restaurants, shops and traffic patterns, especially around the Olympic Village which completely revived that decaying area.

A pair of our tickets from this year’s season. Will miss our seats.

It wasn’t long before we bought season tickets located in the upper level, attacking end of the ice near the gate and up high enough so that the protective netting above the glass didn’t interfere with my camera angle. I became pretty adept at shooting the action on the ice from far away with my point-and-shoot cameras because cameras with removable lens aren’t allowed inside. One of my best shots was the one when Alex Burrows fired a game winning goal in overtime past the shoulder of the Chicago Blackhawks goalie to cinch the play-offs for the Canucks and send them to the Stanley Cup finals.

I captured the winning shot by Alex Burrows that sent the Canucks into the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011.

There are other memories as well.  Like the New Year’s Eve we took the boys for the then traditional game against Philadelphia and stayed overnight in the Vancouver Hotel. The next morning, the boys and I snuck into one of the hotel’s ballrooms where a party from the night before was still strewn with discarded party hats that we then put on our own heads and danced around. Or the year that my youngest son’s hockey team got to come out on the ice during the first period break and play a quick ten-minute game for the home crowd. After the Canucks game, they were escorted down to the locker room waiting area where they met Matt Cook, then a rookie, who signed autographs for them. My son later had Cook’s name stamped on his Canuck’s jersey. Cook was later traded but has since retired back to Vancouver.

I won’t forget the first time the Sedin twins skated onto the ice making their NHL debut. They’re now the ‘old men’ on the team but still dominating.

Of course, we won’t forget the first time that the Sedin twins from Sweden—Henrik and Daniel—first skated onto the ice to join the team. They were only 17 and celebrated their 18th birthday with a crowd of 18,000. The Sedins are now 36 and Henrik, who’s currently Captain, is the team’s all-time leading scorer.

We were there for the retirement of Markus Naslund’s number but missed the raising of Trevor Linden’s banner due to an ice storm. Our Vancouver friends got our tickets instead.

The 2016-17 season opening night line-up. In recent years, the Canucks games have become known for their production quality.

Then there are the not-so-great memories like the terrible incident with Todd Bertuzzi in 2004 who assaulted an opposing player whose injuries ended his career and Bertuzzi’s too with the Canucks. And Manny Maholtra who fans loved and who unfortunately received a serious injury to his left eye from a puck and lost significant vision. He’s now back as a Development Coach with the Canucks.

My son, Marshall, studies the game whenever he goes to see the Canucks. One reason he probably became such a good player himself.

There are memories too of the crowd cheering “LOOOOOOOOU” for goalie Roberto Luongo and the standing ovation the fans gave him upon returning from the Canadian Olympic Gold Medal win in 2010. Memorable too was the moment of silence our Canadian friends respectfully paid to the U.S. when the season opened after ‘9-11.’  The sympathy we received from our seatmates who knew we drove up for the games from the States was touching and overwhelming. And the friendship we developed over the years with Terri and son, Calum, who sometimes meet us for dinner, join us for a game or take our tickets when there’s a game we must miss.

Waving white hand towels, as my son demonstrates here, is a play-off game tradition that began with the Canucks.

We were there for the start of traditions such as twirling white hand towels above your head during play-off games. Or laughing at the antics of the ‘green men’, covered head to toe in green skin-tight body suits. Or watching the giant Orca blimp bob high around the arena dropping prizes to fans below until one night the remote-controlled balloon dive-bombed the crowd and lost its job.

Only once did we catch one of the T-shirts propelled by an air gun into the stands by Fin, the team’s Orca mascot. Once was I caught momentarily on the big screen when the camera turned on to our section. Never did we win the 50-50 cash raffle benefitting Canucks Place, the team’s charity for critically ill children. Never did Fin stick our head into its giant tooth-lined mouth as it did with other fans although I managed to snag a photo with the oversized Orca once during a period break.

During a period break, Fin managed to snag a photo with me!

The memories will continue but the season tickets will not. At least not for now. Last night was our last game as a season ticket holder. Forty games a season is just too many for us to make with our sons no longer around to The league also has changed the scheduling so that the Canucks, who must travel further than any other NHL team, are away for long stretches then back home to play games almost back-to-back. That much back and forth for us to Vancouver is more than we can fit into our already busy lives right now.

