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|PAN AMERICAN GAMES JOURNAL (Updated July 28): Three weeks in Rio provides the experience of a lifetime|
By Craig Sesker USA Wrestling
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - This is it, my final day of covering the Pan American Games.
As a press officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee, in addition to my regular duties for USA Wrestling, I've covered events here every day since July 14. It's been exhausting at times, catching a 7:40 a.m. bus to go to a venue and then catching the 9:15 p.m. bus back to the hotel from the Main Press Center.
But it's been the experience of a lifetime.
Not many people receive an opportunity to check out another culture and see a place like Brazil. Rio de Janeiro is a huge city and it has plenty to offer.
The competition here was great, the people of Brazil were very friendly and helpful, and it was a great learning experience for me to cover an event like this the year before the Olympics.
It was amazing to see all the people from different countries and different sports roaming around at the Athlete Village.
And Rio is not a bad place to be. The views from the Christ the Redeemer statue and Sugar Loaf are amazing, and Copacabana Beach offers just a spectacular setting.
The Pan American Games did not receive a ton of media attention back in the U.S., but we did our best to get the word out to the media outlets who didn't make it down here.
As far as wrestling, the Los Angeles Times did two stories on Henry Cejudo and The Associated Press did a nice story on Kristie Marano. The Arizona Republic just spoke with Henry last night for a one-year out to the Olympics package they are putting together. WCSN.com wrote stories on Cejudo, Greco-Roman Coach Steve Fraser and the U.S. Greco-Roman team.
Right after he won last night, Cejudo did a television interview with ESPN Deportes. First, he did an interview in Spanish and then he did an interview in English. I was very impressed. Henry is very comfortable, and very good, with the media. Not bad for a 20-year-old who just graduated from high school a little more than a year ago. Henry is a great young man and he's been great to work with.
I've made a lot of new friends with the group of press officers we have here and I've enjoyed getting to know some of the local people in our hotel and at our events. I owe them all a big "obrigado" - which means "thank you" in Portuguese - for everything they've done to accommodate us.
I've handed out the last of my USOC pins to the hard-working crew of Brazilians at the wrestling venue, including about 10 to the worker I call Pele. You wouldn't believe the resemblance this kid, who was bringing me brackets and results, has to the legendary Brazilian soccer player.
I'm grateful to the U.S. Olympic Committee for allowing me to work for them during this event. It was great to work with Darryl Seibel, Bob Condron, Cecil Bleiker and the entire USOC staff.
It's an experience I will never forget.
Friday, July 27
New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez would love it down here.
The fans in Brazil don't boo their own athletes. Win or lose, their support of anybody wearing their country's green and gold colors is more than obvious.
Obviously, soccer is king down here in the land of the legendary Pele. But the Brazilian fans have been showing their passion for other sports during the Pan American Games.
The atmosphere at the Riocentro Sports Center ranks among the best I've ever seen at a wrestling event. The fans came decked out in green and gold shirts, hats and Afro-style wigs, they were carrying signs and flags, and they were going crazy every time a wrestler from Brazil took the mat.
They were doing chants, stomping their feet, clapping their hands and screaming to encourage their athletes. It was loud and electric. When Brazil's Vinicius Pedrosa won his first-round match at 121 pounds the reaction was similar to when a guy wins the Olympics. There was thunderous applause as Pedrosa pumped his fist and hugged everybody in sight. He also was high-fiving people in the stands. It was pretty cool to witness something like that - the pure joy of an athlete winning and his countrymen backing him from the stands.
Even after his next match, when American Henry Cejudo downed Pedrosa 3-0, 6-0 in the semifinals, the Brazilian fans cheered just as loud for their athlete when he walked off the mat.
Two-time World champion and eight-time World medalist Kristie Marano told me she had never wrestled in an atmosphere like she did when she faced a girl from Brazil. The fans were cheering wildly for her opponent before Marano came back to win.
The fans here have taken some flak for booing some of their athletes' opponents - primarily those from the United States - but that really has not been the case at the wrestling venue. They have booed a few calls, but they showed their respect and appreciation when Marano, Cejudo and Justin Ruiz beat Brazilians in this tournament. They cheered for Marano and Ruiz when they received their gold medals on the championship podium.
Can't wait to see how wild and crazy it becomes tonight with Pedrosa wrestling for a bronze medal.
Thursday, July 26
We're at the halfway point of the wrestling competition with Session 5 of 10 just completed at the Riocentro Sports Complex.
And I just saw the best performance I've seen by one of our wrestlers in the three days of competition that have taken place.
It came in the women's freestyle semifinals at 55 kg/121 lbs. American Marcie Van Dusen was on the verge of being blown off the mat by Olympic silver medalist Tonya Verbeek of Canada. Verbeek completely dominated the first period in winning 7-0.
Verbeek came back with another takedown to lead 1-0 in the second period and you couldn't help but wonder if it was going to be a repeat of the first period.
But Van Dusen is as tough as anybody we have in any style. She dug down and came back with two clutch takedowns to win the second period 2-1. She then dominated the third period 7-2 to move into the finals.
USA Wrestling Women's Freestyle Coach Terry Steiner, who doesn't normally show a lot of emotion in the corner, was fired up after this win. He raised both arms in the air and had a huge smile on his face.
