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WESTSIDE COVER STORY : Testing Their Olympic Mettle : Top Westside Athletes Dream of Glory as They Sweat Out Training for '96

March 19, 1995|ROBERT WYNNE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With a loud "ping" of her aluminum bat, the hitter sends the yellow ball screaming across the infield. Nicole Odom gently scoops up the missile and flings it to first base with a quick step-turn-pivot and throw. The lanky UCLA shortstop digs her cleats into the soft dirt as the next victim steps up to the plate.

Today, Cal State Long Beach. Tomorrow, the world.

Odom, a women's softball star, is one of a handful of world-class athletes who live on the Westside and train here for the 1996 Summer Olympics. For the most part, they are hitting, fielding, sailing, running and spiking in obscurity.

They are the architect in the next cubicle, the student on the other side of your college English class, the man who sells you lumber at Home Depot.

With the torch-lighting in Atlanta more than a year away, athletes still face months of training, stomach-knotting Olympic trials and--in many cases--relentless day jobs to make ends meet. For now, they can only dream of the adoring crowds, the international pageantry--and the medals.

A look at a few Westsiders working to make that dream a reality:

The Sailor

Quick--name four famous sailors. Besides Blackbeard, Long John Silver, Captain Hook and Popeye, does anyone come to mind? Maybe Dennis Conner of America's Cup fame, but after that, public recognition for sailors ranks slightly below Nobel Prize-winning economists, hammer-throw champions and tuna fishermen.

"It's kind of frustrating to me," said Bob Little of Santa Monica, a world-class boatman who went to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, as an alternate in the two-man sailing competition. "When I tell people what I do, they don't even know it's in the Olympics."

While other kids were tossing the pigskin and shooting hoops, Little was harnessing winds in the Pacific. Born in Boston, he grew up in Santa Monica and has been racing since he was 11 years old. He still sails three or four times a week out of the California Yacht Club in Marina del Rey and at the U.S. Sailing Center in Long Beach.

When he's not at sea, Little, who is single, works as an architectural designer for the Jerde Partnership in Venice, helping draw up mixed-use office, entertainment, retail and housing developments.

"I started out with junior sailing, with one-man boats, eight feet long," Little said. "We used to race those here in Marina del Rey. We'd travel to San Diego and race the other kids in the other yacht clubs."

The 27-year-old Little and his partner, Mike Sturman of Newport Beach, compete in the two-man 470 class, racing an approximately 16-foot sailboat. Sturman runs the helm, concentrating on the boat's speed and performance. Little performs as the crew, calling tactics and serving as the team's eye.

Partners since 1990, Little and Sturman have been ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the United States for the last five years in their class. This month they represent the United States in the Pan American Games in Argentina.

In competition, teams maneuver their boats through five separate legs of the course. Depending on the wind, the trapezoidal course is lengthened or shortened so most boats finish the track in 50 to 60 minutes.

Fighting the winds, trimming the sails and hurling one's body like a counterweight around the boat can be physically exhausting. Course length ranges from three-quarters of a mile to a mile and a half.

"The toughest part about sailing is you're required to do all the physical demands with all the mental requirements: the wind, the waves, the other competitors and the weather," said Mike Segerblom, USC sailing coach and executive director of the U.S. Sailing Center in Long Beach. "The total weight of the boat is less than the weight of the crew, so every movement they make is a major influence."

Segerblom coached Little at USC and continues to monitor his career. "Bob was a top All-American sailor in college and he's put in all the time and effort since then."

While some athletes can profit from their sport, sailors can be washed up in an ocean of red ink.

The team must raise $45,000 a year in donations just to stay afloat. That's why Little, when he's not working as an architectural designer, sailing or working out in the weight room, is meeting with sponsors, Olympics committee members and others who can keep him in the water.

"You need money to compete at a high level," Little says, "but if you have the talent, the money's available."

The Runner

One-point-five seconds.

It is the time it takes to blink twice. Or to switch channels on the remote control.

It is the time that separated Christian Cushing-murray from the 1992 Olympic games.

The astounding fact about Cushing-murray is not that he missed making the American team, it's that he ever got close.

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