The road has been nothing short of treacherous.
For the 20 Minnesota athletes featured in the “Road to Athens” throughout the summer, only two – rower Mike Wherley and volleyball player Lindsey Berg – will finish their journey as U.S. Olympic team members.
But the Olympic dreams that came to dead ends are only part of the long, strange road to the games.
With the opening ceremonies set to begin this Friday, Aug. 13th, concerns still continue to flood in regarding Athens’ security and construction.
Even while the paint dries in many of the recently completed venues and security costs soar above $1.5 billion, Wherley and Berg said they’re simply excited to be part of it.
“The Olympics is definitely becoming a reality,” Berg wrote in an e-mail from Greece. “We began to see other athletes around the village and it just sent chills through my body … Security hasn’t really crossed my mind.”
Wherley, a member of the U.S. four-man boat, put it more simply in his own e-mail.
“I’m not concerned about the preparations in Athens at all,” he said. “I’m sure they will pull it off.”
Reasons for security
Although they share similar optimistic outlooks on security, Wherley and Berg come into Athens on opposite sides of the Olympic experience spectrum.
Berg is about as new as they come. This year is not only her first as an Olympian, but also her first as a regular member of the U.S. national team.
Despite her relative lack of experience, she has undergone a crash course in international travel and security in recent months.
The U.S. team has darted around Asia and Europe competing in numerous tournaments in preparation for the games.
Berg’s mother, Tina Berg, said that the security was never a problem in those tournaments despite similar warnings.
“The teams were told to try and blend in when they were out in public,” said Tina Berg, who also traveled to some of the competitions with her husband Dennis Berg. “We haven’t run into anything, and there is going to be more security for the Olympics. It’s athletics and I think people honor that.”
Tina Berg is right. There will be more security in Athens. And just in case people don’t honor the competition, the U.S. has gone out of its way to try to squelch any anti-American sentiment or terrorist ploys.
In addition to the dollars spent on the security system around the Olympic venues, the U.S. is also sending about 200 of its own security personnel to protect its athletes.
According to the Associated Press, Athens even began stocking batteries of Patriot missiles, after the FBI voiced concerns to Olympic officials.
Although the patrolling NATO ships and Greek fighter jets may seem alarming, Wherley and his family said it’s not something that should deter the spirit of the games.
Wherley should know. He is a veteran of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia and a world champion member of the U.S. rowing team since 1997.
In that time his wife Janet Distel has seen him compete in all kinds of places and conditions.
When she travels to see him in these games, Distel said there are plenty of other things on her mind besides those she can’t control.
“It’s an anxious time because I’ve been there before, and I know how stressful it can be for him to compete in the Olympics,” Distel said. “I’m not concerned about the Athens security because you can’t live in fear of things like that happening.”
Mike’s brother Sean Wherley knows first-hand that terrorism can strike anywhere and at any time, but he said he isn’t worried about traveling to see his brother for several reasons.
“I was in Washington, D.C., on the day of the attacks (of September 11th) and as harrowing as that experience was, it showed me you can be in a city that’s targeted and remain unharmed,” Sean Wherley said. “Rowing is not a high-profile sport. I don’t see the venue as being a potential target, and the rowers are staying outside of the Olympic Village.”
What it’s all about
Instead of spending their time worrying, these former Minnesota athletes and their families said they will be trying to soak up all of the Olympic thrills for both the first, and possibly the last, times.
Although he said he will wait to decide about retirement until after the Athens games, Mike Wherley said these may be his last competitive races as a rower.
“I am definitely taking a year off to think about it,” Mike Wherley said. “I am looking forward to having more control of my life, and I guess if it’s not all it was cracked up to be, I’ll come back to rowing.”
Distel and Sean Wherley said they are just looking forward to being at the races because they know how far Mike Wherley has come.
“It will be exhilarating to see those boats coming down to the finish,” Sean Wherley said. “There’s such emotion riding on the race, especially knowing this could be his last.”
For Lindsey Berg and her family, the Olympics won’t be capping a successful career. Instead, it will signal a beginning, which is reason enough for them to celebrate.
“We’ve been watching her play since she was 10 years old,” Tina Berg said. “She’s reached as high as you can go. She probably reached higher than even she expected. I think it’s any parent’s dream to not only see a child compete in the Olympics but also at the highest level.”
For the Bergs and Wherleys alike, the road to Athens has always been less about the trip and more about the destination anyway.
“We heard the transportation could be a problem,” Tina Berg said. “But we are staying within walking distance of the volleyball venue, so we don’t care as long as we can see her play.”