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Sesker Olympics Journal: Opening Ceremonies kick off London Games in spectacular fashion

Craig Sesker USA Wrestling

LONDON – When I walked into the U.S. Olympic Committee press office at the Main Press Center on Friday afternoon, I had no idea whether I was going to the Opening Ceremonies or not.

The Opening Ceremonies is one of the toughest tickets in sports – considered more difficult than landing a ticket to the Super Bowl.

Around 4 p.m., I walked over to USOC ticket guru Bill Hancock and asked him if he was able to find me a ticket. Bill, the head of college football’s Bowl Championship Series, flashed a smile and said, “Yes, I was able to hook you up.”

I excitedly high-fived Bill, who is one of the best people I have ever been around. He's a total class act who is a very positive, upbeat person.

Bill hooked me and my boss, Gary Abbott, up with tickets, along with every other American press officer who requested one for the Opening Ceremonies. Bill is the man. I stood and applauded when Bill walked into the area where we were sitting in the Olympic Stadium. I am very grateful for everything he does.

We had great seats, in the lower part of the second deck, and were treated to a fantastic show. This was my second Opening Ceremonies after I went in Beijing in 2008, and it was a spectacular display.

The presentation, production, etc. were right on the mark. I am a huge Beatles fan, so it was a real treat to see Paul McCartney close the show by singing one of his many classic No. 1 Beatles tunes, “Hey Jude.” I saw Paul in concert nearly 10 years ago, and he still sounds great. Paul, John Lennon and the boys recorded their first Beatles album 50 years ago.

The Queen of England also was there, but to me, Paul McCartney is the King of England. He looks and sounds pretty good for a guy who just turned 70.

The lighting of the Olympic torch was unique, and impressive, and it was great to see Muhammad Ali there. The fireworks were phenomenal as well.

It was exciting to see the U.S. team finally walk into the stadium just before midnight local time. I could see Justin Lester, Spenser Mango and Ellis Coleman, and later spotted Clarissa Chun.

What a thrill for the U.S. Olympians to walk into a cheering stadium of 80,000 fans on the world’s biggest stage. It was an exciting and electric night.

It was interesting to see Cuba’s Mijain Lopez, Japan’s Saori Yoshida and India’s Sushil Kumar all serving as flagbearers for their respective countries. It was a very deserving honor for all three of those great wrestlers.

It was also cool to see Jamaica's Usain Bolt and Spain's Pau Gasol carrying the flags for their countries.

Following the event, I pulled freestyle wrestler Jake Herbert aside to get his thoughts on the Opening Ceremonies for a USOC press release.

Jake, a 2009 World silver medalist who is wrestling in his first Olympics, looked dapper in his Olympics attire.

“There’s nothing else like it at all. It was breathtaking,” Herbert said of the Opening Ceremonies. “It makes you want to represent your country and win gold. All of the pain and sacrifice to get here was worth it.”

Lester, a two-time World bronze medalist, also enjoyed the experience as he prepares to compete in his first Olympics.

“Once it got going it was amazing,” Lester said. “You could feel it all the way through your body when you walked into the stadium. It was everything and more than you could imagine.”

We also ran into Stan Dziedzic and his wife on the way out of the stadium. Stan has served as president of USA Wrestling and is now heavily involved with FILA, the international governing body for our sport.

It was a fun, and exhausting night. Gary and I sat with our friends from USA Volleyball, press officers B.J. Evans and Bill Kauffman.

We ran into former USOC communications chief Darryl Seibel on the way back to the Main Press Center. Darryl has been helping Great Britain the past 2½ years in preparation for this massive event. We had a good visit with Darryl, who got his start working for Gary at USA Wrestling.

We finally left the Main Press Center on a shuttle bus at 2 a.m. Time to get some sleep.

We have our final pre-tournament press conference tomorrow with the U.S. freestyle team at 4 p.m. local time.

July 27

LONDON – There are an abundance of perks that come your way when you are an Olympic athlete.

One came the way of the U.S. women’s freestyle wrestling team on Friday morning.

