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Originally published July 21, 2012 at 8:05 PM | Page modified July 25, 2012 at 8:37 AM

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Three Washington athletes capture essence of Olympics, could grab gold

Swimmer Nathan Adrian, basketball player Sue Bird and soccer player Hope Solo all will compete in London, which could be good news for Seattle fans starved for some joy.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Oh, how we need the Olympics right now. Here in the Pacific Northwest, our weather is the envy of a nation being baked into oblivion. Our sports psyche? Not so much.

It's hard to find a sporting landscape more desultory than this one. Nearly two weeks after the All-Star break, the Mariners remain deep in the cellar. Hyperventilating on the arena issue has dragged on for months with no end in sight, the debate devolving into nastiness. Civil discourse? Doing a sad fade, like Ichiro's once-metronomic dependability.

The Sounders' biggest noise is being made in the stands, not on the field, and even the Storm — in 2010 the last Seattle team to win a pro title — is 9-10 at the Olympic break.

It's the kind of break everyone could use about now, because in the midst of a spirit-sapping season, the Olympics are the surest thing going. The Games feature daily triumphs with a per-diem goose-bump quotient higher than any sporting event.

And with more than 40 athletes who have ties to Washington state, there are plenty of locals to watch. Our state's contingent includes a high-profile trio returning to the Olympics with excellent chances at gold in Nathan Adrian, Sue Bird and Hope Solo.

Sure, there will also be drug cheats and controversy and Bob Costas losing a lung or two in sheer excitement, which only adds to the crazy intensity of the Games' 17 days, starting with Friday's opening ceremony.

Every two years, Seattle embraces the Games more than most cities. For the past four Summer Olympics, TV ratings in the Seattle-Tacoma market were significantly higher than the national average, NBC affiliate KING-5 TV numbers show.

Of approximately 50 major markets, Seattle's national ranking for weekday prime-time ratings: No. 3 during the 2000 Games in Sydney; No. 10 during the 2004 Games in Athens and No. 19 at the 2008 Beijing Games. The numbers are even better during the Winter Games, but that's a story for another time.

When it comes to Olympics popularity in these parts, it helps that Washington state athletes are game. Over the next few weeks, we'll see some familiar faces and names on the 530-member U.S. team, the first in history to feature more women (269) than men (261). University of Washington rowers are heading to London in unprecedented numbers — 12 of them will compete for the U.S. and Canada.

Any competitor who has spent time living here could get a boost from London's expected wet and chilly weather, normal for us but a rare departure from the energy-sapping heat and humidity of most Summer Games.

Looking for local inspiration that has nothing to do with runs scored or arena debt? Watch U.S. women's soccer goalkeeper/resident celebrity Solo, from Richland, and Bird, the Storm's stellar point guard. Both are defending gold medalists and three-time Olympians.

Look also to an emerging star, Adrian, a Bremerton swimmer tabbed America's next sprint king by 10-time Olympic medalist and newly minted Olympic Hall of Famer Gary Hall Jr., who spent a couple years living here — doing laps at the Central District's Medgar Evers pool — after retiring from competition.

The Big Three are intriguing story lines to follow.

For Bird, returning to KeyArena in August with anything less than gold would be a shocker. Call them the Recurring Dream Team — the U.S. women haven't lost at the Olympics since 1992, a remarkable run that Bird hopes to contribute to beyond 2012. Bird still marvels at the effect the Games have on people.

"Joe Schmo, the average fan on the street, may not care anything about women's basketball, but as an American, he'll cheer his heart out for you," she said recently after one of her final practices in Seattle. "He'll be your biggest fan when you're playing a game, representing his country. He or she gives you instant respect. Everybody's your fan."

Bird plays pro ball here and overseas, but the Olympics remain the high bar.

"Growing up, most people think of the pro leagues as their goal. For me, when I was growing up, there was no WNBA. So being on the Olympic team, representing my country, that was my career goal as a basketball player. That's when I knew I had made it.

"My first selection to the national team in 2002, that's when I knew I had achieved that goal. And I had the same feeling when I played in the Olympics, the feeling that I had reached my dream, that I had reached the standard I had set for myself. It's what I had dreamed about since I was a little girl."

The 6-foot-6 Adrian, two inches taller than Michael Phelps, won gold in the 400-meter freestyle relay preliminary round in 2008 as a 19-year-old. Adrian showed his good-natured side after Beijing with an appearance on TV's "Mythbusters," where he swam in a lane of syrup to prove — well, we're not sure.

At top speed and minus the sticky hair, Adrian is impressive. He's a national champion in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle — swimming's marquee events before Phelps and Ryan Lochte siphoned the spotlight — and this was supposed to be Adrian's breakout Olympics.

But the sprints are also crapshoots. Adrian failed to qualify for the 50 freestyle in one of the biggest shocks of the Olympic trials. Surprise qualifier Anthony Ervin, who tied Hall for 2000 gold and has barely been heard from since, beat Adrian to the wall by eight-hundredths of a second behind Cullen Jones.

Eight hundredths. Think you had a bad day at work? How about pouring your soul into a four-year mission and coming up short by a fingertip? That's how suspenseful, and wrenching, the Olympic season can be.

Adrian will still swim the 100, a race he won at the trials, and is a strong bet to anchor the 400 free and medley relays.

"While you're at the Olympics, it's easier to say, 'Hey, I'm swimming for Team USA,' but when you're swimming at an individual level, it really is a different type of motivation," Adrian said. "I'm not sure if I've harnessed the same power that I've harnessed from competing for a team. But I'm on my way."

Since Beijing, where the women's soccer team eked out gold in overtime against Brazil, Solo's Q rating has taken a Beamonesque leap, due to her feisty turn on "Dancing with the Stars," posing nude in a sports magazine and the team's dramatic run in the 2011 World Cup, which ended with a shootout loss to Japan in the final.

"I just love the energy in the stands in world events," Solo said. "The closing ceremonies are fun, but for me it's all about meeting people when you least expect it. Meeting random athletes, having respect for different athletes and different countries and seeing that camaraderie within the U.S. athletes. It doesn't matter what sport you play, we're all pulling for one another. It's pretty cool."

Circumspect after major shoulder surgery that could have ended her career, Solo is going to London with the intention to take it all in.

"The World Cup is elusive to me because I can't quite obtain it," Solo said. "So I'm still going after it with everything I have. The Olympics, I just want to enjoy the moment because I've been there. Of course, I want another gold medal because I'm a competitor. I'll do whatever it takes, but I want to enjoy the moment."

So should we all.

Savor the Olympics while you can, because autumn is coming. Sure, the Huskies could be something special and the Seahawks might contend, and once again we'll hope for something better than the same old story.

But you might have to wait two years, when the flame is lit for the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, for "something better" to be a sure thing. An Olympic medal has a power all its own.

"You realize that competing in the Olympics for your country is big, but you don't truly understand," Bird said. "I remember watching when the 1992 (men's) Dream Team won a gold medal. But you don't realize what it means until you see others react to what you've done. When someone walks up to you and says, 'Let me see your gold medal. Wow!' Nothing you hear about can really prepare you for that."

Seattle Times sports editor Don Shelton, reporter Master Tesfatsion and freelancer Greg Echlin contributed to this article.

Hope Solo, left, and Sue Bird, right, are likely U.S. medalists in London

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