An Educational Trip
Jan. 8, 2009
By Larry Watts
The record books will show three members of the Northwestern University men's swimming team participated in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But for one brief moment, at least in the mind of Wildcat sophomore Peter Park, there were four.
Park never hit the water inside the Water Cube, site of the swimming competition. But at least he was able tell former Northwestern swimmer Mike Alexandrov, who was representing Bulgaria, that he was there to see him participate in the 100 freestyle prelims.
The brief visit inside the Water Cube was one of the highlights of a 14-day experience of a lifetime for the Princeton, N.J. native. He was one of approximately 550 student-athletes selected in a worldwide program to be flown to Beijing to get a sampling of Olympics as well as the Chinese culture and lifestyle.
After a few interviews, Park and Meelun McCray, a recent graduate of Chicago Marshall High School, were selected by to Chicago 2016 Olympic Committee to represent the United States. Although he had never met him before, Park was quite familiar with Patrick Ryan, the chairman and chief executive officer in Chicago's drive to host the Olympics in 2016. Ryan is also the founding chairman of Aon Corporation, the world's largest insurance broker, and chairman of the board of trustees at Northwestern University.
"How can you not go to Northwestern and be an athlete without hearing of Mr. Ryan?" Park asks. "His name is all over the place (Ryan Field and Welsh-Ryan Arena). I had just never met him in person."
But that all changed at one of the preparation meetings in Chicago. During the course of the meeting, Ryan walked into the room to talk to Park and McCray.
"He was really impressive," Park says. "He told us how he started out selling insurance out of the back of his car. Then he walked over to a window and pointed to this big building. He said, 'See that. I now own that building."'
According to Park, he went without sleep during the first 48 hours of the trip due to all the excitement.
"On the flight over, I spent the entire time talking to family members of track and field athletes and the Canadian boxing coach," he says. "It wasn't until I landed that I found out we were on a double-decker plane and (Chicago Mayor) Richard Daley was in the upper deck."
The ambassador program included two representatives from each country participating in the Olympics plus another 50 representing the Paralympic Games. Park's three roommates were from Qatar, Kuwait and Ecuador.
"The biggest culture shock was when we walked into the bathroom," he says. "There was a sink and a compartment with a showerhead. When we asked where the toilet was, the person pointed to a hole in the floor next to the showerhead. All I knew was you better have good balance and you soon developed strong calf muscles."
Most of the time, Park says the food wasn't bad. "The cooks did try to Americanize a few things, but they weren't very successful. One night they served us pizza, which they made out of bread, cheese and red bell peppers because they didn't have any tomato paste. That was pretty funky.
"I did have a Peking duck dish one night. That was the first time I had ever ate duck, and it was pretty good."
In addition to seeing one swimming event, Park got to attend the opening ceremonies, a boxing match, a baseball game between Chinese Taipei and Cuba as well as a return to the Bird's Nest for the women's 10,000 finals.
"I saw Mr. Ryan again at the boxing match," Park says. "It was hard to miss me because we all had to wear these bright neon outfits. I felt kind of funny as he was introducing me to his entourage."
Away from the Olympics, Park's group visited the Forbidden City, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where they saw how the entire Olympic Games had been planned out through a virtual simulator, and the Great Wall.
"I made it through five towers of the Great Wall, but I was practically crawling at the end," he says. "It was pretty embarrassing when I looked over and saw how some of these 60-year-old men were handling the steps with such ease."
But there was no nightlife in Beijing for the delegation.
"Everything in China was very secure and we had to go through security clearance every time we had to go somewhere," he says. "You needed to have written permission, there was no wandering around."
Another highlight of the trip for Park came when he met one of the torch runners. "He showed me a box where he stored his uniform and torch. He let me try on the uniform and that was kind of neat."
While they were regarded as ambassadors, Park says the members of the delegation were mainly "glorified sightseers." However, he did file several blog entries on www.Chicago2016.org as well as take an abundant number of photos and video.
"I was 3 the last time I took a trip outside the United States, when my family went to Korea," he says. "Of course I don't remember a thing from that trip, but I'll have many memories from this one."
The experience he shared with so many student-athletes from all over the world also helped Park decide on a major at Northwestern. "Dealing with all those people from different cultures was a big help," he says. "I'm going to major in anthropology with a minor in ancient Greek and Roman history. Then I'll probably apply to law school."
But before he heads off to law school, Park is thinking about taking another trip.
"I might do a little backpacking," he says. "I made sure I recorded a long list of cell phone numbers, e-mails and addresses. I think I can make it from Norway to New Guinea and know someone at each stop along the way."