Alaska athletes hold their own in Athens

Posted: Tuesday, August 24, 2004

ATHENS, Greece - When they say where they're from, they often get a quizzical look, or a laugh.

Alaska? In the Summer Olympics?

To those not from Alaska, this might seem strange. But to the Alaskans, it seems quite natural to be good at winter AND summer games.

"We love physical activity," said wrestler Tela O'Donnell, a Homer native.

And while in Athens, competing in everything from basketball to rowing, the Alaska contingent - which per capita is larger than many warm weather states - has produced its share of victories, tough defeats, controversies and, in the case of shooter Matt Emmons, one gold medal won and one gold medal lost.

Emmons didn't grow up in Alaska. His home state is New Jersey. But he ended up at the University of Alaska Fairbanks on a shooting scholarship. And although he has since transferred to a college in Colorado, so he can train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, he would like to move back to Alaska when he's done shooting.

When asked what he likes about Alaska, he says: "Everything. I love the people. They're so nice and friendly. People who you don't even known bend over backwards for you. You're free to be whatever type of person you want to be. ... The college hockey games. I've been to other college games, minor-league games, NHL games and still the best place I've ever watched a hockey game is UAF, bar none."

Emmons had a roller-coaster of an Olympics. He was the first American in 40 years to compete in three rifle events. He failed to make the finals in the first, caught a cold, then won a gold - shooting with a rifle borrowed from UAF teammate Amber Darland after his was vandalized several months ago.

Finally, on Sunday, when he appeared to have a second gold wrapped up, he shot the target of Austria's Christian Planer, scored a zero and instantly went from first to eighth.

Afterward, teammate Michael Anti, who moved from third to second, gave Emmons a big hug.

"It's devastating for him," Anti said. "It's a shame, because he is good enough (to win two golds). I've been shooting for 25 years, and I know that, by far, he is the best shooter I have seen."

Emmons wasn't the only Alaskan to leave Athens with mixed emotions.

Homer sent two Olympians to Athens.

Rower Stacey Borgman, competing in the women's lightweight double sculls, arrived her with hopes of medaling. Those died when Borgman and teammate Lisa Schlenker, narrowly missed advancing out of a semifinal that included the eventual gold, silver and bronze medalists. Borgman and Schlenker won the "B" finals to officially finish seventh.

Although clearly disappointed, Borgman said: "When you start the process, you never know if you're actually going to make it to the Olympics. So you have to count your blessings."

O'Donnell, competing in the inaugural Olympic women's wrestling tournament, won her first match in the freestyle 55-kilogram (121 pounds) division, erasing a 5-0 deficit and pinning Russia's Olga Smirnova, but then lost to eventual medalist Tonya Verbeek of Canada. On Monday, in a match for fifth place, O'Donnell fell 10-7 to Puerto Rico's Mabel Fonseca.

With their Games done, Emmons, O'Donnell and Borgman said they looked forward to seeing the Acropolis and other Athens sites.

Meanwhile, Juneau's Carlos Boozer and the U.S. men's basketball team continues on its quest to win another gold.

Boozer scored 11 points and grabbed nine rebounds Monday as the U.S. beat Angola 89-53. The U.S. plays Spain Thursday in the quarterfinals.

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