Eyes on Olympic glory

With dreams of gold, Bay Area athletes will head to the Summer Games — some for the first time, others possibly for the last — to give it their all and make their country proud.

The qualifiying is done and the athletes are heading to China, if they are not already there. Now the countdown is on to the opening ceremonies, which will take place Friday at 5 p.m. You can watch the ceremonies live on NBC. The games, which will run through Aug. 24, will feature 28 sports and 302 events, according to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Web site. More than 10,000 athletes are scheduled to participate in this year’s Olympics.

For swimmer, games first — then a decision

When swimmer Ben Wildman-­Tobriner steps on the blocks to race in the 50-meter freestyle in the Summer Olympics, more than just a medal may be on the line.

Depending on his performance in Beijing, the 23­-year-old San Francisco native will decide whether to continue his emerging swimming career or pursue his studies at UCSF, where he is set to enroll in the fall.

“I’m planning on starting medical school, but a lot can still change,” said Wildman-Tobriner, who graduated from Stanford this spring. “I’m just keeping in the present right now, trying to stay focused on Beijing.”

Making the decision even more difficult is that Wildman-Tobriner is still very young when it comes to sprint events, his swimming specialty. Fellow American Gary Hall Jr. was 29 years old in 2004 when he captured the gold medal in the 50-free — an event traditionally dominated by swimmers older than 25.

Wildman-Tobriner, who is the 2007 world champion in the 50-free, already has overcome a major obstacle simply by qualifying for the Olympics — no small feat considering he was one of only two swimmers from a loaded U.S. squad to make the trip to Beijing.

“I’ve had numerous elite athletes say the hardest part is the U.S. trials,” said Wildman-Tobriner, who attended Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco. “In many cases, to make the U.S. team can be harder than getting a medal at the Olympics, so U.S. athletes have a great deal of confidence in swimming events.”

The U.S. team is training in Wildman-Tobriner’s college hometown of Palo Alto before they depart for China.

Wildman-Tobriner said he’s looking forward to traveling the world’s most populous country, especially since it’s an opportunity he’ll likely not have again.

“Away from the pool, the first and foremost thing is to have fun,” Wildman-Tobriner said. “The Olympics are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, plus we’re going to China, which is a pretty exotic place. I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.”


Erica McLain

Age: 22

Sport: Track and field

Event: Triple jump

Bay Area connection: Stanford, class of 2008

Olympic appearance: First

Erica McLain on …

Being an Olympian: “To me it’s huge. There have been so many great athletes that have come before me, so to be a part of history, like is really humbling. It’s something no one can take away from me. I’ll always be a 2008 Olympian.”

How she’s preparing for the Olympics: “I just got back from competing in Europe, which was a great experience. Everyone was real nice to me while I was over there, which was a breath of fresh air because I can get a little homesick when I’m away. Now I feel like I’m ready to go to Beijing.”

Her stressful U.S. Olympic trials: “It was incredibly nerve-racking. I was hoping for some really strong jumps in the trials, but I popped a rib out the day before I was supposed to jump. My trainer said it was stress-related, and that it happens to athletes sometimes. I was able to pull it together on the second day of trials thankfully and managed to get a spot on the Olympic team.”

The challenges she faces at the Olympics: “No female U.S. triple-jumper has ever made the finals of an international event. Just to make the top eight would be a huge accomplishment.”

Her future as a triple-jumper: “I’m only 22, and most triple-jumpers don’t peak until they’re 28. I know I have time to improve, but I’m definitely going to give it my all in Beijing.”

Brenda Villa

Age: 28

Sport: Water polo

Position: Attacker

Bay Area connection: Stanford graduate, class of 2003

Olympic appearance: Third

Brenda Villa on …

How her third Olympic appearance is different than her first, in 2000: “I was 20 years old when I was in Sydney [Australia], and I basically acted like a kid in the candy shop. I was one of the youngest on the team, and I just wanted to go out there and play. I didn’t have that kind of mind-set in Athens [Greece], and I think it’s really important to capture that state of mind again in these Olympics.”

