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The Olympics are the pursuit of a lifetime, and also the dream of a lifetime for four Minnesota athletes training full time.
Oh Henry!
Twins catcher Henry Blanco causes early season tremors and turns into "Hammerin' Hank."

The Olympics are the pursuit of a lifetime. It's also the dream of a lifetime for four Minnesota athletes training full time for the 2004 Games in Athens, each hoping for peak performances and unforgettable tales to bring back home from the XXVIII Olympiad.

Age: 24

Where she's training: Bloomington, Indiana.

How she's training: Four hours per day, five days per week.

What do you hope to gain from the Olympic experience?
"To go in and really enjoy myself. I'm not sure I'll continue after this year, so if I do hang it up, I want to be content and know I did all I could do."

What's your favorite Olympic moment?
"2000 Games at Sydney, there was this swimmer from Nigeria. He had very little experience and forgot his suit, and all the other athletes helped him out. He swam 50 meters down and back, and the entire stadium was cheering and clapping. It was very touching. Just an incredible moment."

What did you learn from your previous trip to the Olympics that will help you this time around?
"That it's just another diving meet when you're inside the pool area competing. When you're outside the arena, the Olympics can be overwhelming."

What can you find in your hometown of Roseville that you can't find in Athens?
"Space, and backyards with trees, grass and room to walk around. Athens is so overpopulated."

If you return an Olympic hero, what cereal would you like to endorse?
"It would be a tough call between Quaker Oat Squares and Kix."

Why she matters:
- An eight-time member U.S. National Team
- Finished 13th at 2000 Olympic Games

CARRIE TOLLEFSON: Track and Field, 1500m and 5000m
Age: 27

Where she's training: Minneapolis with Team USA Minnesota.

How she's training: Runs twice a day, six days a week for a total of 85-90 miles.

What do you miss most about not having a "normal life"?
"This is normal for me. I don't know any other life. I think people would kill to be able to travel like I do and see the world and have friends all over the country. I have no complaints."

If you return an Olympic hero, what cereal would you like to endorse?
"Fruity Pebbles."

What is something you can find in your hometown of Dawson that you can't find in Athens?
"Gnomes. Dawson is Gnome town USA. There are gnomes all over the place."

Where would you get a tattoo of the Olympic rings?
"On my shoulder so when everyone is running behind me, they could see it."

Athlete's village or athletic dorm?
"I know it will be chaotic, but I'm going to stay in the village. I want to have the whole experience of being on an
Olympic team and I think that's part of it."

What's your favorite Olympic moment?
"I've always been attracted to the speed events so it was fun to watch both Florence Griffith-Joyner and Jackie
Joyner-Kersee compete. Then at the Sydney Games in 2000, to see Marion Jones dominate. They are all such unbelievable competitors."

Why she matters:
-Named one of Minnesota's 100 best all time athletes
-A five-time NCAA Champion at Villanova

LUKE WATSON: Track and Field 5000m
Age: 23

Where he trains: Minneapolis with Team USA Minnesota.

How he trains: Runs 90 miles per week spread over 10 sessions. Weight trains twice a week.

What do you miss most about not having a "normal life"?
"The freedom of doing what you want when you want. Training takes up so much of your time."

What do you miss least?
"Having a real job."

If you return an Olympic hero, what cereal would you like to endorse?
"In high school, I was chosen by my class as most likely to appear on a Wheaties box, so it's got to be Wheaties."

What do you hope to gain from the Olympic experience?
"It's a challenge to make it to the Olympics. It's puts you at the pinnacle of just a handful of people in the sport, so just making it there would be pretty special."

What's your favorite Olympic moment?
"I have two, both from the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. First, watching Michael Johnson destroy his own world record in the 200 meters, and then Bob Kennedy's courageous performance in the 5000 meters. He didn't win, but he battled the Kenyans to the end."

Why he matters:
-An eight-time All-American
-6th Minnesotan to break 4 minutes in the mile

Age: 23

Where he trains: University of Minnesota Aquatics Center.

How he trains:
High intensity sprint and endurance workouts six days a week for two hours a day. Weight trains three times a week.

What other sport would you like to be an Olympian in?
"Baseball for sure."

What do you hope to gain from the Olympic experience?
"I would love to see Athens, the original place of the Olympic Games. That would be remarkable."

What's your favorite Olympic moment?
"At the 2000 Games in Sydney, seeing Lenny Krayzelburg winning a gold medal in the 100m backstroke. Just to see him finish and the look on his face after he won the gold. I want that kind of moment."

