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Whether it was Australia's Cathy Freeman lighting the Olympic torch, Michael Johnson defending his title in the 400 meters, or Megan Quann winning the 100-meter backstroke, Western New York's high school athletes have been soaking it all in.

Despite going to school and practice and keeping up with part-time jobs, a sampling of local athletes confirmed they're finding time to keep tabs on the biggest sporting event in the world.

They've been following the Olympic games on television as well as through several Web sites that are keeping pace with the digital demand for news of the Games.

Hamburg gymnast and pole vaulter Chris Centrich videotapes the Games to not only watch at his convenience, but also to fast-forward through commercials. He's been most impressed with all-around men's champion Alexei Nemov of Russia and twins Morgan and Paul Hamm of Wisconsin, saying they make difficult skills look simple.

He said he finds stories about athletes testing positive for banned substances "depressing." The most recent stories centered on shot putter C.J. Hunter, the husband of sprint champion Marion Jones, and Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan.

"The guys that cheat and get caught a lot of times get caught afterwards, and you don't hear about it until later," said Centrich. "And it will be a little blurb. I wouldn't want to win that way. It takes away from your moment. I wouldn't feel like I'd won. I don't think it's fair."

Senior Bryan Murty of Williamsville East, a four-time Section VI gymnastic champion, has been in awe of American Blaine Wilson, a five-time national champion.

Wilson was in contention to win a medal in last Wednesday's individual all-around competition through his first three events until an awkward dismount off the high bar and an average pommel horse set knocked him down to sixth place.

"I saw his vault in prelims, and he landed it really well. He just stuck it," said Murty. "The whole thing is technique and how you hit the horse, and popping out through your shoulders. I've been in gymnastics for 15 years, and I'm not even close to that level."

In soccer, the U.S. women, the defending World Cup and Olympic champions, were expected to win a gold medal at Sydney. They've advanced to the final according to plan and will play Norway for the gold on Thursday.

But the men's soccer team, which was supposed to be content with making the second round, has burst onto the scene as a medal contender.

"This weekend I watched the men's game and women's games," said Ellicottville senior Heather Lindell. "Their ball skills and passing are amazing. I love to sit there and pick out the moves they have on the ball. The other night, I watched the marathon and track. I dabble in it all although I'm super-busy. We have four games this week. I see what I can see."

Grand Island girls swimming coach Mike Murray said he taped the swimming events and brought the tape to practice. "We break the strokes apart. I'll put it on pause, and we'll look at the starts and turns," he said. "They get a kick out of seeing 16,000 (fans) all pumped for swimming."

Lauren Spacone is a junior at Grand Island who specializes in the sprints. She said she finds the views from above and below the water interesting and is impressed with how well the Olympians kick, how hard they pull through the water and their life stories on how they train.

The U.S. swimming teams include six gold medalists who at one time competed in the pool at Erie Community College. Jenny Thompson, Misty Hyman, Brooke Bennett, Samantha Arsenault, Amy Van Dyken and Tom Malchow all swam at the Burt Flickinger Aquatics Center during their careers.

In men's volleyball, the United States went 0-5 in matches and finished tied for 11th, its worst showing ever at the Olympics, and the only time it has failed to win at least once. The women have fared better, reaching the quarterfinals.

Joe Klein, a sophomore setter on Eden's volleyball team, said he can usually be found in front of the TV from 7-10:30 p.m. "It's only on once every four years, so you might as well watch," he said.

Klein has yet to catch any of the volleyball, but he did watch the inspirational performance of platform diver Laura Wilkinson of Texas, who upset the two Chinese favorites to win the gold. "It makes you feel proud for your country," he said.

On the track scene, women's pole vault was introduced to this year's Games with Stacey Dragila of Auburn, Calif., taking the gold with a vault of 15-feet-1. Dragila holds the world record of 15-2 1/4 . But the feat was lost on senior Heather Brough of West Seneca West, who holds the Section VI record at 10-feet.

"I kept missing it. I wanted to see it really bad," she said. "I saw one highlight, and it was of a woman jumping and missing. It seems like I could be that good if I trained hard enough. . . . With the proper training and enough time to do it, I think anybody can go to the Olympics if they want to."

Part of NBC's coverage has been a Web site and a TV program for scholastic athletes.

"Scholastic at the Olympic Games" is part of NBC's Olympic coverage, on MSNBC from 3 p.m.-5 p.m. every weekday. This special TV show includes educational features, coverage of Olympic events, and stories about young Olympians. The Web site's address is:

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