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Area families, fans pass the Olympic torch

Passion and commitment still burn hot for families, fans with connections to the Games.

08/01/2012 9:23 PM

08/08/2012 10:50 AM

Millions of people around the world are watching the 2012 London Olympics on television -- some of them more avidly than others. People who have a personal relationship with an Olympic athlete -- or who might have been athletes themselves -- are more possessed.

If the Olympics are in the bloodline, the passion is even more intense.

We recently asked readers to send us stories of their Olympic family connections, and responses came in droves.

The Donahoo family in North Richland Hills plans to be up at 4 a.m. four times over the course of a week for the dressage equestrian events. The horse-and-rider skills will not be aired on prime time, or even during the day, so to see Lauren Donahoo, a laptop has to be connected to the TV set for live streaming on a larger scale.

Even then, seeing 23-year-old Lauren is only a maybe. Her parents, sister and grandmother might get a glimpse of her as Calecto V leaves the show ring under U.S. rider Tina Konyot.

Lauren is not a rider on the American equestrian team; she's a groom. She will be awaiting Calecto's exit so she can tend to his every need. Still, she is in her first Olympics, and her family is watching as if she were the gold-medal favorite.

Lauren promised her mother, Pam Donahoo, that she wouldn't always be toting the horse's backpack, running the equine spa, mucking out stalls, braiding manes and massaging Calecto V's achy back. This is only the beginning of her Olympic career. Someday, she swears, she will be the rider.

NBC wasn't even around to broadcast the 1912 Olympics; the company was formed in 1926. Had it been in Stockholm, it surely would have had its cameras trained on Bill Thorpe's father, the famous gold medalist in the decathlon and pentathlon, Jim Thorpe.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Jim's Olympic showing in Sweden. The American Indian athlete was awarded his gold medals by King Gustav V of Sweden, who said, "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world." Jim's modest response, "Thanks, King," would surely have guaranteed him a seat next to Bob Costas that night. But Costas, who seems like an Olympic institution, wasn't there, either.

Bill Thorpe, 84, lives in Arlington, and he'll be watching the athletes in the decathlon and pentathlon.

Track-and-field events are his favorite, he says. Swimming is on his mind, though, as those events recently dominated the broadcast.

Even though he's the son of the man deemed the greatest athlete of the 20th century by ABC's Wide World of Sports, Bill still marvels at the ability athletes have to find another gear in the last seconds of their races. "I watch and I appreciate what they go through. I see these guys get up and for some reason, they gain strength at the end. It's amazing."

That's what we all watch for -- the superhuman effort; if we are lucky, we see a familiar face.

And for a rare few, the Olympics are an opportunity to relive old glories.

From sprinter to stuntman

Olympian: Finis Dean Smith; ran in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland

Where he is watching the 2012 Olympics: Home, on a ranch west of Mineral Wells

The Smith family -- Finis Dean Sr., Finis Dean Jr. and Debby, wife and mom -- won't be doing a marathon watch of the Olympics, much as they might like to do so.

For Finis Jr., 13, football practice at Graham Middle School has begun, and he also was competing in a team penning event during the first week of the Olympics. There isn't much time for riding the couch.

Like his father, he rides horses and runs. Unlike his father, he also plays a musical instrument. This should give him a variety of usable skills. His dad parlayed his abilities into a lucrative stunt career after winning a gold medal in the 400-meter relay and finishing fourth in the 100-meter race in Helsinki.

"I could ride, I could run, and I could jump," says Dean Sr., 80, and he was in the right place at the right time.

He took his skills to Hollywood, where he worked with all the greats, including James Garner and Dale Robertson, and doubled for many of them, too, including Roy Rogers. (He never stunted for John Wayne, he said, as he was shorter and lighter than the Big Gun.)

His living room is filled with large poster boards covered in publicity shots for the films and TV shows in which he appeared. There is so much memorabilia, it looks like an exhibition hall on set-up day.

Finis Jr. is surrounded by a constant reminder of what his father was able to do beyond the city limits of Breckenridge, with a solid schooling in riding, running and jumping. Someday he might get away, too.

Proud aunt and uncle

Olympian: Laura Wilkinson, gold medalist in Sydney's 2000 platform diving event, and color commentator for NBC in London

Olympic connection: Her aunt and uncle, Sharon and Tom Wilkinson

Where they are watching the 2012 Olympics: A rehab center in Hurst

The Wilkinsons have always planned their life around the Olympic schedule. They would intentionally take vacations during the Olympics so they could sightsee during the day and have the Olympics to watch at night.

Then, in 2000, they had edge-of-the-seat reservations to watch their niece Laura compete in platform diving. Sharon says it is surprising that Laura became such a brave young woman; as a child she was afraid of almost everything. By 16, Laura had no fear, and she competed in Sydney with a broken foot. She was tall, elegant and had masses of long, curly blonde hair. She became a poster girl (make that a Wheaties box girl) for the Sydney Games.

This year, Laura is on the other side of the camera, holding an NBC microphone. Her aunt and uncle are watching the Games from Tom's room in a rehab center, where he moved a year-and-a-half ago after a series of heart attacks and strokes left him too debilitated for Sharon to care for alone.

They are watching the Olympics like they always have -- together. They like the gymnastics, basketball and track-and-field events, and they are listening attentively for Laura's voice during the diving coverage.

