It is truly an aesthetic experience to see world-class athletes at work. I watched the Australian swimming team, which may well be the world champions this year, as they worked out in Canberra. Its amazing to see these bodies and the power of their strokes. Its the same with the Russian gymnasts. You can watch these people on TV, but not until you get to where they train and see the amount of work they put into it can you really appreciate what they accomplish. They train outside Moscow in a dilapidated old Soviet-era structure, but they have everything they need inside. Its like a greenhouse on a winters day. I was there for hours just watching.
Im not a sports nut, so it was particularly hard covering so many sports in rapid succession. I found myself having to go from weight lifting to diving to gymnastics all within a few hours of each other. I went to the Russian gymnasts training center and drew a blank on the names of the high bar, parallel bars, and the horse. Thats not good if youre trying to do an interview.
My introduction to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which many believe is the most effective of all the martial arts, was daunting at first. Rorion Gracie, who brought the sport to the United States in the 1970s, agreed to talk to me about his art in his studio in Torrance, California. I was expecting to do an interview, but he had other plans.
He greeted me in his gee, the traditional uniform of open jacket and loose pants. Ive been psyching myself up for you, he said.
Who was he kidding? This big man in his mid-40s could have broken me into a hundred pieces. Hes trained FBI and CIA agents, Navy SEALs, and Mel Gibson for the movie Lethal Weapon II.
A few minutes later I was dressed out in my own gee and facing him in a small room with a padded floor.
You dont have to be strong, he told me. Anyone can be effective at this. You have to have a strategy.
Then he grabbed my throat.
Suppose someone comes at you like this, he said. What do you do?
Scream and die, I thought to myself. But Rorion showed me a simple dodging move, and I was free. After 45 minutes of this, I was ready to take on the world.