Over the next three weeks, I’ll be covering my ninth Olympics – my sixth Summer Games and the first ever held on the continent of South America. Lord knows if I’ll be lucky enough to make it into double digits, but the Games have given me enough memories to last a lifetime.
The Opening Ceremonies alone are worth the experience. It’s my favorite thing in sports, a night when sports, music, culture and politics collide in spectacular fashion. It’s very moving to watch the parade of athletes march into the stadium and see the host country put on a show that reveals its better side to a rapt global audience.
I’ve witnessed many great athletic moments: Kerri Strug vaulting on a bad ankle to help the U.S. women with their first-ever gymnastics team gold; Usain Bolt blazing to gold in the 100 meters in a record 9.69 seconds; Michael Phelps winning his record eighth gold medal just 12 hours later.
I saw Carl Lewis winning the long jump; the 1992 Dream Team putting on a basketball clinic for a star-struck world; the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan melodrama; Gabby Douglas becoming the first African-American to win the gymnastics all-around; Naim Suleymanoglu, Turkey’s “Pocket Hercules,” winning his record third weightlifting gold.
The list goes on and on, and it’ll grow longer in Rio. But the best part about covering an Olympics is having a local athlete of consequence. There’s a special thrill and sense of civic responsibility when you’re assigned to follow a medal contender from your own area.
You have two primary duties at an Olympics: Covering some of the biggest sports stories of the Games and keeping track of your own competitors. One of the first things my colleagues from around the country will ask when we run into each other at the Main Press Center is, “Any good locals?”
Our area hasn’t produced many top Olympians through the years, though we have sent a lot of athletes to the Games. Sports fans can thank Denny Lynch, who has worked with two fellow directors from the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame to compile a comprehensive list of Olympians from Erie and its contiguous counties.
Lynch, Ron Carr and Chuck Frawley researched a variety of sources and found 157 summer and 42 winter Olympians from the Buffalo area. Lynch said they hope to finish their “labor of love” by publishing a book that covers all the athletes who made it to the Games.
When Jenn Suhr won gold in the women’s pole vault in 2012, she became the first Buffalo athlete to win an individual gold medal in the Summer Olympics in nearly a century. Charles Ackerley won gold in the wrestling featherweight division in 1920.
Christian Laettner won gold with the 1992 men’s basketball team. Two local natives won gold on swimming relays (Roy Saari in 1964, Jeff Float in ’84). Tara VanDerveer coached the U.S. women’s basketball team to gold in 1996. Coach Tom Terhaar led the women’s eight to rowing gold in 2008 and 2012.
Lynch’s research was a valuable resource. It also confirmed what I had been thinking all along: That the contingent in Rio will be the finest collection of Olympians the Buffalo area has ever sent to a Games:
• Suhr, the reigning gold medalist, is the best female pole vaulter in U.S. history. She has been ranked No. 1 in the world the last two years. The Fredonia native has 16 national titles, the most of any American track and field athlete. Suhr, who won silver in Beijing, is the only local athlete in half a century to medal in two Olympics. How about three?
• Matt Anderson of West Seneca is the star U.S. men’s indoor volleyball player and maybe the best player in the world. Last summer, he led the Americans to their first World Cup title in 30 years and was named tourney MVP. The Brazilians will be tough, but the U.S. is in the medal chase.
• Terhaar is the most successful rowing coach in the world. His women’s eight has won 10 straight major international competitions and hasn’t been beaten since 2005. Fellow Buffalo native Emily Regan is rowing in the eight, which is looking to tie the record with three straight golds in the event.
• Elma native Jake Kaminski will again compete on the three-man men’s archery squad, which took silver in London. Kaminski is the 26th-ranked archer in the world. His teammates, Zach Garrett and Brady Ellison, are ranked third and sixth. They’re expected to medal again.
• Anita Alvarez, pride of Kenmore and the Tonawanda Aquettes, will make her Olympic debut in the synchronized swimming duet. She and teammate Mariya Koroleva are not expected to medal. The U.S. did not qualify a team, so they are the lone American synchro competitors in Rio.
Two other area natives will be coaching in Rio: Scott Roop, who rowed at Buffalo State under Jim Schaab, coaches the U.S. men’s lightweight pair. Roop, a product of the West Side Rowing Club, competed in seven world championships and is in the National Rowing and Buffalo State halls of fame.
Lou Rosselli, a Royalton-Hartland graduate, is an assistant for the men’s freestyle wrestling squad. Rosselli, who competed for the U.S. in the 1996 Olympics, is now the associate head wrestling coach at Ohio State.
Buffalo could have more than one athlete win gold in an Olympics for the first time ever. Regan could become the first local rower to win gold. We haven’t had three athletes win medals of any color in the same Olympics since 1928.
Terhaar, who coached the U.S. women’s eight to silver in Athens, could become the first local to win a medal in four Olympics. Paula-Jean Myers, who was born in Lackawanna and grew up in California, won diving medals in 1952, 1956 and 1960.
So this figures to be the busiest Olympics yet for chasing around locals. It can be quite an experience. I remember when Suhr won gold in London, how emotional and exuberant she was in the mixed zone area, where athletes meet hordes of media soon after competing.
At one point, reporters in the crowded mixed zone area began chanting “Rick! Rick! Rick!” It seems someone – I’m not sure who – had told them her coach and husband, Rick Suhr, was quite a talker and had been known to compare Jenn’s gold medal quest to the 1980 Miracle On Ice. Rick came through, of course. Locals can make things complicated. Suhr will be in pole vault qualifying the same day Alvarez competes in the synchro final, assuming she makes it. The women’s eight final in rowing is Aug. 13, the day Phelps will likely compete in his final Olympic race, the 4x100 medley relay.
How about Friday, Aug. 19? Suhr should be in the pole vault final that day. Anderson could be competing in a volleyball semifinal. Not to mention the men’s basketball semifinals and the men’s 4x100 relay, which figures to be Bolt’s final run at Olympic gold.
So what do you do? You scramble. Wanting to be in two places at one time is part of the joy of covering an Olympics. As Denny Lynch would say, it becomes a labor of love.