Sunday, June 15, 2008

Only in Southern California

I am a nut for the Olympic Games. For so many athletes the ultimate goal is just to participate in this one international competition that only occurs every four years. There are very little to no financial incentives, it is simply the thrill of the challenge. The empowerment of knowing you can rise up over others and compete for the top place in the world is quality very few people can rightly posses. If you want to get close to the Olympics, no matter what the year, there is really no other place like Southern California. The area is the home to many of the best training centers in the world. It kind of boggles my mind how, in my typical week, I rub elbows with all sorts of world class athletes.

Southern California has been a swimming mecca forever. The competition level available here is the top at all age levels, from age group through masters. Growing up on the East Coast, there was the occasional swimmer to rise through the ranks and make it to the Olympic Trials, but it was an experience for so few that it all seemed unreal. There were not many examples of the path to the sport's ultimate goal, for that reason the education to lead athletes along the best path was not readily available. Los Angeles is a different story however. There are meets taking place year round with top levels of competition. Many club teams have taken multiple swimmers from average athlete, to Olympic Trial competitor. Just hopping in the pool for a master's swim practice you can find yourself surrounded by many folks with impressive swimming resumes. Swimming in Southern California keeps me on my toes, and training amongst so many top athletes reminds me that I could have achieved so much if only my health had been on my side.

Southern California isn't just a swimming mecca, it is also a haven for water polo. During the weekends, when I want do a pool workout of my own design, I stop by the local pool for a little lap swim session. The key element happens to be that the local pool is the U.S.A. Water Polo National Training Center. I've shared the water with the USA Olympic Women's and Men's Water Polo Team training squads. It is also interesting to note that many of the women happened to have attended USC. Thankfully they haven't taken up to stealing my towels again... It is inspirational to observe the team workouts in their run-up to Beijing. The passion and drive they emit makes you want to go out and work harder in all your everyday activities. I don't even know much about the rules to water polo, but it will be riveted by the games none the less.

The days of the week I am not in the pool I head to the gym. To satisfy my curiosity about what would of happened if I had stuck with gymnastics over swimming, I hit up an adult gymnastics class a couple times a week. I am just there to learn some new tricks, but many of the team girls training there have Olympic aspirations. After all, the name of the gym is All Olympia Gymnastics. The name derives from the fact that the head coaches are former Olympians (does that term make sense? are you a former Olympian or always an Olympian?) from Eastern European countries. Perfection is key in this gym. Watching the girl's team train is an illustration of the best form in action. Just getting a skill around isn't enough. The highlight is watching USA Gymnastics National Team members Mattie Larson and Samantha Shapiro train. While Samantha happens to be too young for an Olympic bid, Mattie has made it all the way to the final Olympic Team selection training camp. Her floor exercise at the Olympic Trials really got the media and audience's attention. I've been trying for a long time to do things as effortlessly as she makes them look. Her mom is wonderful as well, always inquires about how things are going. That family is riding on cloud nine right now. Go Mattie!
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