Marysville Olympian ‘couldn’t stop smiling’

It was nearly 2 a.m. in Beijing on Saturday when Haley Nemra answered her cell phone, but the thrill in her voice from half a world away indicated that the Marysville native was going to be enjoying this night for a while longer.

Nemra, a 2008 graduate of Marysville-Pilchuck High School, had just returned from the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Nemra, whose father, Korap Nemra, is from the Marshall Islands, only recently gained Marshallese citizenship and will run the 800 meters for the country in its first Olympics.

On Friday night, she was the athlete chosen by the Marshall Islands to wear the traditional Marshallese attire, consisting of a grass skirt and top.

Nemra said she couldn’t stop smiling throughout the night, and it’s a good thing, given the number of photo requests she and wrestler Waylon Muller, who was carrying the Marshall Islands flag, received before and during the ceremony.

“It was amazing,” Nemra said. “I was in the whole Marshallese attire, so all of these different countries kept wanting to get pictures with me and the wrestler, who was also wearing it. I just couldn’t stop smiling, it was so cool. I couldn’t believe that I was standing there.”

In front of 91,000 people at National Stadium, nicknamed the Bird’s Nest, Nemra went from high school athlete to Olympian on Friday night, and hours later, she still sounded as though she couldn’t believe it.

“I was nervous,” she said. “It was just kind of surreal. I was walking out thinking, ‘Wow, I’m in front of all of these people.’ I was nervous, and I was scared that the skirt was going to fall, so that was nerve-wracking. Once I got in there looking up into the crowd, it was amazing. It was crazy, a good time … We got out there and just started marching out. Everyone was going crazy.”

Nemra, one of five athletes competing for the Marshall Islands, arrived in Beijing on Wednesday and has been getting used to life in the Athletes Village. She is still a bit shocked to be sharing a village with many of the world’s top athletes.

“I’ve just been getting adjusted, getting used to everything,” she said. “The food is cool. There are all the different kinds of foods you could want. The dorms are pretty cool, and the village itself is so cool to be in with all the athletes. Someone came up to me and said, ‘I was playing ball with Kobe Bryant, oh my gosh.’ It’s just so cool.”

And yes, she really did say “cool” four times in about 10 seconds.

Such is life for an 18-year-old high school grad turned surprise Olympian. Since finding out only two months ago that she would be running in the Olympics, Nemra has been busy training for the race of her life while also preparing for college at the University of San Francisco, where she is expected run cross country and track starting in the fall.

Nemra will spend the next week training, getting acclimated to her new surroundings, and seeing some sights if she has time. Next Friday, she will return to National Stadium for the prelims of the 800-meter run.

“I’m getting a little nervous,” she said of the race. “Just being in that stadium and looking at that crowd and how huge it actually was, yeah, I’m a little nervous. Thankfully I’m going to be able to practice and just see what it’s like to be in there, but with that amount of people, it was just insane. There were so many people.”

Cool, indeed.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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