Cheering On Hawaii Olympians

Standing in a bar in New York City might not be the first place you’d think to see a congregation of diehard competitive swimming fans.

And you’d be correct. But that’s where I was on Aug. 15, 2008, as Michael Phelps was going after his seventh of what would end up being eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics. For at least that night, all the talk of other current events ceased. Everyone in that particular sports bar, and I’d wager in hundreds more just like it, had become a bona fide swimming expert in their own mind.

Phelps, having already secured six gold medals, was about to enter the water for the 100-meter butterfly. The eight men set to dive in would have less than one minute to put themselves on the podium.

It wasn’t Phelps’ strongest event, and he had to have been somewhat worn out from the workload and expectations to that point. He had, for him, a very poor dive and start, allowing Serbia’s Milorad Cavic to take a sizable lead in the two-lap race. He was no better than fourth place as they approached the turn.

Then he began to churn his upper body and contort his strokes enough to make a run at the leader. He still trailed in the final meters and as Cavic seemed to have it won, coasting with his arms straight ahead for the inevitable touch, Phelps made one final push and somehow got to the wall first.

It seemed like trick photography, but then the results appeared on screen showing that Phelps had indeed taken the gold – with a full one one-hundredth of a second to spare.

Well, the bar nearly exploded. Given the location, you’d think the Yankees or Mets had just secured the final out to win the World Series, or that Jay-Z had just entered the room to buy everyone drinks.

Somehow, the Olympics always seem to rally the masses. It doesn’t hurt that the United States is typically in the hunt, especially during the summer games. In 2008, Phelps was the obvious narrative going into the games, so people rallying together to support him was a no-brainer.

This year is different. Phelps will be back, but not with the expectations he once had. Perhaps he’ll start winning anything and everything again to continue his headline-grabbing ways, or maybe someone completely unknown could emerge.

That’s one thing that usually makes the Olympics great – a little-known athlete becoming a household name overnight. Perhaps Hawaii’s Kyla Ross can become this year’s Kerri Strug.

At just 16 years old, Kyla is the youngest member of the USA gymnastics team. She made the cut with her showing at last month’s national trials and is part of the five-woman team that is favored for gold.

Kyla was born in Honolulu to parents Jason and Kiana. Her father was both a baseball and football star at UH, who went on to play pro baseball. As a two-time U.S. Junior champion, Kyla will be asked to strengthen the team’s position on the balance beam and uneven bars, in particular.

A pair of Hawaii volleyballers to keep an eye on are Lindsey Berg and Clay Stanley. Berg, a Honolulu native, will be the women’s starting setter and is making her third Olympic appearance. Stanley was a standout at UH and has not looked back, having been named MVP of the 2008 men’s team that took the gold medal in Beijing.

Clarissa Chun became the first Hawaii wrestler to make a U.S. Olympic squad in 2008, finishing fifth overall, and she is back this time with some additional recent success after claiming the gold medal at this year’s Pan Am Games.

The Olympics open Friday and always provide ample opportunity for transcendent moments. Who knows what this year’s edition could bring?