Following hometown heroes, new sports, getting active, tips for viewing & much more!
by John Boccacino
Every four years, billions of people turn on their televisions to catch the world's finest athletes competing for gold, silver, and bronze medals – along with national pride – during the Summer Olympics. This year, the best athletes in 32 different sports (ranging from traditional pursuits such as basketball, soccer, and swimming to more niche offerings like table tennis, judo, and equestrian) will congregate in London, England as part of the 30th Olympiad. Most of the more than 10,000 athletes expected to compete in these Games have spent a great majority of their lives training for this moment, dedicating countless hours to perfecting their sport.
Following Hometown Heroes
One of those athletes is Henrik Rummel, a 2005 Pittsford Mendon graduate and 2009 graduate of Harvard University who will represent Team USA in rowing with a spot on the men's four-person squad.
"It is a huge honor to be going to the Olympics and it's going to be really exciting representing my country and racing against everyone else's best guys," says Rummel, who majored in applied mathematics and economics while at Harvard. In his rowing career, Rummel has competed for the US Junior National Team, won an Eastern Sprints Championship in 2007 while at Harvard, competed in three Senior World Championships, one under- 23 World Championship and two Junior World Championships. He captured gold at the 2009 Senior Worlds and is a six-time national team athlete, but being named to Team USA is, by far, the highlight of his athletic career, especially after how tantalizingly close Rummel came to representing the Stars and Stripes in Beijing.
"Every one of these rowers peaks for this race because this is THE race during the rowing season," says Rummel. "There won't be any excuses once we get there and compete because it doesn't get any bigger than the Olympics. I was chosen as one of the best four rowers in the country for our boat and we want to see how well we can do against the rest of the world." While Rummel boasts a decorated resume, he hasn't taken anything for granted when it comes to his place on Team USA. Every practice session, every race against teammates is important, Rummel says, because if you don't bring your best day-in and day-out, someone else could overtake you for a spot on the national team. Rummel estimates he logs upwards of 42 hours per week training for the Olympics.
"We have the right guys and the right system in place in our boat so that we can medal in London," says Rummel, who expects to have his father, Geoff and his mother, Nina, among the party of seven that will make the trek to London to root him on at the Games. "I'm pretty confident we'll go out there and surprise some people with what we can do and hopefully, if we all do our jobs, maybe we could win the gold medal. That would be unbelievable; it would be really nice to be that boat that breaks the plane and sets the tone for US rowing."
While fans will most certainly feel patriotic watching their favorite athletes striving for gold, the athletes themselves often experience every sort of emotion leading up to their competition. Felicia Zimmermann and her sister, Iris, both represented Team USA as talented fencers in the Olympics, with Felicia competing in both the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta and the 2000 Games in Sidney, Australia, and Iris joining her for the Sidney Games. Iris says that, as an Olympic athlete, she experienced both an extreme sense of patriotism and also a surreal, out-of-body feeling as she prepared to represent the Red, White and Blue at the Olympics. "It was such an incredible experience. For two weeks you're treated like a superstar and it was just an unbelievable feeling representing my country," says Iris Zimmermann, the first U.S. fencer to win a world championship medal. Zimmerman now helps future generations of fencers learn the ins and outs of the sport at the Rochester Fencing Club in Rochester.
"Especially in a small sport like fencing, it means a lot to represent your country," Zimmerman adds. "You go from anonymity to being a person everyone wants to talk to and see do well. Then, as fast as the Games come, they're gone… It's hard to soak in all that is happening around you; you're just unbelievably happy to be there and yet, part of me found it hard to believe that I was there competing with the best of the best."
Among Zimmermann's favorite Olympic moments was walking hand-inhand with Felicia into the Olympic Stadium in Sidney for the Opening Ceremonies as her parents, Thomas and Christina, watched with pride as their daughters helped usher in the Sidney Games. Years later, the Zimmermanns still have those priceless Olympic memories from their beloved sports. And since then there have been even more milestones to add to the list – Felicia was inducted into the US Fencing Hall of Fame in 2012 and Iris is one of the nominees in the class of 2013.
Following Is Easier Than Ever
While some fans will have to scour the cable listings to find out when their sport will be broadcast, the main NBC network will offer more than 272 hours of coverage over the 17-day Olympiad, easily the most coverage offered by a TV network of the Games. NBCUniversal recently announced that more than 5,535 hours of Olympic action will be broadcast across the network’s channels, which include: NBC, NBC Sports Network, MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo, Telemundo and online at www.NBCOlympics.com. The total amount of TV time for the 2012 Olympics on NBC's network exceeds the coverage given to the 2008 Games in Beijing by more than 2,000 hours.
But the coverage has extended far beyond TV. For the first time in its coverage of the Olympics, fans can check out streaming video for all 32 of the Olympic sports as well as every medal ceremony by visiting NBCOlympics.com. The United States Olympic Committee has a comprehensive website, www.teamusa.org, that features biographies on the different athletes on Team USA's Olympic squads. Fans can check back during the Summer Olympics to follow along with their favorite teams and athletes in their pursuit of Olympic glory.
Additionally, each Olympic sport has a website that can be accessed using a search engine. Those sport websites also contain up-to-date athlete bios, a schedule of upcoming events/competitions and ways to follow along with the London action.
