Must-See TV

Must-See TV

I read last week that a poll showed Americans’ interest in the Olympic Games in Rio was an all-time low. The poll found 48 percent were planning on watching the Olympics -- a far lower percentage than in 2012.

It’s no wonder, with all the bad news preceding the opening of the Games. Fears of contracting the Zika virus. Raw sewage in the water in which athletes will swim and row. Russian athletes banned for doping. Exposed wires and backed-up toilets at the athletes’ housing.

Count me among those who will be watching. In fact, I’ll watch more TV during the two weeks of the Olympics than all the rest of the year.Blog Photo

I love watching athletes who are excellent at what they do, and I love the stories about their paths to the Olympics. One of the stories I’m most eager to follow this year is that of the Refugee Olympic Team, made up of athletes displaced from their home countries by war and competing under the Olympic flag.

I asked several coaches what athletes and events they’ll be watching at the Olympic Games. Here’s what they had to say:


Mark Sikora, Parkland College soccer coach

Sikora will be watching the U.S. women’s soccer team and stars Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan, as well as the Brazilian men’s soccer star Neymar.

“On the men's side, it's a mixed bag," he said. "Most of the teams are not well-known and are full of young rosters, not really household names. So I'll watch a bit (because I'm a soccer junkie) but will cheer for the underdogs. Let's go Fiji!"

Sikora also wants to watch the U.S. men’s basketball team, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps.

“I enjoy seeing the ‘greats’ in their sport," he said. "I may not understand many of the events but have a huge amount of respect for the work they all have put in to make it there, whether they medal or not.”

Sikora added: “I am always drawn to the social, economic and political history of the Games. The Refugee Olympic Team is an amazing example of what is right about the Games. We have players on our Parkland team from all over the world, and currently a few Brazilians, and we talk a lot about what the Olympics means to them and the impact on their homeland. Their perspectives are always enlightening. I've always felt that sports are a crucial way to meet and understand other cultures.”  


Justin Spring, University of Illinois men’s gymnastics coach, member of 2008 bronze-medal men's gymnastics team

Spring attended the Olympic trials for gymnastics and knows the athletes on the men’s team. He is intrigued by the story of Danell Leyva, a 2012 bronze medalist who didn’t make this year’s team initially. When another athlete was injured, Leyva replaced him.

He’s also cheering for Chris Brooks, an athlete many didn’t think was consistent enough to make the team, Spring said. But Brooks was “unbelievable” at the trials.

“He’s kind of the underdog story,” he said. “He’s been in the mix, fighting for a team spot for a long time. To me, that’s a heartwarming story, a guy who had an outside chance. That’s kind of what my story was.”

Spring will be watching Kohei Uchimura, a Japanese gymnast being called the greatest of all time. He’s won six world all-around titles.

“He’s the Tiger Woods of his era,” Spring said. “The gymnastics world will be watching to see if he can make history.”

Spring also enjoys the backstories on all the athletes.

“It’s so fun to watch the athletes that don’t make a living from this,” he said. “We are the team of volunteers in the United States of America. I like watching people who have true passion for their sport.”


Sue Novitsky, UI swimming and diving coach

Novitsky is interested in seeing the great swimmers -- Phelps and Katie Ledecky -- who have dominated their sport. She will also be watching Maya Dirado.

“Watching her at the Olympic team trials was awesome," Novitsky said. "It seems that she has a true sense of herself and her perspective of the sport in her life. She is a great model to keep working hard.”

She’ll be cheering for Anthony Ervin, “one of the ‘old’ guys coming back and racing to a spot on the Olympic team.”

Novitsky is also eager to watch Serena and Venus Williams: “I play some tennis, so I like watching them play doubles together. They are just very strong and athletic women.”


Adam Bleakney, UI wheelchair track and field coach

Bleakney has many athletes headed to the Paralympic Games, Sept. 7-18. Among them is Tatyana McFadden, who will be competing for gold in every event in the women’s program: 100 meters, 400 meters, 800 meters, 1,500 meters, 5,000 meters, marathon and 4x400 meters.

“If she does, it will be the first time in modern Paralympic history that anyone will have accomplished this,” Bleakney said. “She’ll have plenty of incredibly talented women to defeat in her quest. In the 800 and up, among her toughest competitors will be Switzerland’s Manuela Schar, along with a few of her fellow U of I teammates, including Amanda McGrory, who won the 5000-meter gold in 2008. And in the 100, Tatyana isn’t favored to win. She’ll have two Chinese athletes, Ting Zhang and Yingjie Lie, as well as Finland’s Amanda Kotaja, standing in her way.”

In the men’s competition, the best matchups will be in the 1,500 and 5,000 meters, Bleakney said. The favorites include Switzerland’s Marcel Hug, who’s one of the sport’s most dominating racers (a seven-time world champion) but who’s never won gold at the Paralympic Games; Thailand’s Rawat Tana, who won gold in both the 1,500 and 5,000 at the World Championships in 2015; and David Weir, who won gold in the 800, 1,500, 5,000 and marathon at the 2012 London Games.

“The truth of it is that there are more than a dozen men who have a good shot at medaling if things work in their favor, including our own Joshua George. As his coach, I’m (of course) confident we can get him on the podium, and if we can get him positioned in the right spot at the bell lap and time his kick correctly, I really think he could win either the 1,500 or the 5,000.”


David Behm, cross-country and track and field coach for The High School of St. Thomas More

Behm watched his first Olympics in 1972, when he saw Dave Wottle come from last place to win the 800 meters. The 8-year-old Behm was inspired to go for his first run after that race. He’s been watching the Olympics ever since.

He’s interested in watching the track and field athletes in Rio with Illinois connections. One of the athletes he’s particularly interested in seeing compete is Evan Jager of Algonquin, a steeplechaser who is ranked second in the world. He’s also looking forward to watching Bolt.

While he watches track and field most intently, Behm will also watch cycling (he used to race bikes); archery (he met some of the team members when they visited Schlarman High School in Danville); and sailing (Behm is also a sailor).

He enjoys seeing the underdogs compete. He watched Fiji’s soccer team in one of the first competitions of the Games.

“They weren’t very good at all, but they tried really hard,” he said.


Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at, or follow her at Her blog is at


Photo: Among the athletes area coaches will be watching: Michael Phelps, second from right, who already has a gold medal in this year's Games as part of the men's 4x100-meter freestyle relay team with, from left, Nathan Adrian, Ryan Held and Caeleb Dressel.


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