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Letters from London - Mitchell Garner’s Blog from London #3

London, England - July 27, 2012

“What my mind conceived and my heart believed I achieved! I followed my dreams..and made them come true.” - Inscription by United States Olympic Athlete, on the wall at the United States Olympic Training Center at Lake Placid, New York

Being an Olympian is something about which many athletes, including me, have dreamed since childhood.  Unfortunately, only a few athletes are able to acheive that dream.  It takes years of training and sacrifice and perserverance and tenacity to reach an elite athlete level, and even then there is no guarantee.  Many athletes put their life on hold for years in hopes of making the United States Olympic team in thier sport, only to fall short of their goal.  The day of the Opening Ceremony at the Olympics brings to mind the images of those athletes who have acheived their dream and are reaping the fruits of their labor by representing their country at the Olympics.

Today I feel at one with London.  In summary, I did my first training run here in Hyde Park, followed the Olympic torch along its last day of travel to the Olympic Stadium, made friends with an English bobbie, met some people from Zimbabwe, had a pint of beer at an English pub, and mingled with Olympians and Olympic enthusiasts at an Opening Ceremony party at USA House.

My day started with a beautiful run through London’s Hyde Park, my new runner’s nirvana.  The park has beautiful running paths that circumvent and dissect this botanist’s refuge amidst London’s urban landscape.  Gardens with blooming flowers and other types of plans dot the path.  By chance I met up with a young Canadian, Charles Cooper, who was doing a training run as an antidote to some hair of the dog from a pre-Olympic party the prior evening.  Our conversation turned to running etiquette in Great Britain, where cars drive on the left side of the road.  I asked him whether runners in the British Isles are supposed to run on the right side or left side of the path.  He assured me that runners are supposed to keep to the left.  To my dismay, I found that runners do not always adhere to this rule.  Some runners veer right as you approach them, and others to the left.  The same is true for sidewalk etiquette.  I am left feeling conflicted.

After our first hearty English breakfast, which consists of sausage and eggs and toast and cereal, Gary Morgan and I set out to see the passing of the Olympic torch on the Thames River, the renowned river that snakes through London.  On Friday morning, the torch was being transported to London’s City Hall on a giant boat being rowed by no fewer than 12 oarsmen.  The sight of these rowers confirmed in my mind the hallowed place that rowing holds in the British hierarchy of sports.

As we were watching the delivery of the torch to London’s mayor from Tower Bridge, I made friends with an English police officer from Manchester who is doing a special security detail in London during the Olympics.  He was very pleasant.  I asked him if we could take a picture together, and he obliged.  He then removed his police officer’s hat and asked me if I wanted to put on his hat and take another picture with him.  How could I refused an offer like that?

Afterward Gary and I walked along the Thames and took some pictures of the giant Olympic rings that have been installed on a manmade island adjacent the London’s City Hall.  We came upon a family from Zimbabwe who are vacationing in London during the Olympics.  Like everyone who has journed here for the Games, they were very excited to be part of the Olympic experience.

In the early afternoon, we stumbled upon London’s Borough Market area, a fresh air market that features an eclectic mix of vendors of every type of foodstuff imaginable.  The sights and smells were fascinating.  Most memorable was a shark with a fish in its mouth.  I was not sure whether they were a package deal!

By mid-afternoon we were ready to take a rest, and so found a pub that offered liquid refreshment in the form of handcrafted beer.  The English take great pride in their beer.  Gary, who has a greater beer drinking capacity than I, had two.  I limited myself to one.

In the evening, we walked across Hyde Park (about a mile-and-a-half) to USA House.  USA House is a gathering place for American Olympians and their guests.  As an Olympian, Gary is entitled to two guest passes, and he was kind enough to allow me to use one of his passes for Friday night’s Opening Ceremony party.  I cannot thank Gary enough for his kindness in allowing me to use one of his USA House guest passes.

In London, USA House is located at the Royal College of Art on Kensington Gore, near the southwest corner of Kensington Park.  Inside USA House was a mixture of some Olympians like Gary and some guests like me.  Notably, there were some Winter Olympians, including Sarah Hughes, women’s Olympic gold medalist in figure skating at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.  She is a fellow Yalie (she Class of ‘09, and I Class of ‘71), and we shared notes about our experience as Yale athletes.  With Sarah’s group were Emily Hughes, her Olympic figure skating sister, and Joey Cheek, an Olympic speed skater.  My daughter Kathleen was a figure skater for a good part of her pre-college years, and so I took interest in mingling with this group and adding some autographs to my now famous USA Olympic flag (more on this topic in a later blog).

Sarah’s family has Ivy League connections.  Her father, John Hughes, is a Canadian of Irish descent and was the captain of the NCAA champion 1969-70 Cornell University ice hockey team.  The team included goalie Ken Dryden, a Hockey Hall of Famer and member of the Canadian Parliament.  I asked Sarah why she chose Yale for her undergraduate degree, while her sister Emily went to that benighted institution to the north (Harvard).  She replied, “Yale was the best fit for me.”  I told her that she had made the right choice!

Also in attendance was swimmer Donna de Varona, who was the youngest swimmer to compete at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.  In the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, she won gold medals in the 400-meter individual medley and as a member of the 400-meter freestyle relay.  In her career, she set 18 swimming records.  She retired in 1964, shortly after the Tokyo Olympics.  She is currently having great trouble with her right knee, and having undergone two recent running-related knee operations, I was able to empathize with her and give her some informal advice about the pros and cons of knee surgery.

USA House has about 30 television monitors.  When the American athletes marched into the Olympic Stadium after 11:00 P.M. local time, loud cheers erupted and litte Team USA flags provided by our hosts waved.  I could not help but feel great joy for our American athletes, the pride of our country, as they waved to the throngs inside the Stadium and around the world.  The Ralph Lauren-designed outfits, despite the controversy over their manufacturing origin, shouted USA pride in red, white, and blue.  It was the magic moment of the evening for me.

Not to be overshadowed by our American Olympic team outfits are my American flag shoes, which have been the biggest hit of my stay in London.  Everywhere I go people notice them and give me thumbs ups.  Some ask to take pictures of just the shoes.  For this modest distinction I thank my wife Ellen, who found these incredible attention-grabbers at a local Marshall’s and knew that they would be perfect for my trip to London.

I will never be an Olympian, but here in London, I am wearing shoes that make me feel like an Olympian.  Thank you, Ellen!

Keep climbing that mountain and have faith.
Mitch “Iron Bulldog” Garner

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