By Bob Sansevere
MINNEAPOLIS, Oct. 9. PEOPLE wanted to see it and touch it. "Where is it, Tom?" someone asked. Tom Malchow reached into his blue U.S. Olympic team
backpack and pulled out the gold medal he received for winning the 200-meter butterfly at the Sydney Games in Australia.
The medal was the size of a giant chocolate chip cookie
and was attached to a blue ribbon. Along with dozens of friends and neighbors and family members, there
also were TV cameras Thursday evening at Gate E10 of
Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport and they all came to see Malchow and his gold medal.
He had just returned from Sydney, a very tired yet very
satisfied young man. "The race took 1 minute and 55 seconds, but those moments will last a lifetime," said Malchow, 24, who grew up in Mendota Heights. "My
world record may not stand, but they can't ever take my
gold medal away."
Malchow held the medal against his chest for everyone to see. He never put it around his neck, though. "Tom doesn't wear it," said his mother, Mary Jo. "He's too modest."
Tom Malchow is modest and humble and dedicated and the
best in the world at what he does. He's all the things America should want its heroes to be. "He gives us a great example," said Patrick Vandam, a member of the
St. Thomas Academy swim team. When he was in high
school, Malchow swam for St. Thomas Academy and set numerous records, five of which still stand. "He gives us all something to shoot for," Vandam said.
Seventeen members of the swim team showed up to welcome
Malchow when he arrived at the airport. They brought along a 36-foot banner that said, "St. Thomas Academy Congratulates Olympic Gold Medalist Tom Malchow."
Malchow's name was spelled out in gold lettering, a nice touch.
When Malchow walked out of the jetway, the swim team
members,dressed in their Junior ROTC uniforms, were lined up in two rows and yelled in unison, "Fly, Tom, Fly." It was a reference to what had become sort of a mantra for Malchow's family and friends. Many of them wore T-shirts to the airport that said, "Fly, Malchow,
Malchow, a backpack slung over each shoulder, smiled as
he walked between the swimmers. He made a beeline for his mother and his father,Tim. He kissed his mother. She had a single red rose for him. He then shook hands with his father, Tim, then moved on to hug his paternal
grandparents, Bill and Elaine Malchow.
And then everyone else closed in, and Malchow was asked
to bring out the gold medal.
It's quite an attention grabber, that gold medal. "You show it to people, and they're drawn to it," Malchow said. "They're drawn to the story behind it, how you got to be a gold-medal winner. It's not one of those things that happen by accident."
When he went through customs in San Francisco, one of
the customs agents noticed a round mass of something in his backpack hen it passed through the X-ray machine and was about to have him empty the contents of the backpack when she noticed his red, white and blue shirt and it all made sense.
"She said, 'I know you. I know what that is,'" Malchow said.
The gold medal stayed in his backpack until folks back
here started asking to see it. After he held it in front of him, mostly for the benefit of the TV cameras, Malchow handed his medal to someone in
the crowd. He walked away and began thanking all the people for coming to greet him.
Malchow shook hands with his cousin, John Schwalbach,
who pointed to the young blonde woman at his side. Schwalbach told Malchow the woman was his fiancee, Kerry Turner. Malchow extended his hand and said, "Hi, I'm Tom.'
It seemed an odd thing, Malchow introducing himself to
anyone. By now, people had come from nearby gates and out of a pub just down the concourse. They all knew that Tom Malchow, gold-medal winner, was in their midst.
"He's very humble. Very gracious," Schwalbach said.
"He doesn't expect anyone to assume who he is."
"His other cousin just got married, and Tom was the
first one to say congratulations instead of the other way around," Turner said.
An aunt was trying on the gold medal when Malchow was
asked to take a photo with the swim team. He retrieved the medal for the photo, then handed it to the swimmers who each made sure to touch it. They couldn't
have been more thrilled if they had been passing around
the Holy Grail.
"He's the best at what he does in the world," said Kip
Windem, the three-time defending state champion in the 500-yard freestyle event from St. Thomas Academy.
"Meeting someone who's achieved so much success is kind of cool."
Malchow might not be finished with success. He plans to
keep swimming. There are the world championships next summer, and then he might just decide to continue competing right on through the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.
And, after that, he might hang up his, well, whatever it is that swimmers would hang up.
"When I'm done with swimming, I'll get away from it,"
Malchow said. "But I'll still want to do something to keep my interest. Maybe something to do with the business side of sports."
He still has time, years to decide. Thursday night, all
that was on his mind was getting to his parents' home in Mendota Heights, aving dinner and getting some sleep. He had been traveling more than 24 hours and he
was whipped. But happy, so very happy.
As he left the airport, someone asked if he had gotten
his gold medal back. He tapped the left front pocket of his blue jeans and smiled. "It's right here," he said.
(Reprinted with permission from Pioneer Press.
Bob Sansevere's column regularly appears Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail him at email@example.com.)