“No one can believe you grunt so much,” I told Monica Seles. She initially giggled and then guffawed, breaking the ice between us. I couldn’t trust my eyes (and ears) that the woman capable of grunting at such decibel levels that kept volume controls of TV sets busy, could be so feminine, graceful and even pretty off court.
“Have you watched me play,” she asked. “Only on TV,” I replied. Nattily dressed in the United States official uniform in that first meeting, everything about her seemed ‘unofficial.’ There was no trace of airs, ego or arrogance. We were at the Atlanta Olympics Games Village in 1996.
The Yugoslavia-born naturalized American had dropped in at the food court beside the block housing the Indian contingent. I introduced myself and she said with a slight East European accent, “You Indians have a strong hockey team.” She was extremely careful with her diet, shunning junk food for fruits and vegetables mostly, while occasionally sipping a soft drink.
There were no restrictions whatsoever on food, the assortment of goodies nothing short of amazing. Our team doctor kept a hawk’s eye on us so that we didn’t tuck in too much and put on weight during one of the world’s most widely watched spectacles, especially in our sport where speed was a key component.
After about three meetings over meals, I pulled out my camera. It was more than a decade or perhaps two before the mobile and ‘selfie’ era. So I requested my good friend Gavin Ferreira, one of our top scorers in the games, to take our picture. And so Seles and I were ‘framed’ together for posterity !
Incredibly friendly, despite the ordeal of a stabbing by a deranged German only three years before, that crippled her career irreparably, she had no qualms about sharing her phone number. I even called her on a couple of occasions but lost touch with her over time.
On our off days, Mukesh (Nandnuri) and I would play billiards, with the many tables neatly laid out nothing short of tempting. He’d partner paddler Ambika Radhika and I’d pair up with shuttler P.V.V. Lakshmi. Others went bowling in the many alleys set up for recreation.
In that centennial edition of the Olympics, sighting the ‘Dream Team,’ the US basketball squad, was as rare as a comet. All of them were professionals playing for different teams otherwise and to be merely seen together happened only during the quadrennial extravaganza.
There was an aura about them like no other. Their heads shaven, none of them stayed in the Games Village, choosing instead to lap up the luxuries of plush hotels in Georgia’s capital city.
As told to A. Joseph Antony
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