• Racewalking? Badminton? The 6 oddest Olympic sports

    Stephen Dunn / Getty Images

    No, it's not a scene from "E.T.": It's actually the June 16 trials for Olympic BMX racing in Chula Vista, Calif. Connor Fields, in the lead, won the event to win the second spot on the 2012 US Olympic Team.

    Oleg Nikishin / Getty Images

    Ramzi Haidar / AFP/Getty Images

    Cameron Spencer / Getty Images

    Alexander Rusakov of Japan competes in the men's trampoline final during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

    Stephen Dunn / Getty Images

    No, it's not a scene from "E.T.": It's actually the June 16 trials for Olympic BMX racing in Chula Vista, Calif. Connor Fields, in the lead, won the event to win the second spot on the 2012 US Olympic Team.

    Every four years, well-known Olympic sports like track and field, gymnastics, and swimming get their day in the sun.

    Then you scroll further down the list of events. Trampolining? Racewalking? Shooting? Those are in the Olympics?

    While it’s not quite like the early days of the modern Olympics in the 1900s, when tug-of-war, rope climbing and live pigeon shooting could earn you a gold medal, there are still those sports that are way off the beaten path in the public’s eye. But to their practitioners, these offbeat events pack just as much thrill of victory and agony of defeat as swimming and gymnastics.

    Take Kyle Bowen, a former national-level trampoline competitor, for example. “We’re trying to get the sport in the mainstream and have it be more in the consciousness of society that it is a sport that is cool,’’ Bowen told TODAY.com. “People are like, ‘You do trampolining? Like, you jump up and down like in the backyard?’’’

    Cameron Spencer / Getty Images

    Alexander Rusakov of Japan competes in the men's trampoline final during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

    While canoeing may be the stuff of summer camp hijinks and racewalking might seem like a glorified version of your neighbor trundling down the sidewalk in her neon workout gear, trampolining might have one of the bigger uphill battles in the sporting consciousness: The event has to fight the general notion that the trampoline is a staple of backyard broken bones, the apparatus of “Jackass’’-style mayhem, and a onetime fixture of gym classes across the country, before lawyers and insurance companies got involved.

    Even though the sport is genuinely exciting, involving competitors flying as high as 30 feet in the air while executing flips and somersaults in routines that are judged on aesthetics and execution, it still fights to escape the connotation of being the bastion of backyard mishaps and kids’ birthday parties. Still, since its introduction as an official Olympic sport in 2000, trampolining has seen some growth in certain parts of the country as training sites spring up.

    Bowen owns Elite Trampoline Academy in suburban Red Bank, N.J., the training home for brothers Steven and Jeffrey Gluckstein, who are currently battling each other in the Olympic trials for the lone U.S. spot in the London Olympics. Trampolining is governed by USA Gymnastics, but has to fight for attention because female gymnasts in particular are often the national darlings of the Olympics to the public and media. 

    “I'm anxious to see now with the (Gluckstein) boys and how much press we've gotten if that will start to change a little,’’ Bowen said.

    But trampolining is hardly alone in the category of surprising or strange Olympic events fighting for attention. Here are six others to watch heading into London.

    BMX racing
    Having debuted in the 2008 Olympics, BMX has that cool factor that comes with any action sport that has risen to prominence in the last 15 years. With racers flying off jumps on a single-lap dirt track full of twists and turns, plus collisions, wipeouts and more, there is rarely a dull moment in a BMX race. (There is also something cool about being covered in dirt when you win a gold medal.)

    Oleg Nikishin / Getty Images

    Racewalking
    One of the stranger sports to watch, racewalking features competitors with hips swiveling quickly and arms pumping while they avoid having both feet leave the ground at the same time, which is a violation of the sport’s rules. Judges keep a close eye on any racer who moves his or her legs, even for an instant, into any motion that could be construed as running. It can be incredibly intense for competitors, and has even suffered its share of tragedy: Olympic hopeful Albert Heppner committed suicide in 2004, two months after a tough loss in an Olympic qualifying event. 

    Team pursuit cycling
    Two teams of four riders (three for the women’s event) start on opposite sides of the track and attempt to either pass the other riders or record the fastest time over four kilometers for men, and three for women. Riders are usually only inches apart in a formation and can hit speeds of nearly 40 miles an hour, so any slight change in speed for one rider can mean a crash. It’s strangely hypnotic to watch. It also quietly is one of the hotter tickets in London, as organizers are fetching $530 for the best seats in the house; Great Britain’s men’s team are considered a serious threat to win the gold.   

    Shooting
    Not surprisingly, this is a sport favored by military personnel, so if you support our troops, this is the event for you. It’s also the rare instance where an active-duty member of the military can be an Olympic champion. The disciplines vary by the type of gun used (rapid-fire pistol, air rifle, etc.), the distances to the targets, and the time allowed for shooting. There also can be some intrigue, as American Matt Emmons fired at the wrong target on his final shot in the 2004 Olympics in Greece, which cost him a gold medal in the 50-meter, three-position rifle event. 

    Ramzi Haidar / AFP/Getty Images

    Table tennis and badminton
    Be honest: The thought of being able to rocket shots off the corner of your ping-pong table against unsuspecting guests has always been a secret dream. Or maybe drilling badminton shots during the family backyard party at that uncle you can’t stand is a quiet fantasy. Well, these men and women play at that level all the time. The extra fun of badminton is that it’s one of the few sports in the Olympics featuring mixed doubles, which was introduced in 1996 in Atlanta, so it’s a rare chance to see men and women competing on the same team.

    Hammer throw
    While most Olympic track and field events can be found at your average high school track meet, this is one that you don’t normally see. Competitors try to whip a metal ball attached to a wire and handle into the air as far as possible. In the 18th century, competitors in Scotland, Ireland and England would throw an actual sledgehammer. While the men’s event has been in the Olympics since 1900, the women’s hammer throw was not introduced until 2000. The sport has made recent news, because transgender competitor Keelin Godsey, who was born female but identifies as a male, is trying to make the U.S. women’s team. 

    Related video:
    Only one brother can make Olympic trampoline team
    En garde! Matt and Al duel on the plaza
    Natalie tries gymnastics at Olympic training center

  • 'There was no turning back': Phelps on his fourth shot at Olympic gold

    Jamie Squire / Getty Images

    Michael Phelps after he finished second in the championship final heat of the Men's 400 m Individual Medley at the 2012 US Olympic Swimming Team Trials at CenturyLink Center on Monday.

    Jamie Squire / Getty Images

    Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps greet each other after they competed in the 2012 US Olympic Swimming Team Trials Monday.

    TODAY

    Matt Lauer sits down with multiple medal-winning American swimmer Michael Phelps to discuss his preparations for London.

    TODAY

    Matt Lauer sits down with multiple medal-winning American swimmer Michael Phelps to discuss his preparations for London.

    When all the cheering finally stopped after his record haul of eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008, superstar swimmer Michael Phelps soon endured the downside of Olympic fame.

    Out of shape, practicing intermittently, and caught smoking out of a bong in an infamous picture splashed across the national media, Phelps, 27, called it the hardest four years of his life.

    “You’re so up on this big competitive level, and you’re at this peak,’’ Phelps told Matt Lauer in an interview that aired on TODAY Tuesday. “And then you just kind of roll down the hill.’’

    Phelps is now in the midst of qualifying for his fourth and what he says will be his final Olympics. On Monday night, Phelps finished second behind rival Ryan Lochte in the 400-meter individual medley at the U.S. Olympic trials to qualify for London in that event as he seeks to add to his record total of 14 career gold medals. The two will resume their rivalry Tuesday night as the trials continue.

    Jamie Squire / Getty Images

    Michael Phelps after he finished second in the championship final heat of the Men's 400 m Individual Medley at the 2012 US Olympic Swimming Team Trials at CenturyLink Center on Monday.

    To even get himself back into shape to compete with the world’s best took a while for Phelps after the euphoria of Beijing, where he bested the previous record of seven gold medals set by Mark Spitz in 1972.

    “I literally didn’t do anything for six months (after Beijing),’’ Phelps said. “I would come for like a week or two straight, and then I would just take two or three weeks off.’’

    Given his record-breaking accomplishments, Phelps could certainly have called it a career after his 2008 performance, but chose to take one last shot at Olympic glory.

    “I had made that commitment to go another four years, and there was no turning back at that point,’’ he said.

    In 2009, Phelps went through the public embarrassment of a picture surfacing of him smoking from a bong at a party.

    “I think the worst thing was just I hurt so many people around me,’’ he said. “I'll be the first to admit I made a lot of stupid mistakes in my life. It was a huge learning experience. I've had a lot of those through my career, and they've all made me a better person.’’

    Phelps’ struggle with fame and motivation after his achievements in Beijing also lead to speculation of whether another letdown period will occur when his Olympic career comes to an end in London.

    Jamie Squire / Getty Images

    Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps greet each other after they competed in the 2012 US Olympic Swimming Team Trials Monday.

    “I don’t want to say there's no shot, but I don’t think it’s going to be anywhere (near) the level I’ve gone through,’’ Phelps said. “I've been through tons of ups and downs in my career, and kind of being able to come to a closure in my career, I just don't see it happening.’’

    Despite his struggles in the last three years to beat Lochte, whom he once routinely defeated, Phelps says this is the most relaxed he’s ever been in the four Olympics in which he has competed. His own coach, Bob Bowman, admits that the volume of training that Phelps has done does not approach his training for Beijing.

    “I think if you ask me today, ‘Is he prepared to be as good a swimmer as he was in Beijing?’ I would have to say no because we haven't done the volume of training,’’ Bowman told NBC News. “If you ask me, ‘Has he prepared to be a better person than he was in Beijing?’ Without question. He's in a much better place in his life, and he's just more grown up.”

    “Leading into 2000, '04 and '08, we were focused on doing a ton of volume,’’ Phelps said. “But it's not about going out and swimming 15 events. It's about going out and capping off a career.’’

    Michael Phelps' adopted dog will learn to swim just like him

    Phelps is making sure to stop and smell the roses this time. He is keeping a journal, which he said is unusual for him. With three more medals in London, he would become the most decorated Olympian of all time.

    “Being able to look back at all the memories I have, I feel like it’s better if I just write them down,’’ he said. “I just found that if I'm having a bad day, I just open up my journal and write down the feelings that I have, and I feel a lot more relieved and relaxed afterwards.’’

    Whatever happens in London, Phelps is ready to deal with the end of a legendary career.

    “I don't care what anybody else says,’’ he said. “If I can say my life or my career has been a success, that's all that matters to me.’’

    Scott Stump is a TODAY.com contributor who once took six months off after swimming 10 laps at the local YMCA pool. 

    More:
    Debbie Phelps: 'I;'m Excited' about Olympics
    See what US swim team will wear in London
    Phelps talks swimming trunks, 2012 Olympics

  • Michael Phelps' adopted dog will learn to swim just like him

    Lisa Dixon

    From Bow To Wow is right for Stella! She went from shelter dog to faithful companion of Olympian Michael Phelps.