Marcie comes with a full gas tank where she will break you with her superior conditioning and never-say-die mentality. She's talented, she's very strong technically and she will wrestle you hard for the full six minutes and beyond.
It was a huge win for Marcie, who just made her first World Team this year. She is a past World University champion, but has been slowed by knee injuries in recent years. Marcie is healthy now and definitely has to be considered a contender for a World title this September in Azerbaijan.
Ran into Tommy Rowlands at the venue this morning. He will compete tomorrow. Rowlands and fellow Pan Am Games and World Team member Joe Heskett, both assistant coaches at Ohio State, brought their wives down to Rio for the Pan Ams. Tommy said they all plan to stay a couple of extra days and do a little bit of sightseeing in Rio after the competition.
Tommy is a classy young man with a great personality. He's wrestling as well as I've ever seen him and I'm eager to see how he does at the Pan Ams and the Worlds.
I also received bad news from my boss, USA Wrestling Executive Director Rich Bender. Rich asked me what day I was returning to Colorado and I made the mistake of telling him. I get back Aug. 1 and Rich told me I need to be in the office at 8 a.m. Aug. 2. I really hope he was joking.
I did receive good news from Bob Condron, who is overseeing the group of press officers I have been a part of for the U.S. Olympic Committee. He informed me that we are all getting our own hotel rooms for the rest of the Pan Am Games. That's a good thing for me. I have five more nights left in Rio.
Wednesday, July 25
The last of our teams made it in after the men's freestyle team landed in Rio yesterday.
Ran into Henry Cejudo and Tommy Rowlands last night at the venue while walking over to interview Harry Lester after his gold-medal victory.
Henry continues to attract major media attention. The Arizona Republic is the latest to want to feature Henry after Sports Illustrated and the Los Angeles Times profiled him earlier.
Lindsey Durlacher and Justin Ruiz reached the finals this morning and could double our gold-medal total to four with wins tonight.
Thankfully, the weigh-ins have been moved from the Athlete Village to the venue now. Officials were having trouble getting into the Village, where weigh-ins were held the first two days for Greco-Roman.
The women's freestyle team was scheduled to weigh in at the venue late this afternoon, just before the Greco-Roman finals.
The switch saves me a lot of time. Yesterday I covered the morning session, took a bus over to the Village, interviewed the three athletes after they weighed in, took a bus back to the venue and then covered the finals.
It was a long day. Met some of the other press officers for a late dinner in the hotel last night. My roommate, Bill Kauffman, who works for USA Volleyball, is an interesting character. He's a very nice guy, and actually walked through the rain to pick up my laundry for me the other day. But he has his share of little quirks.
He informed me that he eats at Chili's in Colorado Springs three or four times a week, and actually has his own Chili's dining card where he earns points for how much he spends. He said he can turn in points for free entrees and gift certificates. He even has his own drink at Chili's called "The Bill."
I made it very clear to Bill that I don't want him telling me any more stories if it's going to make me think he's weird. I told him if he's a die-hard Star Trek fan, or anything like that, to keep it to himself. I know he plays Fantasy Baseball, and that's fine, but I don't need to know anything else.
I know I snore, but there is no way I could possibly snore as loud as Bill does. If they ever opened a Snoring Hall of Fame, Bill would be in the first induction class. Thank God for my iPod.
Seriously though, he's a good guy and he's been fun to joke around with. We need to laugh to keep our sanity. We've been down here 16 days and still have 6 days to go before I fly home.
I also had another celebrity sighting at the Village. I spotted Team USA softball star Jennie Finch walking through the cafeteria/shopping/nightclub section of the Village. I didn't realize she was that tall.
Tuesday, July 24
The United States won 17 medals in the 18 weight classes that were contested in wrestling at the 2003 Pan American Games.
A similar scenario could unfold here in Rio as the U.S. secured its first three medals with a strong start to the Greco-Roman competition on Tuesday morning. Harry Lester, Brad Vering and Dremiel Byers all moved into the finals.
Look for our other athletes to follow suit with strong performances down here. Our World Teams are here in all three styles.
Our athletes have a nice venue to compete in. The cozy, intimate facility that seats just over 3,000 fans at the Riocentro Sports Complex doesn't have a bad seat in it. The atmosphere has been excellent as well, especially when a Brazilian wrestler earned a win and the large group of local fans celebrated.
All of our teams should be in Rio now. The men's freestyle team was scheduled to land in Rio late this morning.
I would be remiss when mentioning how tough our Greco-Roman team is without mentioning how tough our men's and women's freestyle teams are as well. When our women were in Brazil last year, they arrived at weigh-ins 20 minutes after they started, because they were having travel delays.
I'm happy to report a few people out there have been keeping up to date on my journal entries. I really do appreciate that.
Monday, July 23
One thing I would never, ever question about our U.S. Greco-Roman Team is their toughness.
Seeing what those guys have gone through in the past few days, with flight problems and having to cut weight at the last minute, gives you even more appreciation for what they do.
I wrestled in high school and I know how tough it is to manage your weight, especially right before a competition. It's not fun. And it can break even the most strong-willed of people.