So as much as we hate giving up those great seats, we’re not taking them again next year. We’ll still go to games to cheer on our Canucks. But won’t be there as often and may not be sitting in ‘our’ seats. For us, it’s the end of a season and the end of an era. It’s been fun. Thanks Canucks!

The last game of the season marked the end of an era for my family.

 

Fall Classic Calls Up Bygone Baseball Days

I don’t remember the World Series taking place in October when I was a kid except for the time that my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Cunningham, let the class listen to one of the games of the series during class. Maybe the entire school got to listen to it as the radio came through a speaker above the blackboard and was controlled from the principal’s office by Gordon Huggins.  I only recall one other time when the radio came on during class other than for general school announcements, and that was to deliver the sad news that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

I’m not exactly certain why that particular World Series broadcast was played in our classroom but for me it was a signficant series because it was the classic LA Dodgers against the NY Yankees.  I was a pin-striped Yankee fan, which you may consider curious because I grew up in the middle of country in Kansas.  But it was because of my Uncle Joe that I loved the Yanks.

My uncle Joe, right, taught me to play baseball. My Dad taught me photography.
My uncle Joe, right, taught me to play baseball. My Dad taught me photography.

My uncle had grown up in New York City and was serious baseball fan.  In fact, he was the one who taught me to love the game and who spent time tossing the ball back and forth with me, teaching me how to throw not only a softball but a hardball.  I knew all the players on the field at the time–Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Bobby Richardson, Clete Boyer, Tony Kubek and Joe Pepitone (my favorite because he played first base), and one other who honestly I can’t remember now.

My brother, Richard, and I spent countless afternoon after school and on the weekend playing baseball games in the black-topped parking area of my parents’ motel, where we grew up, or in the grassy, V-shaped vacant lot next door to my Aunt Marie and Uncle Dale’s home.  I would lay out the batting line up with my frayed-edge baseball cards for whatever teams we would be pretending to be at the time. Then, the two of us would take turns at bat while the other pitched, fielded and played the bases.  Sometimes, friends would join us for a game of ‘work-’em up’.  Wonder if kids today still play baseball that way, rotating around the positions to ‘work up’ to bat.

In Los Angeles, we played softball on Sunday afternnoons. Sometimes I pitched.
In Los Angeles, we played softball on Sunday afternnoons. Sometimes I pitched.

For a girl, especially in the pre-Title 9 days, I was a pretty darn good. It helped that I was a tomboy and had some natural athletic ability. My early vacant lot training days served me well when I started to play first base or pitch on my church softball summer teams as a teenager.  I still have a little scar on my knee from the night that I slid into first base and was called safe. I even have a trophy, now broken and stowed in a box somewhere, from the summer my team won the church league championship. And I recently found in my parents’ possessions, the well-worn ball glove that I used although I replaced it with a newer, better mitt.

My ball gloves and Yankee cap wait for a day of baseball.
My ball gloves and Yankee cap wait for a day of baseball.

When I lived in Arizona, I played on my newspaper staff’s slow pitch softball team in the city league.  I think I covered first base. My husband, to whom I wasn’t married at the time, was on the pitcher’s mound. We made a pretty good team even then. He likes to tell the story of when I first stepped up to home plate how the outfield moved in, seeing a young woman at bat. But after I lobbed one way behind their heads, they never came in again.

Later, as an adult living in Los Angeles, I organized a Sunday afternoon pick-up softball game with friends and their families that played regularly at a local park. We started with just a couple of youngsters, but, over time, we added several more as our families grew. One friend of mine likes to point out how all the new additions were boys. We continued to play for several years, gathering afterwards for beers and pizza. Those Sunday afternoons are some of my fondest memories now.

The Sunday summer softaball team played pick up games for years.
The Sunday summer softaball team played pick up games for years.

Through the years, I’ve become less of a baseball fan. I frankly always enjoyed playing the game more than watching it. I have lost track of who now plays for “my team” although I still wear my Yankee cap whenever I attend a Mariners-Yankee game even risking beer being ‘accidentally’ spilled on me by an annoying Seattle fan.

While I no longer glue myself to the transistor radio or TV for the World Series, I like the feel of the fans’ excitement and thrill when their team makes it to finals. This year, especially, since two classic teams will take to the field.  Though I’m not a Cubs fan, I’m rooting for them, like so many others, to win the pennant.  Seventy-one years is a long time to wait to make it to the World Series. I hope somewhere, kids sitting in that elementary school classroom get to watch or listen to the game.

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.