First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to a group of Olympians that included U.S. wrestlers Clarissa Chun, Kelsey Campbell, Elena Pirozhkova and Ali Bernard.

Clarissa walked out of the meeting with a huge smile on her face: “It was awesome. It was great to meet her.”

The U.S. women’s basketball, track and field, fencing and diving teams were also there for Mrs. Obama's visit to the Sports Dock, the training facility for American athletes at the University of East London.

Clarissa challenged Michelle Obama to a push-up contest and the First Lady quipped: “I don’t want to challenge you, you will beat me.”

Elena approached the First Lady, and gave her a hug before asking: “Can I pick you up?”

“Um, yes,” Mrs. Obama said with a laugh.

Elena picked up the First Lady, and the picture was captured by Clarissa. It can be seen on USA Wrestling’s Facebook page. USA Today also ran Clarissa's photo and USA Today reporter Gary Mihoces wrote a story about Elena picking up the First Lady.

One of our Olympic Greco-Roman coaches, James “J.J.” Johnson, also had a chance to meet the First Lady.

“I was very impressed – it was incredible to hear Mrs. Obama talk,” Johnson said. “She’s a very dynamic speaker. She talked about watching the Olympics on TV while growing up on the south side of Chicago. She said it was amazing to be here and be a part of this event. She gave the athletes some encouragement and told them to enjoy the experience. It was very inspirational.”

During the session, women’s basketball player Angel McCoughtry asked to meet Clarissa and then posted on Twitter: “Just met one of the best wrestlers for the USA.”

I saw USA women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma in the practice gym, along with women's stars Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker. These girls are very tall. I've never felt so short!

The Opening Ceremonies are set for tonight, and we will find out today if there are any tickets available. I hope to be able to go, but I understand if we don't. I went to the Opening Ceremonies in Beijing in 2008, and it was spectacular.

July 26

LONDON – Our first press conference was – as they say in these parts – a smashing success at the Olympic Games.

We had a turnout of roughly 30 media members for the presser with the six-member U.S. Greco-Roman Team on Wednesday afternoon at the Main Press Center. USA Wrestling’s Gary Abbott moderated the press conference while I shot video, conducted interviews and distributed media guides to the group.

Each of our wrestlers handled everything like the true professionals that they are. Veteran heavyweight Dremiel Byers was particularly engaging and funny, and newcomer Ellis Coleman had everyone laughing when he talked about the pet squirrel he has now.

Byers said he has his own answer for Coleman’s popular “Flying Squirrel” move. The powerful 6-foot-2, 265-pound Byers said he calls his move “The Flying Walrus.”

Justin Lester, Spenser Mango, Ben Provisor and Chas Betts also were very well-spoken during the session. They answered an array of questions, ranging from thoughts on the heavy security presence here to their opinions on the legalized betting being done on the athletes who are competing here.

When Byers was asked about the level of security at the Olympics, he quipped: “Usually, I’m my own security. These guys should feel safe because I’m here.” The room broke up in laughter.

A reporter told me that Byers is listed at 20-to-1 to win the Olympics, and Lester’s odds are slightly more favorable. I am not betting on the Games, but I wouldn’t bet against either one of those great wrestlers. They both have, in my opinion, an excellent shot to win some hardware here.

This group of Greco athletes is not being picked to win a lot of medals at the Olympics, but I believe they have the potential to have an outstanding performance.

I am looking forward to seeing what ESPN The Magazine’s Wayne Drehs comes up with as he writes the compelling story of Ellis Coleman. Wayne is an excellent writer and spent considerable time talking with Ellis following the formal part of the press conference on Wednesday. Wayne and I covered Iowa Hawkeye football together many moons ago.

The press officers and media came together again a few hours later when the U.S. Olympic Committee sponsored a social for us at USA House, the place where American medal winners will be honored with celebrations as they traditionally are during the Games.