Early last evening, U.S. wrestlers Brad Vering and Justin Ruiz passed through the lobby of our hotel on their way to sit in the sauna. Our guys arrived just a little over 24 hours before weigh-ins because of flight problems on the Washington, D.C. to Sao Paulo, Brazil, flight. They won't have time to do much sightseeing on this trip.
Justin even apologized for missing a couple days of the journal that he's been doing a great job on for TheMat.com. I told him it's hard to get online when you're stuck in the air trying to get to Rio.
We have a tough, veteran, seasoned group of guys in Greco-Roman who know how to get the job done.
Went and ate lunch in the dining area at the Athlete Village today. That place is massive. You could probably fit an entire football field inside there. It was amazing to see all those athletes from so many different sports, countries and cultures all dining under the same roof. And of course, they come in all shapes and sizes.
I saw a short, rail-thin track and field athlete standing in line next to 7-foot-2, 278-pound basketball star Roy Hibbert of Georgetown. Wish I could've gotten a picture of that one.
The wrestling competition is less than 24 hours away and I can't wait. It should be a fun event and a great experience for our athletes. Our men's freestyle team is scheduled to arrive in Rio tomorrow. They will compete Friday and Saturday.
Sunday, July 22
Finally, our athletes are here.
2004 Olympian and four-time World Team member Brad Vering was the first American wrestler off the plane as our Greco-Roman and women's freestyle teams landed in Rio late Sunday morning.
It was a long ordeal for the Greco-Roman team, who were supposed to land in Rio the day before. They were already in the air for several hours when they had to turn around and go back to Washington D.C. Friday night/Saturday morning because of technical problems with the radar system at the international airport in Sao Paulo. Teams flew from D.C. to Sao Paulo before flying from Sao Paulo to Rio.
The delay created a problem for our Greco guys since the team just got here and now they only have a little more than 24 hours before Monday's weigh-ins. They will compete Tuesday and Wednesday. The Greco team was headed right to work out shortly after taking a bus from the airport to the Athlete Village.
Shorty after we landed, Greco World champion Dremiel Byers was asked to do an interview. He was interviewed by O Globo, the local newspaper here in Rio, by a reporter who spoke Portuguese. With the help of an interpreter, the interview went smoothly. Dremiel said he was excited about the competition and ready for the challenge.
Dremiel looked very good at the World Team Trials and looks poised to have a very strong season. World champion Mijian Lopez of Cuba also is in Dremiel's weight class.
The Greco-Roman competition is set for Tuesday and Wednesday with the women's freestyle to follow on Thursday. The men's freestyle team, which is scheduled to arrive here on Tuesday, will compete on Friday and Saturday.
A USOC official handed me the credentials to give to our athletes, coaches and team leaders at the airport. The only athlete who they didn't have a credential for was Kristie Marano, who naturally gave me a hard time about it and then laughed. Kristie is great to work with and has a great personality. I guess winning eight World medals, including two World titles, isn't good enough to get a credential for the Pan Am Games. Not quite sure what happened, but she was told to pick her credential up at the Athlete Village. Kristie's opponents were probably wishing she wouldn't have gotten a credential.
I took a break from all the American food franchises last night after being invited to dinner at Porcao, a Brazilian steakhouse. It was outstanding. They brought out a variety of steak to our table and cut slices for our group of eight people. They also had chicken, lamb, shrimp and cheese bread in addition to an excellent salad bar.
John Bardis, our Greco-Roman Team Leader, treated us to dinner at Porcao. John is a great storyteller and kept us entertained by relating a number of the interesting experiences he has had. He's a great guy and it's great to see him down here helping our athletes.
Saturday, July 21
Woke up this morning and was preparing to go to the airport to meet our Greco-Roman Team.
There was only one problem.
They are still sitting in Washington D.C.
Planes were not able to fly from Washington to Sao Paulo, Brazil late last night and early today because of technical problems with the radar system at the international airport in Sao Paulo. U.S. teams traveling to the Pan Am Games are flying into Sao Paulo before catching a short flight into Rio de Janeiro.
The U.S. Greco Team was scheduled to leave D.C. late Friday night and arrive here late this morning. The team now is scheduled to leave late Saturday night from D.C. and is slated to arrive in Rio just before noon on Sunday.
Weigh-ins for Greco-Roman are scheduled for Monday with competition set to start Tuesday.
The U.S. women's freestyle team also was scheduled to fly out of D.C. on Saturday night with a scheduled arrival time in Rio of just before noon on Sunday.
A large group of press officers made a second pilgrimmage to the Hard Rock Cafe on Friday night. The live band they had was fantastic, playing cover tunes for a number of American songs. They also had a DJ playing 70s music before and after the band took the stage. I never thought I would here "Kung Fu Fighting" ever again, but it was among the many old tunes they played. They played everything from "YMCA" to "Twist and Shout" to the theme song from the old TV show "Hawaii Five-0."
Who knew ABBA's "Dancing Queen" was still such a big hit? It is in Brazil, where the people on the dance floor went crazy when the song came on.
The 30 Reais (about $18 U.S.) cover charge was more than worth it to see Cecil "The Diesel" Bleiker of the USOC show off his "moves" on the dance floor. Very funny.
Friday, July 20
I've been taking a lot of abuse from my fellow press officers for my frequent trips to the New York City Center.
