Like the big, broad, bountiful country that it is representing in Athens, the 2004 U.S. Olympic team is eclectic, eccentric, brash, rambunctious and very American.
No other country can match it for sheer collective oddity. Not one of the other 201 teams includes a javelin thrower who sings in a heavy-metal band, a water polo player who studied roller-coaster design, or a synchronized swimmer who will return from the Games to serve a 90-day prison sentence for vehicular manslaughter.
Our wildly diverse Olympic team contains Maurice Greene, a sprinter who screamed a celebratory obscenity as he crossed the finish line in a recent race, and Jennie Finch, a softball pitcher who claims she has never uttered a single cuss word in her entire life.
"Never. Not even once," she told a reporter. "That's one of those things that once you start, it would be very hard to stop, so I just never started."
The U.S. Olympic team is composed of 257 women and 274 men -- a total of 531 athletes, give or take a few who may yet be kicked out for using illicit performance-enhancing drugs. The youngest Olympian is swimmer Katie Hoff, 15, a ninth-grader from Abingdon, Md. The oldest is pistol shooter Elizabeth "Libby" Callahan, 52, a retired Washington, D.C., cop. The shortest, gymnast Courtney McCool, stands 4 feet 9 inches tall. The tallest is Tim Duncan, a seven-foot basketball player.
The biggest -- and without doubt the strongest -- American Olympian is Shane Hamman, a 350-pound weightlifter with a 22-inch neck, 35-inch thighs, a 47-inch waist and a 62-inch chest. Hamman can lift 1,000 pounds, stuff a basketball, do a standing back flip and rip a phone book in half.
"One time," he told Sports Illustrated, "I moved a Volkswagen Jetta over three parking spaces."
The United States is a nation of immigrants and our team has 30 athletes who were born in other countries -- China, Cuba, Poland, Russia, Brazil, Albania, Vietnam and 13 other nations.
Our Olympians come from every corner of this great land, from sea to shining sea, from Virginia Beach to California's Huntington Beach, from The Woodlands, Tex., to Brush Prairie, Wash., from Maine to Maui to Homer, Alaska. They come from Hartland, Wis., and Loveland, Ohio, from Freedom, Wis., and Normal, Ill. -- which happens to be the home of a volleyball player with the delightfully not-normal (at least to some Americans) name of Ogonna Nnamani.
Indeed, the names of our Olympians are gloriously varied, running from A to Z -- or, more specifically, from long-distance runner Abdi Abdirahman to kayaker Rami Zur. Reading the official American roster, you can't help recalling the self-consciously diverse ethnic names of the soldiers in World War II movies -- Smith, Schwartz, Lopez, Hazinski, Johnson, O'Reilly, Parilla, Nguyen.
Speaking of names, we've also got a volleyball player named Ball and a Ping-Pong player named Ping. And let's not forget boxer Rock Allen, who has brothers named Tiger and Bear.
America's Olympians come from all walks of life and nearly every occupation. Archer Jennifer Nichols is a dance instructor. Basketball player Yolanda Griffith put herself through school repossessing cars. Trap shooter Lance Bade is a hunting guide. Wrestler Tela O'Donnell worked as a fisherman in Alaska. Rower Steve Warner is a molecular biologist. Softball player Lori Harrigan is a security supervisor for a casino in Vegas. And canoeist Joe Jacobi is a motivational speaker for a program called "Making It Count!"
Obviously, all of the Olympians are living out their Olympic dream, but many also have dreams for their post-Olympic careers. Soccer player Cat Reddick wants to be a cowgirl. Tennis player Lisa Raymond hopes to run a day-care center for dogs.
High jumper Amy Acuff is studying to become an acupuncturist. Wrestler Patricia Miranda will study conflict mediation at Yale Law School this fall. Rower Hilary Gehman hopes to become a truck driver. Lauren McFall, captain of the synchronized swimming team, wants to star in a sitcom. And soccer player Aly Wagner, like millions of her fellow Americans, dreams of writing a screenplay.
The United States is a nation of shameless self-promoters who tout themselves with braggadocio. From P.T. Barnum, who proclaimed himself "The Sun of the Amusement World From Which Lesser Luminaries Borrow Light," to Muhammad Ali, who liked to bellow "I am the greatest!," Americans have been eager to advertise their wonderfulness. Several of our Olympians have continued that tradition by etching their egotism right into their epidermis.
Sprinter Maurice Greene sports a tattoo of a lion with the letters GOAT, which stands for "Greatest of All Time."
Basketball player Amare Stoudemire has a tattoo that says STAT, which stands for "Standing Tall and Talented."
His teammate, LeBron James, has a tattoo across his back that reads "CHOSEN 1."
