Saturday, March 26, 2011

Olympian Interview: Natalie Coughlin

When I was three years old, my parents placed two items in the upper terrace of our Oklahoma backyard.

First, they planted a plum tree, which lasted only a few years in the crusty red dirt of the plains (I think we did harvest plums one or two years). Then my folks purchased and placed beside that tree a blue plastic kiddie pool -- likely from TG&Y -- which was a fun escape from the summer heat for my sister and I.

There are home movies of the youngster Wolavers splashing and spinning around to pretend to be Wonder Woman or other heroes of popular shows (both donning our swim trunks, made by mom, from fabric that matched Team USA's swimsuits worn at the Montreal Olympics of 1976, which was on TV during that summer in the pool).

The plum tree, plastic pool and Bruce Jenner on television -- these are my earliest Olympic memories, from age three.

Through a recent conversation, I enjoyed an introduction to Olympian Natalie Coughlin -- the swimming champion with 11 Olympic medals (so far) -- who shared via phone that she also got started in a pool in her parents' backyard.

"I was 10 months old, and we had a pool -- they taught me to swim, because it was a safety issue" said Coughlin, the recent celebrity judge on "Iron Chef America" and self-proclaimed foodie who now lends her voice to the California Dried Plum Board. "[And] I ate dried plums all the time."

Small world.
For those who are hungry, or plum lovers, or foodies, check out the plum good recipes Coughlin created for the Plum Board. My girlfriend and I may try to cook the meatball recipe soon (though making the salad may be more my speed).

During our phone conversation, I inquired how Coughlin made the transition from backyard swimmer to Olympian, and her first Olympic memories.

"In 1988 I was cheering on Janet [Evans]," who Coughlin mentioned she met for the first time only 12 years ago. "And during 1992 I was cheering for Summer Sanders and had a Speedo and shirt with 'It's Summer Time.'"

On meeting Sanders years later, Coughlin described the introductions as "a surreal thing."

It surprised me to learn that Coughlin got a start in broadcasting at the invitation of MSNBC for their 2006 Winter Olympic coverage, a footnote found in one of Coughlin's bios online. Coughlin explained she did contribute on air commentary and the Olympian's point of view during coverage for Torino, but the interviews were live from New Jersey rather than the Northern Italian host city.

When asked whether the experience was intended as a stepping stone to a broadcasting career (similar to Evans' and Sanders' post-Olympic endeavors), Coughlin said she "would love to do something in TV if the opportunity came along."

Though the "Iron Chef America" gig and "Dancing With The Stars" competition may be additional building blocks for on-air adventures, Coughlin made it clear her sights and focus are now on London 2012 and the competitions leading to next year's Games, including the upcoming world championships in Shanghai.

I asked whether she felt pressure to "three-peat" in her signature Olympic events, and whether her training focused on one stroke versus another.

"I'm training equally for the backstroke and the free," said Coughlin. "I can't just focus on one stroke. I will also continue on the butterfly and the breaststroke. It's more fun that way."

On the potential to "three-peat" at the 2012 Games, or bring home more medals, Coughlin said the pressure is different now than in 2004 or 2008.

"There was more pressure in Athens; more pressure to prove myself," said Coughlin. "Now there is less pressure. Now it feels like everything [i.e. medals in London] is icing on the cake."

Coughlin said she had been to London only once for less than 48 hours, and she looks forward to spending more time there. Of the future and prospects for an Olympic "four-peat" in Rio de Janiero in 2016, Coughlin said the focus only on the near future.

"It's way too soon to tell for Rio," said Coughlin. "I'm focused on the next year and a half."

Coughlin resides in the Bay Area of Northern California, so we also talked about San Francisco's Olympic connections including the Beijing-bound 2008 Olympic Torch Relay. Readers of this blog may recall the Mayor and other officials changed the relay path to minimize risk of anti-China protesters who lined the original route in equal numbers to Olympic fans.

"I was supposed to light the cauldron," said Coughlin, describing the ceremony that was to be the climax of the day's route through the city. "Instead, I carried the torch in the Presidio ... with Herschel Walker and [former San Francisco Mayor] Willie Brown.

"I still have the torch, and we're making a stand for it," said Coughlin.

Photo with plums via California Dried Plum Board
Photo at Beijing Olympics via and Getty Images

Monday, March 7, 2011

Milwaukee Art Museum Gets It Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright's good works are part of my memory since teenage years, but a 1994 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art marked the first time the architect's fame and accomplishments "stuck" with me.

Wright's city plan for Baghdad intrigued me for its inclusion of an Olympic stadium in Iraq, though I cannot confirm whether the New York exhibit showcased that Wright design, or if the Olympic/Wright connection came to my attention later.

In the 17 years since experiencing that MOMA exhibit, however, each visit to a Wright destination either earned comparison to the Manhattan display, which set a very high bar for architectural exhibitions, or brought back memory of lessons learned in that temporary assembly of Wright drawings, models and materials.

Now showing at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the new exhibition "Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century" gets it right, and sets another high bar for future exhibitions.

Students, fans or anyone curious about Frank Lloyd Wright will find the MAM show enjoyable, entertaining and informative, including a broad overview of Wright's career (covering most of the basics and big milestones in his work) and many surprises for those more familiar with Wright projects across the U.S. (the exhibit focuses on stateside projects).

