At this year's Olympic Festival, US athletes take aim at team berths
DENVER — THE world-class team handball players are having their pictures taken when an elderly gentleman with a small, exotic dog (it looks like a gremlin from the movie of the same name) walks up. The athletes:
a) Ignore the elderly gentlemen and his gremlin-dog.
b) Ignore the gentleman and snarl at the gremlin-dog.
c) Engage the elderly gentleman and the gremlin-dog in friendly conversation, inviting both to watch them play their next game.
If you answered (c), you've discerned the disposition of Tami and Toni Jameson and that of their 3,600 brothers and sisters competing in the United States Olympic Festival. It began last Friday and ends Sunday, with events in Denver, Boulder, and Colorado Springs, Colo.
The amateur athletes pack endless effort and 37 sports into the 10-day contest, held to simulate Olympic competition (though several non-Olympic sports are included). It also helps determine the makeup of the US Olympic teams. The so-called festivals, which began in 1978, are usually held every non-Olympic year, though the next one is in 1999.
If you want scowling, surly athletes, you've come to the wrong place. Here are some short profiles of four of them.
Twin Sisters Pair Up for Team Handball Squad
TAMI and Toni Jameson call themselves ''the twins from the Twin Cities.'' Growing up in Minneapolis, they were constantly playing basketball with each other and their two older brothers.
They both played basketball for four years at St. Cloud State in Minnesota. They've been roommates since they were conceived. Twenty-seven years later, they are roommates in Atlanta where they train year-round with the national handball squad. They work at a department store together: Toni in the men's department of J.C. Penney, Tami in the junior men's department.
''People ask us, 'What do you have to talk about after all that time together?' '' Toni says. ''But people are married for 27 years and don't run out of things to say to each other.''
''I love movies,'' Tami says, ''but I don't like to see a movie if I can't see it with Toni. I have to explain the whole movie to her, and it's just not the same. When we're anticipating a big movie like 'Batman Returns,' we always go to the premiere together, even if it's at midnight.''
While two people can have a cosmic bond, no two sports careers are ever that similar. Tami was a two-year starter at St. Cloud State, but Toni was a four-year starter and two-time Division II All-American. Tami was a good college forward, but Toni was one of the top rebounding guards in women's college basketball history, gathering 1,043 career rebounds.
Like many children, Toni had long dreamed of being in the Olympics one day. But that would mean she would have to be one of the 12 best women playing basketball in America. Maybe, she thought, another sport offered a better shot at an Olympic berth.
So both sisters went to the team-handball tryouts in Colorado Springs together, and the first day they made Toni a scoring player and Tami a goalie. That meant in every practice and scrimmage, Toni and Tami would compete against one another.
''It's not like I'm going to let Tami get a save when she needs one,'' says Toni. ''Or like I'm going to give Tami a goal,'' adds Tami. ''When she's shooting, she's just another player.''
When Toni was having difficulty and quit the national program for eight months, it led to the most troubling period for both sisters. Not only were they apart for the longest period of their lives, but when Toni returned, the delay kept her from making the 1992 Olympic team. Tami did make the team, and went to Barcelona.
Toni, the basketball star with the burning Olympic desire, was as happy for her twin as she was disappointed for herself. She was even more disappointed when she and her mother couldn't afford to go to Barcelona and support Tami.
For Tami it was bittersweet, being thousands of miles from Toni and sitting on the bench. She did not play a single minute of a single game. (The team finished sixth.)
''Now we're trying to change all that,'' Toni says. ''We are giving everything we have to make the team, so we can finally go to the Olympics together.''
TAMI (L.) AND TONI JAMESON
HOMETOWN: Minneapolis, Minn. Now they live near the national team handball squad headquarters in Atlanta.
ATHLETIC CAREER: The identical twins began playing basketball at age 2, and could consistently throw the ball up to a regulation-height hoop by age 8. Both began playing team handball just after their stand-out basketball careers at St. Cloud State, Minnesota. Toni, a two-time Division II basketball All-American, didn't make the 1992 Olympic handball team as a shooter, while Tami made the team as a goalie.
OCCUPATION: Both work as sales representatives in a department store.
Bicycle Road-Racer Tries Unconventional Finish
NOT many Americans know it, but bicycle road racing is a team sport. Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Milligan knows it. She and teammate Jamie Kruse broke away from the pack in the Olympic Festival women's road race July 22 and established a lead of more than two minutes - a lead almost unheard of at their level of racing. Even though Milligan is the stronger rider, ''We talked during the race and decided we wanted a team victory. So we decided to finish together,'' Milligan says.