    TODAY

    Love at first sight! Michael Phelps met Penelope on TODAY and couldn't help but adopt her.

    Lisa Dixon

    Relaxing on vacation, Herman is the other faithful hound of Olympian Michael Phelps.

    Lisa Dixon

    Herman, king of the dock, surveys all around him.

    Lisa Dixon

    Stella may not know how to swim yet but we're sure she will soon be a master of the water just like her owner!

    Lisa Dixon

    From Bow To Wow is right for Stella! She went from shelter dog to faithful companion of Olympian Michael Phelps.

    It's a true love story: Olympic swimmer goes on morning talk show, and by the end is hopelessly smitten with a beautiful young girl named Penelope — who also happens to be a shelter dog.

    You may recognize Penelope from TODAY's Bow To Wow segment in November. On that fateful winter day, Michael Phelps was on set to chat about his training regimen and ended up lending a hand by walking Penelope out on the plaza. In that brief moment, Phelps decided he had to adopt her and the pair have been partners ever since.

    TODAY

    Love at first sight! Michael Phelps met Penelope on TODAY and couldn't help but adopt her.

    The Catahoula mix — now re-named Stella —  isn't Phelps' only dog. According to Michael's mom Debbie, Stella is getting along famously with Michael's other pooch, a bulldog named Herman. She said the happy trio are all doing well.

    Lisa Dixon

    Relaxing on vacation, Herman is the other faithful hound of Olympian Michael Phelps.

    It's easy to see that Phelps is dedicated to his dogs just from a glance at his Twitter page. He regularly shares updates and photos of Herman and Stella, like these two from the end of May:

    And, of course, how could any dog owned by an Olympic swimmer resist the water? Michael's mom told TODAY.com that Stella is going to learn to swim soon and from the below photo it's clear Herman doesn't shy away from the waves. 

    Lisa Dixon

    Herman, king of the dock, surveys all around him.

    Lisa Dixon

    Stella may not know how to swim yet but we're sure she will soon be a master of the water just like her owner!

    While the pair of pooches won't be traveling with Michael if he continues to the Olympics, it's clear they'll certainly be in his thoughts and cheering him on!

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  • McCouture? McDonald's intros designer uniforms for Olympics

    Courtesy McDonald's

    McDonalds' newly designed uniforms, featuring recyclable aprons, have received a warm welcome from staff.

    Courtesy McDonald's

    Around 2,000 handpicked employees will debut the new uniforms at McDonalds' four Olympic Park restaurants.

    Courtesy McDonald's

    McDonalds' newly designed uniforms, featuring recyclable aprons, have received a warm welcome from staff.

    McDonald's is known more for fast food than fashion, but that may be changing now that the company has unveiled new retro-look uniforms for the Summer Olympics in London.

    Set to debut at McDonald's' four Olympic Park restaurants, the uniforms will be first be worn by 2,000 handpicked Olympic employees. This fall, they will be rolled out to the rest of the company’s 87,500 U.K. staff.

    The new A-line skirts and slim-cut pants come in khaki green and will be paired with plaid shirts for customer care assistants. Managers get to spice up their black suits with mustard scarves, belts and dark, skinny ties, while the staff behind the counter will don polos, caps and long aprons.

    McDonald's asked designer Wayne Hemingway, founder of the Red or Dead label, to update and remake the staff’s look. Hemingway and his team then went out of their way to work with McDonald's employees to find out what would and wouldn’t work for them.

    “When we spoke to the staff, they let us know that they wanted something that they felt good going to work in,” Hemingway told TODAY.com. “We took inspiration from the new McDonald's restaurants that are more like serious eating establishments. It’s why we got rid of the baseball caps, which reminded us of petrol pump (gas station) attendants, and are not something you see in a proper restaurant.”

    Hemingway's job was made more complicated by the company's desire to make its new uniforms sustainable as well as chic. After use, the new aprons will be recycled.

    Courtesy McDonald's

    Around 2,000 handpicked employees will debut the new uniforms at McDonalds' four Olympic Park restaurants.

    Staff response to the new uniforms has been overwhelmingly positive, McDonald's told TODAY.com. The kudos must be a relief to both the company and the designer, who spent 18 months collaborating on the new look.

    “It’s important to our crew that they feel comfortable and confident in their uniforms,” said a McDonald's spokeswoman. “Our uniform is something that we continually review and revisit to make sure it’s working well for our employees and that it’s representing the business at its best.”

    It’s not the first time that the company hired a big name designer for its uniforms: Four years ago, it commissioned Bruce Oldfield to remake the company’s look.

    “Our role as the official restaurant for the London 2012 Olympic Games provided the perfect stage upon which to showcase our new uniforms and introduce them to our crew, our customers and all who will be watching or attending the Games this summer," said the spokesman.

    McDonald's is expecting Olympic size crowds at the Games, with its main restaurant - its biggest ever - offering seating for 1,500. Among its four restaurants in the Olympic Park, McDonald's plans to serve more than 1.75 million meals over the course of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Fitting with its push toward sustainability, after the Games, all of the furniture and equipment - even light bulbs and switches - in the flagship restaurant will be used by other McDonald's restaurants in the U.K. 

    Related video:
    Sneak peek at Olympic fashion
    Historic London sites to become Olympic venues
    Mayor of London's love affair with his city

  • Jordyn Wieber talks Bieber, cereal box stardom

    Ronald Martinez / Getty Images

    As Jordyn Wieber aims for Olympic stardom, she has already achieved a huge goal: A spot on a cereal box.

    Jeff Roberson / AP

    Jordyn Wieber takes a leap on the balance beam during the women's senior division at the U.S. gymnastics championships on June 10.

    Ronald Martinez / Getty Images

    As Jordyn Wieber aims for Olympic stardom, she has already achieved a huge goal: A spot on a cereal box.

    While a potential shot at a gold medal waits in London, gymnastics star Jordyn Wieber has already achieved a special type of Olympic immortality — a spot in the cereal aisle.

    The boxes came on Wednesday, prompting the 17-year-old from Michigan to tweet, “Look what was delivered to my house today! Can’t wait for them to be on shelves.’’

    “I was so excited,’’ Wieber told TODAY.com. “I never thought I would be on the front of a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box. It was the most surreal thing. Even just recently, walking through the grocery store and seeing Summer Sanders and Kerri Walsh on there, it’s just so cool to see all those Olympians and know that’s going to be me next.’’

    Getting a spot on a box also illustrates the high expectations for Wieber, who is the reigning world all-around champion. Now she just needs to do her best to bring home a gold, which then may lead to another one of her major goals — meeting Justin Bieber. Hanging with the Biebs, of course, is #2. 

    “I have to say the gold medal would be probably a lot cooler,’’ she said. “Meeting Justin Bieber would be awesome, too.’’

    She is hoping to spread “Wieber Fever’’ from the Midwest all the way to London after years of support from her hometown and fellow students at Dewitt High School in Dewitt, Mich. To keep the "fever" from spreading, her supporters will often wear surgical masks and T-shirts imprinted with the malady. 

    Jordyn has caught “Wieber Fever’’ herself — her older brother, Ryan, was a star quarterback at Dewitt who inspired his own following during a state playoff run in the fall. Jordyn was right there with her own costume surgical mask in the stands, cheering him on.

    “It’s a lot of fun just knowing that I can share that spotlight with my brother,’’ she said. “We can both have our different sports and it’s exciting to see him do well."

    Jeff Roberson / AP

    Jordyn Wieber takes a leap on the balance beam during the women's senior division at the U.S. gymnastics championships on June 10.

    The elite gymnast has maintained a sense of normalcy during her ascension to stardom by continuing to attend her local high school.

    Watch video: Olympic legend Mark Spitz: Sports give kids 'hope'

    “I think just staying in school part-time has helped me a lot. It balances out my lifestyle," she said. "I’m able to go to training and then go to school, which takes my mind off gymnastics. Having a different group of friends outside of gymnastics has also definitely helped me over the years.’’

    To fulfill her golden goal in London, Wieber will have to break a jinx that goes back to well before she was born. Since 1972, only one woman has won the all-around title at the World Championships and then followed that with an Olympic all-around title. No American woman has accomplished the feat in the last 40 years, as Shawn Johnson won the world all-around title in 2007 but took second behind teammate Nastia Liukin in the 2008 Olympics.

    Story: Gymnast Shawn Johnson ends Olympic bid: 'I feel numb'

    “I try not to think about the jinx too much,’’ Wieber said. “I try to focus on my own training, but it definitely makes me want to reach that goal even more and make it to the top of that podium.’’

    Wieber has an intense focus she has shown in tight competitions like the recent national championships. With fellow Olympic hopeful Gabby Douglas neck-and-neck with her throughout, Wieber won the all-around title by just 0.2 points over Douglas.

    “I think it motivates me a little bit more just knowing the scores are so close, and knowing that I’m going to need to get every tenth out of every routine helps me do better in the competition,’’ Wieber said. “I think a lot of it just comes from my personality, but at the same time I have to practice every day. I do a lot with all the girls in the gym watching me at one time and translate that over to the whole crowd having their eyes on me at one time. I think I train my mind to compete under pressure.’’

    Anointed American gymnastics' “it girl,’’ Wieber is ready, post-trials, to take on that pressure in London, which may be her best shot at Olympic accolades. The window of time for gymnastics stardom can often be short. Liukin, only 22, is now fighting just to get a spot on the team at the upcoming trials.

    “I think every gymnast is different, and some girls are coming back at an older age, but this is my time right now,’’ she said. “I just try to put everything I have into this year and this summer.’’

    More: Video: Olympic hopefuls say 'Thank you, Mom' 
    Fashion lover Ryan Lochte has 130 pairs of shoes 
    Gymnast Shawn Johnson ends Olympic bid: 'I feel numb' 
    Michael Phelps' mom: Don't push kids into sports 

  • No special treatment at Games for queen's granddaughter

    Kieran Doherty / Reuters

    British equestrian Zara Phillips takes part in the Olympic torch relay, riding through Cheltenham Race Course on May 23.

    Paul Hackett / Reuters

    Equestrian and granddaughter of the queen Zara Phillips told reporters that she is "massively" excited to be on Britain's Olympic team.

    Paul Hackett / Reuters

    Equestrian and granddaughter of the queen Zara Phillips told reporters that she is "massively" excited to be on Britain's Olympic team.

     

    The queen will undoubtedly be rooting for all British athletes at the Games this summer in London, but one will surely hold a special place in her heart: Her granddaughter, Zara Phillips, is a member of the equestrian eventing team.

    But far be it from Phillips, 12th in line to the throne, to expect or request any special treatment. The 31-year-old rider will stay in the Olympic village with the other members of her team and will not have any exceptional security arrangements, according to the team’s performance director.

    "Security is going to be so tight that every athlete will be treated like the queen was their grandmother," said Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham. "Around the Olympic venues there will be a so-called ring of steel that will replicate the sort of security surrounding a head of state. London will swamped with security personnel, and the amount spent on security at the Games will the biggest ever."

    Meanwhile, Phillips is concentrating more on perfecting her skills than on the worldwide attention she has brought to her team.

