My Date with Olympic Gymnast Svetlana Khorkina
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I pulled up to the curb in my Athenian rental car where she stood sipping an Ice at an outdoor café, as we had arranged. Tossing the Ice into a street-side receptacle and ignoring photographers, she dismounted from the sidewalk with a whip back into a round-off. That got her to the passenger side of the car, and as I held open the door for her, she vaulted into the seat with an aerial salto. I deducted a tenth when her bare, chalky foot slammed into my radio console, knocking it off my pre-selected soft jazz station and onto some ear-splitting folksongs bleated by Homeric shepherds.

Looking like a million euros in a hot orange leotard and with her hair down, she flashed a grin and apologized about the radio. But there was no taking back the tenth, not when I had forgotten the original setting and had to hit buttons a million times to find it again. Of course, it was revenge enough that Svetlana had to curl herself up like a fist to fit in the car. I'd told those damn Greeks back at the rental office that I needed plenty of headroom for the lanky gymnast –- 'Think Big Bird,' I'd said, since, well, they were bound to know Big Bird if they didn't know the diva -- and they gave me a Geo Metro. When I said a Metro wasn't roomy enough and that I'd seen a Toyota SUV sitting on their lot, they told me that Big Bird often rented a Metro from them, and anyway, the SUV was reserved for U.S. basketballer Allen Iverson.

  
 
At the restaurant Svetlana floor-ex'd all the way to our table, creating a sensation. She stuck the landing right beside her chair to rousing cheers and cries of 'Svetlana! Svetlana!' By the time I joined her, she was posing in her chair like royalty and reaching out with her long, wing-like arms to sign the menus and napkins of her fans at the surrounding tables. Her adoring audience was satisfied for the time being. We ordered drinks, an austere carrot juice for her and a beer for me. Our fawning waiter delivered these to us instantly, muttering something about how the Oracle at Delphi had predicted a great evening for him, with a stupendous tip.

Sipping her vegetable cocktail, Svetlana told me that she was glad we hadn't had to wait for a table in the bar since her weakest event in any restaurant was the bar stool. She often vaulted right over it without any semblance of sitting, or sometimes fell off it, as she did in Sydney in 2000. I told her if she'd have a drink with me at the bar after dinner, a real drink like a triple Ouzo, I'd spot for her in case of a fall. She said if I behaved myself, she might, but meanwhile I should focus on dinner and a movie and keep my pants on.

We ordered our entrées, spinach salad for Svetlana and grilled octopus with cheese for me, and then the gymnast, perhaps because the Ice she consumed earlier had combined forces with the carrot juice, indicated that she was about to start a tumbling run that would take her to the ladies. She only hoped her final layout wouldn't cause her to overstep into the pay phone area for an automatic deduction. She plugged in her iPod, set it to music that she had already chosen for this eventuality, and took off. Her routine, besides the mandatory springs and leaps, included a lot of gawky waving and bending of her bony arms and legs that reminded me of really bad ballet. I decided that old-fashioned moves like that weren't going to garner much gold in the still-to-come individual all-around, but I kept my opinion to myself.

Our food arrived just as she returned to the table with a full-twisting double back. For all her impressive frame and energy output, Svetlana had the appetite of a sparrow. She only picked at her salad, and chided me as I dug into my greasy octopus.

'You overweight Americans remind me of predators,' she said, showing me her famous pout. 'Big, bloody predators like raptors.'

'Oh?' I said.

'Soon you'll need one of those X-large toilet seats that are made especially for the X-large behinds of Americans,' she went on.

I thanked her for the diet advisory and expressed my sorrow that the Russian team had only captured the Bronze. I also predicted that U.S. gymnast Carly Patterson would take gold in the women's all-around.

The last I saw of Svetlana, she was doing front handsprings out the restaurant door and into a taxi. There was always a little cloud of chalk dust around her.

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