What do you miss most about not having a "normal life"?
"The little things, like not always being able to hang around with your friends, and taking it easy. In the long run though, what I'm doing is worth it. I get so much enjoyment out of swimming."

Where would you get a tattoo of the Olympic rings?
"On my right shoulder for all the world to see."

Why he matters:
-A five-time NCAA Champion
-Silver and Bronze medalist at World University Games
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Oh Henry!
Twins catcher Henry Blanco causes early season tremors and turns into "Hammerin' Hank."

In the 2003-04 Major League Baseball off-season, there were plenty of earth-shaking developments.

The biggest quake came when the New York Yankees acquired Alex Rodriguez, a move that shook baseball to its core. The A-Rod rattler spawned aftershocks so strong in Boston, Fenway Park almost turned to rubble.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota—where off-season acquisitions rarely move the earth—the Twins signed unknown free agent catcher Henry Blanco, who is barely a household name in his own house.

The Blanco deal didn't register on the MLB Richter Scale, caused no grief in Kansas City or Chicago and got scant attention in the Twin Cities.

However, when the season started, Blanco made a name for himself by shaking up the AL Central with torrid hitting in the season's opening weeks. Blanco cooled a bit in late April, but still had a .263 average with three home runs and 10 RBI in the Twins first 21 games. Meanwhile, a hyped up $252 million third baseman known as A-Rod, was batting .253 with three home runs and six RBI in the Yankees first 21 games.

"I wasn't expecting it to be big news," Blanco said of his signing with the Twins. "I'm one of those guys who just shows up to the park ready to play and win some games. So far it's been fun. They [teammates] kid me that I have more home runs than Jim Thome and am hitting better than A-Rod. It's early in the season and I don't know why they compare me with those guys. They can hit better than I do, but so far everything's going pretty good."

Blanco, of course, was supposed to be nothing more than catching insurance—an experienced backup to occasionally spell the Twins young phenom, Joe Mauer.

But when Mauer suffered a knee injury in game two against Cleveland, and Matthew LeCroy injured his ribs in game three against the Indians, Blanco had a job. "Henry-who?" stepped in and produced, causing Twins fans from Warroad to Winona to take notice of his sizzling start.

"The secret is, I work hard and give everything I have," Blanco said. "I give 100 percent every night and when I don't play, I'm ready just in case somebody needs me. I think sometimes you need to have some guys that have some experience. I think this was the best team for me to sign with."

"He's really contributed in the short amount of the season so far," said Twins General Manager Terry Ryan. "Hopefully he will keep it up, but I don't think anybody could have predicted he'd start hitting home runs at the pace he is. You've gotta give credit to Henry. He's gotten to play a lot more and he's doing something."

The Twins expected Blanco to contribute defensively, but didn't expect this much pop from his bat. Last season in Atlanta, Blanco batted just .199 with one home run and 13 RBI. In 2002, he hit only .204 for the Braves with six home runs and 22 RBI. In 2001, Blanco had a meager .210 average for Milwaukee with six home runs and 31 RBI.

The only sign that Blanco might produce offensively came when he played winter ball in his home country of Venezuela.

"I kept getting reports all winter that Blanco's catching every day and he's leading the league in home runs down there," said Ryan. "So it's carried over some. He's just getting a chance to play."

Said Blanco: "I did pretty good, I had 11 home runs and drove in 51 RBI in just 2 1/2 months."

Still, no one expected Blanco to outhit A-Rod in April, especially his teammates, who gave him the moniker, "Hammerin' Hank."

Before this season, Blanco was best known as Greg Maddux's catching caddy in Atlanta. When Blanco went to the Braves in 2002, he caught games when Maddux pitched, giving him a firsthand look at a future hall of fame pitcher.

"He's one of the greatest pitchers in the major leagues right now," Blanco said of Maddux, who has 290 career wins and four ERA titles. "Everybody knows what he can do on the mound and all that kind of stuff. I think what makes him so special is he's a
gentleman inside and outside the clubhouse. He's a professor. I don't know how he does it. He's studied a lot of guys, a lot of hitters and that's what's made him so successful."

"I think he was back there because Maddux was comfortable with him," Ryan said. "They seemed to be on the same page."

Like most good tandems, this duo eventually split up. Maddux signed with the Chicago Cubs and Blanco chose the Twins over two other teams. If they want to see each other this year, it will have to be in the World Series, a reunion that Cubs and Twins fans would love to see.
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