Copyright 2014 Kendra Little
I hate sport. For a sports journalist, that's either ironic or just plain ridiculous. Actually, I wouldn't consider myself a sports journalist -- I'm more of a journalist writing about sport -- so when my editor decided to send me to cover the Olympic Games I thought she was joking.
When I realized she was serious I reluctantly agreed. She could've at least given me the track and field, but no, I got swimming.
London was hectic, energetic and incredibly sexy - all those athletes with muscles struggling to free themselves from skin-tight costumes. It was a single girl's dream -- any other single girl, that is, except me. Give me politics, war zones and world economic crises, and I'm happy. But apparently all those things had been put on hold for two weeks. Once the Closing Ceremony is over, I couldn't wait for the world to return to normal so I could cover something with a little more depth. Until then, I was to be a part of the hype and hope of the Olympics.
"At least you get to ogle at all those gorgeous bodies up close," my sister Janice said before I left, envy clouding her eyes.
"Yeah," I sneered, "great for my career."
"Stop worrying about your career for once and enjoy yourself."
I kissed her good bye and ran for the plane.
My first day at the pool was chaotic. I forgot my press pass so I had to return to the hotel and rummage through strewn luggage to find it. By the time I got a cab back to the pool, my pass dangling around my neck like a gold medal, I had to run if I wanted to catch any events. I would've made it too if I hadn't tripped over the uneven footpath, sending my bag flying in one direction and me and my pass in another, straight into a brick wall.
At least, that's what it felt like.
When I dizzily looked up from where I'd landed, the sun was in my eyes and I was sure it was a brick wall I'd careened into -- it was rock hard and didn't move an inch, unlike me who'd bounced off, spun around and landed ungainly on my behind, like a gymnast on a really bad day. But, on closer inspection, the brick wall was in fact a man. He looked down at me with concern etched in his soft blue eyes and I looked up at him with embarrassment in mine.
"Are you all right?" he asked, holding out his hand. I took it and he nearly pulled me over again in the other direction. Steadying, I stared up at the man towering over me. He was at least six and a half feet tall. And he was a swimmer. Not just any swimmer, but the current world champion in every freestyle event in the Games. (Hey, I may hate sports, but like any good journalist, I'd done my homework.) But the photos didn't do justice to his smooth skin, his ocean-blue eyes and the sheer size of him.
"Fine, thanks," I stammered, turning a crimson shade.
"I'm sorry, I didn't see you there--"
"I'm fine," I said too curtly.
And then he was gone. Someone with an even bigger pass around their neck than mine, hustled him away and just like that, he disappeared into the crowd of journalists, which is where I should've been. So I joined them.
"Do you think you'll break the world record tonight, Tom?" asked an attractive blonde tabloid hack flashing her cheesiest smile.
"Of course I hope I do, but I'm not thinking about that right now. I just want to win the gold medal for my country."
"You seem so cool and calm, Tom, how do you feel going into tonight's final?"
"Okay, I guess. I think it was a good swim today, and I know I can do better tonight. I didn't want to tire myself too early."
The questions droned on, and for an athlete who dropped out of school at sixteen to concentrate on swimming, he spoke well. I was surprised, and I diligently noted his answers and his polite manners in my notebook. I knew my readers would want to know what he was like, not just what he said.
"And are your family here?" asked the blonde again, puffing out her chest so that she nearly knocked over the short man in front of her.
"Yes, they're very supportive."
"Girlfriend?" she probed. A hush descended over the group of news-hounds. It was the question many of them had wanted to ask, but being professional sports journalists, they felt it irresponsible journalism. They seemed glad that someone else had posed it, and waited impatiently for the answer that could make their editors very happy.
Tom Reynolds thought about his response for an interminable moment before he finally said, "I'm single."
My homework had told me that he was practically engaged to a leggy brunette, a retired swimmer, now a "media personality". So, it seemed that was over. My editor will be happy. Tom himself didn't look all that disappointed.
That night, the crowd roared when Tom Reynolds took his clothes off. The body suit underneath left nothing to the imagination and I found myself recalling Janice's earlier words when she said she'd wanted Tom's autograph.
"I can't believe you're going to be in the same room as the sexiest man in sport."
"Not only that," I'd teased, "but I'll be only inches away from him at the interview." I thought Janice was going to faint, but she held up admirably. I'd get her that autograph tonight hopefully.
Tom won his swim easily. The race was like a slow motion replay. The water glided off his skin as if he was covered in magical water proof paint. He wasn't even panting. I doubted I could even swim half that distance without busting a lung.
