Phila.-area viewing parties celebrate opening of Olympics

Posted: July 28, 2012

As Queen Elizabeth II appeared to parachute into the Olympic Stadium in London on the various screens around a small diner in Conshohocken, national-team rowers and future Olympic hopefuls tended bar, manned a donations table, and rubbed elbows with the crowd.

Dozens of people turned out for an opening-ceremony viewing party Friday evening at the 401 Diner, a gathering place for elite rowers and the community that supports them.

At another viewing party, this one in East Mount Airy, more than 150 people gathered at Lovett Park to watch the opening ceremonies on a 12-foot-wide inflatable screen.

The Conshohocken gathering was organized by Bonnie Mueller, who spent four years rowing for St. Joseph's University. Mueller said she wanted to give Philadelphia's rowing community a space to come together.

"I think that the rowing community in Philadelphia is one which, more than ever, is dependent upon coming together across different clubs and across different communities in the rowing population to be able to support Philadelphia," she said. "I wanted to give the rowers a chance to come together and give them a chance to celebrate all that we've done, and celebrate the national rowers we have."

The crowd at the 401 - coaches, referees, behind-the-scenes regatta workers - appeared to appreciate the opportunity.

Sam Cunningham, 26; Bob Duff, 24; and Dave Smith, 26, all of Malta Boat Club, came out to watch the ceremony. All three are training for the 2012 world championships in August.

"For most rowers, we would probably much rather have gone to the Olympics than be training for the world championships now," Cunningham said.

Duff agreed: "As a world champion, you're world champion for one year. But with the Olympics, you're an Olympic champion forever."

The Philadelphia region is rich with Olympic rowing connections, including several graduates of local schools - team members Glenn Ochal (Roman Catholic High), Susan Francia (Abington High, University of Pennsylvania), and Stephen Kasprzyk (Drexel University), and alternate Mike Gennaro (St. Joseph's Preparatory School).

The city can also claim men's eight coach Mike Teti, an Upper Darby native who attended St. Joseph's Prep and St. Joseph's University, and coached at Temple University.

"We have a rare opportunity once every four years," Mueller said, "to get more people focused and aware that rowing even exists."

Members of the rowing community are brimming with stories about the Olympians; for many, the faces on TV are friends, classmates, and rivals.

Those stories include how Teti was called in to save a men's eight team that had failed to qualify for the Olympics. Brought in before the final qualifying regatta, Teti was able to coach the rowers to a victory that sealed them the final spot in the lineup.

"He's totally intense," said Tom Richter, who rowed with Teti at St. Joe's. "He was totally into his sport right from the very beginning."

At Lovett, the early-evening light washed out the projected image, but that did not dampen the enthusiasm of Olympic fans who sat in lawn chairs, on beach towels, or directly on the grass.

"It's something we have to wait for every four years," said Jasmine Oglesby, 36, a social worker, "and we get to see the best of the world's athletes."

Anuj Gupta, executive director of Mount Airy USA, which put the screening together, said his group usually played movies on Friday nights in the park. And they usually start later, when it's dark. But he wasn't concerned about the waning dusk.

"By the time the U.S. marches out," Gupta said, "it'll be dark."


Contact Jonathan Lai at 215-854-5289 or jlai@philly.com, or follow on Twitter at @Elaijuh.

Inquirer staff writer Robert Moran contributed to this article.

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