It was great to see a lot of old friends in the Olympic family at USA House, and it was fun to meet some of the new faces who are here. I rode over to the social on a shuttle bus with Sports Illustrated’s Brian Cazeneuve, one of the best in the business. Brian is a top reporter and a great dude. He and I collaborated on SI’s medal picks for the second straight Olympics. He has season tickets for the Boston Red Sox and he shakes his head in disbelief when I talk about my Cincinnati Reds beating Boston in the 1975 World Series. Brian keeps inviting me to come out and see a game with him at Fenway Park. I definitely need to take him up on his offer.

Following the social, a group of us set out on foot in search of a place to grab a late dinner. We stumbled upon a gold mine of sorts when I suggested we try a place called Billy’s Baked Potato, located in the South Kensington portion of London.

Our group – which included Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Tim Warsinskey, USA Badminton’s Cecil Bleiker, USA Cycling’s Andrea Smith, USA Tae Kwon Do’s Bill Kellick and myself – were treated to an outstanding dinner. Our waiter recommended the ribeye steak, and it was one of the best slabs of beef I have eaten in a long time. We may be back there again at some point.

We said goodnight to Tim, a superb writer who is attending his first Olympics, before Cecil, Andrea, Bill and I navigated the train system here for the long ride back to the University of East London. Three trains and numerous stops later, we finally made it to our home away from home here in London.

The USOC gave us an Oyster card, which is already serving us well here. The Oyster card allows us to travel for free on all of the public trains and buses here in London. That makes life much easier for us. The trains are the way to go, although my boss, Gary Abbott, and I got stuck on a train that was having mechanical issues on Tuesday. We didn’t move for roughly 30 minutes, and it was almost as hot as a sauna in there.

The U.S. Olympic Women’s Freestyle Team will take part in a press conference at the Main Press Center this afternoon. The women arrived in London on Wednesday morning.

The U.S. Olympic Men’s Freestyle Team is scheduled to fly into London today, and will take part in a press conference on Saturday.

All 17 U.S. Olympic wrestlers are scheduled to take part in the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics on Friday night at the Olympic Stadium in London. I am hoping to score a ticket of my own, but there are no guarantees for even the press officers here. Hopefully, I will get lucky enough to land a ticket. I was fortunate to attend the Opening Ceremonies in Beijing in 2008, and it was an unbelievable experience.

Bill Hancock, head of college football’s Bowl Championship Series, works in the USOC press office as a volunteer and he is the keeper of top tickets like ones for the Opening Ceremonies. Bill is one of the nicest guys on the planet, and I know he is trying to find seats for all of us. Bill still gives me a hard time for carrying Henry Cejudo’s flowers after Henry won the Olympics in 2008.

On a final note, the people in London have been extremely friendly and helpful. They obviously want the Olympics to be a great experience for everyone, but the people here really do seem very genuine and nice as a whole. We have had a number of locals point us in the right direction as we try to navigate this massive city of over eight million people.

They have definitely helped make this experience a memorable one so far.

July 25

LONDON – It is my second day in London, and I feel much better than I did on the first day here.

It’s amazing what a good night’s sleep can do for you.

Our first official workout in London took place this morning when the USA Greco-Roman Team worked out in the training facility at the University of East London.

The training facility here is top-notch and first-class all the way. Our team has a huge area to train in, with fencing and badminton teams from the U.S. working out right next door.

The wrestling area features two full-sized mats, a sauna, and some exercise bikes. There also is a fully equipped 24 Hour Fitness club in the training facility. I worked out there this morning – running, biking and lifting weights. After my workout, I had a nice chat with 2006 World champion Joe Warren in the sauna. The guy is always fired up, and he was cracking me up the whole time. Joe is here as a training partner.

Five of the six U.S. Greco Olympians were on the mat for the first London workout on Wednesday morning. Olympian Ellis Coleman wasn’t feeling well and took the morning off.

I ran into U.S. training partners Aaron Sieracki and Tim Taylor on the way down to practice. Aaron and Tim will play a key role in helping our Olympians prepare for the Games. Aaron is training with fellow U.S. Army wrestler Justin “Harry” Lester and Tim is training with U.S. Army teammate Dremiel Byers for the second straight Olympics.