When Tom stood on the dais ten minutes later and surveyed the crowd, I felt sure his eyes had focussed on me for a moment. I was in the press gallery, sure, but there was a fleeting smile of recognition on his lips before his eyes moved on to his cheering family. He waved to them before he bent down to receive the gold medal around his neck. It was an easy motion, as if it were something he did every day, not a once in a lifetime achievement.
I envied his calmness because my body was beginning to turn to liquid as I knew my interview with him was fast approaching. Well, it may not be the two of us exclusively, and there may be about two hundred other reporters there, but at least I would be able to see him close up again.
The press conference was chaotic. Tom's coach fended off many questions (someone asked about his love life again), and he answered others with the ease of someone who's been in front of the media his entire life. Which he had - as a fifteen year old, he'd been the youngest swimming World Champion.
I tentatively put up my hand and, just before I thought the conference was about to end, I was selected.
"What are you going to do after the Olympics are over?"
"Sleep," he answered, and everyone laughed. I just turned red again, damn it. It was not what I meant, and he knew it. He smiled at me, cocked an eyebrow and shrugged. End of press conference.
The following day was more of the same. Tom raced one race and won a gold medal again. Determined to get an answer out of him, that night at the press conference I posed the same question, but differently.
"Do you think you'll retire after these games?"
Tom looked at me and shrugged massive shoulders. I should've taken that as a sign to stop, but the stubborn hard-nosed journalist in me couldn't let go.
"I mean, are you going to retire? Go back to school, get a degree, a normal job? What?"
There was a hush through the press room, and I instantly knew I'd said the wrong thing. I'd implied he was uneducated, that what he was doing was unimportant and not a real job.
Tom looked directly at me. "I don't want to think past this week, if that's all right with you."
I felt an inch tall. It wasn't his answer that had shot me down, it was his tone. Solid, unwavering and with a how-dare-you edge to it. I suddenly felt like the worst journalist in the world, and the groans and sniggers from the others in the room confirmed it. If only I'd known sports people were so sensitive; that you couldn't badger them the way you could a politician or a gun-toting militia general.
Outside, the cool air washed away some of the hotness in my face, but I still felt like the village idiot. Three deep breaths later and I thought I might get through this week if I kept my head down in press conferences and my mind on the job. But the massive hand that clamped onto my shoulder made me think otherwise. Were they actually going to throw me out?
I spun around expecting to see a beefy security guard standing over me. Instead, a colossal swimmer blocked out the sun. And he was smiling.
"I'm sorry about earlier," Tom said, letting go of my shoulder. "I didn't mean to sound rude, but I really need to concentrate on the here and now. Do you understand?"
Did I understand? I'm the queen of understanding, it's my job to understand everyone and everything. But for some reason, I couldn't return his smile. Maybe it was his large, open blue eyes which appeared so sincere, too innocent and too trusting, that I thought he was faking it. Nobody could be that nice, particularly a world champion athlete. Besides, whether he meant to or not, he'd made a fool of me in there, and I wasn't going to let him get away with it. So I said the first thing that popped into my brain:
"Look, in sporting terms you're an old man, and without an education, let's face it, you're going to find it difficult in the real world."
I think his face turned white, but I didn't hang around to watch. My cab was waiting so I stormed off. Sinking into the seat, I didn't look back. I don't know if he cursed me or gave me the finger, but somehow I knew he wouldn't do that. I'd seen him in interviews, usually straight after swimming his heart out, when he must hate talking to the press, and I knew he was a genuinely nice guy. That's what made my performance all the more horrible.
Okay, so chastising the man you're supposed to be reporting on is a bad career move for a journalist, but I didn't even think of that. All I knew was I'd said some pretty awful things to a guy who didn't deserve them. What kind of a bitch must he think I am?
I didn't want to go back the next day. I didn't want to show my face around Tom Reynolds again, but I knew I had to. My editor would be on my back for sure if I didn't turn in something good. The swimming meet was coming to an end and all I had was little puff pieces. I needed something dramatic to happen, and I needed to apologize to someone. It was going to be a big day.
As it turned out, I did get something to report on that day. When Tom Reynolds came out for his heat, he did something I've noticed he never does – he scanned the crowd. Somehow, amongst all those press people, he saw me. I knew he did, even though he didn't nod or wave or smile or do anything to acknowledge me, I just knew it. And something about him changed. Something about the way he stood, the slight stooping of his shoulders, the slackening of his jaw. Whatever it was, he had changed, and I felt a sickening churning in my stomach. He was going to lose a crucial race, all because of something I said.
