Her eyes twinkle in the morning sun, and her smile beams. Looking out across the water while standing on the boardwalk at the Bolsa Chica wetlands, she glances up as a large pelican swoops by, just several feet over our heads. She laughs like a girl decades younger than 78, but then age doesn't really mean too much to Olga Connolly.
Born Olga Fikotová, in 1956 she won a gold medal in the discus competition at the 1956 Olympic games held in Melbourne, Australia. Also at these games, Olga met and fell in love with well-known American athlete Harold Connolly.
The New York Times editorialized: "The H-bomb overhangs us like a cloud of doom. The subway during rush hours is almost impossible to endure. But Olga and Harold are in love, and the world does not say no to them."
Back home in her native Czechoslovakia, the couple's romance got the headlines — not the gold medal. Olga was accused of being a traitor by the Communist authorities, and her marriage to Harold represented the end of her career as a Czechoslovak athlete. But that didn't stop her. Olga became a U.S. citizen and went on to represent her new country at four Olympic games.
So respected was she by her teammates that Olga was chosen to carry the U.S. flag at the opening ceremony of the 1972 Munich Olympics in Munich, Germany.
Throughout her career, Olga captured five U.S. national titles and raised the American record four times, adding more than 15 feet to the previous record.
Olga and Harold Connolly were divorced in the mid-1970s, but their children certainly carried on the athletic legacy of the family. One of their sons became a nationally known javelin thrower and decathlete, while one of their daughters played on the U.S. national volleyball team. (Harold Connolly passed away last year at the age of 79).
Olga has lived in Huntington Beach for two years. Several months ago, she joined the Miracles of the Marsh docent team from the Bolsa Chica Land Trust. She meets at the wetlands most weeks to teach visiting school kids about nature. As she wistfully described, nature, as much as athletics, has always played a big part in her life.
"Since I was a young girl in Czechoslovakia, I've always respected nature," she said. "The peace and solitude, the sound of the streams on the rocks — it's always been vital to my life. I explain to my grandkids today what it was like to wander, plucking seeds from the ripening wheat and munching on them in the beautiful fields. It's so hard to find open places today. That's why I love it here."
Entranced by the wetlands after moving here, the environmentally conscious Olga realized she had a connection to the place where she'd often walk, jog and simply get lost in the beautiful sights and sounds.
"In the early 1990s, I received a request to write a letter on behalf of protecting these wetlands," she said. "I was living in Culver City then and did not know anything about them. After I first visited here a couple of years ago, I realized this was the exact place I'd written about."
Then, while wandering here one day, she met a man who was selling calendars on behalf of the Land Trust. They got to talking, and then Olga, a former development coordinator for the Los Angeles center of the California Conservation Corps and accomplished environmental activist, decided to get involved by becoming a docent to help educate the visiting students.
"I thought I knew a lot until they started training me," she laughed. "But they are so knowledgeable and dedicated, I realized I had a lot to learn."
But she learned everything she needed to know to lead the kids, which she does today with great joy. Then again, she seems to do everything with great joy.
"I teach fitness classes at UCI," she said. "I teach many private students, and I tell everyone the same thing — you must enjoy exercise. Without joy, you won't approach it with passion. I see people today jogging and working and they look like they are at war — all serious and intense. No smile, no joy. It looks like work. For me, whether it was the discus, or jogging, or anything health-related, joy played a big part."
She still speaks with a pronounced Czech accent in a warm voice that exudes charm, wisdom and curiosity. And she has a mission beyond just the wetlands.
"Kids today are not in shape like they used to be. They worship high-paid professional athletes, but they don't get out and play the sports on their own. We have to make sure, as parents and teachers, that we help children learn the importance of health and exercise, and how to enjoy it," she said.
That she shows no sign of slowing down at 78 simply illustrates her life philosophy.
"Age is simply what you make of it," she said. The fit, energetic, eternally girlish Olympian gazed about the wetlands. "We need room for the human spirit to roam," she stated quietly. "It's in our nature. It's why places like this must be protected, and why we must teach children not just the importance of exercise and fitness, but of appreciating nature."
Thank you, Harbour View Elementary School Principal Cindy Osterhout, for inviting me to the wonderful third-grade presentation of "The History of Huntington Beach … A Musical!" It was wonderfully prepared and performed — and I learned a thing or two!
Note to readers: My son and I will be traveling to the Arctic next week. If you'd like to follow our adventure, I'll be bogging from the ship at http://www.quarkexpeditions.com/blog/introduction-spitsbergen-svalbard-chris-epting039s-blog.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at email@example.com.