TRUE COLORS: Locals fly flags proudly for Olympics

Published 12:30 am Sunday, July 29, 2012

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION by LAUREN WOOD / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Dianne Watson was born in England and lived in New Zealand, from left, Jean-Claude Coullerez’s home country is France, Rita Beane moved to the United States from Belarus, and Elizabeth Udemgba, with her daughter Chinwe, 13, calls both the United States and Nigeria home.

NATCHEZ — Sporting the home colors in a sea of Stars and Stripes isn’t always easy.

Internationals living in the Miss-Lou — thousands of miles and in some cases an ocean away from home — admit being so far from the fans of their homeland, the culturally specific sporting events they grew up loving and the atmosphere of their countries can make being a true fan difficult.

But as the world plays for the next two weeks, that changes.

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When the Olympics take center stage, the flags come out, proud hearts well up and everyone has an excuse to cheer — for the home country and for America.

From England

The 2012 Summer Olympics are extra special for Ferriday resident Dianne Watson, whose true home is London’s East End.

Memories of the exact region that is now playing host to the games flood back to her as she tunes in.

“I’ve been surprised how I feel about it,” Watson said. “I keep having images of how it was when I was a girl.”

Watson was born in England and moved to New Zealand, where her father is from, when she was 1.

But at age 12, she returned to London’s East End and began forming the memories she holds tight today.

Watson moved to the United States in the 1960s as a governess to a family in Rhode Island and later joined the U.S. Navy.

She is excited for the Olympic events, but Watson said she is most excited to see the East End’s Olympic makeover.

“It blows my mind thinking about the transformation and gentrification of the East End,” she said. “When I was a girl, if you lived on the lower end of London, you were a cockney. I’m really excited to see what they’ve done.”

Still, Watson is hoping to see many British athletes atop the podium at the Olympics, especially in her favorite Olympic sports, swimming, track and canoeing.

“Of course canoe racing is a very English sport,” Watson said. “We used to watch them going down the River Thames when I was a girl.”

But Watson doesn’t have just one favorite team. She’s also pulling for New Zealand and the United States.

With the world’s games in her hometown, though, the next two weeks may be more about nostalgia than anything.

“I think it will be emotional,” Watson said. “I think I’ll be sentimental about my feelings of the area, feelings that have been dormant for a long time.”

From Mexico

Maya Helbling views the Olympic games as much responsibility as sport.

As a Mexican married to an American and raising children with dual nationality, the Olympics present the perfect time to teach her two sons to love their other country.

“I always watch the opening ceremony, and I try to include the kids as much as possible,” Maya said. “For the important matches, I’ll paint their faces with the Mexico colors.”

Maya, a native of Reynosa, Mexico, moved to Natchez nine years ago with her husband, Jody, after they met while he was in the northern Mexico city on business.

Staying true to her Mexican roots, she watches the Mexican soccer team compete every chance she can.

Though the World Cup is a bigger stage for her country’s soccer passion — and her family’s fanaticism — Maya will be watching when Mexico takes the field in Olympic soccer, even though no Mexican soccer team has ever been awarded an Olympic medal.

Her young sons don’t quite grasp her love of the sport yet, but that’s exactly why Maya thinks tuning in this week is important.

“They still just sit kind of quietly until we score and they hear me yell, ‘Goal!’”

From France

For Jean-Claude Coullerez cheering for Les Bleus from his now long-time home in the Miss-Lou gets a little more difficult each year.

Coullerez, a native of France, moved to Canada in 1969 and eventually moved to the Miss-Lou in 1991.

During his younger years, Coullerez said any kind of Olympic sport would catch his interest, but those days aren’t as frequent now that he’s 72 and far away from French comrades with whom to watch the sports.

“I was always watching France compete in every sport, but I don’t watch a lot of sports now,” Coullerez said. “You have to be in the right atmosphere, because it’s best when you’re in a group of people, getting involved and commenting on the game.

“There aren’t too many (French) people here to do that with.”

Instead, Coullerez will watch these games to find teaching tools he can use in his French classroom at Cathedral High School.

“I’ll show a slideshow with different countries participating in the Olympic games,” Coullerez said. “We’ll make practice sentences in French about the different sports played at the Olympics.”

Coullerez does still enjoy watching his country’s flag be carried proudly by participating athletes in the opening ceremony, he said.

“It’s always good to see the flag displayed at the Olympics,” Coullerez said. “I always watch the opening ceremony, sometimes to see if they do better than the last time.”

His greatest interest in the games this year, though, lies fittingly with a team from his new homeland.

“I think the (United States) girls (soccer) team can be good this year,” Coullerez said. “That will be interesting to watch.

“I don’t miss France really, the language and the food more than anything. When I first came here, I was starving for soccer and rugby games, but not really anymore.”

From Belarus

Rita Beane has lived in the United States for 10 years, though she still makes annual trips back home to Belarus.

When the Olympic games roll around, even though she’s not a big sports fan, Beane said she compulsively checks the scores two or three times a day, not only to see if Belarusian or Russian athletes have medaled, but American athletes as well.

“I am proud of my country, and I am proud of where I am,” Beane said. “I feel like I represent my country here.”

For Beane, the Olympic games are about more than just competition between countries — they’re about the world coming together.

“Traditionally, it was a time when countries stopped fighting and came together for the games,” Beane said.

“When we talk about sports, there are no borders, there is just competition, and this is wonderful for everybody to participate in such competitions. It doesn’t matter if it is Belarus or Russia or the United States — I wish for all of them to win.”

From Nigeria

Elizabeth Udemgba, who immigrated from Nigeria 20 years ago, said she follows soccer during the Olympic games, but especially when the United States or Nigeria are in the semifinals or the quarterfinals.

Because of the way the soccer matches and playoffs are structured, Udemgba said she’s never been forced to choose between rooting for her homeland or her new home.

Even when the two countries do come up against each other, Udemgba said she’s happy with the outcome.

“The U.S. is in everything; whichever (sport) Nigeria is not represented in, the U.S. is represented,” she said.

“I want both of them to win anyway.”