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A Walk Around The Serpentine During London 201203:52
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Of all the spectacles at the 2012 London Olympics, Bill Littlefield says his favorite was the Women's Marathon Swim. (Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
Of all the spectacles at the 2012 London Olympics, Bill Littlefield says his favorite was the Women's Marathon Swim. (Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
This article is more than 2 years old.

This story originally aired on July 23, 2016. This week it appears again as a part of our ‘Best Of‘ show.

Anybody can walk through Hyde Park.

You don’t need a ticket to do it. Even when the Olympics are going on in London, which they were in the summer of 2012, the last time I was in Hyde Park, you can walk around as if they Olympics weren’t there.

Set in the vastness of Hyde Park there is a body of water called the Serpentine. It’s 40 acres of “recreational lake.” Forty acres. I looked it up.

I didn’t know it was that big when my wife and I came upon it on a hot, windless August afternoon. We had seen gymnastics. We would see basketball. But we didn’t have tickets to see anything that day, so we were in Hyde Park, and so were a lot of other people. They were lining the banks of the Serpentine, except for the ones who were walking across a bridge, which might have been the bridge the marks the boundary between Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Or maybe not. It wasn’t the only bridge. But it was the one my wife and I stopped on, because we noticed that there were people swimming in the Serpentine. There were also people in boats. Apparently their job was to keep the geese away from the swimmers.

It looked like a competition, which is because it was. It was the Women’s Marathon Swim. The course was marked by bright, inflatable buoys around which women from Spain, Italy, Germany, France and Great Britain were churning. Women from Mexico, the Czech Republic and the U.S. were doing that, too.

We watched them, until a police officer told us we couldn’t stop on the bridge.

“You mean we have to have tickets?” my wife asked.

“No,” said the officer. “You just can’t stop on the bridge.”

We went back the way we’d come, turned left at the end of the bridge, and found a spot on the bank of the lake where we could continue to watch the women swim.

On the far shore, across the expanse of the Serpentine at what may have been the finish line, there was a grandstand. It was full of people who probably had tickets.

When I was a kid, people selling baseball programs used to shout, “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard!” That was before the players’ names were on the backs of their uniforms.

That day, we couldn’t have told the players even if we’d had a scorecard. They were mostly underwater.

But that wasn’t the point.

“No tickets,” my wife said.

“Right,” I said.

At one point we left the bank of the lake and walked to a booth where a man was selling ice cream. When we returned to the bank, the women were still swimming long laps around the buoys. We hadn’t missed a thing.

As anyone who has ever gone to the Olympics knows, we had paid a lot of money for the tickets to the gymnastics and basketball competitions. You would recognize the names of a lot of the winners of those competitions if I mentioned them here. Maybe that’s why the tickets were so expensive.

You probably don’t recognize the name of Éva Risztov, the Hungarian woman who won the Marathon Swim in the Serpentine that afternoon. Haley Anderson, an American, got the silver medal. She was four-tenths of a second behind Ms. Resztov, which may have broken Ms. Anderson’s heart, since she and Éva Risztov had both been swimming for nearly two hours when that happened. The fourth-place finisher missed a medal by a fraction of a second.

On the evening of that day in Hyde Park, I had no idea who’d won. I didn’t know until I looked it up much later. And before that afternoon, I hadn’t even known the Olympics included a marathon swim in a lake. All I knew was that my wife and I had watched the Olympics for free. In the park. I felt as if I’d put something over on the corporate sponsors.

When people ask about our trip to London, my wife and I talk about the gymnasts we saw and the two basketball games, one of which included LeBron James, and that was all great, but the story we most enjoy telling is the one about the event we saw for free, without intending to do it, by walking into Hyde Park.

This segment aired on December 31, 2016.

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