    “It will be great to be part of the Olympics, and get the atmosphere and the buzz of being a part of it,” she said at a press conference earlier this week. “A lot of times equestrian is quite far out, and they made a big effort this time to have us part of the Olympics.”

    A question about her royal grandmother elicited an embarrassed laugh as Phillips carefully sidestepped.

    “Oh man,” she said, as she covered her face and looked down. “Obviously my family is very proud, and right behind me. It’s great that I’ve been able to be selected to start off with.”

    Phillips is the daughter of Princess Anne, the queen’s second-born daughter. She has long competed for British teams at the European and World Equestrian Championships, but this will be her first time at the Olympics. In 2008, she was selected to compete at the Games in Beijing, but was forced to withdraw after her horse Toytown was injured.

     

    Kieran Doherty / Reuters

    British equestrian Zara Phillips takes part in the Olympic torch relay, riding through Cheltenham Race Course on May 23.

    This time, her horse High Kingdom, an 11-year-old gelding, is ready, and Phillips is “massively” excited, although “still keeping fingers crossed, because you know what horses are like.”

    The most exciting part of equestrian eventing is no doubt the show jumping, where horses leap over fences that reach over 4 feet high. Eventing, which takes place over several days, also includes dressage, where horse and rider are judged on the precision of the horse's movements, and cross country.

    While the queen is certainly proud of her granddaughter, it’s not the first time a member of her family has participated in the Games. Phillips' mother, Princess Anne, represented Great Britain in equestrian eventing at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, and while she didn’t come home with any medals, her husband, Mark Phillips, won a gold medal at the 1972 Games in Munich, and silver at the 1988 Games in Seoul in eventing.

    More:
    Olympic torchbearer stops mid-relay, proposes
    US Olympic horses FedEx'd to London on redeye
    Video: Debbie Phelps 'excited' for Olympics

     

  • Michael Phelps' mom: 'Don't push' kids into sports

    The mother of swimmer Michael Phelps chats with the TODAY team about her superstar son, who will be competing in the Olympic swim trials this weekend.

    The mother of swimmer Michael Phelps chats with the TODAY team about her superstar son, who will be competing in the Olympic swim trials this weekend.

    Debbie Phelps is the quintessential Olympic mother: Her support for her 14-time medalist son, swimmer Michael Phelps, is clear at every competition. This summer, Debbie is preparing to watch her son compete in another Olympics  — most likely for the last time.

    With her final Games on the horizon, Debbie fondly remembers the first ones she attended with Michael. Her advice for mothers going to watch their children compete for the first time is the same as for mothers with young kids just starting out in sports — don’t push.

    “Children have to do what they enjoy,” Debbie told TODAY.com. “You have to let your kids find what’s best for them and what their own niche is.”

    Though Debbie was an athlete herself (volleyball, basketball and high jump), she never pressured her children to follow in her sports footsteps. In fact, when 11-year-old Michael started to swim at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club with coach Bob Bowman, Debbie recalls Bowman coming to speak with her and Michael’s father about their son’s swimming future. Bowman laid out a plan for Michael’s swimming career all the way up to 2012, and Debbie started to laugh.

    Bowman asked what was the matter and Debbie was blunt. “I told him, ‘If [Michael] doesn’t enjoy it, this isn’t going to happen!”

    If refraining from pushing is the first step toward supporting your child, the second, according to Debbie, is listening. If your child isn’t having a good time, don’t force it.

    Debbie remembers a time when even the amazing Michael Phelps no longer wanted to be a swimmer and was hesitant to continue. When he was entering high school, all his friends began getting physicals to play school sports, and Michael started to feel left out. That’s when he told his mother he wanted to switch to golf!

    “I sat him down and we took a look at his swimming and where it could take him,” Debbie recalls. “You have to let them decide what to do. It’s about educating them about the opportunities that can open up.” As you can guess, Michael stayed with swimming.

    Education is the third element on Debbie's list for supporting a child with sports potential. Even learning how to handle their own luggage can be valuable: “I never packed their bags, I never carried bags. It was about them learning to be responsible, and part of their education.”

    It was a lesson Michael learned the hard way. Once when he was at a competition at age 14, he reached for his goggles and realized he didn’t have them. When he looked over at his mom, she just lifted her empty hands. “There was nothing I could do about it! He hasn’t forgotten his goggles since,” she laughed.

    Debbie, a middle school principal, is passionate about educating kids about the dangers of drinking and driving. As a spokesperson for The Century Council, she tries to bring this message to kids and encourage parents to talk about the issue with their children.

    Like any other mom watching her child compete in a sport, Debbie is excited to be heading to another Games. She still tears up at the thought of Michael receiving his medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and the moment the cameras didn’t capture: when Michael went up to his family, medal in hand, and said “Look what I did!”

    “It was like a dream,” Debbie recalled tearfully. “I was so proud.”

    But the whole experience of attending an Olympics is incredible, according to Debbie. “Everyone is there supporting their kids, wanting them to win, and for a little while, there’s peace. Watching your child compete is very rewarding.”

    So is Michael really done competing in the Olympics after London? When Matt Lauer asked Debbie if there was any chance of her son changing his mind about competing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, she answered with a firm no. “He will not swim there. No, no that’s final,” Debbie said, later confirming the decision to TODAY.com.

    But what about Debbie and Michael attending as spectators? She isn't sure. “It’s four years away, who know what will happen by then? Maybe he’ll be playing golf!”

    Yet even if she never attends another Olympics after this one, Debbie believes there are still ways those of us at home can support our athletes. “Remember them,” she insists. “Don’t forget these athletes. They only make an appearance every four years, and when the torch is put to rest, it’s easy to forget. People remember football, baseball, and those athletes because their sports are seasonal.

    “Remember the hard work these athletes are doing for the Olympics.”

    TODAY.com producer Lisa Granshaw is glad her parents didn't push when she decided to hang up her fencing sword, stop competing, and become a journalist. The pen is mightier than the sword anyway, right?

    More:

     

  • Olympian Rowdy Gaines on the US swim team's gold medal pressure

    Red Mclendon / AP

    Rowdy Gaines after being awarded a gold medal in the men's 100-meter freestyle at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, on July 31, 1984.

    Davis Turner / REUTERS

    Rebecca Soni competes in the USA Swimming Grand Prix Charlotte Ultra Swim in Charlotte, North Carolina May 12.

    Red Mclendon / AP

    Rowdy Gaines after being awarded a gold medal in the men's 100-meter freestyle at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, on July 31, 1984.

    When swimmer Rowdy Gaines won the 100-meter freestyle at 25 years old in the 1984 Olympics, he was the third-oldest men's swimmer in history to win a gold medal.

    At the time, Gaines had to fight against the sentiment that he was over the hill. Nearly 30 years later, if you applied that standard to the 2012 American men's hopefuls, seemingly every big name would be getting fitted for a rocking chair.

    Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte are both 27, Brendan Hansen is 30, and Jason Lezak is 36 – ancient in swimming years nearly 30 years ago. On the women's side, Dara Torres is making a run at an Olympic spot at 45 years old after becoming the oldest female swimmer to win a medal at age 41 in the 2008 Olympics. While advances in nutrition and training certainly have helped, the primary reason that so many swimmers can now have increased career longevity is simple.

    “Money has changed the sport so much,’’ Gaines told TODAY.com. “The average age of this U.S. Olympic (swim) team might be the oldest in history, at least on the men’s side. It’s changed dramatically because of money, and that’s the bottom line.’’

    Sponsorship and endorsement dollars plus a stipend provided by USA Swimming to members of the national team mean that careers can be extended much longer because of financial stability. It also means the days of teenage phenoms and NCAA champions ascending Olympic podiums may be numbered, at least on the men’s side, because those swimmers are now competing against the type of seasoned veterans who didn’t used to exist.

    “When I swam, 90 percent of the Olympic team was made up of college swimmers,’’ said Gaines, who will serve as an Olympic commentator for NBC in London. “Now there’s so many established swimmers out there, it’s hard to sneak up on anybody anymore.’’

    Swimming has traditionally skewed as one of the sports featuring the youngest athletes in the Olympics. While Olympic sports like sailing, equestrian events, pistol shooting and archery have athletes all the way in their fifties competing, sports like swimming and gymnastics have featured numerous teenagers over the years. Those teenage competitors still exist, like 15-year-old women’s hopeful Kathleen Ladecky, but they are rarely podium threats any more, particularly on the men’s side. When they make the team at that age now, it usually signals the beginning of a gradual process to peak in their early to mid-twenties.

    The dominance of the veterans means the names being put up in lights leading up to the Olympics are the same ones Gaines expects to see making headlines in London. The men’s swimmer with the most pressure is not Phelps, who won a record eight gold medals in 2008, but Lochte, according to Gaines. Lochte has already won six Olympic medals, including three golds, and currently has the world records in the 200-meter individual medley and the 400-meter individual medley.

    “The guy that's under the most pressure is probably Ryan because he's been the best swimmer in the world the last three years,’’ Gaines said. “He's no longer the hunter, he's the hunted. He's always been the hunter because he's been in the background of Michael. Plus he’s on the cover of all these magazines and all this stuff, so he has a lot of external pressure.’’

    Davis Turner / REUTERS

    Rebecca Soni competes in the USA Swimming Grand Prix Charlotte Ultra Swim in Charlotte, North Carolina May 12.

    On the women’s side, the highest hopes will be pinned to Rebecca Soni and Missy Franklin. Soni is a three-time Olympic medalist who currently has the world record in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke. Franklin, 17, has the world record in the 200-meter backstroke (short course) and had a breakout performance at the 2011 World Championships.

    “Rebecca has been the best breaststroker in the world the last four years, so that’s a lot of pressure to have,’’ Gaines said. “On the flipside, Missy is still a youngster, but because she flirted with everybody and let the secret out last summer (at the World Championships), the expectations are also high.’’

    Winning world titles in between Olympics is one thing, but the gold medal is the pinnacle of the sport, so the pressure ratchets up dramatically. That’s why a swimmer like Lochte is under the gun to show that the titles he has racked up the past three years are simply a precursor to his moment in London and not the peak of his career.

    “I think of it as everything in between the four years is like preseason football in the NFL,’’ Gaines said. “Unfortunately for us, the only thing that really matters from the outside world is the Olympic Games. That's our Super Bowl. In 20 years, nobody's going to remember the person that won three world championships.’’

    While Gaines will be putting in 18- to 20-hour days at the pool for the first eight days of the Olympics, he is eager to eventually get a look at the other great athletes and teams across all the sports in London. He has attended every Olympics since his gold-medal performance in 1984, doing everything from watching a Dream Team basketball game in 1992 to checking out the table tennis competition in 2008. He also is a water polo and gymnastics fan.

    “I love the Olympics,’’ he said. “I am the epitome of an Olympic fan. Anything I can get to, I will make a point to see all of these athletes at the top of their sport.’’

    Scott Stump is a TODAY.com contributor who took third place in the Driftwood Beach Club kids' race in 1986.

