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The Gilbert Arenas of Paddling


The first time I saw Benn Fraker at the U.S. Olympic Media Summit, I was wandering through some hallway and he was encouraging an NBC makeup person to outfit him with black eyeliner.

The second time I saw him, he was telling me that he listens to Elliott Smith before competitions, while his press attache person kept score on a little piece of paper.

"We've been getting so bored with all these clichéd interview questions that the only way to make it interesting was to have a running pool," Fraker later explained. "Bill [the press guy] keeps a tally in the back of what we have and haven't heard, and we go sort of over-under each time. Like, my standing guess right now is that 70 percent we will have been asked before."

By the third time I met this 19-year old canoer from outside Atlanta, I shouldn't have been surprised to find out that he has a blog. Well, two blogs.

"You should check it out, BennFraker.com," he said. "I've got that one, which is more personal, and I don't know when it's gonna be up but I've got one on NBCOlympics.com which is going to be obviously a little more censored. They told me no swear words, and I have to use capital letters and stuff."

His NBC blog, I'm guessing, won't include an introduction in which he discusses the fine line "between giving an accurate real-life portrayal of my thoughts and exploits, and not sounding like an asshole." From his blog, and the rest of his Web site, you can also learn that he likes indie rock (Silver Jews and Wilco, as if you couldn't guess), hates capital letters, and--like certain former grocery-store-employed bloggers trying to convince other journalists to stab them in the skull with an ice-pick if something interesting doesn't happen here within the next 24 hours--is incapable of completing a written paragraph without some sort of depressing and/or ironic aside.

For example, from his abridged auto-biography:

My story begins in a hospital room. I was born in a hospital. After my birth, my parents moved me into their house, and probably put me into a crib.

16 years after my birth, I won the Junior Pre-World Championships for slalom canoeing. Somewhere in between then and my birth, I started kayaking, began racing, and then, thank heavens, switched from kayak to canoe. Some days I wish all of that never happened. Some days I think I would be happier going to school full time, working in a grocery store, and spending my weekends drinking with friends. That, however, is neither here nor there.
Most sane people loathe these massive scripted media gatherings, because interviews with strangers in hotel ballrooms usually feel as natural as Davey Johnson in a suit coat. (Yes, that happened too.) Most normal people, whether journalist or athlete, somehow find the ability to ask the necessary-but-repetitive question--like "What would it mean for you to go to the Olympics?"--or give the necessary-but-boring answer--like "I can't even put it into words,"--and then smile a lot and hug various people and go eat at a steakhouse or something. And Benn?

I have no idea why the wires moved this photo of him, but it's scary. (Al Bello/Getty)

"My answers have gotten so outlandish," he said between interviews. "I'm just getting so bored with that [junk] that I just tell 'em what I know they don't want to hear."

Such as?

"The last one I went to, I told 'em that going to the Olympics would mean a really long plane flight," he said.

Their reaction?

"Stunned silence," he said.

No need to say he should be grateful for the attention, because basically he is: he knows that media attention pays the bills, he knows that people find his act sort of funny but that it has the potential to turn annoying, he knows that the same answers that used to get him in trouble in school now make for oddly compelling sound-bites. Still, like most of us would be, he's bored, and he's not going to give 34 separate speeches about the meaning of the Olympic dream. Like, you know those overwrought, softly lit, from-tragedy-to-victory pieces that fuel Olympic television coverage?

"I don't cry when I see those," Fraker said. "You know what I really hate about that, is that they find a guy who's not necessarily extraordinary for any reason other than a family tragedy. Like, they'll find a guy who's had reasonable success and has moderate athletic talent, and they'll be like, 'Aw man, this dude's uncle was killed in a TRAIN WRECK! Let's do a special on him!' "

Which, let's be honest, is the same criticism that would be leveled by any normal, Wilco-listening, Ayn Rand-reading, lower-case-letter-blogging college kid. So does Benn Fraker even like the Olympics, you're wondering?

"Hell yeah," he said. "I watch it all the time. I like sports. I'm just tired of--and I wasn't nearly this cynical this morning--I'm just tired of all the stigma, where they're setting you up to give the clichéd heroic answer. People aren't actually like that. I just think people should be more straight about themselves."

By Dan Steinberg  |  April 15, 2008; 3:33 PM ET
Categories:  Olympics  
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