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Men’s Swimming: Witnessing History

Bill Brink | Thursday, September 4, 2008

Where were you when Michael Phelps defied eyesight?

Senior Jace Hopper was in an NBC truck outside the Water Cube in Beijing, watching 10 different cameras showing 10 different replays of Phelps sneaking ahead of Serbia’s Milo Cavic by a fingernail.

“I had a replay thing right with me, I could scroll back and do frame by frame,” Hopper said. “I’ve probably seen it over 100 times. I’ve heard a lot of people say they wish he didn’t [break the record], but I’m really glad he did because the sport of swimming is going to benefit from it.”

Hopper swam for Notre Dame before a shoulder surgery ended his competitive career.

He had an internship with NBC for the Olympics this summer, logging camera footage and creating clips for teasers. Hopper was working in the NBC truck when anchor Bob Costas interviewed Mark Spitz – who held the previous record for most gold medals in a single Olympics with seven – and Phelps at the same time. He and his co-workers got so excited when U.S. swimmer Jason Lezak pulled ahead of Alain Bernard of France in the 4×100 relay, he said, they broke two chairs.

Hopper said he was one of 100 or so interns working for the network. He left Aug. 2 and stayed until three days after the swimming competition ended. Hopper said he was surprised at the number of people that spoke English in Beijing, but after a while, the language barrier got to him.

“They did an excellent job getting ready for it,” he said. “There were people who could speak English everywhere.”

NBC brought in American catering – Hopper said he had steaks some nights – but eating out in Beijing brought with it inherent dangers.

“There were a lot of hand signals, pointing and gestures,” Hopper said. “You were hoping they would bring the right thing back. I went to a dumpling restaurant that was absolutely amazing. And you had to go traditional duck, you had to eat that.”

Hopper stayed about 25 minutes away from the Water Cube in the media village and said traveling out into Beijing made him feel like he was in a fish bowl because of all the eyes on him. Sometimes, he said, he was the only American within a square mile.

Hopper got up-close access to events: he sat in the front row for the U.S. vs. Australia basketball game, and watched the men’s and women’s tennis finals, track and field, fencing, diving, the Brazil vs. Argentina soccer game and the U.S. vs. Japan baseball game. One thing he didn’t get to do, however, was attend the opening ceremonies.

“Even some of our managers and bosses couldn’t get into it,” he said. “On top of your media credential, you had to have three different stickers.”

Hopper did sneak into National Stadium one afternoon, but ended up getting lost for half an hour. He said could see the fireworks during the opening ceremonies from the media village, though.

On his days off, Hopper got to sit in the Water Cube for several finals races. He sat behind American swimmer Ryan Lochte’s parents and Phelps’ mom for some of them. The experience of seeing Phelps’ achievement, he said, was amazing.

“To see that record, which will never be broken again, was phenomenal,” he said. “I have the China Daily from the next day, I’m gonna frame it. Him with his big smile and eight medals.”

Hopper swam on Notre Dame’s team until he was a junior, but was plagued by shoulder problems throughout his career. He suffered a torn labrum that kept him out of his sophomore season. The surgery to fix it was not complicated, Hopper said, with a short expected recovery time, but doctors discovered a complication about six months later. He had another surgery to cause captular shrinkage, or the shrinking of the rotator cuff around the muscles so it doesn’t slip out of the socket.

In his first race during of junior year, the 200-meter backstroke, he beat Notre Dame’s No. 1 backstroker and qualified for the Big East meet. Halfway through a race a few weeks later, however, he felt his shoulder pop again.

“That was pretty much almost defining moment that I was done,” he said. “My shoulder’s just had too much wear and tear, constantly swimming on it.”

Hopper decided to stop competitively swimming shortly after that, but is now an Irish assistant coach. He still gets to be at practice every day and travel with the team, which he enjoys.

“It’s unfortunate, but it’s life, you can’t really control what’s happened,” he said. “I don’t think I would have actually been able to go to the NBC thing if I was still swimming.”

Hopper will play a fun new role with the team this season: He will run the new scoreboard in the Rolfs Aquatic Center during meets. As an information technologies major, Hopper said, he is pretty technologically savvy and looks forward to working with the board, as well as being around the team at meets.

“I love technology. To get to play with something like that is absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “It’s a beautiful board, you can play movies on it.”