It is a huge restaurant and shopping mall complex about a 10 Reais cab ride (about $6 U.S.) from our hotel with a large Statue of Liberty replica outside. Inside, they have Outback Steakhouse, Applebee's, TGI Friday's, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, McDonald's and an Italian restuarant. I've already been there a handful of times. The lasagne is very good at the Italian place and I had a pretty good cheese pizza at Pizza Hut.
Luckily, I don't have to make weight.
I tried some of the Brazilian cuisine here, but it's not the best, in my opinion. They have these Bob's - yes Bob's - fast-food places everywhere. There are two Bob's at the Riocentro Sports Complex, where the wrestling venue is. It's like their version of McDonald's, but maybe a notch or two below. I've avoided that place as much as possible.
The women's tennis team said they were not terribly fond of the food they had at the Athlete Village.
I had a cheeseburger in our hotel a few nights ago and was sick for about two days after that. We had a great experience at a Brazilian steakhouse early in the trip, but the food for the most part hasn't been the best.
Except for at the American franchises they have here.
But even the American franchises here don't make food as good as they do in the U.S. When I get home, I have a few places that I need to hit in the Springs.
As you may have read in Justin Ruiz's athlete journal, the Greco-Roman team will arrive in Rio tomorrow. It will be so nice to see some familiar faces down here. I've been here for 11 days now and I haven't seen a wrestler here yet, unless you include Jim Scherr of the USOC.
I'm off to the tennis venue now to cover our women's team. All three Americans lost in the first two rounds of women's singles. Their doubles team will compete at 2 this afternoon on the red clay of Marapendi Country Club.
Six days of Squash competition finally ended Thursday afternoon. They ended up with two gold medals and a silver. They were great people to work with as I pitched in as the press officer for Squash. It was a new and interesting experience.
Thursday, July 19
I was able to watch the end of the women's semifinal volleyball match between Brazil and United States on television yesterday in my hotel room and the Brazilian announcers were going crazy.
They had just swept the United States in three straight games.
Beating the powerful U.S. in just about any sport is an impressive feat, but did Brazil really beat our best American team? A few of the top U.S. players were competing here, but a number of the top American volleyball players are back training in Colorado Springs for an upcoming tournament.
That is the case in a number of sports, where younger, less experienced teams have been sent to the Pan Am Games for an assortment of reasons.
But not in wrestling. Our 2007 U.S. World Team is coming down here next week and looking to haul home its share of gold medals. World champions Dremiel Byers, Joe Warren and Kristie Marano are coming down here as are Olympic silver medalist Sara McMann and World silver medalists Mike Zadick and Stephanie Murata.
Our Greco-Roman and freestyle teams will receive an opportunity to face the powerful Cuban team while our women's freestyle team will face tough opponents from Canada and other Pan Am nations.
It should also provide valuable international experience to first-time World Team members Henry Cejudo, Tommy Rowlands, Joe Heskett, Doug Schwab and Marcie Van Dusen.
This event should be a great tune-up for our teams before they compete in September's World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Wednesday, July 18
It was a quiet and somber start to Day 5 of the XV Pan American Games on Wednesday morning in Rio.
The nation of Brazil, and the world for that matter, is still in shock after the plane crash Tuesday night at the domestic airport in Sao Paulo that has left at least 200 people dead.
Flags were flying at half staff and a moment of silence was observed at Pan Am Games venues around Rio on Wednesday. Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared three days of national mourning for the victims.
It was the deadliest air disaster in Brazil's history.
American athletes, coaches, staff and media services staff are flying in and out of San Paulo on the way to and from Rio for the Games. I flew in and out of Sao Paulo's international airport on July 9 and I'm scheduled to go through there again on July 31.
We are flying on United Airlines, through the Sao Paulo airport that is used for international flights. The airport where the plane crash occurred is used for domestic flights within Brazil.
Our wrestling teams will start flying through Sao Paulo on Saturday, when the Greco-Roman team is scheduled to arrive in Rio. The women's freestyle team will be here the next day with men's freestyle set to arrive here next Tuesday.
As it always does, the plane crash puts sports and life into proper perspective once again. Watching some of the coverage on a television in the lobby of our hotel, with some of the people who live here, makes you realize just how horrible this tragedy was. A local man sitting in front of the television had tears streaming down his cheeks.
It was a sad, sad day here.
Tuesday, July 17
One of the things I know I am definitely not doing when I get home is booking any bus trips anywhere.
Part of covering numerous sports in a huge event like the Pan American Games is riding the shuttle buses that take athletes, coaches, officials and media to various venues in Rio, a city of 11 million people.
And like any big city, there is rush hour and traffic jams. We discovered that first-hand last night when I rode with the USA Squash Team to their venue for the gold-medal singles finals for women and men.
It took us a full two hours to ride from the Athletes' Village to the Squash venue as traffic slowed to a crawl for much of the trip. We left at 5:40 p.m. and arrived at the venue at 7:40.
Gold-medal Squash winner Natalie Grainger of the U.S. almost missed her match. She arrived just before the scheduled bus departure time of 4:40 at the Village, but the bus had already left. Grainger, Coach Chris Walker and Team Physician Andrew Hunt were left scrambling to get to the venue.
