Monday, July 21. 2008
The USA Swimming Olympic Team training camp officially began on Monday the 7th here in Palo Alto. I was the only swimmer that hadn’t just spent the previous 2 weeks at the exhausting Olympic Trials and so I was a bit more alert than my teammates upon arrival at SFO. Most of the swimmers were pretty emotionally drained by the Trials, and the first day was more about recovering than anything else.
USA Swimming is having an extended domestic training camp together as a team before we leave for Singapore on July the 25th because the coaches and team leaders don’t want us to go back home and swim on our own. There is a very real fear that without supervision we might lose our focus and not prepare ourselves properly. This is a problem because there are so many swimmers that are just excited to be going to the Olympics at all. USA Swimming, on the other hand, doesn’t care WHO made the team, they only care about winning medals at the Olympics. So, we have a 3 week training camp where we all swim 2 times a day and we keep our competitive edge by racing each other on a daily basis.
On Tuesday we were taken to the pool where we had a short meeting to determine what training group we would be broken into. Primarily there would be 2 sprint groups and 1 mid-distance group. Since I’m the only 10K swimmer on the team I don’t have anyone that wants to train long distance with me. The result is that I join the mid-distance group for their training session and then swim an extra 2,000 meters after everyone else is done. My training partners in the mid-distance group are a veritable who’s who of the American swimming world: Michael Phelps, Erik Vendt, Klete Keller, Peter Vanderkay, Ryan Lochte, and Larsen Jensen. I am, without a doubt, the slowest swimmer in the group.
Tuesday night Pete Carroll, football coach at USC, was brought in to give us a bit of an impromptu motivational speech. The gist: he was excited for us. I would say that he’s pretty much always excited.
Wednesday was the first day that the intensity of the practice started to increase. It feels rather momentous to be training in this group because I know that at the Olympics the athletes I’m swimming with are going to get the bulk of the primary TV coverage. I won a few of the swims, got beat on a majority of the swims, but I held my own for the most part.
Thursday was Christmas. I’ve often said that the reason I didn’t quit swimming 3 years ago (when I probably should have quit) was because I wanted to get a T-Shirt that said I was on the USA Swimming National Team. Well, Thursday I got the T-Shirt that said I was on the USA Swimming Olympic Team. In fact I got an entire bag of stuff that indicated I made the Olympic Team: shirts, shorts, sweatpants and jackets all with the USA Swimming logo’s on them. It was Christmas.
Thursday night was our first official team meeting. We all introduced ourselves and told the group one interesting fact that no one else knew. I told the group that I’ve had a series of accidents in the past few years, but none was more memorable than cutting my leg with a chainsaw. After the introductions Erik Shanteau (who qualified for the Olympics in the 200 Breaststroke) made the announcement that he was recently diagnosed with testicular cancer. He said that it appeared to be under control for the time being, and that he intends to swim at the Olympics. He’s going to get tests done weekly leading up to the games. It was shocking to hear that he was diagnosed the week before Olympic Trials and then he competed and made the team under the circumstances.
In between practices on Friday we had a meeting called “Being a good Ambassador” where we learned about how to be good visitors to China, how go give good interviews, and more importantly what NOT to do over the next month. The Olympics, on such a big stage, are a stage for incredible high’s as well as incredible lows. Stupid decisions and bad interviews can have some pretty significant implications if everything goes the wrong way.
We also learned how to speak Chinese - it only took about 45 minutes. The Ambassador program included a Chinese lesson from a teacher who gave us a crash course in the language. The problem, as is often the case with crash courses, is that the pupil retains very little information. This pupil remembers “Hello” which is pronounced “Knee-How?” and absolutely nothing else. I will be a very friendly visitor and I intend on saying “Knee How?” quite a bit.
Another rather special event on Friday was when the entire team signed a flag adorned with the letters “USA” in big letters above the Olympic Rings. Actually, the entire team signed about 150 of these flags. Some of the flags will go to donations and charities and some will go to “big shots” at various sponsors. All the athletes were promised that we would each get 1 for ourselves to keep, and as a result I made sure to sign my name legibly on each flag, just in case that particular flag would end up at my doorstep.
Saturday was the final practice of the week. The media and fans had been told that Saturday would be the only day for interviews and autographs during our stay in Palo Alto, so the pool deck was packed. Microphones, cameras, reporters, and hundreds of kids running around trying to get close to Dara Torres and Michael Phelps. The problem is that Michael can only sign so many autographs and Dara can only give so many interviews at one time. The result of the logjam is that autograph seekers started looking for other Olympians until the Dara and Michael line died down. This is where I step in. I happened to be one of the guys that facilitated the fans with a picture or an autograph while they waited for someone else.
I also got interviewed - by one reporter. During the interview another reporter walked up and interrupted the interview to ask the first reporter “Who is this?” “Mark Warkentin, he is our Olympic10K swimmer,” came the reply. The second reporter stood there for a moment pondering whether it was worth it to stick around or not. Fairly quickly he decided that it was not worth it and he backed away and tried to find someone else. (I don't write this with any bitterness, I'm really just happy to be apart of this whole thing, but it was a rather awkward moment that I can now chuckle about.)
It’s been an eventful week up to this point. Today, Sunday, is a day of rest and we don’t have any swim practices so I went to Menlo Park Presbyterian Church and enjoyed the service. Next week begins another week of swimming and whatnot.
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