The Olympics are fun to watch even if you're not a huge sports fan. The 2004 Games open Friday in Athens, Greece, with something for everyone in 16 days of competition. Basketball, swimming and gymnastics will get lots of attention, of course, but badminton, table tennis, rowing and other sports can be just as exciting. This year's Games feature 28 sports and 10,500 athletes, each with a unique story. U.S. volleyball player Stacy Sykora eats McDonald's food every day. In third grade, Caryn Davies beat every boy in her class at arm-wrestling; she's now on the U.S. rowing team. So is Aquil Abdullah, who went to Wilson High School and George Washington University in the District. He missed qualifying for the 2000 Olympics by 33-hundredths of a second, but didn't give up. Neither did trap shooter Collyn Loper, who was born blind in one eye. In his youth, archer John Magera chopped down his mom's trees to make bows and arrows. Mark Ruiz taught himself to dive by jumping off tree branches. Jonathan Johnson's grandmother used to clock how fast he could run to the grocery store as a kid. He'll be racing 800 meters in the Games. The five American athletes featured below will all be going for the gold in Greece. But every athlete headed to Athens represents excellence and hard work, and all of them deserve our cheers.
Michael Phelps looks like your big brother. And do we mean B-I-G. He's 6 feet 4 and if he spreads out his arms they're 6 feet 7 inches from fingertip to fingertip.
Like any 19-year-old, Phelps likes to wear baseball caps and T-shirts. Unlike most, he drives a Cadillac Escalade with silver "spinners" on the wheels.
His friendly manner disappears when he's at the starting block at the pool, wearing scary-looking goggles and swinging his giant arms to warm up. He's a fierce competitor and could win eight gold medals in Greece, which would beat U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz's record of seven, set in 1972. (Speedo, the swimsuit company that pays Phelps to wear its products, will pay him a $1 million bonus if he can tie Spitz's mark.)
Phelps is good at every stroke. He holds world records in the 200-meter butterfly and the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys (a race that uses all four strokes: butterfly, backstroke, breast stroke and freestyle). The Baltimore County, Maryland, teen has been making headlines since he set his first world record while still in high school.
Phelps postponed college to prepare for the Olympics. When not training he enjoys the Baltimore Ravens, Chris Farley movies and "American Idol."
His mom is a former teacher, and Phelps often visits an elementary school in a poor part of the county. He's a hero to the kids, who ask what it's like to be famous.
"I don't really consider myself being famous," he says.
At least not yet.
-- Michael Ruane
Katie Hoff is the youngest U.S. Olympian this year (she turned 15 in June) but she's no newcomer to swimming. She's been competing since she was 7.
Hoff, who moved from Virginia to Maryland last summer to train at the same club as Michael Phelps, will swim two events in Athens. She thinks her age is a plus.
"Being the youngest puts less pressure on me," she says. "I've already accomplished my goal just by making the team."
Asked what advice she'd give to young swimmers, Hoff said: "My first coach always told me to go out there, race and have fun -- not get too nervous and worry about the little things."
So why is the Abingdon, Maryland, teen always fidgeting with her goggles right before a race?
"I'm afraid they'll leak," she says, "but they haven't in a long time. It's a nervous thing."
So much for her coach's advice.
-- Marylou Tousignant
Stacy Dragila, like most pole-vaulters, hears the question a lot: How did you ever find the nerve to try it? After all, not everyone is eager to propel their body high into the air, using essentially a long, thin stick.
Dragila's answer is simple and honest: "The first couple trillion times . . . were pretty frightening." So why keep at it? For the thrill, she says on her Web site.
"It's like shooting a rocket" is how she describes that feeling of soaring skyward as the pole bends under her. "When you get a good position on the pole, and you know it's gonna go, well, you're just along for the ride, and it's such a rush."
Dragila began pole-vaulting 10 years ago, at age 23. She's improved inch by inch, starting with the bar at 6 feet and gradually raising it above 15 feet. She became her sport's first Olympic gold-medalist when women's pole vault was added to the Summer Games in 2000, and her photo wound up on a Wheaties box.
In Athens, Dragila hopes to reclaim the world record (now 16 feet, set by a Russian vaulter last month). The challenge doesn't faze her. "I always went after things that inspired me," she says. "I was very goal-oriented and never let anybody get in my way."
-- Marylou Tousignant
Courtney Kupets didn't think for a second that the tendon she tore last August would keep her out of the Olympics. Her doctors weren't so sure.
Surgery left her with "a nasty scar. It's like six inches long" and grosses some people out, the Gaithersburg gymnast says. But it never stopped Kupets. She worked hard to regain her form in the gym and was competing again seven months later. In June she tied for first at the U.S. championships, then earned a spot on the six-member women's Olympic team.
Though she's only just turned 18, Kupets is a veteran gymnast. She started at age 3 but is still getting used to the attention that star gymnasts attract. "Every once in a while there are kids that come up to me and say they saw me on TV . . . and it's kind of weird," she says.
When not in the gym, she enjoys shopping -- especially for jewelry and purses -- listening to the music of Maroon 5 and vacationing at the beach. Not that there's much time to vacation. Gymnasts practice a lot, even during the school year.
What's the worst part? "Getting up early [at 5 a.m.] is really awful."
-- Eli Saslow
Alan Webb remains kidlike even at 21. After winning the biggest race of his life to make the Olympic track team, he let loose with a thunderous scream for the cameras -- a huge eaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh! that mixed the joy, relief and I-told-you-so feelings he had inside.
It's been a tough three years since Webb broke the national high school record for the mile while going to Reston's South Lakes High. Amid great expectations, he entered the University of Michigan. But he got hurt, struggled on the track and left school, returning to Fairfax. As this season began, some fans thought him unlikely to make the 1,500-meter Olympic squad.
But he had a terrific summer, posting the best U.S. times in both the mile and the 1,500. A week before the Olympic trials, he invited a friend and some kids he'd met at a pool in Centreville over to watch a movie. One of the kids asked what special routines he followed before major races; Webb said his only ritual was to have some ice cream the night before a meet.
At the trials in California, he blew away the competition, then yelled his eaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh. As he took his victory lap, a family member handed him a T-shirt with "ATHENS 2004" printed on it. "My big sister made it for me" in seventh grade, Webb said on the victory stand, adding: "I've been waiting for this my entire life. . . . I'm going to Athens. Whooooo!"
-- Michael Leahy