In approximately 100 days, the premier sporting event of the quadrennium will begin: the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. As always, we in the media are determined to give you the comprehensive coverage -- all the ceremony, events, analysis, statistics, profiles and excruciatingly incidental details you'll need to fully appreciate the Games. Of course, that means we have to start right now. So let's kick things off and go up close and personal with three of America's least well-known frontrunners.
Name: Malcolm Vanderfeller
Event: Equestrian, Individual Dressage
Hometown: Nantucket, Mass.
Background: Unlike most world-class equestrians, Vanderfeller started life in relative privation. He rode a rental horse until the age of 6; didn't own his first pair of jodhpurs until age 7; and couldn't afford a bodyguard to keep him from getting beat up by bullies for wearing jodhpurs until he turned 8. But despite these hardships, he kept riding. Kept winning. Then, in 1981, on his 18th birthday, tragedy struck -- Vanderfeller's mount of nearly a dozen years, Not Rented, died in a yachting accident.
"There'd been a little too much celebrating. Obviously. I don't remember him coming aboard," recalls Vanderfeller. "I do remember the tough, important lesson I learned that day, though: Drunk horses can't swim."
In his early twenties, he was the first and only non-French athlete to be accepted at the famed Ecole des Chevaliers near Paris but was largely snubbed by his peers since he was the only rider to smell better than his horse.
After returning to the U.S., he put together a series of competitive victories that stunned the equestrian world, though you'd've had a tough time proving that since most of that ilk maintains a stony, indifferent facade. Then, two years ago, at the height of his success, Vanderfeller's life was turned upside-down when he was arrested and charged with the murder of his girlfriend. About the incident, he says only, "I thank God every day that I'm in a tax bracket rarely convicted of that crime."
Today, he's back in top form and totally focused on winning. "I'm lucky to be riding such a super horse," he says, then adds, "but if we don't take Gold, she'll be super glue."
Name: Shasta Sproing
Event: Women's Beach Volleyball
Hometown: Sacramento, Calif.
Background: Sproing is dedicating her Olympic performance to her parents, both of whom she lost earlier this year. "They get lost a lot," she says. "They have like zero sense of direction. One time, when I was about 12, we were driving to a volleyball match across town and got so twisted around we ended up in Gallup, N.M., five days later."
That Shasta's in Sydney competing at all is a near miracle and a tribute to her incredible drive, indomitable spirit and the U.S. 9th District Court of Appeals. "In 1996, I developed bursitis in my left arm, which made it really painful to move. So I asked the Beach Volleyball Association to prohibit my opponents from hitting the ball to my left, you know, from taking unfair advantage of my disadvantage." They refused; she sued. And won. A victory that was upheld on appeal.
Shasta is also one of the few openly gay Olympians, and she's often asked about her longtime on- and off-court partner, Peggy "Pogo" DeMaccho. To those questions, she offers this stock response: "All I can say is, win or lose, the best part of any match is helping Pogo get the sand out of her swimsuit."
Name: Millie Broncos
Event: Modern Pentathlon
Hometown: Denver, Colo.
Background: Broncos doesn't mind one bit telling people what the pentathlon is. "The long jump, the discus, the javelin, seven card stud and dentistry," she ticks off. What she doesn't talk to too many people about is her Satan worship. "I'm just competing the best I can ... with a little help from the Monarch of Hell."
Growing up in the heart of Colorado's capital city, young Millie was far from being a natural athlete, which was something of a disappointment to her parents, the Denver Broncos (the team had found her abandoned in Mile High Stadium as a baby and raised her as their own). It wasn't until she was visiting relatives -- the Denver Nuggets -- that she discovered her innate ability to jump. From there, she was just four events shy of mastering the pentathlon -- five if you count the fact that her demonstrated jumping ability was in the vertical, not the horizontal; six if you count carelessly. But her years of athletic struggle ended on the day she made her pact with the Devil. "I'll definitely win Gold," she says. "Then, I want my own line of Nikes. I'm thinking, Air Cloven Hoof."