Thursday, July 31, 2008

Chillin' with Jilen

As I wrote in today's Observer, Jilen Siroky was always one of my favorite athletes to cover. At 14, she made the Olympics as a swimmer and got a whole lot of attention as the youngest U.S. Olympian on that 662-member team that competed in Atlanta in 1996.

Now, at 26, living in Chicago and out of swimming entirely, she gets practically no attention. She's just a small cog in the Windy City, with a good job and a fiancee she will marry in November in Charlotte. You can see that story here if you missed it.

Jilen's parents still live here in Charlotte. Her younger brother, who was also a good swimmer, graduated from Harvard and now works for a bank in New York. They're an accomplished family, but very down to Earth. One thing I didn't get in the story was what Jerry Siroky, Jilen's father, told me about how the kids spent their time. He said he and his wife Helen basically had their kids in one of three places for most of the kids' young lives: school, sports or church. Not a bad trio.

What really struck me about this story was how different the lives of Siroky and her competitor in the 200-meter breaststroke in 1996, Amanda Beard, turned out. Both were 14-year-olds back then, but Beard's life has taken many more glamorous turns since (many of them the sort of turns that Siroky was mostly happy to avoid). Here's the story about Beard, who will compete in her fourth Olympics in Beijing a year after posing nude for Playboy.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

An Olympian language-barrier story

I love the Olympics, and I'm glad to begin this new blog for The Charlotte Observer on the same day as the new debuts.

This blog will run throughout the month of August and will be updated daily -- often several times a day during the Summer Games themselves. My objective will be to entertain and inform you about one of the greatest spectacles around, and for my money still one of the purest representations of sport.

Particularly, I will concentrate on Olympic athletes from the Carolinas.

I'm not in Beijing yet -- that won't happen until early next week, when I fly to China for the first time. I'll talk about the assignment in more detail later. For now, though, to get this blog warmed up, let me tell you a story about one of the three previous Olympics I've covered. This was in 2004, in Greece.

On one of my first days in the country, I was looking for a restroom at a subway station in Athens and growing frustrated that it seemed so hard to find. How could there not be a restroom in a subway? That’d be like not having one in the Charlotte airport.

So I approached three Greek security guards – two men and one woman – for help. Did they speak English, I asked? Well, a little, they said.

For some reason, this just made me talk louder. And slower.

"I'm....looking....for....a...... REST-A-ROOM!" I said. I was a bit embarrassed to try to also pantomime what I needed due to the female security guard.

“Rest-au-room?” said the one man who had the best English of the three. “Ahhhhh, rest-au-room!!! What kind of food you think you want? Greek food? American food?”

“No, no!!” I said. “Restroom. Bathroom.... W.C.... Bano!!!”

The three security guards consulted each other in Greek for about 30 seconds, talking fast and furiously. Then they broke the huddle and looked at me again.

“Can you give an example, please?” the female guard asked.

What do you say to that? I just told them my need for a restroom had magically disappeared, thanked them and jumped onto the subway.

P.S. I heard from many people after that that the magic international word is “toilet,” which most people understand no matter where they’re from. Hopefully, that’s going to work in Chinese.