- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

ATHENS — Forget the goofy drills, the missing paychecks, the hapless shrugs in lieu of logic. What stuck in Jeff Nygaard’s craw about playing professional volleyball in Greece — what he absolutely, positively could not stand — was the traffic.

Then a member of the United States indoor volleyball team, Nygaard moved overseas in the fall of 1996 to play for Panathinaikos, a popular Greek squad. He lived in downtown Athens, just five kilometers from where the club practiced.

Yet on a good day — good being a relative term in this bumper-to-bumper corner of the world — his commute lasted an hour, each way, through mind-numbing Grecian gridlock.

“One day I just got tired of that, so I walked,” Nygaard recalls. “It only took me 25 minutes. Now I battle Los Angeles traffic, and it’s a joke.”

These are the high anxiety Olympics: Terror fears, construction woes and endless delays have plagued the Athens Games, which finally — mercifully — open today. But forgive Nygaard if he isn’t exactly sweating bullets. Or stocking up on duct tape and canned goods.

A converted beach volleyballer who along with partner Dain Blanton is a gold medal contender, the 34-year-old from Madison, Wis., has seen it all before, and then some, during his previous stint in Greece.

And to think: It only lasted nine months.

“There’s a lot of things that need to fall into place for the Games to run smoothly,” Nygaard says. “And it seems we’re already on a sinking ship with everything that’s happened in Greece. So you have to go in with a grain of salt. It’s like going to a movie. If you go in expecting nothing and it turns out to be somewhat good, you’re on cloud nine. It’s the best thing ever.”

Don’t get Nygaard wrong. He loves Greece, loves the people, still has plenty of friends in the country. It’s just that friends won’t furnish his apartment. And neither would Panathinaikos.

Nygaard requested dishes. No dice. He asked for a washing machine. Fat chance. He pleaded for a telephone. He got one. Three months later.

“Then I heard stories of people where it takes 12 years to get a phone in their home,” Nygaard says. “And they say that’s just normal, no remorse, nothing. When I was with the team, it was me against them.”

The Greeks have a word for tomorrow: avrio. Nygaard heard it often. When would he be paid? Avrio. When would the team get better equipment? Avrio.

Panathinaikos still owes Nygaard money. He could conceivably take it up with the club’s president, only Nygaard can’t recall the guy’s name. The players knew him as Mr. Avrio.

“I’m not holding my breath,” Nygaard says. “The first thing I learned in Greece was the shoulder shrug. I didn’t know if that meant yes, no, maybe or we’re going to die. But it just spoke volumes.”

Then there was the coaching. Or, more appropriately, the lack thereof. One drill had Nygaard block a spike, run willy-nilly around a chair positioned outside the court, then sprint back between the lines to dig another ball.

Nygaard was perplexed. He wouldn’t do this in musical chairs, let alone an actual game. Perturbed, he decided to make a point, diving for a ball he had zero chance of digging.

Nygaard gashed his chin. Wide open. Blood bubbling onto his uniform, he stared at his coach. The silence said it all: What on Earth are you doing?

“Instead of answering me,” Nygaard recalls, “he said, ‘OK, everybody, let’s play soccer!’”

Similar frustrations drove Nygaard from the indoor national team. A college walk-on who became a star at UCLA, he played middle blocker on an American squad whose stock dropped harder than Netscape in the mid-to-late 1990s.

From 1984 to 1992, Team USA won two golds and a bronze; in Nygaard’s first go-round with the squad, they placed ninth at the Atlanta Games. Next came Sydney. The Americans went winless, and Nygaard didn’t care. His passion was dead. The game felt like a job. He didn’t want to practice, didn’t want to stretch, didn’t want to wake up in the morning.

Shortly thereafter, coach Doug Beal called Nygaard into his office. The message was blunt. You’re through. We don’t need you. Nygaard took it in. He felt something like relief.

“The game had passed me by,” Nygaard says. “I felt no connection to it. I’ve never had the urge to go back and play indoor, ever. I’ve had a few dreams where they call me, and I wake up in a cold sweat.”

Nygaard moved back to Los Angeles. School beckoned. On a lark, he tried beach volleyball with a friend. Next thing Nygaard knew, he was playing with the legendary Sinjin Smith.

“This is a guy when you’re a little kid, you open a magazine and he’s the best player in the world,” Nygaard says. “I actually called a friend and said, ‘Guess who I played with?’ I was like a little kid.”

Spikes and sets were fun again. Nygaard won his first pro beach title in 2002, then partnered with Blanton, a Sydney Games gold medalist, last season. The duo won four titles and was named AVP team of the year. Nygaard captured MVP honors.

Blanton and Nygaard begin Olympic group play tomorrow and are among the favorites for gold, in part because Nygaard’s previous time in Greece has steeled him for anything. Rabid, rowdy anti-American fans? Please.

Nygaard saw countryman Jeff Stark, then playing for rival side Olympiakos, get hit in the leg with a lit flare. A Panathinaikos supporter hurled it from the stands.

Opposing fans were quick to return the favor. When Panathinaikos played at Olympiakos, Nygaard and teammates would park some five miles away, finishing the journey on foot.

“Otherwise, something was going to happen to your car,” Nygaard explains. “It was taken for granted. When you’re playing a rival club, there are more policemen in the stands than fans. If you’re on their club, they love you. If not, they want you to die. It’s just that simple.”

Speaking of near-death experiences: While playing for another squad in Zagreb, Croatia, Nygaard found himself walking to practice through a village on the Serbian border.

Without warning, his teammates suddenly formed a single-file line. One turned to Nygaard, motioning for him to stop.

“He didn’t know the word for land mine,” Nygaard says. “So he goes, ‘In ground, boom!’ And I’m like, ‘Are you serious?’ For them, that was life. It was quite a lesson.”

One that Nygaard won’t forget. Let someone else fret about Games security, roofless pools, citywide blackouts. Nygaard is here to play. He knows the city, knows the people, knows their pride. He figures Athens can’t possibly drop the Olympic ball. Not now. Not after so much struggle.

“The Olympics is a zoo no matter how you cut it,” he says. “Everything will work. It’s just going to be 75 percent.”

Except the traffic. Which is more like 110 percent. According to Nygaard, there’s only one way around it. Drive late.

“Three a.m. is the only time in Greece where there’s no traffic and no drunk people,” he says with a laugh. “It took me seven minutes to get home.”

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