This morning, I went to my first swimming event. I’ve been dying to get inside the Cube ever since I saw the first photos of the arena months ago. It looked like such a cool place to watch swimming. Well, it was. Especially the way I experienced it: sitting 14 rows from the pool with Natalie Coughlin’s family. The Coughlins were nice enough to offer up their extra tickets (Alison got to come, too) so I could sit with them and feel what it was like to go through the emotional ups and downs of watching a family member compete at the Olymipcs. (And write a story about it for espnthemag.com.) It was exhausting.
A few minutes before I arrived at the Water Cube, the Speedo rep who helped set up the story asked that I be extra sensitive. “Everyone’s worried Natalie might not do so well in the 100-meter backstroke,” she said. I promised not to heckle or ask Zennie and James Coughlin why they’d raised such a loser, were she to finish out of first place. Then the Golden Girl went out and won.
I watched three back-to-back-to-back U.S. victories by Aaron Piersol, Natalie Coughlin and Michael Phelps. Then I watched Phelps and Coughlin return to the pool an hour after their medal ceremonies and win their semifinal races. I listened the the American National Anthem played three times and stood next to Natalie’s parents and grandparents as the music played and they cried along with her. “It’s tough to watch your granddaughter cry,” Grandma Zennie said. “Even when they are tears of joy.” I can only imagine.
After the final semifinal heat, I raced over to the Indoor Stadium to catch the end of the men’s gymnastics team final. Halfway through the meet, our overmatched underdogs were in second place, and it looked like they might hold on. In the end, they took bronze, and in the media area after the medal ceremony, they were the giddiest silver medalists I’d ever seen. For good reason.
I spent the rest of the day (aside from writing) walking the Olympic sponsor village with Alison, collecting T-shirts and pins and buying souvenirs. (The Omega pavillion has the best food on the Green, and Coca-Cola gave out the best free T-shirt.) The official Olympic merchandise at the Superstore, and at stores around Beijing, is priced at local prices, which was surprising. And awesome. Usually, Olympic gear costs about as much as lunch at Disneyworld. This year, you can buy a super cool Olympic Adidas T-shirt for about 20 bucks. Unfortunately, the T-shirts are sized locally, as well. Sorry, anyone over 5’8″. You’re not getting a souvenir shirt.