Okay, so it might be a bit egotistical to think I could put an international swimmer off his race, but every part of me knew that he had taken what I said to heart. I wanted to puke.
When the gun went off I jumped a mile out of my seat. My heart was racing faster than the swimmers and I couldn't keep my eyes from the pool. I shouted myself hoarse but as each stroke cut through the water, my stomach churned more. The race was over in less than a minute, and Tom had come fourth. His time might be enough to get him into the final tonight. Maybe.
He seemed to slump into the press conference that evening. He fielded the obvious questions with the humility of an ordinary man, and even managed to crack a joke or two at his own expense.
"What happened out there?"
"I swam a really bad race. As simple as that, there's no excuses."
"Will you swim better in the final tonight?"
"I hope so, don't you?" He attempted a smile but every journalist there knew his heart wasn't in it.
"Were you ill?" asked another.
"No. I was just having a bad day. Ever had one of those?"
His question brought only awkward silence, so I took the opportunity to dive in.
"I have them all the time," I said, shrugging. "Except the world isn't watching me."
I laughed sharply. "Me? Lucky? I have to hassle famous people for quotes, then get abused by my editor when it's the wrong one; I don't have large corporations throwing million dollar endorsement checks at me for posing in their sports wear; I'll never know what it feels like to have a gold medal around my neck, and I'll never have an entire country cheering for me. Now, do you still think I'm lucky?"
The other journalists had started to snicker. Once again, I felt myself turn red as Tom Reynolds made no movement. I had the distinct impression he was going to storm out, but eventually, slowly, he just nodded.
The pool was erupting in deafening noise when Tom came out for his final race that night, the one hundred meter final. He didn't acknowledge the crowd, he didn't look my way, or any other way. He was focussed, and you could see in his stance that he was determined. Taking an outer lane, due to his slow qualifying time, I had an excellent view of his perfectly defined muscles, rippling beneath his sleek body-length suit with every tiny movement. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled and my heart thumped. Every part of me was already screaming for him to win.
The gun exploded and I caught my breath and didn't let it out until the end. It was the most exhilarating moment of my life, watching him glide through the water, blowing the competition away with his long, easy strokes and ferocious kick. From where I sat it seemed the most natural and effortless thing in the world.
When he won, Tom waved to the crowd and mouthed the words, "Thank You", but whether it was to them, to himself, or to a higher being, I couldn't tell. But I felt a surge of immense pride, and I cheered along with the rest of his supporters. We all knew it was likely to be his last swim.
I didn't go to the press conference that night. I didn't need to, I had my story. So when I received a phone call in my hotel room asking if I wanted a private interview with him, I was completely taken by surprise. What did Tom Reynolds want to give me an interview for? Me, of all people! Maybe it was to get back at me for my earlier gaff, maybe it was to rub my nose in his win and to tell me he was not going to retire just because an upstart journalist who doesn't know how to cover sport said he should.
Of course I said yes.
An hour later I was trying to get inside the Olympic Village. Eventually the burly security guard let me through and I met Tom in one of the lounge rooms. Other sports men and women sat around chatting, comparing the day's events and playing games, but Tom sat quietly waiting for me alone on a couch, his enormous legs thrust out in front of him. I nearly tripped over them because I couldn't keep my eyes from his face, gently smiling at my ridiculous behaviour.
"Okay, before we get started," I said before he could open his mouth, "don't give me a hard time about yesterday's press conference. I shouldn't have said what I did, but I…"
"Yes you should've." Tom smiled wryly. "I'm glad you did actually, or I wouldn't have won." He fished inside one of his pockets and pulled out a gold medal. "This should be yours really. You made me realise why I do this, and why I've made some of the choices that I've made in my life."
"Like quitting school when you were still a kid?"
He nodded and the corners of his mouth twitched. "And dumping my ex."
Before I could provide a suitably witty answer to that, he thrust the gold medal into my hands. I turned it over, feeling the smoothness of it. It was heavy. I smiled and handed it back to him.
"No. I've got several of them. I want you to keep it, but on one condition."
I swallowed the hard ball that was blocking my throat and braced myself. Here it comes, I thought, the ticking off, the putting down, the don't-do-that-again speech which I deserved. "Yes?" I managed to whisper.
"Will you accompany me to the swimming team's party tonight?"