Friday, July 27, 2012

Let the games begin: 11 reasons why I love the Olympics

Once every four summers, sports fans get a welcome reprieve from the big business aspects of major sports, instead getting treated to two-plus weeks of athletic competition in its purest form.

The Olympics have never been multi-million dollar contracts and free agency; it's about a collection of world-class athletes facing off with national pride and a shot at the medal podium on the line. Most Olympians aren't wealthy and very few have posters of themselves plastered on the walls of idolizing youth. They train year-round and have to make a countless number of sacrifices to get where they're at.

But when the time comes to compete on the world's greatest stage, they know that their dedication was worth it. And for the select group that earn a gold medal, those few moments of glory are enough to last a lifetime.

This year's edition of Olympics officially kicks off today with the opening (complete schedule of the Olympics here). In honor of the summer games starting, here are 11 reasons why I love the Olympics, in no particular order:

1. The 1992 Dream Team -- I'm JUST old enough to remember this, and along with watching Michael Jordan highlights, it's what first got me into basketball. The glitz and glamour of the Dream Team may not have been in keeping with the spirit of the Olympics, but it was still something to admire. A team comprised of 11 future Hall of Famers (and Christian Laettner) that throttled opponents by an average of 44 points a game. Will we ever see a team dominate to that level in international play again? Probably not -- regardless of what Kobe Bryant thinks -- but we can at least hope to see a team that captivates us in the same way.

2. The decathlon -- U.S. decathlete Ashton Eaton described the decathlon as being "The SATs of athletics." I couldn't agree more. It's always been one of my favorite events to watch just because of the sheer athleticism required in it. Most people can't leap over hurdles without tripping on them; try doing that, pole vault, javelin and a 1,500 meter run on the same day. The guys and gals competing in this hardly fall into the "Jack of all trades, master of none" category either. Most decathlon event records are within mere fractions of what the world records are in those events individually.

3. The 1996 U.S. women's gymnastics team doing the Macarena after winning the gold medal -- Kerri Strung memorably came up big for the U.S. in the vault competition, but this is what always comes to mind for me when I think about that team. What would be the equivalency of this today? The men's gymnastics team doing the dubstep after winning gold?

4. Olympic rowing -- Maybe it's just because I attempted the sport in college, but I have a deep appreciation for the ridiculous amount of athleticism and commitment needed to even be good rowing; much less compete at an Olympic level. It's a test of balance, strength, rhythm and cardiovascular endurance on the open water. If you're racing in an 8 or a 4, there's also the added challenge of resisting the urge to not throw your shrieking coxswain overboard. And as far as Olympic underdog stories go, it doesn't get much better than this.

5. Michael Phelps, past and present -- Admittedly, I'm not all that into competitive swimming. I'd rather dive for pennies at the deep end of a swimming pool than watch a 200M butterfly race. Still, you have to respect and admire the incredible career Phelps has had in the summer games. An incredible 14 gold medals over two Olympics and it's looking like he'll add a few more to the collection this year. If that weren't enough to make you intrigued, his diet during the Olympics is enough to make Marlon Brando blush.*

6. Table tennis and badminton at an Olympic level -- It's hard to believe that games you can play in your basement or backyard without breaking a sweat can turn into riveting international competition, but when you watch the pros do it, it's easier to believe. I keep hoping for them to add hammerschlagen as an event, but I don't think it's happening.

7. Jesse Owens walking into Nazi Germany and leaving with four gold medals -- When you consider the racial climate of the time and Adolph Hitler assuring Aryan dominance before the games, this has to be considered one of the most incredible feats in Olympic history. I can only imagine what Owens had to go through to get to that point. An African American sprinter who was treated like a second-class citizen in his own country traveled over to Nazi Germany to compete for that same country in front of a crowd that looked down on him as a primitive and un-advanced human being. And despite all that, he kept his head held high and came away with a performance that went unmatched for almost 50 years (Carl Lewis equaled his track & field gold medal count in 1984). I could write at length about Owens' Olympic triumph, but for the sake of my readers, I'll keep it short. For additional insight about Owens, you can watch this or read this.

8. The U.S. women's basketball team -- Three Minnesota Lynx players (Maya Moore, Lindsey Whalen and Seimone Augustus) are on a squad that's favored to win gold in London. Call it a ray of sunshine for an otherwise bleak summer for Minnesota sports.**

9. Usain Bolt sprinting to three world records in Beijing -- His medal haul of three golds was impressive (though not unprecedented), but the lanky Jamaican gets extra credit for reviving the popularity of a sport that had previously been riddled with doping controversy. Plus, has there ever been a better last name for a sprinter than Bolt? That's like an archer having their last name be Bullseye. Needless to say, I had fun writing headlines for the Mankato sports section that summer.