They called the U.S. Olympic Committee, who then sent a car to the Village to drive them to the venue. After getting stuck in rush hour, the driver accidently took them to the Field Hockey stadium. The driver spoke only Portuguese and he finally figured out how to make it to the Squash venue. Grainger arrived at the venue at 7:15, and ran into the arena just 15 minutes before her match.
American Julian Illingworth won a silver medal in Squash on Monday night and then had to turn right around Tuesday morning to play in an 8 a.m. team match. The team did not make it back to the Village until midnight and then had to get right back up for a 5:40 a.m. bus.
The countdown now stands at four days until the first wrestling team arrives in Rio. The Greco-Roman team is scheduled to arrive here on Saturday.
I've already been here eight days and just had my first batch of laundry done in a little strip mall about half a block away from our hotel. It was reasonably priced and saved me a lot of time.
I had a great lunch today at Outback Steakhouse. The Coconut Shrimp was outstanding. They have a ton of American franchises here, but no Starbucks. They are known for their coffee down here, but there aren't a ton of coffee shops here like in the U.S.
Monday, July 16
World bronze medalist Justin Ruiz has agreed to write a journal for TheMat.com on his daily experiences at the Pan American Games.
We hooked this up through e-mail. Justin responded to my request that he write a journal for us and he said that he is interested in writing about his daily experiences before, during and after he competes in the Greco-Roman competition here at 96 kg/211.5 lbs.
Justin will compete in the World Championships for the fourth time after winning the U.S. World Team Trials last month in Las Vegas.
I covered Justin for two years when he wrestled for the Nebraska Cornhuskers - where he was a two-time All-American - and I was a sportswriter for the Omaha World-Herald newspaper. He's one of the nicest guys I've ever dealt with in my career and he's also one of the most intelligent. I look forward to working with him and seeing what he has to say about his experiences in Rio.
Greco-Roman wrestler Jacob Clark wrote a journal for TheMat.com during the World Championships last year and did an excellent job for us.
The Greco-Roman competition kicks off the five-day Pan American Games wrestling event in Pavillion 4 of the Riocentro Sports Complex. Greco-Roman will compete July 24-25, women's freestyle on July 26 and men's freestyle on July 27-28.
Sixteen of the 18 American wrestlers who will compete here also will compete for the U.S. at September's World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan.
The Greco-Roman team is scheduled to arrive in Rio on July 21.
Trying to cover three sports down here has not been an easy task. I'm taking the 90-minute bus ride from the Athletes' Village to the Squash venue later today as two Americans - Natalie Grainger and Julian Illingworth - play in the women's and men's gold-medal matches.
I also met with the three members of the U.S. women's tennis team who will be competing here. NCAA champion Audra Cohen of Miami leads a strong group of college players who start competition Wednesday on the red clay of Marapendi Country Club. Luckily, that venue is within walking distance of my hotel.
Sunday, July 15
The compelling story of Henry Cejudo continues to draw the attention of the heavy-hitters in the sports media market.
Cejudo, who overcame numerous hardships while growing up as his mother struggled to support their large family, was the subject of an excellent Sunday feature story by reporter Kevin Baxter of the Los Angeles Times.
Baxter, who normally covers the Los Angeles Dodgers for the Times, speaks both English and Spanish and is in Rio de Janeiro to cover the Pan American Games. I received an opportunity to work with Baxter on the story. While we chatted in the Pan Am Games media center on Saturday, Baxter raved about how impressed he was with Henry when he interviewed him over the phone.
The 20-year-old Cejudo, as many of you know, was the subject of a superb four-page feature story in Sports Illustrated that ran just prior to the U.S. World Team Trials.
Click here to read L.A. Times story on Cejudo
Publicity like this is priceless for our sport. I'm excited to see Henry compete down here. Hopefully, he can use this as a springboard to a strong performance in his first World Championships in September in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Henry is scheduled to arrive in Rio on July 24 to compete in the Pan American Games. The men's freestyle competition is set for July 27-28.
Saturday, July 14
In nearly 20 years as a sports journalist, I have seen my share of big sporting events.
I have covered the Rose Bowl, the Indianapolis 500 and the College World Series, and also been to 11 NCAA Wrestling Championships, two U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team Trials and the World Championships last year in China.
I added another big one to my list on Friday night.
The Opening Ceremonies for the XV Pan American Games were nothing short of spectacular, complete with a phenonmenal fireworks display, great music, eye-popping colors and dancing on the arena floor, and an amazing lighting-of-the-torch ceremony that was done by past Brazialian track legend Joaquim Cruz.
An enthusiastic crowd of more than 90,000 fans packed the gigantic soccer stadium. It's the biggest stadium I've ever been in. The Rose Bowl and Michigan Stadium, places I've been, do seat more. But the floor area of Maracana Stadium is bigger and the seats aren't as close together as those in a football stadium.
Bob Condron, director of media services for the U.S. Olympic Committee, was able to pick up some tickets for the USOC press officers at the last minute and we are greatly indebted to him. This is Bob's sixth Pan American Games and he said this was the best Opening Ceremonies he has seen by far. Many said the event was of similar caliber to that of an Olympic Games.
The ceremony was upbeat, energetic and exciting to be a part of. As many of us expected, the U.S. team received a few boos when it walked into the stadium but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. There were a few cheers as well. I interviewed a few members of the U.S. Squash Team and they were blown away by how impressive the ceremony was.