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  • Ann Romney's horse heading to London to go for Olympic gold

    Brian Cahn / Zuma Press

    Ann Romney's horse, Rafalca, under the sure-handed guidance of trainer Jan Ebeling, at the National Grand Prix Dressage Championship at the United States Equestrian Federation Festival of Champions on Friday.

    Ann Romney's horse Rafalca has qualified for the London Olympics and will compete in the sport of dressage.

    Brian Cahn / Zuma Press

    Ann Romney's horse, Rafalca, under the sure-handed guidance of trainer Jan Ebeling, at the National Grand Prix Dressage Championship at the United States Equestrian Federation Festival of Champions on Friday.

    It’s time to shine up those riding boots and break out the top hat — Ann Romney’s dressage horse will be competing in the London Olympics this summer. 

    Rafalca, Romney's 15-year-old Oldenburg mare that she co-owns, qualified for the U.S. Equestrian Team after placing well at the U.S. Equestrian Federation National Dressage Championships in Gladstone, N.J., over the weekend.

    Rafalca placed third, securing one of five open spots on the team. She was ridden to victory by Ann Romney’s trainer Jan Ebeling, 53, who has been an active rider and trainer on the international dressage circuit since relocating to the United States from his native Germany in 1984. He owns Rafalca along with his wife Amy, Ann Romney and an additional owner, Beth Meyer.  

    Ann Romney attended the Championships in Gladstone and tweeted from the event, “It’s great to be part of the Olympics again. We are so proud of Jan and Team USA. Now let’s bring home the gold!”

    The odds seem to be in Rafalca's favor. She placed high in the qualifying competition, scoring an overall 73.169% out of a possible 100, which put her nine slots ahead of her other teammates on the U.S. Equestrian Team. 

    While this isn’t the first time Ebeling has tried to get Rafalca to the Olympics, this is the first time the mare has qualified. In an article for Dressage Today earlier this year, Ebeling wrote that he attempted to qualify Rafalca for a spot on the team to compete at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Unfortunately, Rafalca sustained a severe injury that left her unable to compete, putting her training back a year.

    Since then, Ebeling says Rafalca has “done a lot of growing up,” and that his journey with her has "been long and emotional with ups and downs and more than a few bumps along the way." A “bump” included a botched ride at a qualifying competition for the 2009 World Cup. Rafalca refused a command in the ring and Ebeling failed to qualify. Still, he finished the ride smiling. “That’s part of who I am,” he said. “I don’t quit.”

    Perseverance is something Ann Romney and her trainer have in common. She began dressage as a way to treat her multiple scelerosis, which she was diagnosed with in 1998. What began as therapy became a hobby and then, as her husband Mitt Romney puts it, an “addiction.” He said recently, “She's convinced [dressage helped] her regenerate her strength and renew that vigor, and so she cares very deeply about this sport and about horses...I joke that I'm going to send her to Betty Ford for addiction to horses." 

    According to the U.S. Equestrian Federation, dressage requires the horse and rider to "combine the strength and agility of gymnastics with the elegance and beauty of ballet. The result is truly the best blend of sport and art."

    Dressage horses are trained to respond to the slightest of gestures. Through the squeeze of a calf or the closing of fingers around the reins, horses can be commanded into pirouettes, a slow-motion trot, or into a series of "flying lead changes" where the horse appears to "skip" around the arena.

    Ann Romney’s interest in dressage has been criticized as an elite sport for the wealthy that further separates the Romney family from regular Americans. Trainer Ebeling disagrees. In an interview with dressage-news.com, he said, “The visibility that Ann brings to the sport can be extremely positive, a real benefit for equestrian sport.” He called the partnership between the co-owners as something wonderful to share, with both joys as well as tears.  

    Like any good dressage horse, Rafalca has remained poised throughout all the media attention. “She doesn’t understand what’s going on,” Ebeling said. “I do, of course, so it’s up to me to remain focused on what we need to do, to go into the ring just like we do every day at home and ride the best we can…and to take care of her.”

    Ann Romney's horse Rafalca has qualified for the London Olympics and will compete in the sport of dressage.

    TODAY.com contributor Jillian Eugenios thinks that more animals should be taught how to skip. 

     

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  • Olympic torchbearer stops mid-relay, proposes

    Chris Radburn / AP

    Olympic relay torchbearer David State stops midway through his run to propose to his girlfriend, Christine Langham, before continuing the relay.

    Chris Radburn / AP

    Olympic relay torchbearer David State stops midway through his run to propose to his girlfriend, Christine Langham, before continuing the relay.

    The Olympic flame sparked a romantic moment Monday when torchbearer David State stopped midway through his relay to propose to his girlfriend, eliciting rounds of cheers from the surrounding crowd. 

    State, 25, was running between Marske-by-the-Sea and his hometown of Loftus, England when he stopped to embrace his girlfriend, Christine Langham, 25. Langham, who is eight months pregnant, said she had no idea State was stopping to propose.

    She told the BBC, "I saw him running up the hill and I was pretty proud at that. I was trying not to cry. And then he gave his torch to somebody and gave me a cuddle, which was nice, and then he got down on one knee and I nearly passed out. Nearly had my baby there and then."  

    Shortly after finishing the race, State told reporters that the proposal was “absolutely amazing,” and called it a very special moment. He had secretly planned the proposal with the relay organizers. 

    Watch the moving proposal here:

    According to State’s official nomination story, he is a active member of his community, helping with social programs designed to improve the quality of life for people in his community. In the last ten years, he has raised nearly $16,000 for charity, a number he has been hoping to increase this year with the completion of four more charity runs. He also volunteers with the British Red Cross and his local police department where he fights “crime and anti-social behavior.”

    The Olympic flame has been on a journey across the UK as part of its 8,000-mile trek. Thousands of inspirational people were chosen from across the UK to carry the flame, all nominated by their own friends and family. 

    State, a committed athlete, said he had to keep running with the torch soon after he popped the question to Langham. “I think the words 'I've got to go' came out of my mouth as soon as I proposed," he said.

    More: A batch of beach comes to London for Olympics 
    Olympic torchbearer completes 41st triathlon at age 91 
    Fashion lover Ryan Lochte has 130 pairs of shoes 
    Mayor: London will cope 'very well' with Olympics 
     
     

  • London bound: Blinded warrior to represent U.S. at 2012 Paralympics

    Lt. Brad Snyder lost his sight in an IED explosion in Afghanistan last September. The Navy officer is now training to represent the U.S. at the London 2012 Paralympics.

    Dan Koeck for msnbc.com

    Blind swimmer Tharon Drake, right, seeks the hand of fellow swimmer Lt. Bradley Snyder to congratulate him on winning the 400-meter freestyle event in record time on Thursday at the 2012 U.S. Paralympics Swimming Trials in Bismarck, N.D. Snyder earned a spot on Team USA's swim team for the Paralympics later this summer in London.

    Lt. Brad Snyder, blinded by an IED explosion in Afghanistan, is now training for the London 2012 Paralympics.

    Dan Koeck for msnbc.com

    Blind swimmer Tharon Drake, right, seeks the hand of fellow swimmer Lt. Bradley Snyder to congratulate him on winning the 400-meter freestyle event in record time on Thursday at the 2012 U.S. Paralympics Swimming Trials in Bismarck, N.D. Snyder earned a spot on Team USA's swim team for the Paralympics later this summer in London.

    London is calling for Lt. Brad Snyder.

    The former Navy bomb defuser, who last September lost both eyes in an Afghan explosion, formally gained a roster spot Sunday on the U.S. Paralympic team bound for England, after swimming what he agreed was the race of his life.

    “I’m super excited,” said Snyder, 28. “Normally, I’m a little too prideful to admit I am nervous before a race. But I was a little nervous. There was a pretty sizable uncertainly” that he would swim well enough to qualify.

    To earn a ticket to London later this summer, Snyder needed to swim at least 41 seconds faster than his previous best in his top event, the 400-meter freestyle. In competitive swimming, where outcomes usually are measured in tenths of seconds, 41 seconds is an eternity.

    But Snyder didn’t simply meet his goal. He demolished it, going 54 seconds faster than he ever had since losing his sight. Snyder clocked a 4:35.62 – now the current, world-best time at that distance for fully blind swimmers.

    Need more context? That time was just 1.5 seconds behind the mark he posted at that distance while swimming for the Naval Academy seven years ago, when he could see the lane lines, the competition and, most importantly, the wall.

    Editor's note: This is the third installment that chronicles Lt. Brad Snyder's efforts to earn a spot on Team USA's roster for the 2012 London Paralympics. Read the first story here and read the second story here.

    Lucky No. 12
    Still, he had to wait until Sunday morning when the U.S. Paralympic swimming coaches announced the 14 names on the American men’s roster. To hear the news, hundreds of athletes, family members and coaches packed an academic hall at Bismarck State College, host of the meet. Dozens more people couldn’t be seated and waited for news while standing in a nearby hallway. Eleven names already had been read before Snyder finally heard his.

    He stood, felt a massive wave of emotion rising in his throat and then walked, led via one arm by his brother, Mitchell, toward most of the rest of the men’s team already gathered at the front of the room.

    Lt. Brad Snyder lost his sight in an IED explosion in Afghanistan last September. The Navy officer is now training to represent the U.S. at the London 2012 Paralympics.

    “As I was walking him over, I was just staring down at the floor. I didn’t want look at anyone because I thought I was going to cry,” said Mitchell Snyder. “I was mostly thinking how far he’s come since September. I couldn’t have been prouder.”

    At the swimming trials, Mitchell served as his brother’s “tapper” – a person assigned to touch a blind swimmer on the head or shoulder with a walking cane to warn him or her that the wall is near and that a flip turn or a finishing kick is needed. No other communication is allowed between the tapper and a swimmer.

    “The moment his name was announced everyone erupted and I guess he got a standing ovation,” said Mitchell Snyder, 25. “He couldn’t see it. And I didn’t want to see it because I thought I was going to lose it.”

    Snyder joins a rising corps of wounded U.S. servicemen and servicewomen who will again battle for their nation overseas – this time as Paralympians vying for gold medals in track, cycling, archery, wheelchair tennis and an array of other sports. More than 30 active-duty and retired soldiers and sailors are expected to make the 2012 American Paralymic team – double the number that competed for Team USA at the Beijing Paralympic Games four years ago.

    Golden favorite
    “You can look at it and say, unfortunately, we’re having a lot of guys hurt. But at the same time we’re having a lot of guys hurt who are finding relevancy in going out there and succeeding post-injury,” Brad Snyder said. “We’re finding a way to get past, finding a way to strive for success just the way we were in the military.

    “After joining the military, you want to be the best in the world at your job because it means life or death. (After injury) we’re stripped of the ability to do that the way we used to do. But we can still find an avenue through elite competition.”

    Lt. Brad Snyder, blinded by an IED explosion in Afghanistan, is now training for the London 2012 Paralympics.

