Adding levity to track and field
ATHENS — Breaux Greer introduces himself to the world like this: "Breaux Greer is a rock star," he says. "I'm just around to have fun. I throw a stick."
This is not a Rorschach of verbal splatterings. This is a press conference in front of hundreds of journalists who - up until a few moments before - had no idea who this man was. And here he is, as if his seat were as comfortable as a porch swing back home in Cajun country, sipping it all in like sweet tea.
Breaux Greer is a rock star, though his band hasn't made much of an impression beyond where he trains in Athens, Ga. He does throw a stick - in fact, he is America's medal hope in javelin, which begins Thursday.
But most of all, Greer is around to have fun. And on a United States track-and-field team that has come to Athens with the most serious medal intentions, he is one of a handful of athletes who promise a little levity amid the sometimes overwhelming weight of gold, silver, and bronze.
Along with Greer, who wore war paint to the Olympic trials last month, there is Toby Stevenson, the slightly off-kilter pole-vaulter who wears a hockey helmet and often sees a successful vault as the perfect opportunity to breakdance in the landing pit. And there is Shawn Crawford, a medal favorite in the 200-meter dash who once raced a zebra on national TV.
In fact, each has a reasonable chance of medaling, though even gold might seem a little dim in the radiance of their personalities.
Greer is lead singer for a garage band called I Felt a Red Letter - a collection of four international track athletes who train in Georgia and dabble in music. The pesky matter of the Olympics, however, has put a crimp into the band's practice schedule.
"We haven't seen each other for three months," he laughs. "We have a lot of work to do."
Though hampered by a knee injury, the blond, easy-smiling Greer comes to Athens inspired by the challenge of competing in an event that has brought the US only five medals in 21 Olympics. But he is not defined by it. After all, he never imagined himself here. He was supposed to be on a baseball mound, not a javelin strip.
Had he competed in the original Olympics, his arm would have been the stuff of ancient myth along with Achilles' heel and Atlas' shoulders. As a pitcher, Greer's 98 m.p.h. fastball caught the eye of major-league scouts.
He doesn't rule out going back to baseball at some point. But for now, he likes the isolation of a stick, a runway, and a lot of grass. "I'm in love with it being an individual event," he says. "If I do well, I win."
But his thoughts already wander elsewhere. Perhaps he'll be a rock star. Or even an actor. "I feel like I'm built for something bigger," he says. "It might be comedy, I don't know."
Pole-vaulter Stevenson already has his routine down. When he hits the mat - and the bar stays up - the lights go on. He confesses to practicing his breakdance moves, and he promises something special for a gold-medal jump. For the preliminary rounds, then, Athens will have to make do with his standard celebrations - the gunslinger, the robot.
They're a way for him to blow off steam, Stevenson says. Even in a time when every twitch by an American athlete is being scrutinized for its geopolitical import, Stevenson says he has no fear.
"When I pull the moves out, the fans are going to see a kid from the States just being a goofball and having a great time," Stevenson says.
He's a sideshow even before he plants his pole. With the helmet, he is instantly recognizable even from Row ZZ. Consider it a handshake between Stevenson the Stanford graduate and Stevenson the grown-up skate rat. "I've always enjoyed extreme sports," he says. "You're either a risk-taker or risk-averse."
A third category, however, might be those who simply operate in their own universe. At a meet in 2002, Crawford wore a Phantom of the Opera mask during a 200-meter race. Despite the fact that he had stuck his head out a car window to test it, the mask came off, blinded him, and he was disqualified for straying from his lane like a car with the hood open.
Earlier this week, he made a more modest reprise of his Phantom menace, wearing a backward baseball cap for his first heat of the 100-meter dash. The reason: "You know, those supercharged engines have cooling systems," he explains. "This is to keep the engine cool, to keep the sun off the back of my neck."
Over the weekend, he finished fourth in the closest 100-meter dash in history. Earlier this year, he finished second to a zebra on the Fox television program "Man vs. Beast." For someone who calls himself Cheetah Man, it was a bitter pill. Perhaps a gold medal in Thursday night's 200-meter final would be of some consolation.