When the Brazilian team entered the stadium to a thunderous ovation from the massive crowd it gave me goosebumps. It was very special to see.
It was quite a spectacle and an experience I will never forget.
Our bus driver twice got lost on the way to the stadium, and it took us two hours to get from the Main Press Center to Maracana Stadium, but it was more than worth it.
Friday, July 13
The President of Brazil made an appearance at the Athletes' Village early Friday afternoon, signaling the start of a huge day for the Pan American Games.
The Opening Ceremonies are set for tonight and a sold-out crowd of 80,000 fans is expected to greet the athletes who will take part in the massive athletic festival among countries from North, Central and South America.
A number of athletes are expected to walk in the Ceremonies and then possibly duck out of the stadium a little early as they are scheduled to begin competition the following morning.
With competition and long days approaching, a large group of USOC press officers took advantage of one our last free evenings to make a trek to the Hard Rock Cafe in Rio. I've been to numerous Hard Rock Cafes in the U.S., but this one blows them all away.
The place is really impressive, or "fantastico" as they say here in Portuguese, complete with a huge dance floor and a live band playing. Before the band took the stage, the Village People's "YMCA" came on and people in the Hard Rock flooded the dance floor and started spelling out the letters as the music blared.
A short time later, the Beatles' "Twist and Shout" came on and the crowd launched into a little dance routine. A number of us, including Lindsay DeWall and Diana Wright of the USOC, and Nicole Jomantas from Judo, ventured out there and tried to follow the steps the people from Brazil were doing on the dance floor. It was an enjoyable evening.
We had our cab driver laughing on the way to the Hard Rock. I was sitting in the front and have been known to have a little good-natured fun with these guys. He was telling me he didn't speak any English and I asked him if he knew where he was taking us. He said, "Yes, Hard Rock Cafe." I told him that he did know how to speak English and then he says, "Yes, I know English. New York City, Chicago and Dallas, Texas." We all broke up laughing.
The countdown now stands at eight days before our first team arrives in Rio. The Greco-Roman wrestlers are scheduled to fly into Rio late on the morning of July 21. The women's freestyle team is expected to arrive the next day and the men's freestyle team is due in here July 24, the day the wrestling competition starts.
Thursday, July 12
The city of Rio should be commended for its efforts in preparing for a massive event like this.
Many of the facilities are outstanding and they have promoted this event like crazy. Rio is in the running for the 2016 Olympics and obviously wants to put on a good show for everyone that is visiting their spacious, diverse and scenic city.
I received a chance to see where our wrestlers will be housed during this event after making a trip to the Pan American Games' Athletes Village on Wednesday afternoon. The Village is massive and received favorable reviews from a few of the American athletes and coaches I spoke with yesterday.
We had our first big wrestling story come out from the Pan Am Games. Barry Wilner of The Associated Press wrote an excellent feature on two-time World champion Kristie Marano that went out around the U.S. on the AP news wire. Among the papers picking it up were the Houston Chronicle and the Albany Times Union. The story is posted on our Newsstand on TheMat.com. Kristie will compete at 72 kg/158.5 lbs. in Rio on July 26.
The hospitality here has been outstanding. We've got a great setup at our hotel and all the workers here are extremely helpful and friendly. The USA women's gymnastics team is staying in our hotel. They have a dining area right next to our media workroom in the lower level of the hotel. A lot of their team members look younger than my 14-year-old daughter.
I met the USA Squash team and head coach, and did an interview session with them at the Village. I'm covering Squash and Women's Tennis as part of the USOC media services staff. The athletes from Squash were very charismatic and upbeat, and looking forward to the Opening Ceremonies on Friday night. The only complaint the Squash people had was their venue was about an hour and a half drive from the Village. Luckily for the wrestlers, they are only a short drive away from their venue.
Two of the Squash team members are graduates of Yale University, the same school where top U.S. women's freestyle wrestler Patricia Miranda recently graduated from Law School.
I had planned to check out the Flag Raising Ceremony at the Village late Wednesday afternoon, but a light drizzle turned into a downpour as we headed outside just before 5 p.m. local time. I instead made a quick dash to the long row of buses at the Village and caught a ride back to our hotel.
I was interviewed by phone this morning by reporter Andrew Logue of the Des Moines Register, who is doing a story on the record-setting 1997 Iowa Hawkeyes wrestling team. I did a short interview with Andrew and provided him with contact information for Lee Fullhart, who was an NCAA champion on that team. I covered that event when I was sports editor for the Burlington (Iowa) Hawk Eye newspaper. Andrew is one of the top writers at the Register, so I'm looking forward to his story.
I have fond and vivid memories of that event after Iowa went on an amazing run on Friday en route to beating No. 1 Oklahoma State in what turned out to be Dan Gable's 15th and final NCAA title. The event was held in Gable's backyard of Cedar Falls, Iowa, and it was as emotional as I've ever seen him. Gable retired as Iowa's head coach shortly after that tournament.
Seeing Iowa 118-pounder Jesse Whitmer - aka "The Strongest Man in the World" - go on an improbable run to win the title was something Hawkeye fans still rave about. A three-year backup to four-time All-American Mike Mena, Whitmer won an NCAA title in his only year as a college starter.