Locally, while there aren't any official watch parties for the upcoming Olympic Games scheduled, many area restaurants and sports bars will have televisions tuned in to the Olympics. Popularity in the Olympics can vary greatly by the sport. Since the introduction of the “Dream Team” in 1992 (when NBA players such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird replaced their college counterparts as the official basketball representatives for Team USA), fans have flocked to watch NBA superstars vie for Olympic glory against the upand- coming international competition. This year's “Dream Team” will feature plenty of big names and is sure to draw high TV ratings as Team USA strives for its fifth gold medal in six Games. Since the introduction of NBA players to the Olympics, Team USA is 37-3 in five Olympiads.
The Distillery on Mount Hope Avenue expects to receive good crowds for Team USA's men's basketball games, and Steve Levitt, manager of the Distillery, says Rochester sports fans traditionally come out in droves to follow the US Women's Soccer team, thanks to Wambach's knack for scoring the big goal. "We will get a good, natural following for the Olympics, especially for the women's soccer team. The Abby Wambach connection is really strong in Rochester and her fans always seem to make time to watch her and Team USA play," Levitt says. "My guess is women's soccer will be the most popular, followed by men's basketball and swimming with Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. I'm curious if these Games will draw as well as the Beijing Games did, but we will probably get a spike in attendance during the Olympics, especially during the women's soccer [matches]."
Increased Interest & Getting Involved
For less mainstream sports, the Olympics represent a valuable chance to grow a fan base and clubs. Cliff Devries, the program director and coach with Upstate Diving, says his club will receive roughly a 33-percent spike in interested young athletes during the Olympics. Devries offers interested divers a free trial of the sport, where they can learn all about the basics of diving, then, if they're interested, they can get further instruction. "When we get new members, generally they've had some idea that they'd like to try the sport, then they see these talented athletes at the Olympics and it pushes them over the edge and they inquire about the sport," says Devries. Upstate Diving currently has approximately 50 members ranging in ages from 5 to 18.
"With any individual Olympic sport, it is important to seize on the momentum from this added exposure, but we're more concerned with the long-term growth of the sport," says Devries. "Our sport is extremely difficult and requires a lot of repetition, and these days kids want instant satisfaction. People think a lot of the skills come overnight and they can learn it right away, but it's a very long process and in Upstate Diving, we spend a lot of time on the fundamentals. Those skills don't appear instantly."
Zimmermann says the Rochester Fencing Club experiences nearly double the interest during an Olympiad, as people's curiosity is piqued watching what Zimmermann and many fencing experts have dubbed the sport of, "physical chess." Through its introductory learn to fence classes, interested participants can receive 90-minute lessons and come away with a greater knowledge of and appreciation for this challenging sport. "We might bring in 10-15 new athletes in a given year, but during an Olympic year, we'll get 20-40 new calls inquiring about the sport and will have people who actually come in and schedule a beginner lesson," Zimmermann says. Currently the Rochester Fencing Club has 80 regular members and 100 overall participants ages 6 to 16. "Our sport is unique and it appeals to those cerebral athletes who want to be challenged by their sport," Zimmerman adds. "They might not have even known this was a sport available to them until they see it on the Olympics."
Rowing is one of the fastest growing sports in the area, and if interested rowers need motivation to join one of the areas many clubs, they need only look at Rummel's story. When Rummel was in middle school, he decided to try a Learn to Row program and became instantly hooked on the sport.
Rummel is proof that any interested athlete can pick up a sport and go as far as their talents will take them, says Will Greene, the director of the Genesee Rowing Club and a former participant in the 1996 Summer Olympic trials. "Unlike any other sport I can think of, rowing is one of the few where, if you have the willingness and dedication to train, you can reach the highest level within just a few years," says Greene, who is also the head coach at both the University of Rochester and the varsity boys coach at Brighton High School.
Ross Pedersen knew some friends who tried rowing when he was in middle school, but he never entertained picking up an oar until he tuned in to the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. Soon after, he became hooked on the sport and has experienced tremendous success in the water: Pedersen and Joe Prosack, his teammate at the University of Rochester, will try to secure a spot on the U.S. team at the World University Rowing Championships in Kazan, Russia.
"When I first watched rowing on TV during the Olympics, it looked so graceful and peaceful. They're going so fast on the water, yet if you step back and look at all the boats together, they're sort of gliding on the water and it looked really cool," says Pedersen, who did crew for four years at Fairport High School before joining the U of R. "I was hooked after my first learn to row class. It was really frustrating and difficult, but I wanted to get better at it. Watching the Olympics and seeing rowing, it was something fun to try."
Watching the Olympics can be inspirational. It can give young athletes an incentive to try new sports, get motivated to further pursue their current sport, or just be excited to get out and get active in their own backyard. There's no doubt that the media exposure affords lesser-known sports the opportunity to grow in popularity. And who knows… when you watch the Games this summer, you might be sitting next to a future Olympic athlete.
John Boccacino is a freelance writer living in Webster, NY who reported on sports and local news for more than 6 1/2 years with the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper. He is currently the Director of Sports Information for Keuka College.