Tim and Aaron are both great guys, who understand what it takes to push, motivate and encourage the Olympians to be at their peak in a little less than two weeks. Lester and Byers both have a shot to do really well here.

The U.S. Greco boys will be taking part in a press conference this afternoon at the Main Press Center. It will be a great opportunity to gain some international attention for our athletes.

I talked with producers from NBC Nightly News last night at the MPC and they said features I worked on them with Jordan Burroughs and Elena Pirozhkova are set to run in early August. We will keep you posted when we have exact times on those.

I had lunch with USA Badminton’s Cecil Bleiker at the MPC, which like in Beijing, looks like a small city. The MPC has it all. Restaurants, lounges, coffee shops, grocery stores, a post office, etc. It also houses the thousands of media and press officers that are here to cover this massive event.

I am housed in the U.S. Olympic Committee press offices. They are a great group to work with, and we look forward to working side-by-side with them to promote this massive event.

July 24

LONDON – As you can see by the dateline, I have arrived in London, England.

The flight from Chicago to London was relatively smooth, and we made it here in a little less than eight hours. I watched a Kate Hudson movie, listened to my iPod and read through the Sports Illustrated Olympics preview.

When you’ve been on 13-hour flights, like the one I made four years ago from San Francisco to Beijing, an eight-hour trip is fairly tolerable.

We were also pleasantly surprised to see the sun shining brightly on a cloudless, warm day in London with temperatures in the 80s. So I guess it doesn't rain every day here.

We took a shuttle bus from Heathrow International Airport to the Olympic Village. Our bus driver was an excellent tour guide. We drove right by Buckingham Palace, the Big Ben clock tower, the indoor and outdoor volleyball venues, the Olympic stadium and the ExCel Center, where wrestling will be contested.

We saw what you might expect – an abundance of double-decker buses and the trademark London phone booths.

My boss, Gary Abbott, along with USA Volleyball press officers B.J. Evans and Bill Kauffman, rode together with me on the one-hour ride from the airport to the Olympic Village.

B.J. and Bill headed to the Main Press Center for their first press conference while Gary and I headed to the University of East London, where we will be staying for the next three weeks. The rooms are fairly small, but the shower and electricity works. Gary and I were able to get online, a critical component in what we do.

The venues, from what little we could see from the road, look great from the outside. It is finally starting to hit home that the Olympics are going to start in a few days.

The U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman Team flew with us from Colorado Springs to Chicago, but they were on a later flight from Chicago to London.

Gary and I are headed over to processing now to pick up our Team USA gear in addition to our London cell phones.

Our first press conference, with the U.S. Greco-Roman Team, is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon at the Main Press Center.

I have been up for almost 24 straight hours now. After we get back from processing, I am going to crash and try to get adjusted to the time change after flying over the Atlantic Ocean.

London is seven hours ahead of Mountain Time, so it will take a few days to adjust.

I am very tired, but I am very excited about being here in London for my second Olympic Games!


July 23

CHICAGO – It happened 36 years ago today, but for Momir Petkovic it still feels like yesterday.

On July 23, 1976, Petkovic stood atop the podium after winning an Olympic gold medal for Yugoslavia in Greco-Roman wrestling in Montreal, Canada.

“That was an amazing day,” Petkovic said Monday morning, while sporting a Montreal 1976 shirt. “I obviously will never forget it.”

Now the top assistant coach for the U.S. Greco-Roman wrestling team, Petkovic is trying to help American wrestlers achieve what he did three-and-a-half decades ago in the Olympics.

Petkovic boarded a flight with the American squad on Monday morning, and traveled from Colorado Springs to Chicago. Following a short layover in the Windy City, Petkovic and the U.S. Greco boys will fly across the Atlantic Ocean and are scheduled to arrive in London early Tuesday morning.

Momir is one of my favorite coaches, and always has something interesting to say.