Rule keeper

Olympic official: Richard "Dick" Stinson, umpire for track-and-field events in the 1984 and 1996 Olympics

Where he is watching the 2012 Olympics: His home in Fort Worth

A week before it started, Stinson already was excited about the track-and-field portion of the London Games. As an official track-and-field umpire of the 1984 Los Angeles Games and the 1996 Atlanta Games, he got to see some of the greats -- Michael Johnson, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Florence Griffith Joyner -- and he was trackside when barefoot runner Zola Budd crashed with Mary Decker at the L.A. Olympics.

More recently he has had his eyes on Australian hurdler Michelle Jenneke, who didn't make it to the London Games. If you haven't heard of her, just wait or Google her now and add to her hundreds of thousands of page counts.

As an official at the Games, Stinson was formally dressed for the occasion, and he marched in with the other officials. "The electricity in the air of the Olympic Stadium is phenomenal," he says. The officials are chosen from a huge field of candidates. More than 800 applied to work the Atlanta track-and-field venue, and 100 were chosen. After the Games, the officials receive official rings to wear.

To qualify, Stinson says, he had to work "a gazillion local meets." He was the track coach at Country Day School in Fort Worth until 1980 and then began the arduous task of officiating those gazillion track meets, from Texarkana to Abilene.

He is the referee for TCU's home meets. As an umpire, he looks for lane violations, relay exchanges and bad sportsmanship like pushing and shoving. He will be watching in the next week as the "athletics" program unfolds.

"Track and field is the term used in the United States; it's called 'athletics' elsewhere," he says.

Speedy wheels

Olympian: Greg Speed, competed in the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics

Where he is watching the 2012 Olympics: His home in Mansfield

Entering the 1992 Games in Spain, Speed held the record for the 100-meter race: 15.9 seconds. He had broken the 16-second mark.

Speed wasn't an athlete before the accident that put him in a wheelchair. At age 14, he was riding his bicycle to a friend's house and was hit by a car. He almost died from the injuries. He lost the use of his legs but found he had an unusual amount of fast-twitch muscle fiber that allowed him to propel a wheel chair with great speed.

His athletic ability took him to the University of Texas at Arlington, where he played on the wheelchair-basketball team. The university was one of the first in the nation to incorporate universal design elements in its buildings and campus planning so that disabled students could navigate with ease, Speed says. It actively sought students whose mobility depended on a wheelchair. Speed, who was intent on studying aerospace engineering, was one of them.

Even though he was favored to win the 100 at the '92 Games, the results of his races in Barcelona were disappointing; he had torn a rotator cuff and was not in top form. He didn't know he had an injury until his coach noticed he was favoring his right arm. The experience was golden, though, and he talks of his time at the Olympics with absolute pride.

Speed's parents, Ken and Linda, went with him. "Our son was in the Olympics. How could we not go?" says Linda. The Paralympics are rarely televised, so it was the only way to see their son. They were amazed at the number of athletes and sports they saw.

There is little awareness of the range of mobility among athletes, or the number of sports in the Paralympics, Speed says. "Most people think its all amputees," but it's not.

His moment was in 1992; after his shoulder healed, he never got his game back. He watches, though. He is quite fond of the sprints and other Olympic track events.

"I'm not as interested in field," he says, as if track and field were the entire Olympic ticket.

He is about to get his horizons broadened. His 5-year-old daughter, Ashlyn, seems immune to the forces of gravity, and she has been pleading for gymnastics lessons, so maybe, in 12 years, there will be another Olympic Speed event.

Painting a legacy

Near-Olympian: Henrietta Milan, 1959 national gymnastics champion

Olympic connection: Her two sons, Rome and Tal

Where they are watching the 2012 Olympics: Olympic Park stands in London

There might be someone who has more enthusiasm for going to the Olympics than brothers Rome and Tal Milan, but it's doubtful. They have been to 11 Olympics. Rome is named for the 1960 host city and the Games that his gymnast-champion mother, Henrietta, had to miss because she had just given birth to him. To see the next Olympics in Japan, Henrietta needed some money, so she began painting. That led to the Milan Gallery in downtown Fort Worth and sales of more than 8,000 paintings. Tal now runs the gallery.

Rome is married to Pauline, an Olympic gymnast, and they run Sokol Fort Worth, a gymnastics center where Tal and Pauline coach.

The boys' first Olympics were in Munich, in 1972, and they've been to every Summer Games since, except for the U.S.-boycotted 1980 Moscow Games. They went to the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, too. They have carried the torch and collected thousands of pins. They are the ultimate fans; each time, they take a clean-and-jerk photo of Tal holding Rome over his head in the Olympic Stadium.

These two know how to work the system. They make reservations at a hotel for maybe two days and then look for more affordable housing. One time they bunked with gymnastics coaches; another time, Rome rented an entire floor of a house and sublet rooms to cover his cost. They find their way backstage, they get in with the athletes (they are security's worst nightmare) -- all because they are so eager to see everything and everyone up close. Should they ever offer their services as tour guides, they have the credentials for a semi-larcenous but exciting view of the event.

This year, the Milan brothers took to the London Games all of their children -- Tal's two daughters and Rome's three children, who are all named for Olympic cities: Paris, Sydney and Athens. Training the third generation of Milan Olympians has begun.

Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113

Twitter: @gailerobinson

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