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Discovered: Why I Love the Olympics (Video Edition!)

The 2010 Winter Olympics kick off this evening, and I am ready to soak in 2 weeks of sport, endurance, heartbreak, joy and Bob Costas. Let’s do this.

I’ve loved the Olympics for as long as I can remember. One of my all time favorite gifts was the U.S.A gymnastics leotard, ala Mary Lou Retton, that my mom gave me when I was a little girl. Complete with totally inauthentic ribbon wand. But you can bet I rocked that outfit.

When I was much older, but not much different, the 2004 Athens Olympics kept my mom and I company as we spent nearly 24 hours a day in the hospital with my dying grandma. It is no small wonder to be able to become enthralled and sustained by MSNBC’s coverage of men’s water polo at 2 a.m. in a hospital room.

And while I’m truly awestruck by an incredible athlete performing at the highest level–Michael Phelps, Kerri Strug, Apolo Ohno–my all-time favorite Olympics moment stars someone you’ve never heard of and who will never even come close to being on a Wheaties box.

Eric Moussambani, of Equitorial Guinea (what’s that?), was all set for his 100 m swim in the qualifying rounds of the 2000 Sydney Games, when the 2 other swimmers in his heat got disqualified by a false start. Small, alone and conspicuously lacking the fancy body suits favored by other competitors, Eric stepped up on the starting block to race against no one.

Neither the crowd nor the announcers really knew what to make of this awkward athlete. I remember the broadcasters pointed out that he didn’t have a proper pool to train in back home, so he swam in a river alongside alligators. What?? Anyway, at first the crowd sort of laughed and snickered, but as he pushed through, looking every moment like he was going to just stop and sink, they slowly realized the beauty and heart of the moment. When he finally (barely) finishes the race, every person is on their feet, cheering wildly at this monumental, moving display of mediocrity.*

I was right there with them, cheering him on at home, my eyes welling up with tears. For me, Eric embodies the gut-wrenching, do-or-die hard work and perserveance required, yes, at the Olympics, but in the hard-fought, messy scramble of life. And that’s why I love the Olympics.

*Wikipedia tells me Eric still managed to set a new personal best and national record with that performance. : )

Video of Eric’s swim. Pardon the foreign play-by-play – I couldn’t find an English version.

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I write what I know (and love). Mostly higher education, writing and public relations.