Monday, August 3, 2009

Sports From Afar

Posted By on Mon, Aug 3, 2009 at 11:10 AM

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A sailing champion, a diving champion, a lollapalooza of an article on skate parks, the bike capital of America, and a roots tour of college football stadiums. Or how I spent my summer vacation.

The bike capital is Madison, Wisconsin, where bike paths are like city streets. Basically, any place you can get to by car you can get to — safely — by a dedicated bike trail. The university influence is obviously at work here, but there's more, such as the deliberate emphasis on alternate transportation, the deliberately scarce parking, the bike-friendly bus system, the three lakes, the stout property taxes.

Notable about the bike path adjoining the university on the south side: ten feet wide, broken yellow stripe down the middle, landscaped right-of-way on both sides (day lilies, sedum, sunflowers, butterfly bush, etc.), homeowners who take care of their yards and plant vegetable or flower gardens instead of building fences, heavy use at all hours of the day.

Camp Randall Stadium, home of the Badgers, is very open and unintimidating. We rode our bikes right into the indoor concourse at the invitation of an employee, past the portraits of Alan Ameche, Pat Richter, Barry Alvarez, and other immortals. Some high school girls were playing soccer on the field. The unsung hero of Wisconsin athletics is Donna Shalala, the ex-president who hired Richter as A.D. and Alvarez as football coach.

Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, on the other hand, was closed, probably due to construction. My alma mater was about three decades late to the suites-and-seat-licenses party, leaving who knows how many millions in revenue on the table. Once a sunken bowl with a press box, the "Big House" looks more like a modern coliseum after a quarter billion in improvements. Team not so good, however.

I didn't see any skate parks but I read a lot about them in a long feature story in The Wall Street Journal last week. The line that sticks with me said something about a new way of looking at public recreation, as opposed to the once standard ballfields, golf courses, and rec centers. A skate park, I hear, is not a BMX park (hard to coexist), and not necessarily a $3 million investment. There are lots of little ones. Portland, Oregon is the mecca. The sport claims ten million participants. So why don't I see more of them on the streets and parking lots of Memphis? Just wondering. I hope Aaron and friends have success here.

The sailor is my high school classmate Dr. David Verdier, an eye doctor in Grand Rapids, Michigan and a lifelong sailor who has twice won the Chicago to Mackinac Island race. I couldn't learn to sail if Odysseus and Sinbad were my teachers, but I think this is a hell of an achievement. Sailors have big bucks and big egos, so the competition is fierce. Dave outsmarted and outsailed them. Once you might be lucky. Twice you are just plain good. This year a monster boat owned by one of the Amway founders was first under the Mackinaw bridge (spelling varies from island to city to bridge) but last, something like 120th, on corrected time after various confusing and esoteric calculations are made. Gotta love that.

The diver is Nick Nemetz, son of my college roommate, Ed Nemetz, in Ann Arbor. As a sophomore at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School, Nick won the state championship. He seems like a nice kid with a very level head, which was inches off the floor as he did a hand stand while talking to us. Practices about four hours a day. If, like super swimmer Michael Phelps, he accepts a college scholarship to some place such as Michigan in two years, he will have to put in even more practice time. And if there are four divers on the team, only one goes to the meet. Nick wants to have a real life apart from the pool. Tough decision. Plus the fact that he has already tasted a championship will make it hard to repeat. Not that I would know.

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