Nothing super-saturates summer like the Olympics.
Seeing the world’s most beautiful bodies perform acts of strength and grace distills the essence of summertime: recreation, freedom and the great outdoors. Running, jumping, swimming, tumbling, sailing and spiking volleyballs, the athletes embody our inner child.
When Olympic swimmers slingshot off the starting blocks, jackknifing to catch an extra cushion of air at the waist, I’m 11 years old again, in flight over the sparkly water for a mini-eternity in which everything is possible: Maybe I can make it clear to the middle of the pool before I splash down and torpedo underwater a few extra meters so I only have to heave up five or six strokes on the butterfly leg of my medley! Maybe I’ll win the race! Maybe my team will win the meet and Coach will buy us french fries and ice cream!
Some people remember where they were when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon or Michael Jackson moonwalked on MTV in “Thriller.” I remember where I was when Mark Spitz won seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich: In a beachfront motel in Ocean City, Md., jumping up and down on a bed with best friend Marianne Hungate.
Marianne and I were on the Fort Myer swim team in Arlington, Va., in the 11-12 age division and we loved the U.S. Olympic swim team. Mark Spitz, Gary Hall, Shirley Babashoff and Sandra Nielson were our Fab Four.
Marianne’s mom had taken us on a weeklong girls-only beach vacation that coincided perfectly with the Olympic swimming events. Every day was gloriously the same — walk down the boardwalk to the doughnut shop in flip-flops and smiley-face cover-ups from the T-shirt shop, eat doughnuts and drink 7-Up, peel off the cover-ups and horse around in the waves until a few minutes before starting time.
Then we’d race back to the motel room, rub Noxema on our sunburned noses and shoulders, spread all the towels from the bathroom on the beds to protect them from our wet suits, and watch our heroes fly through the water in their stars-and-stripes Speedos, identical to our Fort Myer team suits.
That was back in the pre-technology era in swimming. The bathing suits were similar to what non-athletes wore in the day — tiny briefs for the men and one-piece tank suits for the women. Nobody wore goggles, and only women with long hair wore swim caps.
One of my most treasured possessions is a Time magazine with Mark Spitz on the cover swimming butterfly at the Games, his full head of shaggy dark hair and mustache popping out of the water. And when his races were over and he waved at the crowd, he had normal hair under his arms. It was more fun watching the races when you could see the swimmers’ eyes on the close-up shots.
When the American swimmers won — and that summer, they won and won and won — our exhilaration was fueled by a pure and innocent love of bodies moving swiftly across water, not patriotism.
Watching their hands splash against the tiled wall first was infinitely more thrilling then seeing them bow their wet heads on the platform later to receive the gold medal while the American flag floated up in the swim hall and a tinny, speeded-up rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played.
We felt a connection to our heroes: We could be them if we worked harder and swam faster. And even if we didn’t, we were still them: We were young, strong and free and everything was possible.
I still feel that way. The Olympics for me are not about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat but the joy of drinking in summertime like children do: leaping, cartwheeling, sprinting, diving and leaning over the edge of a boat with the wind blowing in your hair.