London Calling

Meet some athletes with Tucson ties who have hopes of competing in the 2012 Summer Olympics

The 2012 Summer Olympic Games will be held in London, with opening ceremonies on July 27, and competition running through to the closing ceremonies on Aug. 12.

Actually, if anybody cares, there will be a few soccer games a couple of days before the opening ceremony. Due to the grueling nature of the activity (grueling, in this case, meaning that people run up and down a nice, grassy field and then spontaneously fall down, pretending to have been fouled), the soccer schedule had to be extended beyond two weeks. And, for reasons that no one can explain, archery also starts before the opening ceremonies.

Over the past several summer games, athletes with Tucson ties have represented us well in places like Athens and Beijing. (And who can forget Kerri Strug's performance in Atlanta?) A lot of it had to do with the fact that the badass U.S. softball team, headed by University of Arizona coach Mike Candrea, was in the house. However, the International Olympic Committee decided to eliminate softball, probably because America was too dominant. Just to show the IOC how silly that decision was, the U.S. didn't even win the gold medal the last time out.

Still, there are some athletes with local ties who have a chance to shine on the world stage in a couple of months. Some, like Sahuaro High School grad Caitlin Leverenz, who now swims for the University of California, have left the Old Pueblo to make their name. Others have come to Tucson to work toward greater success. For all of them, these next two months may turn out to be the most memorable of their entire lives.

Weird Olympic Fact No. 1: For quite a while, the flags of Liechtenstein and Haiti were absolutely identical, and no one noticed. Then, when the two countries' teams were marching in the opening ceremony of the 1936 Hitler games in Germany, they noticed and were mutually appalled. Liechtenstein added a crown to its flag, while Haiti added a coat of arms. War averted (for those two countries, anyway). Currently, Chad and Romania have essentially identical flags; Chad's dates back to the early 1960s, and Romania's was adopted in the late 1980s. In 2004, Chad asked the United Nations to look into the matter. Really!

"Oh, I hope to be able to march into that stadium behind my country's flag," says UA high-jumper Edgar Rivera-Morales, a native of Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. "I've represented my country in other parts of the world; I was in (Shenzhen) China for the World University Games and (Daegu) South Korea. But being in the Olympics would be the ultimate."

While many top athletes and students in Agua Prieta attend school across the line in Douglas, in hopes of getting better competition, the 6-foot-6 Rivera-Morales attended Centro de Bachillerato Tecnologico y de Servicio. (The letterman's jacket must weigh 20 pounds.) He always competed in sports, but "in Agua Prieta, as in the rest of Mexico, the two main sports are soccer and baseball. Basketball is also popular. But track? Not so much."

Nevertheless, he took to jumping in a big way. He competed against men in Mexico's national championships during his junior and senior years in high school, winning the national title as a high-school senior with a jump of 7 feet 3 inches, after having finished second the year before. Not surprisingly, he was the top-ranked prep jumper in all of Mexico.

He is the only Mexico native to win gold in the International Children's Games, and he did so twice. (The first time was in Coventry, England, and the second was in Bangkok.) Just to show his versatility, he competed in the triple-jump in the Mexico junior national championships. In only his second competition ever in the event, he went 48 feet and finished second.

Edgar's older brother, Luis, competed for the UA in 2008-09 and was the first Wildcat long-jumper to place at the NCAAs since 1984. Luis Rivera-Morales and the legendary Gayle Hopkins are the only two Wildcats who are in the school top 10 in both the long-jump and triple-jump.

What's somewhat odd is that while Edgar Rivera-Morales is probably the best high-jumper in all of Mexico, he may not even be the best on his own collegiate team. Fellow college junior Nick Ross is nipping at his heels, and the two push each other at practice all the time.

No matter how well they do, they're both in the long shadow of Brigetta Barrett, the UA jumper who is currently the NCAA indoor and outdoor champion, and is a favorite to win the national crown and a spot on the U.S. Olympic team next month.

"Brigetta, Nick and I are all good friends," says Rivera-Morales. "We push each other at practice, but we all want each other to do our best in meets."