Thanks are in order for the MAM media relations team, which arranged tickets for this blogger and a guest to visit the museum on March 5.

"Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century" begins with a large room filled with enormous architectural models created at Taliesin or Taliesin West, Wright's homes and working studios in Spring Green, Wis., and Scottsdale, Ariz., respectively.

From the towering model of "The Illinois" -- a soaring design for a mile-high skyscraper in Chicago -- to panoramic three-dimensional displays of "Broadacre City" and "The Living City," Wright's visionary take on the possibilities for architecture on a citywide level, attendees are treated to handmade models and hand-drawn ideas that mostly lived only in Wright's mind, and on rare sheets of drafting paper. Only one or two designs in the room -- the Price Tower built in Bartlesville, Okla., and a synagogue in Pennsylvania -- made it from dream or proposal stage to construction.

The most unusual and surprising (and unbuilt) designs of the exhibition include rare, full-color renderings for the Rogers Lacy Hotel in Dallas (sigh for what could have been ...) and the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective, a scenic overlook and destination (rooftop for a massive planetarium) intended for Sugarloaf Mountain, Md., which shares spiral design elements that later appeared in the Guggenheim Museum's spiral atrium.

Following what I describe as the futuristic/unbuilt "room of dreams," the exhibit looks at a range of residential projects and designs for families. Attendees are treated to views of Usonian, Cloverleaf Quadruple and other private residences, showcased around several elements from Taliesin. My girlfriend and I tuned into some rare home movies from Wright's home before studying the designs for Falling Water, which is on our target list for the next Wright experience to share.

The best surprise in the "residential" sections of the exhibition: Large renderings for the unbuilt Raul Bailleres House, a beachfront property that would have included tiered infinity pools and waterfalls in Acapulco, Mexico, displayed beside a spectacular "Seacliff" house intended for waterfront property near San Francisco.

We later learned that the Bailleres House, with many updates and redesigns for other clients, now stands in Maui, Hawaii, as the "Marilyn's House" built in the 1980s (my girlfriend and I visited that beautiful site, which overlooks Haleakala Mountain, last year).

A cottage designed for bestselling author Ayn Rand was a nice surprise in the exhibition. Another delight was learning the back story related to the drawing.

We also enjoyed several drawings of the Frederick C. Bogk House, a Milwaukee home built on Terrace Drive near Lake Michigan. We delighted in driving from MAM to this residence, only a mile from the museum, on the same afternoon, and if time permits, we suggest any MAM visitors also make time to experience the Wright-designed Greek Orthodox Church in suburban Wauwatosa, Wis. (spectacular).

The Greek temple is one of a handful of iconic places of worship highlighted in the exhibition. The standout, of course, is Unity Temple of Oak Park, Ill., and MAM installed a shadow box-style model of the temple sanctuary.

Numerous office and government buildings -- some built, some only proposed -- come to life in more large illustrations and models, such as a large model of the S.C. Johnson headquarters of Racine, Wis. We enjoyed learning about Wright designs for Marin County, Calif., and the Lenkurt Electric Co.

There were only a handful of "holes" in the exhibition. We noted that both the Guggenheim Museum and Ennis House noticeably missing. I suspect the Guggenheim has its own stronghold on Wright artifacts, which the Manhattan institution may or may not be willing to share. In the case of Ennis House, and nearby Hollyhock House (also in Los Angeles, and also missing from the MAM exhibition), maybe its imperilled status factored for MAM exclusion.

But then, there are hundreds of Wright structures from which to choose, and MAM covered the right bases with great detail. Anyone can read more in the Frank Lloyd Wright Field Guide or other publications available in the exhibition gift shop.

For those who visit MAM, be sure to enjoy the lakefront dining experience at Cafe Calatrava in the lower level -- the cauliflower soup is magnificent, and the architecture-inspired menu (honoring the Wright show as much as the famed Spanish architect who created MAM's expansion 10 years ago) is great for fueling or refueling for a day at the museum.

Illustrations via MAM:
-- Lenkurt Electric Company, San Carlos, CA, 1955, © 2010 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ
-- Rogers Lacy Hotel, Dallas, TX, 1946, © 2010 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Even Angry Mickey Rooney has an Olympic Connection

It is troubling to see acting icon Mickey Rooney in the news with regards to elder abuse.

According to CNN and other sources, this week he testified before congress regarding his own struggles as an aging American.

I hate to admit it, but it reminds me of Dana Carvey's skit on SNL Weekend Update which sort of spoofed Rooney (well, Carvey DID spoof Rooney as well, in another favorite SNL skit).

Even Rooney has an Olympic connection via this blog, in that about 13 months ago, on the date of my flight to Vancouver to begin work at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, I ran into Rooney and his younger escort (quite possibly the stepson who Rooney accuses of alleged elder abuse) in the T-Gate at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

In the afternoon ATL airport exchange with Rooney, the actor was in a wheelchair as the duo searched for their American Airlines connection (my flight that day was on United, which also departs from the T-Gates). Rooney appeared to me in good spirits, save the usual airport commute-inspired crankiness many endure when catching a connecting flight.

Rooney did not speak when I asked him two questions. His younger escort, a man in his 30s, was polite and explained it had been a long day for both of them. After wishing them well, I did notice they were in line to board as my own flight prepared to board, and that concluded the afternoon celebrity sighting.

Photo via by Associated Press photographer Alex Brandon

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