Friday, October 28, 2011

Guadalajara Glory Days #6

I'm covering the Pan American Games from Oct. 13 through 31 in Guadalajara, Mexico for the Virgin Islands Daily News. These notebook items and photos were published in the print edition.

They grow up so fast

PUERTA VALLARTA, Mexico – While sitting inside the restaurant at the Presidente Hotel, I met a delightful American woman named Connie who was decked out in the red, white and blue. She later told me that she was a mother of the one of the Team USA softball players.

After some more chatting, I realized the starting second baseman for USA was a former high school standout I used to cover when I worked in Maryland. The coincidence prompted a stern invitation from Connie to cover the team's game on Friday. No RSVP was needed for this party because the softball mom was not going to take no for an answer.

While I've spent the last few years getting used to living on St. Thomas, University of Tennessee junior Lauren Gibson has climbed the ranks of elite college softball champions. She competed in the 2010 NCAA Softball Division I Championship so it was a no-brainer for U.S. coach Ken Eriksen to bring her aboard.

“I actually recruited her out of high school so I know her a little better than you,” the coach joked with me before their 8-0 rout of Argentina.

Not so fast, Eriksen.

I interviewed Gibson, who was a hard-throwing pitcher while in high school, for the first time when she was a freshman. She dominated newspaper headlines and opposing batters for the next four years until she capped off her prep career with a no-hitter in the Maryland Class 4A state championship.

“Wow, it's great to see you,” Gibson said when I methodically hunted her down after the game. “I didn't recognize you because of the hair.”

From Maryland to Mexico, my hair continues to define me.

Puerta Vallarta field trip

I took a quick trip to the coast on Saturday. No, not for a Mexican vacation. Even though I did stay at a resort filled with either retired couples or crazed Spring Breakers. Wait, is it that time of year yet?

Puerta Vallarta was the location for the sailing and triathlon competitions. It was a 20-minute flight from Guadalajara but a 4-hour bus trip through the mountains to get back.

As soon as I stepped onto the bus with my complimentary bag lunch, I knew this would be a unique experience and would probably find its way into the Guadalajara Notebook. Not a single journalist was on the bus and there was only one open seat left.

After a Forrest Gump childhood moment – “you can't sit here” – I found a spot right next to the bathroom and was amazed with how far the seats tilted back. The engine started and then the televisions lit up. Three movies, one after another, all in Spanish.

It didn't matter. The scenery out the window was amazing and the bus driver was not intimidated by the tight, meandering mountain roads. I made it back to Guadalajara after a relaxing nap and just in time to see some boxing.

Feliz cumpleaƱos, Chico

U.S. Virgin Islands Olympic Committee secretary general Angel “Chico” Morales is in Guadalajara supporting the USVI athletes and he celebrated a birthday last Thursday. It was a quiet gathering – because I wasn't invited – as he and some friends went out for a special dinner.

Morales was elected to the VIOC Executive Committee as vice president for St. Croix in 1988 and became the committee's secretary general in 1996. He has represented the territory at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea; the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain; and the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Guadalajara Glory Days #5

I'm covering the Pan American Games from Oct. 13 through 31 in Guadalajara, Mexico for the Virgin Islands Daily News. These notebook items and photos were published in the print edition.

Say No To Dope

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – U.S. Virgin Islands female boxer Tiffany Reddick has been staying up late at night this past week in Guadalajara because she said she's too excited.

It wasn't as if the very first female boxer to represent the territory at the Pan American Games already had enough on her mind. Earlier in the week, three Anti-Doping Agency workers arrived at the USVI apartment in the athletes' village and they knocked on Reddick's door when she was asleep in bed.

Reddick, 24, was informed she had go with the three Anti-Doping agents to a clinic in the village for a an immediate drug test. No questions asked.

“Before we left, they wouldn't let me wash my hands with soap,” Reddick said. “They did let me brush my teeth but they came into the bathroom and watched me do it.”

USVI boxing coach Julian Jackson went with Reddick to the clinic for the athlete's first ever drug test. Once there, she had to fill out some paperwork and was handed a cup to urinate in. When she went into the restroom, she had more spectators.

“We went back into the room after all that and then they finally let me wash my hands,” she said. “I had to pour the sample into two more containers and it spilled all over the desk. It was strange. I had to do all the dirty work and no one in there had any gloves on, which I thought was very weird.”

Reddick was the only one to handle the containers. She closed the lids, tightened them and had to match up the confirmation numbers before she finally surrendered the samples to the drug testers.

Questions were then asked about the types of vitamins she had taken, where she was born, her birth date, what country she was from and her American favorite football team. Well, not the last question but for the record, Reddick is a Pittsburgh native and she pulls for the Steelers.

“After that, we were done so they gave me a pin,” Reddick said. “It said 'Say No To Dope' on it.”

She has not heard any results from her drug test and weighed in for the boxing competition on Friday. Reddick is scheduled for her first fight on Sunday so one can assume she passed with flying colors.

“I knew there was a chance I may get tested but I didn't think it would happen,” she said. “I don't think it's random. I'm new so I feel like they went after me. It's cool. It would be nice if someone told me I passed though.”

USVI Olympic Committee member Lyn Reid said Reddick has been the only USVI athlete to be drug tested in Mexico, which is below the current average.

“We had two USVI athletes tested in Singapore last year at the Youth Olympic Games,” she said. “It was a unique experience to say the least.”

Boxers get acclimated

Since USVI boxers Clayton Laurent and Tiffany Reddick arrived last Thursday, boxing coach Julian Jackson has worked them out twice a day every single day. These have been full workouts, with pads, endurance exercises and up-tempo sparring sessions.

“We have been training hard,” USVI Boxing Federation president Tony Rosario said Thursday night. “The first time we put them on the track to run, they almost died. They couldn't breath because they had to get used to the altitude.”

Guadalajara is approximately 5,200 feet above sea level. Take four Empire State Buildings and stack one on top of the other and you'll get close to Guadalajara's altitude. Crazy, huh?

After a few workouts, Jackson wanted to test the boxers even more.

The USVI boxers' apartment in the athletes' village is on the 19th floor of a tower so they pushed the beds out of the way and worked out there on Wednesday.

“We came early just for this reason,” Rosario said. “We figured if you can do four, five rounds up here, you can probably go 10 rounds in the ring. They're definitely going to be ready.”

Reddick will take on a Dominican Republic fighter on Sunday and Laurent, a super heavyweight, will draw hands with a Puerto Rican on Monday.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Guadalajara Glory Days #4

I'm covering the Pan American Games from Oct. 13 through 31 in Guadalajara, Mexico for the Virgin Islands Daily News. These notebook items and photos were published in the print edition.

Another day at the office

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – On paper, it didn't seem like such a sweet gig. He had to wear a full suit, wait around a pool deck and hand out medals to triumphant swimmers late into the evening.

Because of his 40-year service to the Olympic movement, U.S. Virgin Islands Olympic Committee president Hans Lawaetz was tapped for such a duty this week and he didn't hesitate.

Every medals ceremony is special in its own way but when there are attractive, athletic females waiting at the podium for you, it ups the ante. Did I mention three more Mexican beauties accompanied Lawaetz into the pool area with the medals?

“I tell you, I was smiling the whole time,” Lawaetz said after Wednesday's festivities. “This was the second night we've been together so I made good friends with one the girls who brought out the medals.”

OK, Mrs. Lawaetz can take her ear muffs off now.

Even though the American swimmers continue to clean up at the medals stand, the Mexican swimmers found a small niche. After a roaring home crowd exploded for bronze medal winner Rita Medrano in the 200-meter butterfly finals, she became overcome with emotion.

“I was just trying to be very polite and then the last Mexican girl hugged me,” Lawaetz said. “It's a hard job but someone has to do it.”

Practices makes perfect

USVI long jumper Leon Hunt Jr. arrived to Guadalajara a little early and had his first official practice Wednesday afternoon at the brand-new Telmex Athletics Stadium.

While Mexican maintenance workers scrambled to paint walls and install seats at the stadium, Hunt sprinted down the new runway and leaped with all his might into a sandy jump pit numerous times.

Each of his practice jumps were digitally recorded. The former Florida A&M University standout watched and meticulously studied each leap on his iPad while he sat inside the USVI apartment at the athletes' village on Wednesday night.

“The track and jump areas are straight,” Hunt said. “The rest of the stadium is still coming together. It doesn't matter, I'm ready to go.”

Hunt and fellow USVI long jumper Collister Fahie are scheduled to compete on Monday.

All-American meal

Nine USVI track and field athletes and coaches are in the process of arriving in Guadalajara. Nine people at nine different times over three days.

“Kind of a scheduling nightmare,” Lawaetz said.

Norfolk State University star Wanetta Kirby was the last to arrive late Wednesday night. Lawaetz, myself and two of my favorite Mexican volunteers – Maria and Rosa – were together and before we picked her up, we had some time to kill so we stopped at a restaurant near the airport.

Remember, these Pan Am Games are being held in Mexico. So we decided to eat at one of the finest establishments known to the Western Hemisphere: Chili's.

We talked Maria into ordering a good old-fashioned cheeseburger – I considered the jalapeno poppers – and after a local soccer match ended, I convinced the bartender to change the channel on the TV to the first game of the World Series.

The waitress made fun of me in Spanish as Rosa and Maria laughed. They didn't have any Budweiser so my American Dream was not complete. But watching a bearded Lance Berkman round the bases inside a Chili's in Mexico wasn't too shabby.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Guadalajara Glory Days #3

I'm covering the Pan American Games from Oct. 13 through 31 in Guadalajara, Mexico for the Virgin Islands Daily News. These notebook items and photos were published in the print edition.

Patching things up

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – A long-time Olympic tradition is the swapping of national pins between athletes and coaches. It reminds me of high school when all the popular kids had the most signatures in their yearbook.

U.S. Virgin Islands taekwondo coach Eugene Phipps doesn't play the 'pins' game. But he still likes to leave his mark when he travels to different locations for international competitions. Phipps is a lieutenant volunteer with the St. Croix Rescue Squad and never leaves home without a commemorative patch.

“I've been there for a few years and every time I visit another country, I try to visit the local fire station and see what they have,” Phipps said Tuesday. “It's good to see how they do things differently. It's a rescue firefighting tradition to trade patches.”

He met a rescue responder at the Pan American Games opening ceremony on Friday but he didn't have time to unpack his bags and his priorities were not in order. Marching around a stadium with over 60,000 cheering fans will do that to you sometimes.

“I didn't know I would actually see firefighters there,” said Phipps, who is a full-time volunteer, is on-call 24 hours a day and helps teach and form local task force units on St. Croix.

Between training USVI taekwondo fighter Jahmar Jean-Marie and watching other events, Phipps was not able to visit the Guadalajara Fire Station during his stay. But he gave a St. Croix patch to one of the Mexican volunteers helping the USVI contingent and will hope for a envelope postmarked from Guadalajara in the very near future.

Team USA off to a fast start

During the opening ceremonies last Friday, it was obvious the United States and Brazil had many athletes in Guadalajara. But it's the Mexicans who understandably have the largest contingent with 617 athletes competing in 344 competitions.

Quantity hasn't added up to quality though.

At the beginning of competition on Wednesday, Team USA had racked up 46 medals, including 18 gold medals. Brazil and the host country were tied at 22 each and were a distant second to the Americans.

The U.S. has made a big splash in the swimming pool as it has already collected eight gold, eight silver and four bronze medals. The aquatics competition ends Friday.

“I think the U.S. sends it's 'C team' to the Pan Am Games because their best swimmers are already focused on the Olympics,” USVI swimmer Branden Whitehurst said.

Doping with Mexican beef

Before my trip to Guadalajara, I was told by many to stay away from the street vendors who sold beef on the corners. I guess the main fear was that I may get ill from the food. But if I were an athlete – many people here have already asked me which sport I'm competing in – another huge risk is attached to eating those delicious beef kabobs and tacos.

Canadian and U.S. athletes have both been warned to stay away from the beef because of a certain drug Mexican farmers inject into their cattle. The drug causes no real physical harm but it shows up on the radar of the World Anti-Doping Agency and could mean disqualification. Even the fine-dining restaurants in Guadalajara can't guarantee the meat they serve does not have the steroid clenbuterol.

Clenbuterol is used to reduce fat and increase lean meat in cattle, a process that is outlawed in Mexico but continues to occur. Five Mexican soccer players tested positive for it a few months ago, and it is the same drug that pushed 2010 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador right into a doping scandal.

If everyone just eats at the cafeteria in the athletes village, they should be fine. They don't serve anti-doping Johnny Cakes there but I think our USVI athletes will survive.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Guadalajara Glory Days #2

I'm covering the Pan American Games from Oct. 13 through 31 in Guadalajara, Mexico for the Virgin Islands Daily News. These notebook items and photos were published in the print edition.

Surprise performance

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – The media are generally not a spry bunch.

So when Saloman Correa thought it would be a good idea to surprise his wife, Pan American Games main press center manager Claudio Navarro, for her 29th birthday while at work on Saturday, the nearby members of the media had home-field advantage.

Moments after I asked Claudio numerous mundane questions about photographer credentials, media transportation and wireless Internet hookups, her day got a little more interesting. After she took two steps into the main press area – which was bustling with journalists and photographers – an eight-member Mariachi band entered the room, followed by three dancing Pan Am mascots and Saloman, who carried a bouquet of roses.

The band started to play and then the fiesta was under way.

Photographers and television cameramen dropped what they were doing and flocked to the scene, as Claudio's co-workers cheered in the background. A conga line formed right next to the first table of journalists and the celebration lasted for the next 20 minutes.

“I always tell Saloman that he never serenades me,” said a surprised Claudio, who could not stop smiling and promptly returned to work after she caught her breath. “I guess this makes up for it.”

Media eating, drinking good

A big presumption about journalists is that they are overweight and not physically fit. At such events like the Pan American Games, people are away from their comfort zone and have to make due with what is available.

The media food court is a quick stroll from the main press center and it consists of Starbucks, Dominos Pizza, Burger King, a sandwich counter, an ice cream tent and a sushi take-out shop. Not exactly the most healthy choices.

Right behind the Burger King – yes, I did get my fix – is a liquor counter that reminded me of the duty-free stores at King Airport. Different types of tequila were everywhere. How do they expect us to get any work done?

Mexican barber shop

Guadalajara native Maria Fernanda is one of the personal guides for the U.S. Virgin Islands executive board and does many of the thankless tasks for the USVI contingent like arranging rides, making different accommodations and translating Spanish to English and vice versa.

A few days ago, she was in charge of shaving the head of USVI swimmer Branden Whitehurst.

“Yes, that was all me,” she said when I noticed Branden's aerodynamic hairdo Sunday morning.

Whitehurst also shaved his head for the FINA World Championships in Shanghai, China last July and decided to continue the trend when he arrived in Mexico.

I asked Maria if she still had the clippers and wanted to shave my head. She took one look at my curly mop and rolled her eyes.

“Sorry, I'd like to help but we don't get paid overtime for this,” she said.

Guadalajara Glory Days #1

I'm covering the Pan American Games from Oct. 13 through 31 in Guadalajara, Mexico for the Virgin Islands Daily News. These notebook items and photos were published in the print edition.

And so it begins

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – The only Pan American Games opening ceremony general admission tickets available Friday for the public cost 3,850 pesos each, which is approximately $290 U.S. dollars. Around 8 a.m. on Friday – 10 hours before the opening ceremonies were to start – two very long lines wrapped around the box office near the Guadalajara Expo Center.

When I was there around noon, one line stretched into street traffic. That did not gain the approval of the Mexican federal police officers, who wore all black uniforms, carried semi-automatic rifles and stood in the back of marked pick-up trucks. They have had a constant presence in and around Guadalajara ever since I stepped off the plane on Thursday night.

At least four different Mexican television stations walked around and interviewed people who stood in line for opening ceremony tickets. Upbeat Mexican sports fans could also purchase tickets for other sporting events, which did not expedite the process. All walks of life waited in line under the sun: from business men wearing ties to little children, who sought shade under their parents' umbrellas.

“Everyone wants to see the basketball games – those are the most popular tickets right now,” an English-speaking volunteer at the ticket window said.

The party venue

The opening ceremony was supposed to be held at Jalisco Stadium, which is the country's third largest stadium and was built in 1950. However, the powers that be decided to switch it to Omnilife Stadium, which opened last year and cost $3.5 billion to build.

It's located closer to the athletes' village and with that kind of a price tag attached, it promises to have a much better infrastructure.

Arrivals, check-ins

USVI boxers Clayton Laurent and Tiffany Reddick arrived Thursday, taekwondo fighter Jahmar Jean-Marie arrived the day before and swimmer Branden Whitehurst has been in Guadalajara since Wednesday. USVI shooters Ned and Karen Gerard came to Guadalajara earlier in the week to get a few practice sessions in and finalize their itinerary.

“To tell you the truth, I'm not even sure where we are competing,” Ned Gerard said on my voicemail earlier in the week. “But that's why we come early. We want to take care of all the little things first.”

The Gerards open competition in the men's prone rifle and women's air and sport pistol today.

USVI sailors Mimi Roller and Cy Thompson arrived in Mexico on Thursday but they compete in Puerto Vallarta, which is on the west coast of Mexico. VIOC president Hans Lawaetz said it is a 4-hour bus ride from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta and they left for the coast when they got here so they could not march in the opening ceremonies.

Not everyone had a smooth trip from the islands to Mexico.

“We had about four bags missing from the flights when we arrived,” Lawaetz said. “The problem was that their opening ceremony outfits were in those bags. It took a little time but we finally got it resolved.”

When Tiffany Reddick arrived in Guadalajara, it was the first time she met Lawaetz and others from the VIOC executive board. Reddick trains full-time on St. Thomas – most of the board resides on St. Croix – as the Pittsburgh native is the very first female boxer to ever represent the territory at an international event of this caliber.

“Just a splendid young lady,” Lawaetz said. “We're expecting some big things from her.”

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Meeting in the middle

How did this all start? Remember those books back when we were kids and you could choose the ending or at least the next sequence in the book? I think they talked about it in the movie 'Big' with a young Tommy Hanks.

I was sitting in the Rockfish in downtown Annapolis enjoying a happy hour drink when the V.I. Daily News called me on my cell. I went outside the pub because that's what a respectbale young man does when potential employers call.

There was snow on the ground – I think it was right after a blizzard. It was very cold and I left my coat on the back of the bar chair.

It was OK because my future employer wasted little time and got down to brass tacks, which impressed me. He offered me a job to be the lone sports writer for this little publication in paradise. I had initially applied to the newspaper from my iPhone while standing atop a mountain in Maine a few months earlier.

Now at that exact moment, I was standing in the snow without a paying job or a coat and this question was asked of me.

“Would you like to work for the V.I. Daily News?”

I told boss that I would call him in the morning, thanked him profusely and politely hung up. Since I didn't even know where the U.S. Virgin Islands were located, I immediately called a good friend who is the only person I knew who had ever visited Rock City.

I could tell he was happy with the news but it also struck a nerve in him. At that moment, Nick Wassum was completely motivated. He had to come here. I think for Nick, it was already determined before I hung up with him (and even before I accepted the gig).

“Oh yeah, Nick has been wanting to live there for years,” his older brother, Jon, told me. “I think he's been mentally preparing for the move since his first visit.”

I won't get into the specifics that surround Nick's debut on these islands but it would put that Max Tucker guy to shame.

Less than a month later, my beautiful girlfriend and I were living in a one-bedroom bunker in the brush near Charlotte Amalie and I was annoying high school volleyball coaches with nightly phone calls about how their team performed in the game that night.

I think I started this blog the day before I flew here for good. To some unknown island in the Caribbean. That I have never visited in my life.

At about the same time, Nick started a mental countdown in his head for when he (and his lovely girlfriend) would join me in paradise and everything would be bliss. The only treacherous obstacle: he had a killer job, wore a suit to work everyday and was getting paid a lot of money. His girl also had a solid gig and went to work with great mutual friends.

Why pick up and leave?

Now I'm not saying that reading my shock-and-awe rants on this bloggy blog poured fuel on the fire. I'd like to think it did. I'm selfish like that.

It will be two years for me this February. Nick and Kerrie moved here three months ago. And I might add, they are killing it here. This kid left a great job, followed his dream and is chasing it before it slowly hides behind the horizon. Kerrie, who had never lived anywhere outside the D.C-metro in her life, is doing the absolute same.

They are riding the big wave that life sometimes throws you. I freaking love them for that.

Just the other night, Nick said, “We haven't been in you blog because we haven't done anything yet.”

I couldn't disagree more, my friend. On this island -- you can ask other misfit veterans -- people come and go. Drinking buddies, fellow sports fans and genuine good people spark your whole social existence here and then before you know it, they hit it big in Dallas, feed the Alaska fix, sail the Mediterranean Sea, get engaged to a French girl and move to London, take it easy in Illinois for a few or decide to travel the country and not have a worry in the world.

You know who you are.

Having Nick and Kerrie here is a new blend of life for me. Great people I grew up with in Herndon, Va. moved here to share this dream with me. It's a priceless gift and if I don't show appreciation more often, then I must apologize.

Wow. Strange memories inside this sweaty hotel room on St. Croix. For some reason, I wanted to pick the right night to write about these good people and tonight, I hit the parlay. (Calm down Chico, I got a great one in the works for you, my friend).

And on that note, I believe it is time to rest my weary head. I'm truly blessed to have such chronic friends on this island, Rocky City, New Jersey, Virgina, So Cali, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Cleeeeeeveland, Oh-hi-Ohh (OK, time to take Sublime off Pandora).

Salud! See you guys on the flip side. And good night.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Best bumper sticker ever

I was at the last comedy show put on by the St. Thomas Sport and Social Club and right after I spit out some of my beer from laughing -- yes, it really happened -- a friend tapped me on the shoulder to say hello.

It was Patrick Dow and I hadn't seen him since a blurry boat trip to Hans Lollik a few months back. We've chatted a few times on facebook (I heard that's what all the kids are doing these days) and we shared a vested interest in a certain bumper sticker that had been circulating through the Misfits on St. Thomas.

We promised to alert the other if one of us discovered it. My friend Bobbi has the same sticker on her refrigerator. To this day, it's one of the best ways to describe this backwards island.

Apparently, there is a guy who hangs out at Island Time Pub in Red Hook and sells them for $4 a pop. I saw them on sale for the first time at the annual Chilli Cookoff, but a quickly-approaching tropical storm prevented me from reaching into my wallet and brandishing actual currency.

Patrick: "Yea, I bought like 10 of them if you want one."

Me: "Let me get this straight, you dropped $40 on stickers? What are you in the fourth grade? Are you going to put them on your Trapper Keeper?"

Patrick: "Leave the jokes to the professionals, ass. And try not to spit up your beer next time you hear a good one."