They're everywhere. "It's one of the cool things about living here," I told my coffee companion two weeks before she took off for Sydney. "Everyone knows an Olympian in Colorado Springs," she said, completing my thought.
When I moved back to Colorado Springs eight years ago, Mari Holden was my next-door neighbor. Even our dogs were friends, and when my dog, Beaver, passed away, she was everything you'd want a friend to be.
Mari came to Colorado Springs that same year, training for triathlons before turning her attention exclusively to cycling and setting her sights on making the Olympics. Eight years and two Olympiads later, she has finally joined the world's greatest athletes, gathering, as in ancient times, for a fortnight of intense competition.
"I think that it will really hit me once we get to the Olympic Village with all the different athletes from all over the world," she told me last week. After years of striving , she's finally living her dream. She's already been out to San Diego for official processing and an overwhelming shower of gifts from sponsors, including everything from clothing, luggage, and jewelry to massages and facials.
"I still haven't gotten my shorts for the Olympic road race," she laughed. "I'm going to need those sometime soon."
She'll compete in the road race on the Sept. 25, and the time trials on Sept. 30, and the late timing of her team's events convinced her coach to keep the team stateside until the Sept. 20, meaning they'll miss the opening ceremonies.
"I really wanted to go," Mari said, "but apparently they don't have a good area for us to train. There's going to be incredible traffic," she pointed out, and confining themselves to track training would be counterproductive.
A grueling schedule has her leaving Sydney before the closing ceremonies so that she can get to Europe in time for the World Championships a few days later. Her only chance to take in the pageantry will be on top of a medal stand.
"I would take that," she laughed. "If I could do that instead of the ceremonies it would be OK." Holden is optimistic about her chances, particularly in the time trials. "It's just a matter of having a good day at the right time. If I have a really great day I could make a medal, but even if I don't have a great day I should be in the top five."
As the moment of truth nears, Mari is keeping focused and calm, trying to block out the external pressures. "The only pressure that can really make you upset is your own pressure," she explained. "I'd be upset if I got done and I didn't think I'd done my best or tried my hardest." She's also conscious of the choke factor, and the odd attraction sporting fans have to the agony of defeat. "I guess that's what people like to see. It's drama."
At 29, Mari expects to be around for one more Olympiad as an elite road cyclist. After that, she'd like to return to her first love, the triathlon. "I'd still like to try and do an Iron Man race. I also wouldn't mind trying some mountain bike racing."
Mari leaves the superstitions and rituals to her father, who'll watch her in Sydney along with her mother and sister. "He has this one lucky shirt that I guess he's worn in every national championship I've won over the years. It's a long sleeve flannel shirt. It was cold at my first nationals that I won, so he wore that. But it's getting crazy, because it was really hot this last year."
"This is definitely the biggest thing I've ever done," she admitted, and she's noticed a sense of patriotism welling up inside her over the past year. "I get weepy when I hear the National Anthem at hockey games."
She's been closely watching the other athletes -- many of them fellow resident athletes who began the journey together in Colorado Springs -- as they qualify in various sports. "I almost get more emotional for them because I realize what they've all gone through to get there too. It's almost like you can't recognize it for yourself, but you can recognize it in other people, all the commitment and time."
Sox in Sydney
John Cotton's road to Sydney was considerably less calculated. The multi-talented outfielder and infielder for the Sky Sox has accumulated over 1,200 games in 12 minor league seasons, playing in the Indians, Padres, Tigers, White Sox, Cubs, and Rockies organizations. He has played more minor league games without playing in the Major Leagues than any other professional baseball player.
This year marks the first year that professional baseball players are being used on an American Olympic team, but with baseball in the heat of its pennant races and Major Leaguers unavailable, don't expect USA Baseball to look like the Dream Team that highlighted the 1992 basketball competition. The country that invented the game is not even the favorite in Olympic competition. Cuba enters the competition as the favorite, with Japan, Korea and the United States rounding out the top four.
"Once you turn professional, you think the Olympics are out of reach," Cotton told the Indy. "So I never really thought about making the team, to be honest with you."
Cotton's selection to the 28-man squad heading to Sydney may have cost him a chance to play with the Rockies when the rosters expanded Sept. 1, but he has no second thoughts about representing his country in the Olympics.
"I think this is better," he said the day before he started his trip to Australia's Gold Coast for two weeks of training with manager Tommy Lasorda. "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. It's definitely something I will cherish the rest of my life."
Since coming to the Sky Sox midway through the '99 season, Cotton has seen his production escalate dramatically, hitting a career high .328 this season. "I think it's just getting older," he said of the sudden leap in performance. "Learning how to hit. I think everything's just falling into place right now."
Cotton was the last man selected to the squad, but he has boosted his chances at making the final cut to 24 by hitting two home runs -- one a grand-slam -- and knocking eight RBIs in the first five exhibition games in Australia.
Despite his vast experience in the minors, Cotton has high expectations for Sydney. "I think the level of competition is going to be higher than AAA," he speculated, pinpointing facing international pitching as the greatest challenge. "I've faced American pitching and Venezuelan and Mexican pitching in winter ball, but this is the first time I'll be facing Japan and Korea."
Looking ahead, Cotton is mindful of the possibility of using the experience as a stepping stone for the next phase of his career. "Maybe next year could be an opportunity for me to go overseas and play. There might be some scouts from Japan in Sydney who see me play.
"I don't see myself coming back here next year," Cotton predicted as he packed up his locker for what could be the last time in Sky Sox Stadium. "I'll probably go out and explore my options. Hopefully I'll do well in Sydney and in winter ball and get a job next year." He has no illusion that a Major League uniform awaits him somewhere, and is content to keep playing the game wherever he can land a roster spot.
"It doesn't matter if it's not the Major Leagues. Whoever's going to give me a shot, give me a chance." For now, Tommy Lasorda and USA Baseball fit that bill, and Cotton couldn't be happier. "This is definitely the highlight of my career right here."