Sportswriters start out as sports fans. In my case, I fell in love with the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals at 7 and the Super Bowl champion New York Jets at 8 before I discovered the joy and heartache of rooting for the local teams. I became such a diehard Redskins fan in the 1970s that I wouldn’t move off the couch during games for fear that doing so would jinx my heroes.
However, when you become a professional journalist, you stop rooting. It’s a requirement of the job, one that I have absorbed so well that I even found it difficult to cheer loudly when my eldest daughter was running cross country and track for Whitman High School the past four years.
Which brings me to the Olympics, which begin tomorrow in London. Although it’s natural to root for the athletes representing your country, it’s not seemly, at least if you’re an American (I still remember being shocked when I covered Wimbledon in 1989 and the Italian press applauded their underdog player who had acquitted herself well against legendary American Chris Evert).
But since I’ll be watching the Olympics in my family room or while covering training camp at Redskins Park, it will be kosher (and easier) to cheer for American athletes, particularly those from the Washington area.
Broadneck High’s Matt Centrowitz will run in the men’s 1,500, Bethesda’s Julie Zeitlin (a Whitman graduate) will compete in rhythmic gymnastics, Potomac’s David Banks, Annandale’s Guiseppe Lanzone, Bethesda’s Scott Parsons and Darnestown’s Caroline Queen will row, Bristow’s Claire Laubach will play field hockey, Annapolis’ Farrah Hall will sail, and Suitland’s Kevin Durant will dunk, but I’m particularly looking forward to the races in the pool. Sterling’s Matt McLean, Great Falls’ Kate Ziegler and Bethesda’s Katie Ledecky, who at 15, is younger than my younger daughter, will all swim for the USA.
McLean, a 24-year-old Virginia graduate and first-time Olympian, gets his shot at a medal on Tuesday as part of the men’s 4×200 meter relay team.
Ledecky, the surprise winner of the 800-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic Trials on July 1, will swim for the first time in London in next Thursday’s preliminaries. So will the 24-year-old Ziegler, who finished second to Ledecky in Omaha, and is back in the Olympics after competing in the 400 and 800 in 2008 in Beijing where she didn’t qualify for either final. The 800 final is a week from tonight.
If there’s any American who knows what it’s like to be in Ledecy’s shoes, make it swimsuit, it’s Melissa Belote Ripley, who won three gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics as a 15-year-old back-stroker from Springfield. Now a club and high school swimming coach in Arizona and the mother of two college swimmers, Belote Ripley hasn’t met Ledecky, but she’s a fan.
“If I could give Katie any advice for how to approach the Olympics at 15, it would be, ‘Open your eyes and enjoy it,’ “ Belote Ripley said in an exclusive interview for this column. “There’s a certain part of you that’s very naïve because you are 15. And that’s a good thing. You don’t get shell-shocked. I’m so excited for her. I wish her the very best of luck.”
But Belote Ripley will be rooting harder for Missy Franklin and not because the 17-year-old back-stroker is from Aurora, Colo., the site of our nation’s latest tragic mass shooting.
“There has not been an American female Olympic champion in the 200 backstroke since I won in 1972,” Belote Ripley explained. “That’s the longest drought in any event. And Missy, whose first name is Melissa, has a very good shot at winning this year. I feel like the torch will be passed from one Melissa to another.”
The torch of the Washington area’s greatest swimmer has been passed down from Belote Ripley to Mike Barrowman and then to Tom Dolan and now to McLean, Ziegler and Ledecky.
“Three swimmers from my club, Springfield Swim and Racquet, went to Trials in ‘72 and there were six from two other local clubs, but we just didn’t have the same number of top swimmers as Potomac Valley Swimming does now,” Belote Ripley said. “I think my success helped as did the success of Mike Barrowman and Tom Dolan and all the swimmers who came after us who were all a part of the Northern Virginia Swim League or the Montgomery County Swim League. Potomac Valley (which covers the District and all the close-in suburbs) is the smallest geographical LSC (local swim committee) in the nation, but it’s but it’s the fifth-largest in the number of swimmers.”
Belote Ripley, who broke the American record in the 200 backstroke at the 1976 Games in Montreal, remains a big believer in the Olympic concept despite all the negative events that have happened at the Games beginning with the killing of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists in Munich in 1972.
“When they do the opening ceremonies, I’m going to be full goosebumps,” Belote Ripley said. “It’s such an incredible feeling marching in and being there with all the athletes and all the fans. I always remember how much fun the whole experience was.”
Which is hopefully how Ledecky, McLean and Ziegler will remember London and the summer of 2012.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin