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By Grace Callahan
OpeningSo I know that most of you (if you’re anything like the other 4 billion people in the world) are probably interested to hear about what it was like to be in Beijing during that most spectacular opening ceremonies event of all times– and it was spectacular, let me assure you. You’re thinking: wow — Grace must have been so blown away just to be anywhere near it; the buzz in the city; the fireworks and yeah, it was cool to see it in real time, but I wasn’t in the stadium, nor was I even anywhere near it really. The only difference between being there and watching it on TV (that I heard of) was that if you watched it at home, you didn’t lose 10 pounds or risk dying from heat exhaustion, and you were able to eat and drink like a normal person — instead of waiting in line to buy a concession from one of 3 people selling them throughout the stadium.

But I’m here to tell you about something that I am willing to guess isn’t on your radar, and that is the glorious sport of men’s Water Polo. I am embarrassed to admit that this under-appreciated sport is quite possibly the most interesting and appealing sport to watch ever in the history of competitiveness. Well, at least the men’s version. I imagine that the women’s version is interesting too, but surely not nearly as stimulating, if you know what I mean.

I’m going to do my best to keep this email rated PG-13, for the benefit of the younger (or older, as the case may be) parties that will read it, but it’s going to be tough. Sooo…here’s how I discovered this little known gem of an event.

Men’s water polo tickets landed out of the blue in my lap this morning as I had a brief meeting with the two people I’m working with here in the hotel on hospitality issues. This isn’t a rare occurrence, even at the Olympics for tickets to go unused. It’s rare for certain events (All of the Michael Phelps events, Women’s Gymnastics, USA Basketball, etc…), but like I said, Water Polo is not necessarily on everyone’s radar, so I said, "why not? I’ll check it out."

Now I feel that it’s critical at this juncture to mention the fact that my radar had been put on alert about a week and a half ago when one of the people on the working team arrived and announced that she had been surrounded by the US men’s water polo team on the 12 hour flight from San Francisco to Beijing — her report was that they were all between the ages of 25 and 35, all blond (ok that wasn’t so great), all sculpted, and all between the heights of 6’1" and 6’4"…when I heard that, I was itching to get over to Beijing Normal University (where the training facility is for the US team) and see if I could catch them during a work out — or maybe even work them out myself?? Ok, ok…you’re right — I don’t know anything about training athletes, but I bet I could figure out stretching — how hard could that be? — or what about cross training?? There are many ways to stay in shape, right?

Anyway, so I knew that there was a team of men in town who sounded like gods, but then I kind of forgot about it until today when I was offered the ticket. So here I go: traipsing off to the venue — it was walking distance from the hotel — across a pedestrian bridge over a major road, dodging traffic which doesn’t stop for pedestrians, through the throngs of volunteers, clad in blue and white shirts, gray fast-drying pants with zip off shorts, orange highlighted sneakers (Nike), visors to ward off the sun and yellow fanny packs — each of them practicing at least a "hello; welcome to Beijing" on you — if not more. Through the intense security check: "Escu me, you have camra?" "Yes." "Can you take one pikcha…make sure its camra?" Uh, I guess. You mean to make sure that my "camera" isn’t really a bomb? Because I know that’s a common occurrence these days. Meanwhile, my colleague walked right through with his camera and didn’t have to demonstrate that it was a camera. Whatever. I comply. Turns out that might be my best photo yet!!

Ok, so through the security check, or at least the first security check. Second security check comes later, and then there’s another one when you go in the building. (Why have only one security check when you could have three??) As we all pile into the building, the smell of chlorine engulfs my face, causing my eyes to sting a bit. We pass up the concessions stands: they only sell sausages and biscuits (I haven’t seen what either of those looks like) and sweet popcorn, which I can’t stand (sorry all you kettle corn lovers out there) and Coke products of course. I’m pretty sure that without Coca Cola, the world might just collapse.

(Has this been enough lead up to the climax? Or should I draw it out a bit more??)

My colleague and I sit down in our tiny, made-for-smaller-people-than-me seats, and the pool is glistening in front of me. "One world; One dream" and Beijing 2008 is everywhere, and we are surrounded by a United Nations of fans, people from all over speaking all kinds of different languages…loud Chinese pop music plays over the loud speaker…

And then here they come: first the Australians. They walk out single file in their long green terrycloth robes, as if a mix between a heavyweight boxer and a guest in a high-end hotel that provides a robe with your room. They line up facing the pool with their backs to us, and then the Greeks come marching in behind. This is kind of when I almost lost it — they file out, "Hellas" written on the back of their blue and white wind-breaker looking jackets…and no pants on! Never in my life have I been so thrilled that the Speedo was invented as that moment, and it was then that I leaned back and knew that I was going to enjoy the next 2 hours of my life.

The announcer introduces all of the players by name on each team and then it’s time to disrobe — the Aussies emerge from their robes and the Greeks lose the jackets, and the flesh festival begins — smooth, tanned bodies: perfectly sculpted (not to muscular), long and lean (but not too skinny), well you get the idea. Their parents should be congratulated and/or rewarded for creating such beautiful specimens of humans. They put on those little caps, and that makes them look a bit silly, but at this point I’ll take all of the help that I can get to remind me that we are supposed to be watching a sport and not drooling over it’s players, then they all jump in the pool. Disappointing, I know.

Water_polo But get this: even the sport itself is cool! These guys not only tread water and throw a ball around, they swim up and down the "court," they fight each other one on one in the water as defensive moves, they yell at each other, they pass and catch the ball flawlessly — And when I say tread water, I don’t mean using both legs and hands. I mean tread water to where the water line is at your belly button. Yum. Of course the best part was when they traded out for each other — cause some exited the pool and others entered, for optimum viewing pleasure.

Ok, ok — I know: enough about Water Polo….aahhhh, water polo….there must be other things going on in Beijing, right? I guess. I’ll cut to the chase. The Greeks had a strong start, but the Aussies prevailed in the end (they must have carbo-loaded on beer the night before — hee hee), with a score of 12 to 8. After the first match, the Croatians battled the Italians but we had to leave before that match ended, unfortunately. I can only hope to have another opportunity to catch another glimpse of those glorious bodies — I mean to have a chance to learn more about the game of Water polo.

But you are all right: there is other news in Beijing. The government successfully averted rain on the Opening Ceremonies by firing over 1,100 rockets with whatever kind of chemical up into the sky. It did rain today (2 days later) — so maybe those chemicals have completed their precipitation cycle and are now headed out via rivers and streams into the ocean. I for one have tried to avoid rain if possible for fear of what’s in it! Then again they say that rain helps to clear the skies, and that would be a rare pleasure, since I am fairly certain that I haven’t seen the sun but for two days since I’ve been here (18 days now.)

I also made it to the Great Wall since we last spoke — the first stop on my grand tour of the Seven Wonders of the World (Bet you can’t name the seven wonders of the world, can you?) That was a fun, if tainted, outing, although again: would have been much more photogenic had there been some blue around. I took a group of the personal trainers there to the Wall — those are the folks who I am managing on this program, in case anyone didn’t already know that and wouldn’t you know that despite the fact that there was a cable car available to take you up the wall (kind of like a ski lift), not one of the trainers wanted to take it — "Cable cars are for wussies," was I think the exact wording. Well it was hot, hot, hot and humid, humid, humid, and so we started trudging up the side of the mountain. It was, in their words, the biggest stair-stepper ever. One female trainer, who I was walking with at one point, estimated that we were stepping at the equivalent of a level 10 — it felt more like 28. I was trying to play it cool like I work out that hard all the time, but about half way up I couldn’t pretend anymore. I was panting and sweat was dripping out of every single pore in my whole body, including gushing off of my face, it was actually kind of embarrassing. My only consolation was that of course every single person around me was just as sweaty. Even though they were all trainers, fitness geeks and even a former NBA player! So we get to the top and despite the fact that I was dying to get my picture taken on top of the great wall, I was kind of totally embarrassed that it had to be like this: soggy, exhausted, deflated, and too concerned with catching my breath to be able to completely enjoy the sight of being on top of the world! Also, I didn’t want anyone to have proof that I actually wore a USA branded t-shirt out there — that was very humiliating, something that I would NEVER be caught dead in were it not for this job.

I was envisioning climbing the Wall and being in awe, having the opportunity to sit alone with my thoughts and reflect on the age, the construction, the grandeur, the majesty — but I was busy corralling personal trainers, so that didn’t quite happen. I did get some deep lunges in up there and took a few snapshots. Luckily there weren’t too many people up there, so it wasn’t like we were fighting crowds — just fighting the vendors atop the wall as well as on the way up. I’m sure that the wall is just as impressive as they say it is — problem is that I just couldn’t really see it…that and I had trainers chanting USA stuff all around me — the world is right in accusing us of being very poor travelers. We are indeed loud and often times ugly, and almost uniformly inflexible, but my job was not to teach them how to travel in a more rewarding way; my job was to make sure that all were accounted for when we made our way back down that wall. In fact, my favorite part of the whole journey was the automatic flush squat toilet that I relieved myself in before the climb. I’ve peed in many a squat toilet (the kind that are just porcelain holes in the ground with treads on either side instructing you (in case it’s not obvious) where to put your feet while peeing) in my life (especially the past two years), but never have I come across a toilet (hole) that you pee in and when you stand up to fasten your pants, water starts gushing in, effectively flushing it. At first, the worst crossed my mind: it’s backing up! But then I realized what was happening and I marveled at the modernity’s of the toilets at the Wall. Since then, I’ve come across a few more, and I must say that they are a wonderful invention — worthy of export, for sure.

If you are still reading this and haven’t lost interest, fallen asleep or run out of your lunch hour, I guess now would be an appropriate time to apologize for not really mentioning the wonderfully extravagant and awe-inspiring Opening Ceremonies .I hope that it will suffice to say that they were the most spectacularly produced event I’ve ever seen in my life, and I hope that everyone has had the opportunity to see them (Did you see how great the Iraqi team looked? They are headed for a medal for sure. I wonder if they have a water polo team? I guess not much water in Iraq…) I had a lot of thoughts as I watched them, some of which I’m anxious to share — if only to see what you all think, but I guess they will have to wait for another time. All of the hype that you’ve heard and the magical photos that you’ve seen: they are all right on point — it was simply incredible. Definitely something that only China could have produced.

But my goal was not to regale you with the story that you’ve heard already numerous times: about the beauty, the choreography, the extravagance, the surprise, the awe, the excitement, the wonder, the heat, the aftermath — instead I chose to use this platform to express my excitement that i was able to discover the wonderful world of water polo, and to hopefully inspire you to also seek out that same enjoyment — in this, I hope I’ve been successful.

So, my friends, I sign off — it’s late here and I have an early morning (as usual…) Kobe, Lebron and CP3 are headed to bed, after defeating Yao Ming and his team by 30+ points…so I guess I should too.

Take care all of you across the universe and until next time,

Water Polo Maniac Grace

Known to some as Big Healthy, Grace Callahan is an event planner and world traveler based out of New Orleans, LA who writes on the side. To holler at Grace, e-mail her at:

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