This column ran in the fall issue of Heart Beat of the Texas Hill Country.
This year’s Olympics in Rio had special meaning for me. How exciting to cheer for and see someone on the medal podium I knew! The last time I saw Katie Meili was the day after Christmas, 2014. We rang the doorbell and were greeted by Karen my friend from Delta, and Rio the chocolate lab rescue dog. Responding to Karen’s sweeping arm motion that the door was not for him, Rio retreated to a room with the lit tree and evidence of a family Christmas still under it. Karen’s daughter, Katie appeared — a slender, beautiful young woman with big brown eyes. She certainly wasn’t the little girl that I remembered from my airlines days with her mom.
It was her older sister’s fault that Katie got involved in swimming. Maureen broke her ankle on the trampoline she had for gymnastics. First came a cast and then the orthopedic specialist suggested joining a swimming team for her rehabilitation. Karen was relieved; swimming was a much safer sport. Typical of younger siblings, Katie tagged along – she wanted to do anything Maureen did! Katie proved to be a natural once she got the hang of swimming. And with her ability, came classes and lots of hours of practice. Karen chimed in, “Remember the place that wanted you there for 5:30am swim classes?!?!?” She quickly followed with, “Oh sorry, this is your interview…” Katie smiled at the woman she knew had made lots of monetary and career sacrifices to help her “Dream big… Execute well. “
The Columbia graduate who sat across the table from me was now a professional swimmer. Her goal was to be in Rio in 2016, but that was a year and half away and she knew from experience, things can happen to delay a goal. Fate had already stepped in right before the 2012 Olympic Trials. During warmups while pushing off the wall, her hand got caught on another swimmer. “I think I hurt my hand.” Sure enough, x-rays showed the bone had snapped. Katie displayed her right hand and described a piece inside. I held up my left arm with my Titanium rod showing through. I knew without asking — there had been no London Olympics for Katie.
Katie’s face lit up when I asked about her college years. “Columbia – I wanted East Coast. It was a small school in a big city! “ Ivy League, just like her dad who went to Dartmouth. She majored in Psychology and of course made her mark with swimming. After graduating in 2013, she was invited to North Carolina to train at SwimMAC with David Marsh. Once getting settled in, she worked part-time for Direct ChassisLink, Inc. who currently sponsors her.
The pool where she practices is also where NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson swims. “Really?!?” This racing enthusiast wanted more details. “He swims with us on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I am in awe of him,” she responded. NASCAR sharing the same turf as some of the most elite swimmers in the world! “You like any other sports?” I asked. “I like the Cowboys and Mavs…. and I’m a HUGE Red Sox fan.” Bingo! Sox are my team too. We shared high fives.
Fast forward to 2016. Katie has been travelling the world competing as a pro– winning titles and setting a record or two. I had lunch with Karen in July. Olympics Trials for Rio were coming up. “I think she has a shot to make it,” Karen whispered. Days later the text, “She made it!!” And boy did she ever!! I loved the media hype at Rio about the swimmer named Meili. “Where did she come from?” they were writing and saying. They found out soon with the 100m Breaststroke. In prelims, Katie tagged the wall right after Lilly King, also on the USA team. In the finals, Katie was edged out nineteenth hundreds of a second by silver medalist, Yulia Efimova. The Russian had previously failed two drug tests – don’t get me started!!
Yes … the family dog, a chocolate lab named Rio and Katie Meili with an Olympic Bronze medal draped around her neck in Rio. It’s only fitting.
As I write this column, I am watching the running of the 142nd Kentucky Derby. A flood of memories begins with connections to the sport of horse racing that I have made throughout my life. When I was a child, my dad used to take us to New Hampshire to watch harness racing at Hinsdale Raceway. The horses raced pulling a driver in a two-wheeled cart equipped with bicycle wheels. I “helped” my dad pick a possible winner by choosing my favorite colors. I would love to visit my Aunt Harriet, my dad’s sister in Brunswick, New York, as she always shared stories of winning at Saratoga, an elite race track in upstate New York. At the time, they didn’t allow children so I had to imagine the horse races by way of my Aunt Harriet’s stories. Years later my dad used to joke that we never heard of all the money she lost between her big wins. In the early sixties, construction began on a thoroughbred horse racing track in the next town over from where we lived. I never got to experience that since they didn’t open until after we moved from New England.