    This week, Snyder will return to his intern job at a Baltimore software company. And he will continue training at a Baltimore aquatic center with his coach, Brian Loeffler, in preparation for the London Games. At the 2012 Paralympics, he also will be considered a front runner for a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle. At the Bismarck trials, Snyder swam that event in 57.75 seconds – now the current, world-best time for blind athletes.

    But he’ll never forget, he said, his very first race in Bismarck – the chase that offered Snyder his first solid proof that he could, once again, be the best in the world at something.

    With an entry time of 5:29, Snyder wasn’t fully sure he could finish close to the 4:43 mark held by Spaniard Enhamed Enhamed – formerly the holder of the record in the 400-meter freestyle. Among blind swimmers, Enhamed has been a giant for years, collecting four gold medals at the Beijing Paralympics.

    Unforgettable performance
    Last Thursday morning, amid the preliminary heat for that same event, Mitchell Snyder glanced at the pool clock several times from his tapper position as his brother churned his arms and kicked his feet. 

    “But I was at the finishing end, so I had to make sure he was going to hit the wall safe and I couldn’t watch the clock when he touched,” Mitchell Snyder said. “Earlier in the race, though, it became abundantly clear during the first hundred meters, and the second hundred and the third hundred that, unless something drastically wrong happened, we had a No. 1 time in the world on our hands.”

    “They’re strict in what the tapper can or can’t say,” Brad Snyder added. “So when I finished, I didn’t know what my time was. I can’t look at the scoreboard. And none of the people in front of the (starting) blocks can tell me. But I was fortunate that the announcer of the meet – and only by virtue of the fact that I was the first one to the wall – announced the time, 4:39. I kind of heard it. And I thought, 4:39, wow that’s kind of fast.”

    Knowing he had a world-best time already tucked away in the prelim, Snyder said he was able to relax and swim the event’s final race that night much more freely.

    But again, after he touched the wall at the finish, he didn’t know how he had fared.

    Then somebody – somebody who was sitting behind the blocks – and I don’t even know who it was, whispered to me, “4:35!” I had shaved four more seconds off my time. They weren’t supposed to tell me. But I could definitely hear the excitement in their voice.”

    Bill Briggs is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com and author of “The Third Miracle.” 

    More content from msnbc.com and NBC News:

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  • A batch of beach comes to London for Olympics

    As London prepares to host the 2012 Summer Olympics, some of its most iconic locations are being turned into athletic venues, including the Horse Guards Parade, which leads to Buckingham Palace and will be a beach volleyball court. NBC's Keith Miller reports.

    As London prepares to host the 2012 Summer Olympics, some of its most iconic locations are being turned into athletic venues, including the Horse Guards Parade, which leads to Buckingham Palace and will be a beach volleyball court. NBC's Keith Miller reports.

    This past Wednesday, the ceremony of Beating Retreat, a military ceremony dating back to 16th-century England, was celebrated with cannons, soldiers on horseback and drummers at Horse Guards Parade in central London. But soon scantily clad athletes will replace soldiers in military regalia on the parade ground, which will serve as the beach volleyball venue for the Olympics.

    The surrounding neighborhood, mostly government offices, is in for a bit of a shake-up. But London chairman Lord Sebastian Coe says he's eager to use London’s iconic buildings and landmarks to showcase the Summer Games. He told NBC’s Keith Miller that Horse Guards Parade is the perfect venue because it’s “very readily recognized; Downing Street and the palace (are) at the other end of the park, and I think that’s really what London has to offer.”

    Downing Street, the home of Prime Minister David Cameron, is just next to the administration office of the Scotland Office, which flanks the stretch of beach that will be used for the matches. The surrounding neighborhood can expect to hear volleyballs knocking around for the duration of the matches, July 28 to August 12. Over 30 nations will compete for the gold. 

    A passerby told Miller, “Here in London we don’t really have beaches, so this is quite fun.” 

    London was treated to a taste of what to expect last year when a beach was created in front of the Admiralty House, a venue used to host political functions. And last month, Britain’s beach volleyball team played a game against the backdrop of the Houses of Parliament, under the gaze of Big Ben. Five thousand tons of sand were shipped from a quarry in Southern England for the players to compete on. Though beach volleyball is not played widely in the U.K., tickets fetching up to $715 (for medal matches) were among the fastest to sell out. 

    Beach volleyball made its Olympic debut at Atlanta 1996 and is consistently one of the top spectator sports. The venue at the London Olympics has space for thousands of spectators to fill the stands, and even the upper levels will get a treat with views of Big Ben and the London Eye.

    So there's a lot to look forward to. Maybe that’s why Miller texted TODAY’s Matt Lauer to get in on Lauer’s plus-one. 

    “I got your text message,” Lauer told Miller on air. “Yes, I’ve got the tickets for beach volleyball and you can join me. All right? I’ll see you there.”

    TODAY.com contributor Jillian Eugnenios would like to join Matt on the sand as well, just in case he happens to have an extra ticket (hint, hint).

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  • Shot in the dark: Blinded sailor aims for Paralympic Games in London

    Lt. Brad Snyder, blinded by an IED explosion in Afghanistan, is now training for the London 2012 Paralympics.

    Amanda Lucidon / LucidPix for msnbc.com

    Brad Snyder laughs with co-workers of RedOwl Analytics during their lunch break. Snyder, blinded last September by an IED blast in Afghanistan, is competing for a spot on Team USA for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

    Dan Koeck for msnbc.com

    Lt. Brad Snyder lost his sight in an IED explosion in Afghanistan last September. The Navy officer is now training to represent the U.S. at the London 2012 Paralympics.

    Lt. Brad Snyder, blinded by an IED explosion in Afghanistan, is now training for the London 2012 Paralympics.

    Lt. Brad Snyder slices through the watery warmth with powerful movements and methodical rhythm. Each arm stroke is tallied, each breath measured as he glides forward in a sharp, precise line. He knows that a coach is watching, that a big clock is ticking, that a concrete wall is looming.

    He sees none of it.

    But away from the hard edges and surprise bumps of his dark, new world, Snyder senses, finally, he is gaining some serious ground.

    “In the pool, I feel efficient, comfortable, like I know what I’m doing. Such an amazing feeling,” he said. “Everything else, I’ve had to figure out all over again — like being a child again, and you suck at everything. It’s so refreshing to be good at something.”

    Blinded last September by a dirt-cloaked bomb in an Afghan ditch, Snyder, 28, slowly is creating a fresh vision for a life once blazed at high speeds and even higher tension. The former bomb defuser is, for now, interning at a Baltimore software company, staying at a corporate apartment and navigating with a cane. He also is logging 4,000 yards per day at a local pool and — this week — dreaming of London.

    Amanda Lucidon / LucidPix for msnbc.com

    Brad Snyder laughs with co-workers of RedOwl Analytics during their lunch break. Snyder, blinded last September by an IED blast in Afghanistan, is competing for a spot on Team USA for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

    On Thursday, Snyder competes at the U.S. Paralympic Swimming Trials in Bismarck, N.D., aiming to capture one of the 14 spots allotted for American male swimmers. A quick time in the 400 meter freestyle — about 4 minutes, 48 seconds, he and his coach estimate — will earn him a ticket to Great Britain this summer for the Paralympics, an international sports festival for disabled athletes held after the closing of the London Summer Games, using the Olympic venues.

    No sure thing
    Based on his practice times, Snyder believes he has strong shot at hitting — or nearing — his 4:48 goal on Thursday.

    “I’m very hesitant to say,” Snyder said. “I don’t want to jinx myself.”

    Snyder is quick to emphasize, as well, that he is in no way a lock to make the American team. Unlike the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, where roster slots are handed to swimmers who win their designated distances at that critical meet, Paralympic spots are determined by how a swimmer’s personal best ranks against the top international times recorded since Jan. 1, 2011 at that distance — and within each disability category. That’s literally a world of pressure: the Navy officer versus the best blind swimmers on the planet.

    Dan Koeck for msnbc.com

    Lt. Brad Snyder lost his sight in an IED explosion in Afghanistan last September. The Navy officer is now training to represent the U.S. at the London 2012 Paralympics.

    One byproduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is a deeper talent field among American Paralympic hopefuls. Consequently, the competition to make Team USA is tighter in 2012 compared to prior years. About 220 athletes will comprise the 2012 U.S. Paralympic team roster bound for London. About 15 percent of them (roughly 33 men and women) will be military veterans and active-duty soldiers — most of those in track and field, said Beth Bourgeois, associate communications director for U.S. Paralympics.

    At the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing, Team USA sent 16 athletes with military backgrounds, spanning wheelchair rugby, wheelchair tennis, track, rowing, archery, sitting volleyball, and cycling. Just one was a swimmer.

    Finding his groove
    “Part of getting an injury like this is the idea that you’ve lost a part of you, and now you are — for lack of a better word — weird. I can’t do things the way I used to do,” Snyder said. “It’s a hard hit to your confidence, a hard hit to who you are. So being able to excel at something, to do it very well, is huge in gaining your confidence back, and gaining back that piece of you that you lost.”

    It’s quite natural, actually, for Snyder to dive into the water to find himself. Back in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Fla., his father first coaxed him into a pool at a young age, back when Snyder’s smarts left him bored with schoolwork, often too chatty in class, and perhaps a bit directionless.

    “Brad was a little bit of a trouble maker when he was a kid and our dad was just looking for something for Brad to put some energy into, instead of just wandering on his own,” recalled Mitchell Snyder, the Navy officer’s 25-year-old brother.

    At first, the rigid discipline of swimming intrigued Brad Snyder. Soon, the sport consumed him. In high school, he helped his team capture conference and district championships, finishing second in the state of Florida during the 2000 and 2001 seasons.

    But his dad, Michael, had other lessons waiting for the oldest of his four children. The father routinely preached motions such as “leave something better than you found it” and “everything is about service to something bigger than yourself.” Snyder remembers how his father once spied a stray hamburger wrapper drifting through a McDonald’s parking lot. He instructed his son to pick it up simply because it was the proper thing to do.

    Those bits of parental wisdom ultimately inspired Snyder to seek to serve his country. He applied for an appointment to the Naval Academy. The coaches there were equally interested in the talented prep swimmer. Snyder was accepted in the fall of 2001 and by late 2002 he was swimming for Navy.

    American bad ass
    His initial pool style in college matched his high-octane personality: Storm off the blocks as hard and fast as possible and dare the other swimmers to try to keep up. He didn’t know how to pace himself — in the water or when it came time to choose a Navy career following his 2006 graduation. For active duty, he opted to become an explosive ordinance disposal officer, or EOD. Defusing bombs appealed to his problem-solving nature, and the job allowed him, occasionally, to swim.

    In Iraq and Afghanistan, where the anti-American weapon of choice often was and is an improvised explosive device, EODs were in high demand. Snyder was deployed to Iraq in October 2008, staying until March 2009. He was redeployed to Afghanistan in April last year.

    “The [EODs] are really the front line,” Mitchell Snyder said. “They might trip wires. Or, when trying to defuse a bomb, it might blow up in their face. Knowing that he was the first man to go and check things out really frightened me. His uniform had some extra level of protection but there was nothing on his face but sunglasses.