The possibility that this might be her last Olympics appearance: “I think that honestly I approach every international competition the same. You play like this could be your last time out, that way, you can walk away knowing you’ve given it your all. With that said, I am 28 right now, and there are other things that I want to do with my life, so it is in the back of my mind that this could be my last Olympics.”

What a gold medal would mean for her, after capturing bronze and silver in the two previous Olympics: “A gold medal would mean so much, not just for myself, but for all of USA women’s water polo. The sport has grown so much in the last eight years, a gold in Beijing could really catapult it into the mainstream.”

Playing professionally in Sicily: “It was a great experience. It was definitely a challenge because I couldn’t speak the language, and I couldn’t really communicate at first. I had to work very, very hard, but the whole experience helped my game out so much.”

Kevin Tan

Age: 26

Sport: Gymnastics

Event: Rings

Bay Area connection: Grew up in Fremont

Olympic appearance: First

Kevin Tan on …

Being named captain of the U.S. men’s gymnastics team: “It’s definitely an honor, but also a high responsibility. I have to make sure our team stays focused, and that there’s a good level of communication between the guys and the coaching staff.”

The Olympics being in Beijing, where he has many relatives: “This is definitely hitting a lot closer to home. Making it to my first Olympics is amazing enough, but the fact that it is in China makes it even more special.”

How he got involved in gymnastics: “I started when I was young, about 7 years old. I was always running around and climbing on everything. To help my parents deal with me, a family friend suggested Top Flight, this gym in Newark. Luckily for me, it was a very well-established gym and I was able to stay in it until I left for college at Penn State.”

His expectations for the rings, his best event: “Of course a gold medal is preferred, but it really depends on what happens that day. I definitely want to make the individual finals, and to shoot for a medal.”

The importance of the Olympic Games: “What I really think makes the Olympics so special is that it’s only hosted every four years. It’s not only how good you are, but it’s about being healthy at the right time.”

Summer Olympics race through journalist’s blood

Working as a journalist and a statistician, Fred Baer, a San Francisco native and College of San Mateo sports information director, has covered eight Summer Olympics since 1972, missing only the 1980 Moscow games that were boycotted by the U.S. government. Next week, he’ll fly to Beijing. As an official at the Pacific Association — a regional arm of the U.S. Track and Field Association — Baer has helped some of the Bay Area’s finest Olympic athletes during the past few decades.

What are you going to be doing in Beijing? I’m going to be doing coverage of track and field for a few media groups. There are a few things pending, I’m not really sure what they need at this point.

How did you become involved with track and field? I grew up in San Francisco and started competing in track at St. Ignatius. Back then, Northern California was the hotbed for track and field. In the first track meet I ever saw, in Modesto, there were four world records broken.

What is your most memorable Olympics experience? I was working the 1972 Olympics with ABC, during the Israeli hostage tragedy. I went from researching statistics about athletes, to trying to find more information about the Israeli hostages. That kind of memory speaks for itself.

What are the most amazing athletic performances you’ve witnessed? I’ve always had my favorite races, like the 200 and 400 meters, so I’m a little partial to those athletes. One athlete that really stands out is Michael Johnson. What he did in the 200 and 400 in Atlanta was truly amazing.

Who are the Bay Area’s best medal hopefuls in track and field? What’s really kind of exciting is that San Francisco has a real solid medal contender in Shannon Rowbury in the 1500 meters. She’s really stepped into the spotlight, which is really neat because I’ve seen her improve so much. I tell, even though she went to a rival high school [Sacred Heart Cathedral], I’ll still be rooting for her.

You’ve been around Bay Area track and field for so long. Any favorite athletes? Wow, there are too many to list. A lot of it would be really going back into history. Obviously, great sprinters like Tommie Smith and John Carlos come to mind. Stacy Dragila, the pole vaulter who won gold in Sydney, was pretty amazing. — Will Reisman

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