Instead of each trying to outrace the other, the two held hands to cross the finish line at the same moment. Bike racing does not allow such solidarity, however, and it took five photo-finish cameras to give Milligan the solo victory she had tried so graciously to decline. (Later, she won a silver in the 20-km solo time trial.)
With athletes from all over America competing, Milligan's victory still had the hometown feeling of an extended family reunion.
Milligan lives in Lafayette, Colo., a satellite community of Boulder, where the race was held on the University of Colorado campus. After the victory, the first hug came from Jennifer's mother, Sharon. She and her husband, Marc, had been University of Colorado athletes and then campus police officers.
The announcer for the race was Boulder native and bike-racing legend Davis Phinney. Phinney's wife, 1984 Olympic road-racing gold-medalist Connie Carpenter, draped the gold medal around Milligan's neck.
''One of my goals was to meet Connie Carpenter,'' Milligan says. ''When she put the medal around my neck, it was a dream come true.''
Sharon Milligan is an avid softball player, and Jennifer also became a talented softball and basketball player. ''But when you play those sports, you're competing against everyone who ever picked up a softball or basketball,'' Jennifer says. ''I think I could do it, but I think bike racing's for me. The 2000 Olympics are my big goal.''
''It takes sacrifice and a lot of hard work, but the kids who have the support of their parents can go a long way,'' Mrs. Milligan says: as near as a hometown victory before family and friends, or as far away as the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
HOMETOWN: Born, raised, and lives in Lafayette, Colo., with her parents.
ATHLETIC CAREER: Began bicycling without training wheels at age three; began bike racing five years ago, at age 10.
OCCUPATION: High school sophomore.
A Roller-Hockey Pilgrim in an In-Line World
A SPORTSWRITER sniffs around a roller-hockey practice, surprised that they're playing on traditional quad roller skates instead of in-line models. Their sticks look more like field hockey sticks than ones for ice hockey.
Some of the players are taking off their equipment after practice, so he asks them about their sport. The whole team immediately gathers in a circle, like a spontaneous panel, to help answer questions.
Then Bill Schmelcher comes up. He has such a passion for his sport that pretty soon he's answering questions the reporter hadn't thought to ask. Five hours later, the writer is a leading authority on the sport, and if he decided to pick it up, he'd easily be one of the 2,000 best players in the United States.
How does he know? This kind of roller hockey, while much older and more popular worldwide than the in-line version, is played by only 2,000 Americans. Schmelcher is trying to change that, even if it means going door to door.
''Our type of roller hockey has been played since the 1860s,'' he says. ''It's the third-most-popular spectator sport in Europe, with several professional leagues. Juan Antonio Samarach of Spain, the International Olympic Committee chairman, was an avid player, so it was a demonstration sport in the 1992 Olympics. But of course it's not being played in Atlanta.''
By accident of birth, Schmelcher is a roller-hockey missionary in a nation filled with roller-hockey heathens.
Already one of the grand old men of the sport (he's in his 30s), he plans to play for another 10 or 15 years, in part so he can play with his son. Shawn, to hear his father tell it, is tearing up roller-hockey leagues like a five-year-old Wayne Gretzky.
Poor comparison. ''Better than Gretzky,'' Schmelcher says. ''I'll send you tapes I've got of Gretzky at 5, then I'll show you tapes of Shawn at 5. You'll see the difference.''
Of course, Gretzky got a late start. He was ice skating at 2, while Shawn was on roller skates at 13 months. By 14 months, he was skating on his own. A few months after that, he was playing hockey like his sister Shilo, who began her skating career at 11 months.
INEVITABLY, the subject of in-line skating comes up, with its 513 percent growth from 1987 to 1994 and the corresponding explosion in professional in-line hockey.
Schmelcher speaks kindly and politely, but through slightly clenched teeth. ''Like everything else in this country, it's just marketing,'' he says.
He and 17-year-old Dan Cormican, a Utica (N.Y.) Thunderbirds roller-hockey teammate, recently played SUNY Tech's college hockey team. ''They were on in-line skates with their long sticks. We played in our quads with our short sticks. They could check us if they could catch us. We each had goalies, but otherwise it was just Dan and I against the four of them. We beat them nine out of 11 games. Our skates are just much more maneuverable.''
This isn't bragging, this is a modern-day Don Quixote on roller skates tilting at the windmills of marketing and massive ignorance of his beloved sport.
After five hours, it was one down, about 260 million Americans to go.
HOMETOWN: Born, raised and lives near Utica, N.Y.
ATHLETIC CAREER: Began roller skating at age 2-1/2; began roller hockey at 14. He became player/coach of the Utica Thunderbirds roller-hockey club 15 years ago, at age 20.
OCCUPATION: Roller rink owner. (He bought the business from his father.)