It was nice to be able to talk a little bit of wrestling after preparing to cover two other sports.
The U.S. won 17 medals - eight gold, five silver and four bronze - at the most recent Pan American Games in 2003. 2003 Pan Am medalists Patricia Miranda, Sara McMann, Stephen Abas, Jamill Kelly, Rulon Gardner and Cael Sanderson followed by capturing medals at the 2004 Olympics. It is intereting to note that Sanderson won a bronze medal in the 2003 Pan Ams before collecting a gold medal at the Olympics a year later.
The Opening Ceremonies are set for tomorrow night and everybody is talking about how excited they are to be a part of it.
Wednesday, July 11
It's still two days until the Opening Ceremonies and 10 days before our first wrestling team arrives here, but our wrestlers already are gaining plenty of interest and attention from the media who are covering the Pan American Games.
The Los Angeles Times is working on a feature on American freestyle phenom Henry Cejudo. Reporter Kevin Baxter spoke with Henry and Resident Freestyle Coach Terry Brands by phone on Tuesday. Henry is only 20, but he's become very good at dealing with the media. He has a very compelling story, as most of you already know.
Associated Press reporter Barry Wilner, who is here in Rio, is working on a story on two-time World champion Kristie Marano. Wilner talked with Kristie by phone on Tuesday. Kristie is wrestling very well again after coming off an injury. She is very determined to make a splash next year in the Olympics. Looking forward to seeing her wrestle down here.
AP also is hoping to do something on Cejudo prior to the competition.
Henry and Kristie both will be competing in Rio as they continue preparations for September's World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Our wrestlers received high praise for being great to deal with from the news media who covered the U.S. World Team Trials last month in Las Vegas. Expect that to continue as we move closer to next year's Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
The U.S. Greco-Roman team is scheduled to fly into Rio on July 21 with the women coming in the next day. The freestyle team rolls in here July 24. The Greco-Roman competition is set for July 24-25, women's freestyle is July 26 and men's freestyle is July 27-28.
This trip continues to offer its share of interesting moments. A group of us went to a steakhouse last night where waiters continually keep coming by with new cuts of beef for you to sample. They cut off a small chunk of meat and then there is a brochure you look at to see what kind of beef you are tasting. It was very good and very reasonably priced.
Even though we are a long way from home, we were able to watch the Major League All-Star Game last night and we even got the broadcast in English from our hotel. It was fun watching the game and talking baseball with Nicole Saunches and Lisa Ramsperger of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Nicole did P.R. for the Milwaukee Brewers and Lisa worked with the Houston Astros before they joined the USOC.
I'm a huge baseball fan and have spent a majority of my professional career covering Triple-A, Double-A and Class A baseball as a sportswriter for various newspapers.
I'm impressed with Rio. Everywhere you look there are billboards, posters and information pumping up this event. I've seen quite a few of the venues, and I think the athletes and fans will like what they see.
This city has a lot to offer. Some of the views with the ocean and the mountains are breathtaking.
Tuesday, July 10
You can't fully appreciate how grueling a travel schedule our athletes endure until you experience it yourself.
My journey from Colorado Springs to Rio de Janeiro to work as a press officer at the 2007 Pan American Games was relatively smooth. But a quick snapshot of the schedule for this trip gives you an idea of the long road our 18 Pan Am Games participants, our coaches and our team leaders will follow on their way here in a couple of weeks.
I am serving as one of 17 press officers for the U.S. Olympic Committee for the Pan American Games. I arrived in Brazil late Monday morning, four days before the Opening Ceremonies kick off the 16-day athletic event that involves 42 nations from North, Central and South America.
I started my long journey Sunday morning by catching a quick 20-minute flight on United Airlines from Colorado Springs to Denver followed by a three-hour flight from Denver to Washington, D.C.
We were then delayed two hours in D.C. when the flight in front of us to Frankfurt, Germany, was delayed. The toughest part of the journey followed with the marathon, 9-hour, 19-minute flight from D.C. to Sao Paolo, Brazil. Luckily for us, we didn't leave D.C. until shortly before midnight and a lot of people in the weary traveling party were able to at least grab a little bit of sleep on the plane.
I tried to watch this bizarre Sandra Bullock movie where she kept having a recurring dream that her husband had been killed in an automobile accident, but I finally gave up on it and went to sleep.
Among the people on our flight was the USA Men's Soccer Team, a group of Under 19 players who don't look any older than our kids who will be wrestling up in Fargo in a couple of weeks. One of their players sat next to me and said he just graduated from high school.
After arriving in Sao Paolo, we had to get off the plane and go through a long line in security again before getting back on the same plane for the short 35-minute flight from Sao Paolo to Rio.
This is only my second overseas trip, but I definitely can relate to what our athletes go through as they travel around the globe to find top competition. It is a grind and being able to become acclimated and ready to compete after a long trip takes some getting used to.
After nearly 24 straight hours of travel - when you factor in layovers and delays - our group arrived at the hotel. We barely had time to unpack before we turned right around for a quick bus ride and tour that included stops at the Athlete Village and the Main Press Center.
