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THERE'S NO HIGH LIKE CLIMBING DOWN UNDER

Whenever I'm about to leave for an Olympics, I get the same reaction from people. They all want to go along with me. Can they come as my assistant? Do I need a personal photographer? How about if they -- heh, heh -- stow away in my luggage?

Everyone tells me how lucky I am to write about the world's greatest sporting event and to get paid for it. They marvel at what a fun and unforgettable experience it must be to spend three weeks in one of the world's most lovely and exotic cities.

I smile, nod my head and try not to seem ungrateful. After all, no one wants to hear about the drudgery involved in covering an Olympics. No one cares about countless hours spent traveling on buses to and from events, or working in crowded press rooms alongside obnoxious journalists from Europe and Texas.

But looking back, I sometimes wish I had taken more time to appreciate the places I've been. I think about France and Spain, and especially Norway, and I promise myself that if I'm ever fortunate enough to get back to them again, unburdened by stories and deadlines, I'll remember to savor every moment of it.

On Wednesday morning, I woke up in my tiny room in the media village, feeling vaguely disspirited. It occurred to me that I'd been in Australia for nearly a week and barely had time to enjoy it. Aside from a quick trip to Bondi Beach for beach volleyball, I hadn't been downtown at all.

Worst of all, I hadn't yet seen Sydney's majestic harbor, or two of the world's architectural wonders -- the Sydney Opera House or the Sydney Harbour Bridge. So it was time to attempt something bold -- yes, even more ambitious than trying to break 100 in golf. I decided to climb to the top of the Harbour Bridge and see it all from there.

You can actually do such a thing. Since October 1998, an operation known as BridgeClimb Sydney has allowed adventurous tourists to take in the magnificent harbor vista from the top of the world's largest (though not longest) steel arch bridge.

What the heck was I thinking? I'm afraid of heights. I don't ride on Ferris wheels because I panic when they stop at the top. But I figured it would be well worth the trip to the harbor, even if I chickened out at the last minute. So at around noon, Gannett columnist Mike Lopresti and I rode one of Sydney's clean, efficient subways down to the harbor. We got out at the Circular Quay stop and came out on the harborfront. We walked past the Captain Cook cruise boat and the massive Crystal Harmony ferry and walked up a stone walkway to an entrance marked BridgeClimb.

I didn't have a reservation. I was counting on that as my out. But Sydneysiders are obsessed with keeping the world's press happy. They told me they could squeeze me in for an exclusive media climb. It would be Lopresti, me, and Ken Nilsson, a Swedish freelance writer.

As we sat waiting for our tour guide, I thought of the Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz," before he sneaks into the witch's castle -- when he says: "Talk me out of it!"

Just then, our Climb Leader, a transplanted Englishwoman named Sara Brown, told us, "We're going down to get your equipment." Equipment? Now I was worried. But Brown assured me there was no danger. No one had ever died making the climb. In fact, a woman named Mrs. Muller had done it on her 100th birthday. (She died exactly one year later, presumably of natural causes).

"It took her two hours to go 200 steps," said Richard Dzikowski, another guide. "Her grandson, a young burly policeman, was there to encourage her. Afterward, the media asked her, 'So what are you going to do next?' She said, 'I think I'll get myself a boy toy.'

"I've taken Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman up," said Brown. "Glenn Close, too. Mandy Moore. Too many celebrities to mention, really."

"I took nine Playboy bunnies," Dzikowski said. "That was my toughest climb."

Just as I was about to pull a Cowardly Lion and dive through the nearest window, they ushered us into a staging area. They sat us in individual stalls and had us fill out disclaimers. The form said you should not attempt to climb the bridge if you were drunk, pregnant or afraid of heights.

A woman came and gave me a Breathalyzer test. I blew an 0.00, a personal low this late in an Olympics. Then we were instructed to remove our pants and detachable valuables and get into gray jumpsuits. They put safety belts around our waists and attached a metal latch. Then we began our adventure, looking like the heroes in "Ghostbusters."

We walked to the beginning of the bridge, underneath the train station. Brown hooked each of our safety latches to a narrow steel cable, which would guide us every step of the climb. We traveled along the catwalk for a few hundred yards, up four steep flights of metal stairs between the subway trains, and finally arrived at the base of the pylons to begin our ascent.

Once we began to climb the arch, I felt reasonably sure I wasn't going to fall to my death. The walkway was two feet wide, with railings on both sides. There was another two feet of solid girder on each side. A southwesterly wind was whipping through at 23 kilometers an hour, but I was actually enjoying myself.

Every 50 feet or so, Brown would stop and we'd look out over the harbor. On the way up, we were facing east, toward the mouth of the harbor. Down below us, boats of every type moved through the sprawling harbor -- yachts, sailboats, yellow harbor taxis, ferries. Brown pointed to Darling Point, where Cruise and Kidman, a native Australian, had recently purchased a home.

More than an hour after we'd started, we finally got to the top of the bridge. It's 440 feet at its apex. That's roughly three times the height of the Statue of Liberty. Looking toward the business district, you could see we were as high as some of the city's skyscrapers. Perched atop the bridge there were two massive flags, one of Australia and one of New South Wales, the state Sydney is in.

I got shaky again when we crossed to the other side. There was a group ahead of us, so Brown stopped halfway across. You could see through the walkway to the pavement below, where 180,000 vehicles cross the bridge on average every day. I gripped the railing very hard. I thought of asking Sara if we could move along, but didn't want her to think less of me. I concentrated on not looking down.

Near the opposite end of the bridge, there was an amusement park. I thought of my daughter Emily, who loves Ferris wheels and roller coasters. I saw a swimming pool adjacent to the park and thought of my daughter Abby,in her first year on the St. Rose swim team. I remembered it was my son Jack's third birthday.

I thought I might cry. Instead, I felt a surge of inexpressible joy. Here I was, looking down on one of the most beautiful views on Earth. Moments like these remind you how fortunate you are to be alive. Seconds later, we started back down the other side of the arch. As we descended, I kept waiting for it to seem safer, lower. Having been 440 feet above the ground, I thought my perspective would change. But at 50 feet, it still seemed impossibly high up. I couldn't believe I had actually been eight or nine times higher.

The tour lasted about 2 1/2 hours in all. When it was over, I felt disappointed. Once my feet were back on solid ground, I found myself wishing I could be back up there again. When you're up that high, you feel like you're in the company of angels, closer to God somehow.

And yes, I felt lucky. I wish you could have been there.

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