When I asked him what his thoughts were on the Olympics, he had a quick response: “We’re ready to go – this time for real. I have a real good feeling about this group of guys.”

I flew with the Greco team from Colorado Springs to Chicago today, and as you might expect, there is a buzz and excitement among the guys. Justin “Harry” Lester, despite being seated in the back of the bus for the flight to Chicago, is as eager to compete as I have ever seen him. He has won two World bronze medals, but he is ready and focused to deliver on the World’s biggest stage in the Olympics.

A huge cheer went up on our United Airlines flight to Chicago when it was announced that the U.S. Olympic wrestling team was on board. The U.S. women and freestyle teams will be heading to London in the next couple of days.

The U.S. team is being bolstered by training partner/coach Joe Warren, a 2006 World champion. Joe is one of the most enthusiastic and high-energy guys we have in wrestling, and he’s done a great job working with Junior World medalist and Olympian Ellis Coleman.

Known as “The Baddest Man on the Planet” when he won a World title, Warren now calls himself “The Baddest Coach on the Planet.” It is great to have Joe on the trip with us. He had a huge smile on his face when he walked down to our gate in the airport this morning.

World champion Dremiel Byers is looking good, and he is poised to win a medal to cap a great career as one of the World’s premier heavyweights. I am really excited to see what Dremiel can do in London.

Sports Illustrated picked the U.S. Greco team to win just one medal in London, a bronze by Byers, but I have a strong feeling that this group may fare better than that.

We have landed in Chicago, and are now boarding our flight to London. We are scheduled to fly approximately eight hours before landing at Heathrow International Airport in London.

I am all set to go, with my iPod charged and my Sports Illustrated Olympics preview in hand. Hopefully, they will show a few decent movies on the trip over.

This is a very exciting time, and this why I truly love what I do for a living. I can’t wait to land in Jolly Old England!


July 22

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – It is kind of hard to believe it has already been four years since I traveled to Beijing, China for my first Olympic Games in 2008.

It was an incredible experience – one of the best of my life – and I can’t wait to take part in another Olympics as the communications manager for USA Wrestling.

I am in scramble mode today after flying home last night from the Junior and Cadet Nationals in Fargo, N.D. I am finishing laundry, packing, re-packing, and making sure I have my passport, credential, etc. for the trip to London for the 2012 Olympics.

I am scheduled to leave tomorrow morning for London. I will be traveling with my boss, USA Wrestling communications director Gary Abbott. We are scheduled to fly to Chicago and then fly to London.

Gary and I will represent USA Wrestling, but we also are part of the U.S. Olympic Committee press staff. The USOC is paying our travel expenses and we will work closely with them in promoting the American athletes. We will stay at the University of East London, where a large number of people in the U.S. delegation will be housed.

The U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman Team will be traveling with us tomorrow. They will be the first of our three teams to arrive with women’s freestyle and freestyle heading over later in the week. Each team will take part in a press conference at the Main Press Center and then participate in the Opening Ceremonies on Friday.

Rumor has it that my two good friends from volleyball – press officers B.J. Evans and Bill Kauffman – are on our flights. They are two of my favorite people in the Olympic family. I enjoy giving Bill his share of grief for basically just being Bill. We roomed together at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Being my second Olympics, I have a pretty good idea of how everything will work in London. By the same token, it is a new city. We have to learn how the transportation system works and we have to figure out where we are staying in addition to scouting out where our teams will be training. Everyone speaks English, so that makes a big difference as well after playing our share of charades with the cab drivers in China.

The Olympics is the biggest sporting event in the World, and you can’t match the electricity of a sporting event that every corner of the planet is following. I was lucky enough to see athletes like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt compete in 2008, and hope to see a few more this time around.

I was lucky enough to be on the arena floor when Henry Cejudo won the Olympics in 2008. It was an amazing moment, even though he did make me carry his flowers and the whole world saw that on NBC. I am excited to see what the U.S. can do on the mat in London.

I will be providing daily updates like I did in 2008, with some behind-the-scenes information and tidbits like I did in Beijing.

It should be another fun ride!
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