United we stand - in our diversity

Posted: Friday, February 22, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- The concept struck Cammie Granato, the leader of the United States women's hockey team, before Sept. 11.

She saw a Chinese symbol that she thought would be an appropriate motto for the team going into the Oympics. Her mother found a jeweler to make necklaces out of the symbol. The American women wear the necklaces all the time.

The symbol reads: "United We Stand."

One of the inspiring aspects of the Winter Olympics has been both the unity and the diversity of the American team. And it's a team that will double the medal count of any U.S. team in the Winter Olympics.

These are not just Midwestern and Northern snow people.

Naomi Lang, who seems to have a brilliant future in ice dancing, became the first Native American to participate in a Winter Olympics. Her partner Peter Tchnernshev, who proudly clutched an American flag during interviews, is a Russian immigrant just recently granted American citizenship.

One of the top players on the women's hockey team is a Chinese-American (Julie Chu) as is the marquee figure skater (Michelle Kwan). Japanese-American Apolo Ohno has turned short track skating into a must-see sport here. Vonetta Flowers from the University of Alabama became the first Afro-American to win an Olympic gold medal. The USA has gotten medals in speed skating from Jennifer Rodriguez (a Cuban-American) and Derek Parra, (a Mexican-American).

But the pattern goes beyond ethnic groups. Chris Klug, who recently had a liver transplant, won a medal in freestyle has had a liver transplant. You have performers with different colored hair, almost no hair and rings on different parts of their bodies. There are those from rich backgrounds and those like biathlete Dan Campbell, who not that long ago was sleeping in his truck to save on expenses.

This U.S. team, our best Winter Olympic team in history, really looks like America today, with all its colors and flavors.

Nowhere was that more evident that in skeleton, a daredevil sport where the U.S. men and women won two golds and a silver.

Jimmy Shea, who won men's gold, is a third-generation Olympian with the traditional background of growing up with Winter Sports in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Tristan Gale, 21, who won women's gold, is from Ruidoso, N. Mex., and is prototype Gen X with glitter, colored hair and a tendency to freak out.

And notice who was first to congratulate her, creating a screaming, jumping, soriety-sister hugfest in the snow and ice. Thirty-something Lea Ann Parsley, silver medal winner, has two bachelor's degrees and a master's in nursing. She's a firefighter, who once rescued a child from a burning house. Then, she went back in and got the mother, cradling her as she backflipped to safety out a back window.

You can understand now why she said the color of her Olympic medal didn't matter.

While sports like snowboarding, short track skating, freestyle skiing and skeleton are not traditional, the spirit, the energy and the pride in country by those who participate in them is as solid as Plymouth Rock.

When these youngsters wrap themselves with a flag, color their hair red, white and blue or put USA glitter on their faces, the meaning is not cosmetic. Some of their contemporaries are in the mountains of Afghanistan and patrolling borders. They know whom they represent. In a fun way on an international stage, they want to make those folks proud of the principles they are trying to preserve.

So, look beyond the weird sports and different faces. With delightful diversity, the American ideal is very much alive.

(David McCollum, sports columnist for the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, Ark., is part of the Morris News Service team covering the Winter Olympics).

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