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OLYMPICS BLOG | Catching the fever

11:56 AM, Jul 13, 2012   |    comments
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Photo Gallery: PHOTOS | Matt Pearl interviews Olympic swimmers
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- I didn't think I needed a reminder about what Olympic fever looks like, but I got one at about 7:30 Thursday morning.

My photographer David Brooks and I arrived at the Allan Jones Aquatic Center at the University of Tennessee half an hour early for USA Swimming's Olympic media day. The finest swimmers in the country, all of whom will represent Team USA in London at the end of this month, had descended upon Knoxville for a week of training before heading off to Europe. This day was the only chance the media would have to get footage of the sessions and interviews with the athletes.

It was also the only chance the public would have to watch the swimmers - and maybe get a few autographs.

And that's where David and I witnessed the fever firsthand. We got to the aquatic center amidst a morning drizzle that was bordering on a full-on rain shower. The first thing we saw?

About a hundred umbrellas.

And underneath? About 100-200 people waiting in line, daylight having just arrived an hour earlier, to enter the building and watch the USA swim team.

More than a thousand people got into the free session; I imagine quite a few folks didn't get so lucky. In fact, the gentleman who parked next to us had already resigned himself to failure in this quest, and he said he wasn't overly surprised that the event had drawn such a crowd.

But I have to say, I was a little surprised.

Two months earlier, we saw a similar crowd come out to a swim meet in Charlotte. But that was different - that was an actual meet, with races and medalists and hundreds of participants.

This was a practice session; those who got to watch Michael Phelps were treated to an hour of slow-paced swimming, with the 14-time gold medalist often using a kickboard. Of course, all the athletes signed autographs afterwards, so perhaps the fans in attendance may have had an ulterior motive, but still, the crowd was pretty impressive.

And it reminded me of how excited people get about the Olympics, now just a few weeks away. At one point, about an hour into the practice, the crowd suddenly erupted into a chant of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" It was seemingly random yet utterly touching ... and, again, this was at a practice.

It was another reminder of Olympic fever. And you know what? Looking back, I'm glad I got those reminders.

After all, what better way to catch the fever than being exposed to it as much as possible?

A few other observations from USA Swimming's Olympic Media Day in Knoxville:

Missy Franklin may be the bubbliest athlete I have ever met. I don't pretend as if I know what athletes are like behind the scenes. We in the media get a few glimpses of them, and especially in my case, that glimpse comes with the camera on and the light shining in their eyes. But I have to say: teenage swimming phenom Missy Franklin had the most refreshing, upbeat positivity of any athlete I have had the pleasure of interviewing. Perhaps we just caught her on a great day, but she handled a number of media requests and interviews, and she did it all with energy and wide-eyed smile.

In truth, the whole swim team is a very easy-to-root-for bunch. I have attended two swimming events in the past few months now, and to be frank, they're just a likable group. Perhaps they possess a certain built-in humility from a sport that keeps them in relative anonymity except for a once-every-four-years spectacle. Perhaps swimming just generally attracts a laid-back personality. But for the most part, this is a very loose, likable bunch of athletes, and they will be fun to cheer on in London.

There's a secret benefit to being a swimmer at any Olympic Games. What is it, you ask? Well, they always go first. Swimming continually leads off the Olympic events, which means a couple of things. First, the swimmers typically don't participate in the Opening Ceremonies, which I would actually assume is a bit of a drag. However, they have a good 7-10 days after their events to enjoy the Olympics and its atmosphere before taking part in the Closing Ceremonies. Win or lose, I'm sure those athletes will enjoy having a good ol' time in London without having to worry about an upcoming race.

I plan on blogging relatively regularly throughout the Olympics. Having covered them on site in Vancouver in 2010, and having eagerly watched many on TV, I am a big fan and have been particularly anticipating the 2012 edition in London. You can follow me on Twitter at @MattPearlWXIA11 and, of course, on 11alive.com.

In the meantime, have fun catching the fever...

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