Olympic Fact No. 2: Mexico has actually won three gold medals in track and field in the summer games. All three have come in race-walking. (That's the event in which, apparently, everybody cheats. Can you imagine being a judge of that event and having to watch somebody fast-walk more than 30 miles and make sure that the racer had at least one heel and/or toe on the ground at all times?) In 1984, Mexicans finished first in both the 20-kilometer and 50-kilometer events.

Rivera-Morales has a long way to go before he can challenge for an Olympic gold medal; in high-jumping, a long way is defined as 6 or 7 inches. Cuba's Javier Sotomayor holds the world's record in the high-jump at just more than 8 feet. Yes, 8 feet. (However, Sotomayor's record should have an asterisk on it the size of Chris Christie's right butt cheek, because he "retired" before the International Association of Athletics Federations could ban him for life because of multiple drug tests that found cocaine and steroids in his system.) The best Rivera-Morales has ever done is 7 feet, 5.5 inches (2.28 meters), and he did that in 2011. (At press time, heading into the NCAA championships, the best he had done in 2012 was 2.25 meters.)

It's a rule of thumb that world records are rarely set in the Olympics or even in the Olympic trials; the pressure is simply too great. Many records are set in meets held in the weeks after the Olympics or in the World Championships, held in odd-numbered years.

Maddeningly, Rivera-Morales will have to hit or exceed the 2.28 mark this year to even have a chance to make it to the Olympics. That's the Olympic qualifying standard, designed to keep out the riffraff, who apparently are defined as people who can only high-jump 7 feet, 5 inches. Also, unlike in the United States, where national trials are held, and the top three in each event go to the Olympics, Mexico's Olympians are chosen by a committee. As Richard Pryor said, "It's the politics, baby." The (slim) possibility exists that he will be the best high-jumper in his country, and they won't send anybody.

"I can't worry about that. I just have to do my best in the NCAAs and then continue jumping after that," Rivera-Morales says.

He realizes that his best years are ahead of him; most jumpers hit their peak in their mid-to-late 20s. "But I really, really want to go to London."

Olympic Fact No. 3: Chariots of Fire is one of only three sports movies (along with Million Dollar Baby and the original Rocky) ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and the only one with an Olympics backdrop. Based on a true tale, much of it is set in and around London and tells the story of two runners—Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell—whose participation in the 1924 Paris Olympics is strongly affected by their respective religions.

Olympic Fact No. 4: Officials in Salt Lake City, perhaps the most-religious place ever to host an Olympics, got popped for bribing International Olympic Committee members in exchange for being named the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics. After the scandal broke, Salt Lake City brought in none other than Mitt Romney to take over. There is no substantial evidence for the rumor that in order to balance the books, he sold off the city of Ogden, gave all of his subordinates bonuses, and then tried to spin the whole thing as a matter of job-creation. Meanwhile, not one person in the world believes that the IOC is now free of corruption.

University of Arizona softball pitcher Kenzie Fowler is not a fan of the IOC. It's not like she had planned her whole life out beforehand, but you have to figure that some time back, when she was at Canyon del Oro High School—winning state championships and nabbing national awards—she did a little counting on her fingers and perhaps daydreamed about the Olympic Games: Let's see, in 2012, I will have been playing softball for Coach Candrea at the UA for three years. It's probably a long shot that I would make that Olympic team, but I'd be in a good position for the 2016 team.

Yeah, well, except for the fact that there is no softball in the Olympics anymore. The IOC got rid of softball (and baseball) a few years back. There is no softball this year, and there will be no softball in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Despite repeated appeals from softball-playing member nations, the IOC is resisting pleas to switch back like a hippie mama resists vaccinations—strongly, and with no good reason whatsoever.

On the off chance that softball is restored to the Olympics in 2020, Fowler will be nearing 30. The window of opportunity won't be completely closed, but it also won't be more than slightly cracked open. But Fowler is used to dealing with adversity. A freak condition involving a nerve in her throwing shoulder led to a life-threatening situation that required emergency surgery. A year later, a renegade umpire forced Fowler to abandon a pitching technique that had taken years to develop.