    “Every person on his team, from tip to toe, is a bad ass. And he fit right in with them.”

    The bomb that took his vision, however, was not one Brad Snyder ever saw. While rushing to help two Afghan soldiers wounded in an initial IED blast last Sept. 7, Snyder stepped on a second, hidden device in an irrigation ditch spanning a farm field.

    “My right eye was effectively popped, like a flower almost, and there were pieces of fragmentation that had gone into my left eye,” Snyder said. His face was burned and lacerated from chin to hairline. The rest of his body, however was untouched. He had one final moment of vision before the world permanently went pitch black. In that second, he looked down and saw that his arms and legs were still attached.

    Lucky to be alive
    A little more than a week later, at Bethesda Naval Hospital near Washington, D.C., doctors told Snyder they could do nothing to salvage his sight, not even restore a faint sense of light. His damaged eyes were surgically removed and replaced with prosthetics.

    “I knew the risks I was assuming. I knew I was very fortunate to be in that hospital bed and not in a coffin in the ground.  And I knew I could not control the past,” Snyder said.

    “At that point, I made a decision: OK, so now we move forward. How do I start to gain my independence back? How do I get to the bathroom? How do I feed myself? Where is the fork and spoon? I had to figure out how to eat spaghetti out of cup. That was the only way I knew how to eat it. But I was adamant: I want to do this myself.”

    By late October, Snyder needed a refuge of sorts from the walls he repeatedly smacked with his body and face while learning to walk with a cane. He stepped back into a pool and swam, pounding out a few hundred meters.

    The water and the strokes felt so natural, so normal, he ached to race. He playfully challenged non-competitive swimmers — yet opponents who nonetheless could see. He beat them. Next, Snyder wanted to take on other blind swimmers. The Paralympics, he knew, could offer him that chance. In Baltimore, he began training with a coach. He began kicking again.

    “I’m going to show people that I’m not going to let this beat me. I’m not going to let blindness build a brick wall around me. I am going to find a way forward.”

    COMING FRIDAY: How do you swim — and challenge world records — when you can’t see the lane dividers, your competitors or the finish line?

    Bill Briggs is a frequent contributor to MSNBC.com and author of “The Third Miracle.”

    More content from msnbc.com and NBC News:

    Follow US News on msnbc.com on Twitter and Facebook

     

  • Olympic torchbearer completes 41st triathlon at age 91

    Caters News Agency

    Arthur Gilbert, 91, runs on Sunday in his 41st triathlon. He completed it in two hours, 47 minutes, and 22 seconds.

    Caters News Agency

    Arthur Gilbert, 91, runs on Sunday in his 41st triathlon. He completed it in two hours, 47 minutes, and 22 seconds.

    On Sunday, Arthur Gilbert took over two hours and 47 minutes to complete the 500-meter swim, 20K bike ride and 5K run that comprise the Burnham Sprint Triathlon in Somerset, England; he came in last. But that was still quite a feat when you take into account his age: He's 91.

    In fact, the World Records Academy has certified Gilbert as the world's oldest triathlete (Guinness has no current record in that category). And that's only one of the retired helicopter engineer's accomplishments: He's also been British champion in the duathlon (like triathlon, only without the swimming) seven times; was named a Member of the British Empire (MBE) for his decades of charity work, and has been chosen as an Olympic torchbearer in this summer's games.

    Sunday's was the 41st triathlon Gilbert has completed, which is all the more remarkable given that he only started competing seriously when he was 68. The widowed granddad attributes his health to abstaining from drinking and smoking, eating lots of fruit, and donating blood: a total of 45 pints since age 51. "The old blood goes out, the new comes in to replace it and rejuvenates you," he told the U.K. Daily Mail. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he hits the gym three times a week, bikes 25 miles on weekends, and swims 50 laps at his local pool every day.

    Even so, the Burnham event was "really tough," Gilbert admitted to thisissomerset.co.uk. "As the years go by it gets harder and harder; you do go backwards as you get older. But you have to do it before you get too old."

    Related video:
    Elmo's burning desire: To carry the Olympic torch
    Olympic swimming hopefuls show off moves
    Royals party as Olympic torch arrives in Rome

  • Fashion lover Ryan Lochte has 130 pairs of shoes

    Getty Images file

    Lochte, at the 2011 Golden Goggles in Los Angeles.

    twitter.com/ryanlochte

    From Ryan's Twitter: "Got some new kicks for trials. Don't duplicate!! #swagismine"

    Getty Images file

    Lochte, at the 2011 Golden Goggles in Los Angeles.

    While wearing shirts isn’t really his thing, Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte enjoys accessorizing the rest of his body in style.

    Known for his rippled abs and posing shirtless on the covers of magazines like Vogue, Lochte told The New York Times that he owns 130 pairs of shoes. He has covered his teeth with sparkly grillz on the winner's podium and plans to wear a special red, white and blue version in London (Team USA's official roster hasn't been announced yet). He also designed his own winged set of star-spangled high-top sneakers.

    twitter.com/ryanlochte

    From Ryan's Twitter: "Got some new kicks for trials. Don't duplicate!! #swagismine"

    So if this whole swimming thing doesn't float his boat, there's always a future at Fashion Week.

    Lochte recently posted a photo of his custom-designed kicks on Twitter, writing “Don’t duplicate!! #swagismine.” Another pair, which he designed for one of his sponsors, Speedo, feature emerald rhinestones and will be sold in flip-flop form for $24.99.

    “He wanted green, he wanted bling,’’ the director of marketing at Speedo told the Times. “He likes to make a statement when he walks onto that pool deck.”

    The 27-year-old has also made headlines in the pool, of course, winning two gold and two bronze medals in Beijing in 2008 while setting a world record in the 200-meter backstroke. In the lead-up to London, his golden-boy surfer look has made him a magnet for photographers, and his rippled torso earned him status as the world’s No. 1 beach body from Men’s Health magazine.

    “If someone’s zigging left, he’s zagging right,” the Speedo official told the Times. “He wants to stand out.”

    More: Olympic hopeful Ryan Lochte to Vogue: 'I'm a coach's nightmare' 
    Olympic hopeful moms on supporting star athletes: 'I love my job' 
    Meet 'The Missile': Missy Franklin, 16, aims to 'make my country proud' 
    Video: Olympic hopefuls say 'Thank you, Mom' 
    Video: En garde! Matt and Al duel on the plaza  

     

  • Cows and sheep to star in London Olympic Games opening ceremony

    LOCOG via AFP - Getty Images

    A handout picture released by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) on Tuesday shows a model of how London's Olympic Stadium would be transformed into a British rural scene for the opening ceremony of the games.

    LOCOG via AFP - Getty Images

    A handout picture released by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) on Tuesday shows a model of how London's Olympic Stadium would be transformed into a British rural scene for the opening ceremony of the games.

    LONDON - The Olympic Stadium will be transformed into a British countryside meadow featuring real animals and grass during the opening ceremony, organizers said Tuesday.

    With only 45 days before the spectacular show, film director and event producer Danny Boyle unveiled his ‘green and pleasant' vision that will open the games to an estimated worldwide television audience of over one billion.

    More than 10,000 volunteers wearing 23,000 costumes will take part.

    The ceremony is titled 'Isles of Wonder' and is said to be inspired by Shakespeare's play, The Tempest.

    Read more on this story from ITV News

    It will be opened with the ringing of the largest harmonically-tuned bell in the world, produced by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in east London. The bell will be inscribed with the 'Isles of Wonder' speech performed by Caliban in Shakespeare's play:

    Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

    Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

    Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

    Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

    That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

    Will make me sleep again

    – 'ISLE OF WONDER' ACT 3, SCENE 2, THE TEMPEST, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

    The whole of the field of play in the stadium will be transformed into the rolling British countryside. Each of the four nations will be represented by their national flower: the rose of England, the thistle of Scotland, the daffodil of Wales and the flax from Northern Ireland.

    Real farmyard animals will graze on the set: 12 horses, 3 cows, 2 goats, 10 chickens, 8 geese, 70 sheep and 3 sheepdogs.

    Boyle explains: “The Ceremony is an attempt to capture a picture of ourselves as a nation, where we have come from and where we want to be. The best part of telling that story has been working with our 10,000 volunteers. I’ve been astounded by the selfless dedication of the volunteers, they are the purest embodiment of the Olympic spirit and represent the best of who we are as a nation.”

    The show will feature 12,956 props - over 100 times more than a typical West End musical theater production – and a sound system weighing more than 50 tonnes.

    ITV News is the UK partner of NBC News.

    More London 2012 coverage:

     

  • Olympic wrestler Jordan Burroughs: 'All I see is gold'

    The 29-year-old track star and London hopeful says that her commitment to remain a virgin until marriage is the “hardest thing she has ever done in her life,” “harder than training for the Olympics.”

    Jordan Burroughs, the world champion in freestyle wrestling, says that he's focused on taking home gold in the London Olympics.

    Jordan Burroughs, the world champion in freestyle wrestling, says that he's focused on taking home gold in the London Olympics.

    If you want to know the goal of Olympic wrestler Jordan Burroughs this summer in London, you don’t even have to ask him – just go to his Twitter page.

    The reigning world freestyle champion and favorite to win the gold in the 74-kilogram weight class goes by the Twitter handle @alliseeisgold; his Twitter page shows him standing in front of an American flag. At 13,700 followers and counting, he is hoping to have plenty more fans hop on the bandwagon as the American wrestling team's best hope to reach the top of the podium this summer.

    “It was always my dream to be an Olympian, (and win) an Olympic gold medal,’’ Burroughs said on TODAY Friday. “Starting off as a kid, it’s hard to realize those dreams at such a young age, but now I’m big, strong, healthy, and I can be a gold medalist soon.’’

    Burroughs, 23, is a former University of Nebraska star from Winslow Township, N.J., who started wrestling as a kid when he weighed only 45 pounds. From those humble beginnings, he went on to become a state champion in 2006 at 135 pounds and then won an NCAA title in 2009 as a junior at Nebraska.

    A year later, he tore two knee ligaments that ended a 44-match winning streak. But then he roared back as a fifth-year senior after a medical redshirt to win the Dan Hodge Trophy as the nation’s top collegiate wrestler in 2011.

    Last month, Burroughs earned his spot on the Olympic team after opponent Andrew Howe defaulted during their bout because of a knee injury. Many wrestlers struggle with the transition from the collegiate wrestling style to the different freestyle wrestling of international competitions, but Burroughs has made the switch seamlessly. He was the only American wrestler to win gold in the World Championships in Istanbul this past September, and then added a gold medal in the Pan-American Games.  

    “I was successful at a number of levels, I feel as good as I’ve ever felt in my career, and it was an easy transition for me,’’ he said Friday. “I feel good, I’m ready to go in London, and I’m just practicing hard right now.’’

    The United States has won a gold medal in each of the last two Olympics, and Burroughs is the clear favorite to be the one to make it three in a row this summer. He said he is up to the challenge.