Fast forward to the 70s when I was a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines. Very early in my career, I worked flights into Louisville, Kentucky, home of the Kentucky Derby. Our planes were DC-9s with an overhead shelf where passengers could put coats and hats, but not luggage. The week of the Derby, heavily-perfumed women boarded with their lightweight round hat boxes containing their fancy bonnets to wear to the race. Meanwhile the men had their newspapers out studying and highlighting statistics of the horses running. Because the race drew so many people, hotels were at a premium so we didn’t get to layover and be part of the action.
In May of 1987, I was working a night flight out of DFW “puddle-jumping” through Shreveport, Memphis, Louisville and Detroit. I only had one passenger in first class so I knelt in the seat in front of him and began to chat. He was going as far as Louisville for the Kentucky Derby. He seemed very knowledgeable of horse-racing and even told me I should bet on a bay colt called Alysheba. The day before the race I told my husband about the conversation and that was the end it — no bet was made. The next day we sat before the TV and watched the race. Mid-race, Alysheba was cut off by another horse and just about fell with his jockey. Somehow he regrouped and kept racing. As my passenger in first class predicted, Alysheba won. While they were putting the blanket of roses over his back, the owners and trainer surrounded the beautiful colt. I excitedly turned to my husband and said, “There’s Mr. Van Berg! I guess we should of bet on him! “ My husband looked in disbelief at the person I am pointing at, and then said “You didn’t tell me the person on your flight was his trainer!!” Alysheba went on to win the Preakness Stakes, but failed at his run at the Triple Crown. Thinking back on it, I’ll bet my Aunt Harriet would have had a wager on him.
Part of my exclusive with NASCAR’s Landon Cassill during his recent visit in Texas.
This aired on 1610am 106.3fm KWQQRadio.com this week. Hope you’ll tune in for ‘Lotta Sports and Sports Snapshot — Daily on KWQQ Radio!
Just finishing my 1st month at KWQQ Radio. Originally, I thought I would be doing three sports segments a week. By the 2nd week, I was doing 1 minute sports and 1 minute state news during the top of the hour news segment starting at 5am – 9am. I also have my 5 minute sports for the local schools, colleges and universities in Iowa running Mondays and Tuesdays 1am, noon and 6pm, 5 minute professional sports and Cubs, White Sox, Royals and Cards coverage on Thursdays and Fridays 1am, noon and 6pm and 5 minute “Sports Snapshot” perspective running Wednesdays 1am, noon and 6pm and weekends. Here’s a recent Sports Snapshot:
Hope you’ll tune in — in addition to broadcasting on 1610AM and 106.3FM Farmington, IA, we’re on the Internet — Click here to Listen
I love baseball. It actually started back in the 60s in New England. I was raised in a neighborhood consisting primarily of boys my age so I quickly learned what baseball cards were used for. I exceled in a game where you flipped a card against another person and the best combination flip would get to keep both cards. I won some great cards and I kept them in one of my Dad’s cigar boxes … Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Brooks Robinson, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Harmon Killebrew. In the late 60s, we moved to Houston as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Astrodome, finished completion. I became an Astros’ fan and revered legends such as Rusty Staub, Jim Wynn, Joe Morgan, Bob Aspromonte and Larry Dierker.
Fast-forward to the fall of 1986 when I moved to the DFW area and started working the Texas Rangers’ baseball charters for Delta Air Lines. The following spring found me talking hubby Rick into replacing our ski vacation with spring training in Port Charlotte, Florida. Spring training provided a more relaxed atmosphere where you got to meet the players. In late 1988, to the thrill of Ranger fans and to the dismay of Astros fans — especially my Mom — Nolan Ryan signed on with Texas. That man’s arrival created almost as much excitement as winning the lottery. The Rangers’ charters became “prime real estate” on the bid sheet and flight attendants senior to me who didn’t even care about baseball were infiltrating my turf! Nolan was self-conscious with all the attention coming from the media and fans.
