LONDON - Jerry Seinfeld joked that sports fans cheer for laundry: jerseys worn by a procession of mercenaries.
During the Olympics, we cheer for local ZIP codes, and Minnesotans are thriving in London. In all, nine of the 14 Team USA athletes with Minnesota ties who are competing in London are guaranteed to earn medals. Minnesotans are cheering for their success -- and following the Olympics overall -- in major numbers when compared to the rest of the country. NBC's Twin Cities affiliate (KARE-11) ranked second behind only Denver in local TV ratings during prime-time coverage of the first six nights of the Olympics, though the numbers dropped off some in week two.
The locals we are rooting for range from tried-and-true Minnesotans to former Minnesotans to temporary Minnesotans to quasi-Minnesotans. Three Minnesota Lynx players appear headed for basketball gold, as does Timberwolves star Kevin Love. Hugh McCutcheon, the future Gophers coach, is leading a team featuring former Gopher and team captain Lindsey Berg that is favored to win Saturday's gold medal match for U.S. women's volleyball. Eden Prairie's Rachel Bootsma took home a gold medal in swimming, St. Paul's Susie Scanlan won a bronze in team epee, Gophers diver Kelci Bryant took a silver, and Megan Kalmoe, who was born in Minneapolis, won a bronze in rowing.
Lindsay Whalen might be the most Minnesotan of the Minnesotans. She grew up in Hutchinson, transformed the Gophers basketball program, married a fellow U athlete, stars for the Lynx, lives in downtown Minneapolis and plans to settle in the Twin Cities.
Of all the athletes with Minnesota ties asked about their real or adoptive home state, Whalen was the only one whose eyebrows leaped.
"I stay in touch with Lindsey Berg, through Twitter,'' she said. "I'm here with two teammates, which is great, and I get a chance to say hello to Kevin Love once in a while. I'm keeping track of the Russians, because they have two Wolves [Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved].''
Creative use of 'hometown'
But cheering for hometown athletes at the Olympics can require a creative definition of the word "hometown.''
Berg attended the University of Minnesota and can't remember the last time she visited. She was born in Honolulu, lives in California and has spent her adult life competing overseas. Asked if she had connected with Minnesotans during the Games, Berg looked confused, then said, "I caught up with Lindsay Whalen at the opening ceremonies. I really don't know anybody else.''
On NBC, the Olympics look like one big, athletic Disney World, with sport's increasingly small world replacing the "It's a Small World'' ride. TV conjures images of local athletes gathering for meals, and popping next-door to borrow a cup of Gatorade from Michael Phelps. On the ground, the London Olympics, like every Olympics, is about sprawl, and the transitory nature of sporting loyalties.
Berg's coach, McCutcheon, married Wiz Bachman of Lakeville and will take over the Gophers this fall. He's a New Zealander who attended BYU and lives in Anaheim. Kalmoe was born in Minneapolis, grew up in St. Croix Falls, Wis., attended the University of Washington and lives in New Jersey. Former Duluth East runner Kara Goucher was born in New York, attended Colorado and moved to Portland to live and train. BMX racer Alise Post was born and raised in St. Cloud and moved to San Diego to train.
Bryant grew up in Illinois and moved around the country to work with coach Wenbo Chen. When Chen took a job at the U, Bryant became a Gopher, although she left the team to concentrate on the Olympics.
A couple of the Minnesota medals are hardly the stuff that inspired "Chariots of Fire.'' Bootsma received a gold for swimming in the prelims of the 400-meter medley relay. More accomplished swimmers took over to win the final. Scanlan was part of a four-person team that won bronze in the team epee competition, but she ceded her place in the final, which required three competitors.
Nation over state
An overflow crowd at the St. Cloud Public Library gathered Friday to watch a live feed of Post competing, hanging on her every move as a crash prevented her from moving past the semifinals. But many Minnesota athletes in London think far more of nation than of state, when they dare think outside their event.
"I've been trying to keep my head on and not worry too much about what's been going on,'' Post said.
Told of Minnesota successes, she said, "That's good to hear. It's news to me.''
Whalen doesn't need much reason to take pride in an athlete from her home state.
"That's why you're here,'' she said. "You're representing your country, your state, your town, your family. That's why you want to do so well.''
Staff writer Rachel Blount contributed to this story.