Still, she perseveres and hopes to help the UA win another NCAA softball championship before her eligibility is up.

Weird Olympic Fact No. 5: The organizers of the London Games invited Keith Moon, the original drummer of The Who, to take part in the opening festivities. Moon died in 1978.

At least being dead for 34 years has spared Moon the humiliation of being affiliated with all of those CSI shows.

Weird Olympic Fact No. 6: Kenya has so many good distance runners that at a single meet in Zurich in 1997, two different guys from Kenya, both named Wilson Kipketer, set world records in distance races contested less than an hour apart. The two men are not related, and, no, "Wilson Kipketer" is not like "John Smith" in Kenya.

Lawi Lalang has a dilemma. The University of Arizona sophomore is one of the best distance runners living on American soil, and he should end his UA career with a boatload of NCAA titles in cross-country, indoor track and outdoor track. Unfortunately for him, he's also a citizen of Kenya, which makes him the equivalent of the 14th-best-looking woman on Mexican television: That woman is still freakin' gorgeous, but there are 13 more-gorgeous women ahead of her.

Lalang hasn't been back to Kenya since arriving on the UA campus in January 2011, but he will be returning to compete in his country's Olympic trials. He wants to run the 5,000 meters, but realizes that whatever distance he attempts—from the 800 meters all the way up to the marathon—the competition is going to be brutal.

If he were a citizen of just about any other country in the world (including the United States), he'd be a lock to reach the games. But he's not, so he isn't. He's philosophical about it all. "I understand what I'm facing. But it's all a great experience. All that I do here in college and all the running I do in meets will help me achieve my goals. I'm still very young, (relatively) young when compared to the great distance runners."

Lalang realizes that it's not just about running, and the mental aspects are equally important. "Certainly, the body must be able to do (the job), but you must train your mind as well."

Olympic Fact No. 7: The first woman Olympic high-jump champion, Canada's Ethel Catherwood, cleared 1.59 meters in 1928. Maya Holzman of Green Fields Country Day School—where I coach track—won the Arizona Division 4 state championship a couple of weeks ago by clearing 1.59 meters.

Brigetta (pronounced Brih-GEE-tuh, with a hard "G") Barrett is poised to take the world by storm. This season, the reigning NCAA and national champion in the high jump has been improving ... quick, what phrase is synonymous with "by leaps and bounds?" Her jump of 1.95 meters (6 feet, 5.5 inches) is the second-best in the country, and she has already met the national qualifying standard. Now she has to finish third or better in the nationals, and she's on her way.

Barrett, who is now nationally known for singing in the car, on the way to class, during practice and even while she's waiting her turn to jump, is a network's dream come true. You know how all of the NBC Universal networks provide about 8 million hours of programming during the Olympics, with more than half of it being cutesy or heart-tugging personality profiles? Well, the quirky and charismatic Barrett is straight out of Central Casting.

Olympic Fact No. 8: Famous pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock won an Olympic Gold medal in rowing in the 1924 Olympics. Gen. George Patton competed in the pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics. And Neil Diamond, who was part of an NCAA national championship fencing team at New York University, dreamed of competing in the Olympics, but then he wrote "I'm a Believer," and that was that.

Anyway, Barrett could be a star. She sang her way through an interview on local TV last week and didn't miss a beat. She may very well do the same in London. (She'd probably have to, since Keith Moon won't be there to provide accompaniment.)

Her coach, Sheldon Blockburger, points out that while her singing is an interesting sidebar, she's all business when it comes to jumping. "She works so hard in practice; it's just amazing."

Interestingly, if both Barrett and Rivera-Morales make their respective Olympic squads, Blockburger may find himself coaching athletes from two different countries in London. Each country provides a coaching staff, but it is largely ceremonial, a thank-you nod for years of dedicated service. The real coaching is often done by others.

Weird Olympic Fact No. 9: Four different athletes have won Olympic medals in both the winter and summer games, including American Eddie Eagan, who won gold in boxing in 1920, and in four-man bobsled 12 years later.

That has nothing to do with Brigetta Barrett. I just thought it was interesting.

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