- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2004

ATHENS — Mary Sanders doesn’t hate Will Ferrell. Quite the opposite. She laughed her way through the movie “Old School,” particularly at the scene where Ferrell takes a ribbon-twirling, utterly clownish tilt at rhythmic gymnastics.

For the record, however, Sanders would like to set one thing straight: Ferrell’s antics have little — make that nothing — to do with the actual sport.

“Everyone who asks me what I do, it’s like, ‘Oh, that thing with the ribbon, like Will Ferrell,’” says Sanders, an American rhythmic gymnast. “It gave us more recognition, so I’m grateful. But it’s a total misconception, because our sport is very challenging.”

Swimming. Sprinting. Artistic gymnastics. Basketball. These are the marquee events of the Athens Olympics — the sports that generate the ratings, the headlines, the Wheaties box endorsements.

Then there’s the other stuff.

The Summer Games are home to 37 sporting disciplines, most of them of them obscure. And that’s putting it kindly. Men’s field hockey. Modern pentathlon. Team handball. Sprawling and varied, the second-tier events cover the entire spectrum of athletic skills: bouncing on a trampoline, underwater dance coordination, smashing a badminton shuttlecock at 200mph. Yet they all have something in common.

They’re the sports that get dissed.

“In America, badminton is a backyard kind of thing,” says American Howard Bach, who partnered with Kevin Han in the Olympic doubles draw. “Left hand holding a beer, right hand holding a racket. We’re trying to change that perception. You need good hand-eye coordination, good flexibility. It’s the fastest racket sport in the world.”

Um, who measured that?

“Someone did.”

Who exactly?

“Someone who loves badminton.”

Of course, perceptions are always relative. For instance, making fun of table tennis is a near-obligatory staple of Olympic coverage — except in Asia, where the sport is a lot more popular than, say, women’s softball. And that’s accounting for Jennie Finch.

To put it another way: One man’s synchronized swimming is another’s synchronized diving. Or race walking, which sounds as oxymoronic as the aforementioned table tennis.

“I find it humorous,” says American race walker John Nunn. “For example, triple jump. I can’t jump three times like that, and not to take anything away from it, but it just seems so odd. Race walking is no more odd than some of the other Olympic sports out there.”

Maybe not, but that doesn’t stop U.S. race walking coach Enrique Pena from calling his event the “ugly duckling” of track and field. Pena speaks from painful experience: His first exposure to the sport came in a theater in his native Colombia, where highlights were shown before the main feature.

The audience erupted, giggling and guffawing.

“[Even] if I won eight gold medals, I wouldn’t expect to be known in the U.S.,” concedes American race walker Curt Clausen.

Still, race walkers can consider themselves lucky, if only because they haven’t been savaged by “Saturday Night Live.” That honor falls to the mother of all ridiculed Olympic sports, synchronized swimming — the subject of a memorable 1980s spoof starring Harry Shearer and Martin Short.

In the skit, a wickedly funny mock documentary, Short proclaims his desire to be the first male gold medalist in the sport. He then splashes through a series of inept routines, all while wearing nose plugs and a bright orange life jacket.

“I’m not that strong a swimmer,” Short explains.

Two decades later, synchro is still mending its tattered reputation.

“We haven’t moved past that,” says Becky Jasontek, an American synchronized swimmer. “It did damage the image of our sport. But actually, it also opened people’s eyes to it.”

Jasontek pauses, smiling.

“Hey, we’ll take the publicity.”

Will they ever. The Allen Iversons of the world don’t have to explain what they do, over and over, until they have it down colder than a campaign stump speech. Not so for Olympians like Anna Kozlova, Jasontek’s former partner.

A few months ago, Kozlova wore her Team USA gear to a coffee shop in Manhattan. An older woman, likely someone’s grandmother, approached.

Excuse me, but are you going to Athens?

Yes, I’m in synchronized swimming

Is that a new sport in the Olympics?

“And I’m like, ‘No, actually they’ve had it since 1984,’” Kozlova says with a laugh. “But she was very sweet.”

In mid-May, the U.S. Olympic Committee brought dozens of athletes to a New York City hotel for four days of interviews and photos. During one afternoon session, equestrian rider Robert Costello sat at a large table surrounded by six empty chairs.

Even the kayakers were drawing more interest.

“Equestrian is one of the oldest sports, which makes it amazing that it’s relatively unknown,” marveled Costello, a Sydney Games veteran. “People are like, ‘Really, it’s an Olympic sport?’”

That said, it’s one thing to be ignored by the public and the media, since both groups have the attention span of hummingbirds. But it’s something else entirely to be dismissed by other athletes, which Sanders says is commonplace in the world of gymnastics.

Sanders began her career in artistic gymnastics, flipping, vaulting and toeing the balance beam. When she was 12, her coach suggested she switch to rhythmic, mostly because she was growing too tall to become an elite-level artistic performer.

Sanders was aghast.

“I thought what everyone else thought,” she recalls. “Rhythmic? What is this? It’s all for babies. Every time I watch it, all the girls do is cry. I didn’t want to do it. But once I started and learned, I got respect for it.”

For Costello, respect isn’t as worrisome as financial solvency. His horse, a 14-year-old English thoroughbred named Dalliance, is owned by a wealthy patron, Leila Clay. Sponsorships from Purina and other feed companies help cover Dalliance’s daily needs.

Still, training, care and travel can cost up to $50,000 a year. And Costello is on his own when it comes to other expenses, such as feeding and caring for himself.

“You have to work hard, and go out and hustle to get sponsorships,” says Costello, who coaches and trains horses to make ends meet. “Things grow out of control if you go to Europe to compete. I try not to add that up.”

Jasontek can relate. Coming out of high school, she faced a choice: swim on scholarship at Ohio State or go to Cal-Berkley on her own dime and compete with a club team. She chose the Buckeyes.

Nevertheless, Jasontek sees herself as fortunate. She and Kozlova have appeared in television spots for Visa and AFLAC, and her husband is a pharmaceutical salesman.

“He’s helping a lot,” Jasontek says. “But my parents still support me. And I’m 29 years old.”

Though synchronized swimming is only slightly more lucrative than professional lawn darts, athletes such as Jasontek work just as hard as their peers in better-known sports. Sanders trains six days a week, six to eight hours a day. She spends four hours on routines, two hours on posture and grace, two hours practicing to her competition music and another hour on conditioning.

Sanders also does pilates on the side — all so she can be a decided underdog in international competitions dominated by the Eastern European countries that take the sport just a wee bit more seriously.

“In Europe, there’s sold-out stadiums,” Sanders says. “I was in France, and like 5,000 people showed up. The Europeans are on top because, basically, they’re taken from like 4 years old and train their whole life. They don’t go to school.”

A recent high school graduate who plans to attend college in the fall, Sanders isn’t complaining. Rhythmic gymnastics, she says, has taught her a true Olympic lesson: appreciate all athletes, regardless of their sport.

Sanders’ late father, Fred, was the 1963 Big Ten trampoline champion. No matter. She used to snicker at trampoline gymnastics — until she saw it in person at the Olympic trials.

“I was totally impressed,” Sanders says. “[Rhythmic] gets a lot of, ‘Why is that in the Olympics? It’s like ballroom dancing.’ But people who say that, I don’t see them doing it. If athletes work so hard to get where they are, don’t question it.”

For his part, Costello remains optimistic. The Outdoor Life Network recently dabbled in equestrian programming, and last spring NBC aired a 90-minute Sunday afternoon special on the Olympic equestrian trials.

“The ratings were huge,” Costello says with a grin. “Bigger than skiing.”

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