    “I’m just getting mentally focused,’’ he told TODAY. “I’m really prepared right now. It’s been a number of years that I’ve been training for this event, so it’s a huge opportunity to me, a lifestyle changer for winning the gold medal. Right now I’m just focused on the task at hand and going out there and wrestling hard.’’

    Burroughs' TODAY interview took place outdoors on Rockefeller Plaza against the backdrop of a large, clamorous crowd waiting excitedly for R&B superstar Chris Brown to perform.

    “I wish I’d get to meet him,’’ Burroughs joked. “I don’t know if I’m famous enough yet.’’

    If he lives up to his Twitter handle, setting up an introduction should be no problem.

    Related video:
    Olympic wrestler in it to win it
    Lolo Jones: Chastity harder than training for the Olympics
    Only one trampoline brother can make Olympics

  • Mayor: London 'will cope very well' with Olympics

    The ArcelorMittal Orbit is a much-maligned structure built in London in advance of the Olympics.

    After pulling off a memorable spectacle for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, London mayor Boris Johnson is confident his city can do it again when the Olympics draw the attention of the world.

    “(The Diamond Jubilee) was very important because everyone was watching us,’’ Johnson told Matt Lauer on TODAY Thursday.  “I would say London is going to cope, I hope, very well with the Games in 50 days’ time. I think the Jubilee proved that we can do it. Obviously I’m hoping very much to welcome people this summer to a summer like no other.’’

    During the four-day celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s reign, Johnson only saw her once as he was waving his British flag in Trafalgar Square.

    “I saw her go past, and it really meant something to me,’’ Johnson said.

    Another sight that should be attracting plenty of eyes when the Olympics kick off on July 27 is the wild-looking ArcelorMittal Orbit, an observation tower and Great Britain’s largest piece of public art. Built in advance of the Games, it is situated between the Olympic Stadium and the Aquatics Centre to allow tourists to see the whole Olympic park from a pair of platforms.

    The ArcelorMittal Orbit is a much-maligned structure built in London in advance of the Olympics.

    “Every big World Fair, every Olympics, every international expo historically from the Eiffel Tower to the Atomium, has had a kind of vertical pillar of attraction,’’ Johnson said. “I like it.’’

    The London tabloids have had a field day with the tower: Most vivid was the Daily Mail, who called it “twisted spaghetti,’’ “horrific squiggles,” and “Meccano on crack.’’

    “It is the largest and most preposterous-ever representation of a shisha pipe,’’ Johnson joked. “I’ve had it called a gigantic mutant trombone.’’

    “And worse,’’ Lauer cracked.

    Johnson also quelled talk of a potential strike by the city's bus operators.

    “They’re going to want to put on a fantastic display of London,’’ he said.

    Johnson, who was born in New York City and raised in London, is also promoting his new book, “Johnson's Life of London: The People that Made the City that Made the World.’’ A former journalist, Johnson has written six books and aims to highlight some of the city's greatest creations and the people responsible for them.

    “The point I’m trying to make (in the book) is that things that started in London…are things that we’ve exported to America,’’ Johnson said.

    When asked about two of England’s most famous creations, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Johnson sided with Keith and Mick.

    “I would have to say The Rolling Stones if only for the fact that they have a higher energy level,’’ he said.

    In the book, he notes preferring Keith Richards over Mick Jagger, but jokingly apologized to Jagger on Thursday.

    “He is equally magnificent,’’ Johnson said.

    More: 
    Britain honors Queen Elizabeth II with Diamond Jubilee 
    Elmo's burning desire: To carry the Olympic torch 
    An Olympic beer will set you back $11 
    Badminton shelves rule requiring women wear skirts 
    Disabled visitors face high hurdles to London Olympics 
    Prince Harry, Duchess Catherine share a laugh

  • Double-amputee Oscar Pistorius sprints toward Olympics

    Aliza Nadi

    Aliza Nadi

    Aliza Nadi

    By Brian Brown
    NBC Olympics on assignment for Rock Center

    Come with me to South Africa …

    Come with me to a track meet in a wind-whipped city flush against the roiling Indian Ocean … Port Elizabeth.

    A 400-meter race is about to be run. Eight athletes are walking to the starting line. Seven of them have legs.

    One does not.

    Or more correctly, one has legs that conclude at the knees. And this athlete – even just walking – is riveting to watch.

    At first, Oscar Pistorius seems like someone who has stepped out of the future.

    His gait has the quality of a giant cat on the prowl, if such a creature were equipped with flipper-like feet instead of paws. The means of Oscar’s motion do take the name of a big cat: they’re called Cheetahs. And these Flex-foot Cheetah blades – black, L-shaped, made of carbon fiber – do provoke thoughts of altered, amped-up super beings from a James Cameron science-fiction epic.

    As Oscar approaches, model handsome, outfitted in the latest Oakley shades and sleek Nike sportswear, with an admirably sculpted upper body, you can understand why anyone might wonder if this is a peek into our evolutionary future: half man, half machine. Just the words carbon fiber conjure the notion of cutting-edge, space-age technology.

    Behind The Scenes: Oscar Pistorius

    Aliza Nadi

    But if you stay with this scene a little longer, you notice something more. Something flawed about his futuristic-looking prosthetics. Pistorius is walking very carefully, not at all with the steady carefree confidence of a cheetah, but more like a teetering circus performer on stilts, locked in a balancing act that requires immense concentration.

    In fact, as you learn when you visit Oscar Pistorius in South Africa, you find out that forward motion atop vertical boomerangs requires supreme balance to keep from tipping over. You’re told that carbon fiber is nothing new, has actually been around for 60 years, well before we put a man on the moon. You learn that Oscar’s Cheetah blades were made nearly  20 years ago. You learn that they do not at all turn Oscar into a springy human pogo stick. In fact, when you try to bend an unattached Cheetah blade, you understand that carbon fiber is nearly rock hard and largely inflexible – it does  not contain an internal spring.

    You also later learn that this man walking toward you … the one who appeared at first to be like a visitor from a future century … is likely in pain. When any amputee walks with their prosthetic devices, there is often soreness, sometimes even a degree of discomfort no amount of painkillers can relieve. It remains a fundamental engineering problem to seamlessly connect skin and bones with a man-made device – though the industry is doing its best to improve the interface: the pocket where the amputated limb meets the prosthetic. 

    Aliza Nadi

    Running with prosthetics makes the problem worse – Cheetahs are meant for sports, not extended wear. That’s why as soon as every race is over, the first thing Oscar Pistorius does is plop himself down on a patch of grass to switch his legs: exchanging his jet-black blades for a more-humanlike skin-colored pair.       

    When you are able to meet and listen to Oscar Pistorius, and listen to and learn from the remarkable people who have been supporting his unprecedented aspiration to be the first amputee to ever run at the Olympics, you come to understand that Oscar is not at all, in any sense, a man out of the future.

    You learn that real legs are really, really better than the replacements that science has made thus far …  that tendons, ligaments and muscles do far greater things than a prosthetic device made from technology that is decades old.

    You learn that if Oscar Pistorius was truly bionic, if his artificial limbs had sensors and muscle-like actuation and computational intelligence, he would not only be bionic but he’d also be unbeatable. And though a bionic age may arrive before the conclusion of the 21st century, it won’t be tomorrow.

    NBC Olympics: Everything you need to know about double-amputee athlete Oscar Pistorius

    And you learn some other truths about his attempt to reach the 2012 London Games:

    A truth: Though in 2008, after two days of testing, the IAAF – track’s world governing body – ruled Pistorius had an advantage over able-bodied competitors, that decision was reversed only months later on appeal, when The Court of Arbitration for Sport voted unanimously that Pistorius had no advantage. In their findings, the CAS noted an IAAF process that had gone “off the rails” in a rush to judgment. The CAS's decision, now more than four years old, still stands.

    A truth: There is no scientific consensus that Oscar is at a competitive advantage. In fact, the most extensive testing on the subject was instigated by Pistorius himself, who – to help build his case before the CAS – flew 9,000 miles to Houston, where experts submitted him to nearly three weeks of scientific tests.

    Aliza Nadi

    A truth: Oscar Pistorius is always playing catch-up against able-bodied runners. When the gun goes off, Oscar’s blades don’t react with the explosiveness of the human leg. It takes him a few moments to churn his Cheetahs to top speed. In the short distance of sprint events, like the 400 meters, fast starts are crucial. And there is little Pistorius can do about immediately losing contact with the field.      

    A truth: As thousands of Paralympians in recent decades have defied their disabilities, only one disabled athlete has run the 400 meters fast enough to dream that he might, possibly, one day qualify for an Olympic Games. That one person is Oscar Pistorius.

    A truth: When you visit South Africa, you see that Oscar’s fellow athletes see him not as a threat, but simply as a competitor to beat. And when you see him swarmed by children black and white and brown, you understand that he is a vital figure of unity for a country that is still fitfully trying to dissolve racial divides. 

    A final truth: Oscar Pistorius is a figure of inspiration and healing, not at all the first of an army of unbeatable, artificially enhanced athletes. More likely, he’s the first and last of a kind … one of one.

    He is one step away, one race away from the summit of his remarkable journey: a spot on the South African Olympic team for the 2012 London Games. And though the math of his sport is pretty simple, for Pistorius it should be utterly implausible: run the 400 meters faster than all but a handful of people in the entire world.

    This Saturday, at the Adidas Grand Prix, Pistorius comes to the media capital of America, to New York, to secure that spot. And when this mesmerizing figure carefully walks cat-like onto the track at Randall’s Island, he’ll be able to look across the East River at Manhattan’s cityscape, an image of soaring possibility that has long summoned great achievers from across the globe.
     
    45.30 seconds. That’s how fast Pistorius has to run one lap of the track. There may not be more than two dozen people in the entire world who can run that fast right now. But Pistorius has gone even faster in this event, and he is more deeply driven than ever to do it again … this man whose defective lower legs were amputated in infancy … who has never known what it is like to walk on two feet … this double amputee who has never ever thought of himself as one bit disabled.

    Here’s a final truth: Don’t feel in the least bit apologetic about rooting your heart out for Oscar Pistorius. To give global notice to such spirit is the essential purpose of the Olympic Games.  

    Editor's note: Click here to watch NBC Sports' Mary Carillo's full report on Oscar Pistorius, 'Blade Runner,' from NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.

  • Elmo's burning desire: To carry the Olympic flame

    Sesame Workshop

    Sesame Workshop

    Sesame Workshop

    Not only athletes carry the Olympic flame; people with a strong sense of community and adventure are also chosen for the honor. But the upcoming London Olympics may mark the first time that a monster has gotten to be a torchbearer.

    OK, so it's just a little monster. Specifically, Elmo, the perpetually 3-year-old Muppet superstar of "Sesame Street," has begun a campaign to secure a position as an Olympic torchbearer through his own promotional video and a Facebook page, "Elmo Should Go to the Olympics," set up by his friends. 

    Elmo’s executive producer, Carol-Lynn Parente, told TODAY.com that Elmo is a perfect candidate for the job because he’s an exuberant monster with a penchant for sports. “He loves the fun of being an athlete,” she said. “He’s learned lots of things on Sesame Street about exercise being good for you.”