The following year, Mom, who was in her late seventies, asked me to take her to spring training. We flew into Sarasota-Bradenton. I got goofed up leaving the airport and after some time found us heading south toward Naples instead of north to Port Charlotte! By the time I got turned around, we had reached the city limits just before nine p.m. The restaurant on the wharf wouldn’t seat us, as they were trying to close. Needless to say, we were now pretty hungry even by central time standards! A good flight attendant (as well as former Brownie/Girl Scout) always has a Plan B to put in place. I knew of a small restaurant that the players frequented and stayed open late. As we perused the menu, Mom excitedly told the waiter how I worked the Rangers’ charters for Delta. He smiled and told us that one of the players was there — Nolan Ryan. I quickly scribbled a note and gave it to the waiter to give Nolan. A few minutes later the waiter returned and said Nolan wanted to meet Mom. He then escorted us back to a banquet room. Mom was finally going to get to meet Nolan Ryan! She was beside herself! There stood Nolan and another gentleman. I introduced Nolan to my mom. He, in turn, introduced us to Craig Reynolds, a former shortstop for the Astros. Mom immediately dropped Nolan’s hand and threw her hands up to her face. “Oh, my! Craig Reynolds! I can’t believe it!”
Now, according to Nolan, Craig never let him forget that moment — a fan getting more excited over Craig than Nolan! Later that year Mom had knee replacement surgery. When she died and I went through her things, I found in her mementos a Get Well card Nolan signed for her. Yep… Mom dumping Nolan for Craig was just a momentary lapse in judgment.
Two more weeks until start of my new job doing sports for an AM/FM station in Iowa. While the internet radio gig was fun for the past year, the early 520AM ups and staying up late to catch the last sports was a challenge; this new format is much better suited for my hours. I will tape a 5 minute sports Sunday night reviewing the weekend and it will run the beginning of the week, tape another 5 minute sports on Thursday nights for the weekend run. I will also have a segment called Sports Snapshot which can be anywhere from 5 mins to 30 mins which will run other days, I already have some interviews set up with people in sports. The station is on the airwaves to not only the area in Southeast Iowa, but is accessible on the Internet also. I will be covering the local high school and community college action — also, Big 10 Iowa and Big 12 Iowa State, MLB Cubbies, White Sox, Cards and Royals as well as major stories in sports. Although I was ready for this week, wanted time to get tax stuff done and do advance prep for the new show— scheduled launch to coincide with the beginning of the baseball season. I will also continue writing my sports column for the quarterly, Heart Beat of the Texas Hill Country. Next issue on the stands March 1st.
The holiday season is upon us and some of my most fun sports memories are around this time frame. My mom worked for a dentist in Houston who was a Texas Longhorns alum. One Thanksgiving Dr. Senglemann gave mom his tickets to the UT – Texas A & M match in Austin. Well, I wasn’t into the Longhorns since they were so condescending to my University of Houston Cougars who were an independent at the time. So I decided I would root for the Aggies. Imagine my mom’s embarrassment when I was on my feet in the middle of the University of Texas alum section screaming, “Gig “em!” That was the last time my mom invited me to a football game! By the way, A & M won the game.
Every Christmas, I hang a Houston Oilers ornament and as it spins on its blue string, I think back to the first year I got it. It was back in the late 70s when the Houston Oilers were under Coach Bum Phillips. He was fun to watch during games pacing the sidelines, easy to spot with his cowboy hat (except when the Oilers played inside), western style suitcoat and cowboy boots. He coached the Oilers to be a winning team; we referred to as “Love ‘Ya Blue.” The city lived and breathed Oilers football. Almost every store you entered would have the fight song streaming through the air. “Look out football, here we come …. Houston Oilers, number one.” My blue spruce tree was decorated with blue balls, blue lights, icicles and of course my Oilers ornament. My front door was covered in blue foil with a wreath – complete with blue-ribbon bow and a miniature football. Just inside my foyer stood a tall bird cage. It was home to a blue and white parakeet named “Bum.” I had Oilers fever bad. Can ‘ya tell?
One of my favorite memories is from New Year’s Eve, 1969. I was a desk clerk at the Holiday Inn on Gulf Freeway and Wayside Drive. That day I checked in the cheerleaders and several Auburn fans that were in Houston for the Bluebonnet Bowl at the Astrodome. They were playing my school, the U of H Cougars AKA Cougar High. One of the guys checking in asked, “Do you allow pets?” I assumed he meant a dog so I replied, “As long as we know and as long as you clean up after your pet.” As I retrieved a dog marker for the room card, another guy said, “Thanks for letting us have War Eagle in the room. Would you like a free ticket to the game?” It turned out that I had just checked in the Auburn mascot. Yes, I went to the game that night despite Houston being a huge underdog. My seat was pretty good — 50 yard line on the mezzanine level. It was a great night — a huge upset by my Cougars 36-7. Yes, I love the holidays with a ‘lotta sports memories.