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Olympians count down to London

Steve Coppola said he was well-aware the day was near. He and his fellow rowers can hardly escape it. They're young people, after all. Their world unfolds instantly, on the screen of a cell phone.

"Most of us get the tweets on our phones," Coppola said Monday from training camp in San Francisco. "There's a Twitter countdown. We all get the updates, telling us how many days are left to the Opening Ceremonies."

Today, the number reaches 100. Yes, only 100 days left until Queen Elizabeth II declares the 30th Olympiad under way at the Opening Ceremonies in London. The U.S. Olympic Committee will mark the occasion today in New York City, where 78 of the nation's top athletes will gather in Times Square for an all-day celebration. Has it really been four years? Wasn't it just yesterday we marveled at the glorious opening ceremony in Beijing, at Usain Bolt's stunning victory in the men's 100 meters and at Michael Phelps' record eight gold medals?

"Yeah, it's wild," said Coppola, a Buffalo native who won bronze in the men's eight in China. "It's been a long four years. At the same time, it's flown by so quickly."

An Olympics creates experiences that last a lifetime. Back in '08, Coppola became the first West Side rower to medal at an Olympics. He'll always have that bronze medal to pull out at parties and family gatherings. But when he decided to make another four-year commitment and take one more run at it, Coppola tossed his medal into a strong box. It was time to look ahead again.

"It's great to have it," Coppola said. "But I had to put it away. I had to focus on the next one, not look back."

Coppola is in a state of nervous uncertainty. Like many aspiring Olympians, he still has to earn a spot. He's among 16 rowers competing for a seat in the men's eight, the elite boat. Then the U.S. men have to win a regatta in Switzerland next month to earn the last of the eight spots in London. They have to qualify because they failed to finish in the top seven at the previous world championships.

Over in England, there's a similar state of fretful anticipation. The British have been looking toward to this event since July of 2005, when London was awarded the 2012 Games in an upset over Paris.

The operating budget for the Games is 9.3 billion pounds, or about $14.8 billion. That's considered modest by the standards of the Beijing Games, which were seen as a reflection of China's emergence as a superpower.

London, which has hosted the Olympics twice before (in 1908 and 1948), has no such grandiose ambitions.

Paul Deighton, the CEO of the London Games, said at the close of the '08 Olympics that he felt no particular pressure to measure up to Beijing's performance. Reports have been favorable. Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said London would leave a "legacy blueprint" after performing a final inspection.

Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London organizing committee, expects a successful Games. As of early this week, all the main venues had been built and most of the tickets sold. But Coe, who in the '80s won two gold medals for Great Britain in the 1,500 meters, has confessed to being nervous as the Games approach.

Coe, who understands such things, has called the final 100 days "the race of our lives." He says there is lots of work left to do, including the construction of 11 temporary sites. Coe admits running an Olympics is an enormous challenge, the equivalent of holding 26 athletic world championships at once.

The British intend to be ready. In the coming weeks, they will conduct a number of test runs. They will have about 80,000 people going to events in the Olympic Park on May 5 to test crowd control and transportation.

The English have spent some 17 billion pounds on transportation improvements, including 30 miles of new roads to ferry athletes, media and VIPs around a city that is considered one of the most congested in Europe.

Traffic, as always, is a major concern. The other, of course, is security. One day after London got the Games in July 2005, suicide bombers killed 52 people in the transit system. David Cameron, the prime minister, says London will have the tightest mainland security operation in Britain's peacetime history.

Coe says he doesn't want people to feel constricted by security. It felt suffocating at times in Beijing. The English want it to be fun. Above all, Coe wants the Olympics to be a memorable time for the estimated 10,500 athletes from 204 nations.

Medals matter, too. The British want the host athletes to be a smashing success, as the Chinese were in topping the gold-medal list four years ago. Britain, which upgraded its sports program after being awarded the games, won 18 gold medals in Beijing, easily its most ever. It'll be looking to top that this summer.

A lot of athletes will be looking to repeat past glory. American swimmer Phelps, who set a single Games record with eight gold medals in Beijing, will be looking to set the career medals record. Phelps has 16, two behind former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina.

Bolt, who set Olympic records in the 100 and 200 meters and as part of Jamaica's winning 400-meter relay, is back and looking to hold off the charge of his gifted countryman, Yohan Blake.

The U.S. men's and women's basketball teams will be looking defend gold, as usual. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are among the returnees from the '08 team. Three of the American women -- Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings -- are gunning for a third gold.

Russia's flamboyant Yelena Isinbayeva will be out for a third straight women's pole vault title. Her main competition should again come from Fredonia native Jenn Suhr, who won a silver medal as Jenn Stuczynski in '08.

Suhr won't be the only local pole vaulter at the U.S. trials in June. Lancaster's Mary Saxer, a two-time All-American who finished third to Suhr at the Millrose Games, is an Olympic hopeful. So is Medina's Janice Keppler, who was second at an MSG indoor event in January.

Tonawanda's Michelle Moore is on the U.S. national synchronized swimming team that will compete in the FINA Olympic qualifying tournament in London today through Sunday. Nine countries are battling for three team spots.

Trevor Barron, the grandson of late Buffalo sports announcing legend Stan Barron, is perhaps the best racewalker in the country. At 19, Barron could be the youngest U.S. track Olympian if he qualifies.

Coppola was the youngest rower in the men's eight in Beijing at 24.

"Now, I feel old," he said. "It's funny. Four years down the road, your body feels different. You have to treat it differently. I've been around so long, I feel a lot of nagging injuries I didn't use to."

"Every day, I feel like I'm doing the same thing over and over again," he said. "But then you zoom out and take the larger perspective. Hell, I was in China yesterday, and I'm still telling stories to the younger guys, still reminiscing with the older ones. It's weird."

Yeah, where does the time go? Like Bolt or Phelps, it seems to go past in a flash. Or was that a tweet?

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com