    To help him land the torchbearer gig, Elmo has been practicing Olympic sports such as hurdles, weight lifting, and gymnastics. “He’s a natural at the shot put event,” Parente said, adding that “kids love throwing things.” 

    Though Elmo’s favorite sport, miniature golf, is not an Olympic event, Parente says she wouldn't be surprised if it became one once Elmo gets done. that could perhaps become an upcoming campaign if Elmo’s if his Olympic bid is successful. The orange tyke with the squeaky voice is well known to be one of the most persistent characters on Sesame Street. 

    Sesame Workshop

    In the video of Elmo getting ready in London, he is carrying a prototype of the Olympic torch and accidentally leaves it with a stranger. So if the little monster does get to be an Olympic torchbearer, how can his fans be sure he won’t leave it somewhere?

    “Sesame Street kids and even the puppets use lots of techniques for remembering,” Parente assured TODAY.com. “We’ve had an incident where he’s tied something to his finger to help him remember, so maybe some sort of a flame-colored rope around his finger might help him to remember to carry the torch.”

    Besides, Elmo is just too excited about the Games to forget something so important. And he’s certainly feeling optimistic about his chances. His video ends with, “See you at the Olympics, baby!" We hope so.

    TODAY.com contributor Jillian Eugenios hopes that if Elmo does go to London, the entire Sesame Street crew will go along with him. She would love to see Mr. Snuffleupagus run hurdles. 

    Related video:
    Olympic flame ignited in Greece
    Royals party as Olympic torch arrives in UK
    London prepares for the spotlight

  • An Olympic beer will set you back $11

    Mustafa Ozer / AFP - Getty Images file

    Beer for $11 at the Olympics is better than no beer at all, some would argue.

    Mustafa Ozer / AFP - Getty Images file

    Beer for $11 at the Olympics is better than no beer at all, some would argue.

    It has become a staple of every major event, and the London Olympics are no different.

    While sports spectators are creating lasting memories, they are also usually paying eye-opening prices for beverages. This summer, a beer at the London Olympics will cost $11.10 a pint, while a small serving of London 2012 wine will set you back $7.37, according to a sample menu unveiled by the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

    The venues will also be offering a sampling of traditional British fare, from fish and chips ($12.29) to porridge ($3.38) to “freshly carved Dingley Dell hog roasted Red Tractor pork, served in Oxfordshire cross hatched bread roll with mixed leaf salad and assorted accompaniments” for $9.98. For those looking for non-alcoholic beverages, a bottle of Coca-Cola will run you $3.53 while a bottle of water will cost $2.46.

    The announcement of the beer prices caused some grumbling online ("Just to add to the indignity," pointed out the New York Times, "the only beer sold at the events will be a Heineken, a Dutch beer"), but organizers claim that they are no more exorbitant than they are at other major events. London 2012 chief executive Paul Deighton told The Telegraph of London that organizers have “gone to great lengths’’ to find “high quality, tasty food that celebrates the best of Britain,’’ and that the prices were “more than comparable’’ to the costs at other major sporting events.

    More than 14 million meals will be served during the games across 40 locations, with more than 800 spectator concessions featuring 150 different dishes, according to the LOCOG. The focus was on a family of four being able to afford a meal for under $61. 

    More: 
    Badminton shelves rule requiring women wear skirts
     
    Disabled visitors face high hurdles to London Olympics 
    Londoners express hopes, frustrations as Olympics come to town   
    Olympics 2012 designer uniforms: Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, and more!
    Video: David Beckham: I'd love to be on an Olympic team

  • Gymnast Shawn Johnson ends Olympic bid: I feel 'numb'

    Ronald Martinez / Getty Images file

    Shawn Johnson, competing last year, has announced her retirement.

    Ronald Martinez / Getty Images file

    Shawn Johnson, competing last year, has announced her retirement.

    Shawn Johnson will not compete at this summer’s Olympic Games. The 2008 all-around silver medalist announced Sunday that her competitive career has come to an end.

    “I feel kind of numb and it sucks, but things happen for a reason and my body came to a point where I just couldn’t take it anymore,” Johnson told NBCOlympics.com. “There is a long haul ahead to the Olympics and it would be unrealistic to put my body through that. It was better to gracefully retire now and just give my position up.”

    The 20-year-old’s comeback attempt was hampered from day one by a chronic knee injury. Johnson tore her ACL in a skiing accident in January 2010 and despite multiple surgeries and a stint at the Michael Johnson Performance Center earlier this year, the knee would not hold up.

    “My knee just can’t take it anymore,” Johnson added. “It has been a constant battle since I came back and recently got worse with the higher numbers. I pushed it to a point and tried to get the finish line and I came up a little short. I can’t do it anymore. It was a hard moment. It was hard to sit here and be told your life in gymnastics is over.”

    The announcement comes just days before the start of the VISA National Championships – the first step in Olympic qualifying. The five-woman London team will be named at the Olympic Trials on July 1.

    After a three-year absence, Johnson returned to gymnastics last year in hopes of making a second Olympic Team. Her performances at the 2011 VISA Championships earned her a spot on the Pan American Games team, but not on last year's gold medal-winning World Team.

    Speculation began in early 2012 that Johnson’s comeback was in danger. She missed team training camps, in early May her coach Liang Chow told the press that he wasn’t sure she would be ready for Nationals, and Johnson sat out last month’s U.S. Classic tune-up meet.

    So what is next for the four-time Olympic medalist (gold on balance beam) and 2007 world all-around champion? Johnson told us she will attend the VISA Championships, Olympic Trials, and Olympic Games as a spectator.

    “Being in London is a must. It’s not going to be easy to be there and live through it all, but I owe it to the girls to be there. We’re a family and I need to be there for them.”

    More on NBCOlympics.com:
    Our favorite Shawn Johnson moment
    Will a 2008 Olympian compete in London?
    Best Of Beijing in images: Shawn Johnson
    Two favorite stories from Shawn Johnson's new book
    Video: Johnson relives her golden beam routine

    Watch more TODAY videos of Shawn: 
    Johnson, Liukin 'proud of each other' for medals
    Johnson's parents, coach reflect on her win
    Shawn Johnson takes a stand against cancer 

  • Badminton shelves rule requiring women wear skirts

    Liu Jin / AFP - Getty Images file

    Wang Xin of China returns a shot during the final match at the Uber Cup world badminton team championships on May 26, in shorts.

    Liu Jin / AFP - Getty Images file

    Wang Xin of China returns a shot during the final match at the Uber Cup world badminton team championships on May 26, in shorts.

    When the Badminton World Federation was looking to raise its profile and glamorize its image last year, it wrote into the official rulebook that women were now required to compete in skirts. BWF announced it has abandoned the new rule, set to go into effect last Friday, amid backlash from critics. 

    Paisan Rangsikitpho, an American deputy president of the Badminton World Federation, was interviewed by The New York Times before the rule was shelved. He had defended the rule, saying BWF was not using sex to promote the sport. “We just want them to look feminine and have a nice presentation so women will be more popular.” 

    The new rule, which was developed by the BWF in collaboration with Octagon, an international marketing firm, said women players had to wear skirts or dresses "to ensure attractive presentation." The rule was quickly slammed for being sexist and outdated. 

    Imogen Bankier, one of the world’s top 20 badminton players along with her partner, Chris Adcock, had criticized the rule before it was obliterated. She told Telegraph Sport, "You can't make demands like that to make women more glamorous...it is ridiculous; tennis certainly doesn't have this problem so why should we have to put up with it?" 

    "The point of going into competitions is for us to be champions," said Vita Marissa, Indonesia’s mixed doubles player. "And we have to feel comfortable while playing."

    The BWF denied that the skirt rule disrespected women or discriminated against religious beliefs. Pakistan’s government disagreed, saying the rule contradicted the country's religious principles. China, Indonesia and India also criticized the rule, as well as Malaysia's Muslim party. 

    Paisan Rangsikitpho announced the cancellation of the rule during the Thomas and Uber Cup in Wuhan, China over the weekend, reports the Telegraph. "We have shelved the ban,” he said. "We just want to encourage women and men players to dress properly. We want them to dress nicely, professionally."

    He also admitted that the new rule had been abandoned to avoid controversy before the London Olympics, which is less than 60 days away.

    More: Video: Royals party as Olympic torch arrives in UK
    NBC Olympics: Amateur boxing makes it official: Skirts optional for women
    Disabled visitors face high hurdles to London Olympics
    Brendan Hansen hopes to get back in the (Olympic) swim
    Two brothers compete for one Olympic trampoline spot
    14 million meals to be served at London Olympics

  • Queen's Jubilee events brings pride to UK, world

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    Move aside, Kate Middleton and Prince Harry – it’s Queen Elizabeth II’s time to shine. The Queen’s Jubilee will be celebrated over the next few days and it is promising to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. 

    TODAY’s Meredith Vieira is in London for the celebration, which she calls a weekend “fit for a Queen.”

    As part of the celebration of the Queen’s 60 years on the throne, her son Prince Charles spoke about his mother in a documentary. He said, “The Diamond Jubilee I think gives us a chance to celebrate with pride all the Queen means to us. Both as a nation and indeed as one of her children.”

    The festivities will kick off Saturday with the Epsom Derby horse race, and on Sunday there will be a flotilla of more than 1,000 boats sailing down the river Thames. The royal family will be on a special barge with millions of supporters cheering from the riverbanks. 

    An event on Monday will see a star-studded concert with performances by Elton John, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and others, with a lighting of 4,000 beacons across Great Britain.

    Other items on the agenda include a ceremony at St. Paul’s cathedral, a carriage procession, and an appearance on the infamous Buckingham Palace balcony that promises to include a Royal Airforce flyover. 

    NBC special correspondent Ben Fogle said of the celebration, “I think it’s going to be one of the most spectacular things that has happened in London for years. We had the spectacular wedding last year, and I think this is going to blow everyone away.” 

    Fogle will be part of the flotilla, in an enviable spot within oar's reach of the royal family. He told Vieira he'll be in a little rowboat “sweating, and probably looking a little bit red in the face.” His boat will be slotted right behind the Gloriana, the royal rowboat and in front of the Spirit of Chartwell, the royal barge.

    Royal expert Camilla Tominey said that while the Queen doesn’t actually like attention being placed on her personally, she does relish the idea of Britain – and the world – celebrating together. According to Tominey, the Queen sees herself as a Briton first, and a member of the monarchy second.

    “She’s always worn bright colors because she thinks it’s important to be seen by the people and that’s why she goes on walkabout,” Tominey said. “She doesn’t want to be one of them, she wants to be one of us.”

    Tominey said the notion of Britain breaking out the party supplies to celebrate the landmark is “not just for her, but for Britain.”

    Fogle called the Jubilee and the Olympic torch relay a “perfect storm” for Britain, saying that the two events are “setting the country alight” and give the people of England a chance to embrace their patriotism. “The community spirit is very much in tune with royal events in this country,” Tominey said. That's for sure - the country expects to see 10,000 block parties kick off across England to join in celebration.