That most wonderful time of the year

From our house to yours, enjoy the wonders of the human spirit throughout this string of holiday seasons that carry us into 2011. May your holiday spirit enjoy broad sprinklings of merriment, family, safe travels, and optimism for what lies ahead.

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Olympic Smashmouth

Smash Mouth is a rock band. Two, depending on how you spell it. Smashmouth is, too. (The only reason I know about the double-capital-letter version is that Laura and my youngest daughter loved playing “Walkin’ On the Sun” during the late ‘90s. And just to show you how hip I am, daughter, I know that Smash Mouth, even though Californian, plays a style called third wave ska, which I only know about because I grew up on Harry Belafonte, calypso, and I love the skank of Toots and the Maytals, who ‘invented’ reggae, and who perform a mean duet with Willie Nelson on one of their CDs.)

(The only reason I knew about the cap-lower-case band is I looked it up through Google. They’re from that bastion of rock band success, Omaha, Nebraska.)

Smashmouth also is a term often used to describe a style of football. Smashmouth football always seemed tautological to me. Important to recognize, when committed to the mission of wiping out and abolishing redundancy.

Where I’m going with all this: Smashmouth Olympics. Sunday’s Swim reminded me of some yesteryears. I’ll get to those indulgences; scroll on.

With essentially two weeks remaining, somebody – nay, several somebodies – most certainly will have the world on its feet time and again by performing amazing feats. But the U.S. men’s swimmers of the world-record, gold-medal 400-meter freestyle relay set the standard mighty high Sunday on the third day of action.

Anybody who missed the thrill-a-stroke, truly phenomenal race and finishing lap of that event missed one of the most special moments in Olympics and swimming history. Here we sat, watching playback into the wee hours of Monday morning (thanks to Dish DVR), leaning forward on the edge of seats and yelling as though we were in Beijing and everybody there could hear us (as though anybody could hear anybody in the ear-pounding decibel din of a venue named the Water Cube).

“Get him…get him…get him…yahhhhhhh!”

Jason Lezak was the getter. And the guy he got, Frenchman Alain Bernard, was the world record holder in his role as the anchor. Two things made the event surreal. One, Lezak is about 100 years old in swimming age. (He’s 32 on the calendar.) Two, Bernard was that proverbial leading by a mile, which is what 1 second is when the world record holder has just 1 lap to go.

Somehow, Lezak used an out-of-body effort to will his body past Bernard to gold. It was one of those show-it-again moments, and again, and again, from the side, the top, underwater, and the camera on Saturn. And every time, Lezak won, and you’d say, “No way. Wow.” At least I did. Every time.

Oh, and the smashmouth part: the NBC announcers reminded us on every other stroke that word got out that Bernard said the French team would “smash” the Americans.

The miracle swim overshadowed a lot of ugly. Earlier in the day I read a story about how the opening ceremony organizers hoodwinked us. Those fanciful, fireworks footprints across the sky over Beijing? They were electronically superimposed over the picture the cameras sent into our homes, and into the big screen at the Bird’s Nest stadium.

And, there was the goofy response that Coach K gave to a reporter who asked why the U.S. basketball team dunked so often – smashmouth basketball? – especially after going up 30 on host China. Something along the lines of keeping Yao from blocking shots. Coach K, on loan from Duke to manage our NBA lot that media is calling “Redeem Team, all but sneered at the guy and mocked his broken English. Reminded me of why I never wish Duke well in hoops.

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Memory Lane: Bernard’s smash-‘em comment was not an Olympics first. Go back to Sydney 2000. The brash guy that year was our guy. Gary Hall Jr. His dad was an Olympian swimmer, too, and probably taught him better.

Junior jazzed up the host Australians, who regard swimming right up there with Australian rules rugby football, like us and the NFL. We had never been beaten in this race in the Olympics. Hall had anchored gold ahead of the Aussies in Atlanta ’96.

To remind them, he was quoted before the Sydney race that the Americans would “smash them like guitars.” He helped turn ’00 into uh-oh in the Olympic swimming history books. A living legend that Australia refers to as “The Thorpedo,” Ian Thorpe, beat Hall to the wall. It was, for USA Swimming, akin to the Soviet Union’s basketball win over us in the 1976 Montreal Olympics – a stunning first loss ever in the event.

And at the end, Australian swimmer Michael Klim started playing air guitar….

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Right out of the water, and maybe even before Lezak got out of the water, some voices decided that he had just completed the greatest relay race in Olympic swimming history – maybe even of any competition.

Not in my mind. Nothing on TV ever trumps what you see in person. Drift back with me, please. Los Angeles, 1984. Recall another iconic nickname, another legendary swimmer, “The Albatross” – Michael (Me-ky-el) Gross from West Germany.

He did what Lezak did Sunday night – swam the fastest anchor leg ever for his event, the 4 x 200 freestyle relay. But, Bruce Hayes also did what Lezak did – out-swam a world record holder on the last lap, providing a gilded memory.

I’ve never been in an arena with that combination of loud and frenzied, indoors or out. (That one was outdoors.) Not Tiger Stadium at LSU on a Saturday night. Not Allen Fieldhouse at Kansas for hoops. Not for the Rolling Stones in the New Orleans Superdome, which was hurt-your-drums-loud (after the lead-off act had already numbed the senses, some guys going by the name Doobie Brothers). The Doobs and the Stones couldn’t out-loud the crowd watching the “Grossbusters” – still (argue if you must) the relay of all relays in Olympic swimming.

Beijing ’08 sits but a fraction of a second behind.

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Another one worth recalling took place in Montreal. U.S. women’s swimming pulled off the equivalent of the Soviets toppling us in men’s basketball: they beat the East Germans. We now know what we suspected then, that the East Germans were nearly men. They owned the sport, every world record. Our women beat their doped-up clones.

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Finally, I read a story from a magazine about a swimming relay I’d have paid to see a century ago. London 1908. A Brit named Henry Taylor, double-gold in individual events, anchored his country’s 800-meter relay. He was 8 seconds behind – that’s like an hour in water – and in third place when he dived into the pool.

He swam past an American into second. Then, Mr. Taylor swam past the Hungarian who was ahead. He didn’t just win the gold. He won by 3 ½ seconds. Recalling it almost made me type an exclamation point. (I hate exclamation points.)

Good one on which to hit the ‘off’ button, and drift away….