10. Bob Beamon's leap -- World records get broken all the time in the Olympics. That's just how it works as athletes evolve and training regimes become more developed. But how often is that a record gets completely obliterated like this? Beamon broke Jesse Owens' record in the long jump -- a record that stood for more than 30 years -- by almost 2 feet in the 1968 Olympics. It took 23 years for his record to finally fall (Mike Powell surpassed it by 2 inches in 1991).

11. The triathlon -- If the decathlon is the SATs of athletics, perhaps the triathlon is the ACT.  Coming from a guy who competed is several triathlons without being able to swim competently, I can tell you that it's REALLY difficult to be good at all three events. Like all other Olympic events, the athletes competing in this put in an unfathomable amount of work to get to this level, and that alone is something to appreciate.


*I've often wondered who would win in a swimming race: Michael Phelps or Kevin Costner's half-man, half-fish character from "Waterworld." Phelps is basically genetically engineered to be a swimmer (long arms, giant feet, long legs and flexible ankles), but Costner's character had webbed feet and hands AND had gills. I'd like to think it would at least be close.

**I'm waiting on celebrating the Wild's signing of Parise and Suter until they actually play together. It was a much-needed injection of energy for the franchise (and possibly one of the greatest free agent hauls in NHL history), but it's still unproven.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Movie metamorphosis: A look at actors who changed their bodies for roles

Tom Hardy is no stranger to packing on the muscle for a movie.

The British actor bulked up to an almost-unrecognizable mass to portray Charles Bronson in 2008's "Bronson." Likewise, he reportedly added 30 pounds of muscle and studied numerous fighting styles (according to to play the intimidating Batman villain Bane in this year's hotly-anticipated "The Dark Knight Rises," which opens in general theaters at midnight tonight. If the various trailers from "Rises" are any indication, Hardy's workout regime definitely paid off. He's hulking, he's scary and he'll undoubtedly be a better Bane than the campy, mindless henchman in the ridiculous, nipple suit-laden "Batman & Robin."

The practice of actors gaining or losing a significant amount of weight for a role is fairly common in today's movie industry. For certain roles, it's a big part of their process of getting into character. Would anyone have accepted Will Smith as a convincing Muhammad Ali if he still looked like the skinny, cocky kid from "Fresh Prince of Bel Air"?

As a self-proclaimed (and borderline obsessive) movie buff, I've seen my fair share of actor transformations. It always amazes me how actors can dedicate themselves to a role in this way. Most people struggle to lose/gain weight just to live healthy; these actors are doing it for the sake of art (and presumably a sizable paycheck). It's an exercise in discipline and dedication that many desire, but only few possess.

In honor of "Dark Knight Rises" coming out today -- and since it's been a relatively uneventful week for me on the health & fitness front -- here's a few of the more memorable roles I've seen for weight gain/loss. Feel free to chime in with other examples if you're so inclined. Unless noted otherwise, all weight loss/gain information is courtesy of IMDB, a movie website that I likely need an intervention from in the near future:

Christian Bale -- The Machinist (2004)
Speaking of Batman, Bale looked more like a third-world refugee than the Caped Crusader in this movie about an emotionally-damaged insomniac. Bale dropped more than 60 pounds -- weighing in at sickly 110 pounds --  for the role by eating nothing more than a can of tuna and an apple each day. Supposedly, Bale felt so weak during filming that he could barely do a push-up. It was hard to watch this movie without wanting to reach into the screen and give his character a cheeseburger. His next role after this? You guessed it: Batman. He put on close to 100 pounds(mostly muscle) in less than a year to play the Dark Knight, and was reportedly able to do much more than one push-up.

Natalie Portman -- Black Swan (2010)
Portman isn't a plus-sized woman to begin with, but her petite figure looked downright anorexic in this psycho-sexual ballet thriller. To prepare for her role, Portman dropped roughly 20 pounds and started a training regime a year before filming began that included rigorous ballet practice and swimming a mile a day. She definitely earned her Oscar in this movie. (Random side note: If you'd have told me five years ago that I'd thoroughly enjoy seeing a movie about ballet, I would have made a disgusted face and called you a liar)

Robert De Niro -- Raging Bull (1980)
My favorite boxing movie also featured one of the all-time great actor transformations. To portray Jake La Motta, De Niro not only trained extensively as a boxer (even entering into a few amateur boxing matches), he also packed on 60 pounds to portray the older, fatter La Motta in later scenes. Just watch this clip; you can hardly recognize him. Also, it's incredibly hard to find a clip for this movie that isn't full of profanity.

Matt Damon -- Courage Under Fire (1996)
Before he ever asked Scott William Winters if he liked apples, Damon turned heads by losing 40 pounds  -- supposedly by smoking and running 5-10 miles a day, according to an interview with the Screen Actors Guild -- for his role as a soldier in this movie. Interestingly enough, Damon's weight loss almost cost him the role in "Saving Private Ryan" the following year, as director Steven Speilberg previously thought that Damon was "too skinny" for the part. Also interesting, Damon went the other direction weight-wise years later, packing on 30 pounds with a "diet" of junk food and dark beer to play a pathological liar in 2009's "The Informant!"

Vincent D'Onofrio -- Full Metal Jacket (1987)
The normally-lanky D'Onofrio was barely recognizable in this Vietnam war epic, as he put on 70 pounds to play the bumbling Pvt. Leonard Lawrence (also known as Pvt. Pyle by R. Lee Ermey). Supposedly, the extra weight led to him tearing a ligament in his knee while filming the obstacle course scene. Also, I'm guessing he needed a therapy session or two after getting yelled at so much by R. Lee Ermey. (note: I couldn't find a clip of Pvt. Pyle that wouldn't get me in trouble at work, LOTS of profanity in this movie)

Charlize Theron -- Monster (2003)
I remember seeing this movie on cable and being utterly shocked to find out later that the gorgeous Charlize Theron portrayed the grisly prostitute-turned-serial killer. Theron certainly wasn't gorgeous here, packing on 30 pounds, wearing ghastly makeup and letting obscenities fly at a rapid-fire rate. Her hard work paid off though, as she took home the Oscar and became known for something other than being the sexy safe cracker in "The Italian Job."

Tom Hanks -- Cast Away (2000)
Hanks gains and loses weight for roles so often, people barely even notice it anymore. However, everyone noticed it in this one. Hanks stopped working out and allowed himself to grow pudgy in order to play the working-class version of Chuck Noland. Production of the movie was then halted for a year so Hanks could lose 50 pounds to play the stranded-on-an-island Noland. The weight loss appeared to affect Hanks' social skills, as he clearly overreacts to a minor argument with Wilson the volleyball.

Edward Norton -- American History X (1998)
Norton didn't need the CGI from "Hulk" to look buff. He put on a reported 35 pounds of muscle to pull off a neo-Nazi in this movie. The added bulk didn't stay on him for long though, as he starred as the scrawny insomniac in  "Fight Club" later that year.

Hilary Swank -- Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Another boxing movie with a memorable actor transformation! Swank went all out for this role, packing on 20 pounds of muscle and training extensively to make herself into a convincing boxer. Like De Niro's boxing turn, she also took home a best acting Oscar for her efforts. She also gets bonus points for being the subject of a spirited argument in "The Office" over whether or not she's hot.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Ragnar Relays, here I come!

I think it's a pretty universal concept that the best experiences are shared experiences.

Almost all people -- myself included -- strive for companionship in some way, whether it be hanging out with friends or striking up conversation with complete strangers. Life can get pretty lonely by yourself and daily occurrences, both good and bad, become more bearable when you have someone there experiencing them with you.

Above all else, that's the biggest reason why I've always been interested in Ragnar Relays. Unlike the solo road races I've done in the past, it's the ultimate team effort. In the Minnesota version of Ragnar, the race takes place between Winona and St. Paul, where relay teams of 6 or 12 people take turns running segments of the 190-mile course over a period of two days.

Relay races have always had an appeal to me. I love the competitiveness, I love the gradually-building drama, but most of all, I love the teamwork and the camaraderie that comes with a group of people working toward a common goal. 

Needless to say, when a friend of mine described Ragnar as being "a slumber party without sleep...or showers,"  I was immediately hooked and sought out to put my own team together for it. Some of my regular readers may even recall a blog entry I did last year on the topic. I wasn't looking for the challenge of triathlon or the accomplishment of running a marathon; I was looking for a race I could enjoy with others.

However, for a variety for a reasons, the team never materialized. Schedules were too hard to coordinate and many of my friends were uneasy about committing to a race several months in advance. The logistics of Ragnar -- van rentals, ride arrangements, drivers -- was also a lot more to consider than I was used to. Most of the events I've signed up for only require you to show up on time, bring proper equipment and wear some sort of clothes (though that isn't ALWAYS required).

I put my Ragnar ambitions on the back-burner for awhile, declaring it to be one of those races that would be fun to do but might not actually come to fruition. However, out of the blue a couple months back, my coworker Stacy -- someone I had only met in passing at that point -- asked if I was still into running and if I wanted in on a Ragnar team this summer.

My response was a semi-hysterical "yes" and the exuberance I displayed about finally getting on a Ragnar team probably looked something like this.

Admittedly, this isn't exactly how I envisioned getting to do Ragnar. I don't know any of the people on my team (Stacy recently had to drop out due to a toe injury) and with my opposite-from-normal-life work schedule, I likely won't get to know too many of them before the race rolls around on August 17. It would've been nice to have friends on the team to hang out with and possibly do some training runs with.

Despite all that though, I am excited for the race and look forward to getting to know my "Shady Character" teammates over the course of the next few weeks. Besides, I figure if they're doing Ragnar they must be cool, right?