We spotted a Sam's Club, two Wal Marts, a Ford dealership, a couple of McDonald's and a TGI Friday's on our way. A mall area dedicated to New York City had a large replica of the Statue of Liberty situated out front. This city is huge, with a population of more than 11 million people.
A shopping mall is located right across the street from our hotel and a group of us found a great little pizza place for dinner. Our waiter was a friendly, energetic guy who spoke no English at all, but bent over backwards trying to help us. He had a huge smile on his face seemingly the whole time. He had a big bandana on and I mentioned he looked kind of like Gerardo, the fun-loving entertainer who sang "Rico Suave" in the early 1990s.
The highlight of the day for me came when a group of us stopped in the hotel lounge and we were entertained by the bartender there. He spoke very little English, but he made great efforts to communicate with us. When one of his co-workers came out from the back dressed in royal blue virtually from head to toe, the bartender pointed at him and said "Blue Man Group" and acted like he was playing the drums. We all broke up laughing. It was a good way to end a long couple of days.
When I woke up this morning, I had a chance to sit out on the terrace of my hotel room. My view of the city from the 24th floor balcony at our hotel is spectacular. You can see Copacabana Beach and the Atlantic Ocean just a couple of blocks away. Hopefully, we'll have some time to walk over there and check it out. There haven't been any Barry Manilow sightings at the beach - he must still be singing his trademark tune "Copacabana" at the Las Vegas Hilton.
One of the big myths here concerns the language the natives speak here. They don't speak Spanish, they speak Portuguese. Not many speak English. The people have been very nice, very friendly and very helpful. At times, it's a constant game of charades to try and communicate, but we usually end up understanding each other.
The weather here has been almost perfect. It's Winter in Brazil right now and temperatures typically stay in the 70s this time of year. Since it is Winter, it also is dark here by around 5:30 p.m.
We're only three hours ahead of Mountain Time, so the time change hasn't really been a factor for us. It also helps the American journalists with their deadlines, since it's earlier back home and they have more time to file their stories.
The currency here is called Reais. One dollar in U.S. currency translates to about 1.8 of the money in Brazil, although we've found the exchange rate fluctuates quite a bit. One of our press officers actually exchanged $40 U.S. and got 34 Reais before we went out to eat. The exchange rate seems to be the best in the airport.
I am rooming with Bill Kauffman, who works for USA Volleyball. Bill and I both attended small Division III colleges in the Iowa Conference. He went to Buena Vista and I went to Wartburg. We both agreed it was pretty cool to see how a couple of small-college guys from Iowa both ended up working with the USOC at a big event like the Pan Am Games.
My first task here is to serve as the press officer for USA Squash, a game similar to racquetball, for the start of the Pan Am Games. It is a sport I know little or nothing about, and have never seen in person.
I met the squash team leader and one of the players in the airport when we were searching through the mass of black Rio 2007 travel bags after landing here. I am meeting with the Squash team tomorrow morning at the Athlete Village. Their venue is one of the farthest away from the Village, located about an hour's drive away.
A number of the press officers here will be covering the sport they work for, in addition to picking up a couple of other sports.
I will then oversee USA Women's Tennis. Wrestling starts two weeks from today, with Greco-Roman competing July 24-25, women's freestyle July 26 and freestyle July 27-28.
While a lot of sports are sending younger, less experienced athletes, wrestling is sending its top guns to the Pan Ams with most of our World Team competing down here. A good medal haul near the end of the Pan Am Games would be great to see for the U.S.
The wrestlers will compete at the massive Riocentro Sports Complex, where a number of sports will be contested at a handful of venues at the Pan Am Games. The Main Press Center also is located in the complex. Taekwondo and Judo will compete prior to wrestling in the same venue. The venue provides a small, intimate setting with not a bad seat in the house. It seats just over 3,000 people for wrestling.
I've already had a couple of press officers from foreign countries ask me when young U.S. stud Henry Cejudo is rolling into town. They read the recent article about Henry in Sports Illustrated. He'll be arriving here in a couple of weeks. The Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press also are interested in writing about Cejudo. Barry Wilner of The Associated Press plans to do a story on two-time World champion Kristie Marano.
On our way to the press center this morning, we passed a group of cyclists from Argentina who were pedaling as a pack down one of the main streets in Rio. It's interesting to see all the teams rolling in here as the start of the Pan Am Games approach.
This city is very excited about this event as they try to put on a good show in their quest to land the 2016 Olympic Games. It should be a fun and exciting event. A number of the sporting events already are sold out. A number of the venues look virtually brand new.
I'm looking forward to our head-to-head battles with Cuba in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling along with our matches with Canada in women's freestyle. This could be our best Greco-Roman team ever and a strong performance here could serve as an excellent springboard for September's World Championships in Azerbaijan. Our freestyle team has a lot of new faces and it will be good for guys like Doug Schwab, Joe Heskett and Tommy Rowlands to gain more experience and mat time.
I will be here for 23 days, so this will be a great opportunity for me to work an event like this and gain experience heading into next year's Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
Looking forward to seeing how the Women's Special Wrestle-Off turns out today in the Springs and looking forward to seeing who the last three members of our U.S. World Team will be. This could be a big year for our women's team as well.
It should be a great month of wrestling with Junior and Cadet Nationals coming up in Fargo along with the big event set to take place here in Rio.