Other Olympians have advertised their prowess through crowd-pleasing stunts. Sprinter Shawn Crawford outran a giraffe on a TV show called "Man vs. Beast." Archer Vic Wunderle wowed a group of schoolkids by shooting arrows into smaller and smaller targets, concluding his performance by hitting a Tic Tac. His teammate, Jennifer Nichols, prefers attacking food: "I've shot a strawberry off a cheesecake," she says, "and the cream cheese out of a bagel."
Sometimes being an Olympian is a family affair. The 2004 team features three pairs of brothers, three pairs of sisters and two brother-sister teams. It also includes three married couples and two table-tennis players who used to be married to each other but are now divorced and getting along better than ever.
Several Olympians are the children of former Olympians. Volleyball player Clay Stanley's parents were both Olympic volleyballers. Kayaker Jeff Smoke's mother, father and aunt were Olympic kayakers. Swimmer Gary Hall Jr., who is heading for his third Olympics, is the son of Gary Hall Sr., who swam in three Olympics. Hall is also the grandson of the infamous Charles Keating, who served five years in a federal prison for his role in the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s, though you don't hear about that connection quite so often.
America is the land that invented television and many of our Olympians have spent time in the electric wilderness where reality and TV merged to form "reality TV." Last year, beach volleyball player Dain Blanton was a finalist for "The Bachelor." Maurice Greene won $125,000 on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." So did Gary Hall, the swimmer. Tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams (whose knee is keeping her out of the Games) were guest voices on "The Simpsons," playing tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. And the man who murdered the brother of wrestler Sara McCann was tracked down by the Fox show "America's Most Wanted." McCann later showed her appreciation to TV by appearing on NBC's "Today" show and pinning perky Katie Couric to the mat with a double-leg take-down.
The United States is a can-do country, a never-say-die nation where winners never quit and quitters never win. So it's not surprising that our Olympic athletes have overcome adversities that would crush lesser spirits.
Softball player Natasha Watley nearly died at birth and spent the first two weeks of her life on a respirator. Sailor Kevin Hall is recovering from testicular cancer. Triple jumper Tiombe Hurd is legally blind. So is 5,000-meter runner Marla Runyan. Trap shooter Collyn Loper is blind in one eye. Wrestler Rulon Gardner survived a motorcycle crash, dislocated his wrist 10 times, and had a toe amputated because of frostbite. Swimmer Diana Munz broke her back in a car accident in 1999 and was told she might never swim again. And runner Gail Devers was diagnosed with Graves' disease in 1990 and had to talk her doctors out of amputating both feet. This year's Olympics will be Devers's fourth.
Olympians succeed because they refuse to give up. They tend to be optimists who believe in the philosophy expressed by Olympic softball coach Mike Candrea: "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift and that's why it's called the present."
Like a lot of Americans, some Olympians are serious about their religion. Diver Laura Wilkinson recites Philippians 4:13 before every dive: "I can do all things in him who strengthens me." Jennie Finch, the softball pitcher who has never cussed, repeats the same verse before every pitch.
Recently, Finch and the other members of the softball team were asked which three people, of all the humans who ever lived, they would most like to eat dinner with. The names mentioned most often were Jesus, Oprah and George W. Bush. But outfielder Kelly Kretschman came up with a unique response: "Vin Diesel, Donald Duck and a clone of myself."
In many ways, American Olympians are like their countrymen. But in one obvious way they are very different: Americans tend to be fat and out of shape, but Olympians are trim and muscular. These folks just look better than the rest of us. That's why magazines like to run pictures of them in their bathing suits. High jumper Amy Acuff graces the cover of September's Playboy. The current GQ shows Wolf Wigo, captain of the water polo team, posed like a Greek god in a skimpy Speedo. Stuff magazine shows swimmer Kaitlin Sandeno sprawled across a chair in her undergarments. Maxim shows swimmer Amanda Beard standing under running water, rubbing her bikini-clad body. And Vanity Fair has dozens of Bruce Weber photos of Olympians in scanty attire, including sprinter Shawn Crawford, eating a candy bar while wearing almost nothing.
Meanwhile, People magazine has named Finch one of its "50 Most Beautiful People" and tae kwon do star Steve Lopez as one of its "50 Hottest Bachelors." And GQ writer Matthew Klam got so worked up over the beauty of table-tennis player Jasna Reed with her "perfect upturned nose" and her "bouncy samurai ponytail" that he couldn't stop himself from churning out prose that sounded like a romance novel:
"When she plays, Jasna gets a look on her face that is the look of someone whose whole heart is possessed by something. It's the kind of face I'd like to kiss, when this is all over, for about an hour, smack on the lips, on a big soft couch."
Wow! What a team! What a country!
It looks like this Olympics is going to be, as Jennie Finch might say, pretty gosh darn exciting.