Hal Haig Prieste

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Saturday, September 9, 2000

One more Olympic moment

By Will Van Sant

The 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium, had wound down, and Hal Haig Prieste, an American of Armenian descent who had just won a bronze medal in platform diving, saw something that caught his eye: the Olympic flag.

Prieste shimmied up the pole, smack in the middle of the Olympic stadium, and snatched the banner. "When I saw it," Prieste said, "I had to go home with it."

The flag that flew in the Antwerp stadium was among the first emblazoned with the now-familiar five interlocking Olympic rings.

Prieste, at 103 the world's oldest living Olympian, lives at Sunbridge Care and Rehabilitation in Camden. Yesterday, he was surrounded by friends and other residents as the flag was brought out for a journey that will take it to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

On Monday in Sydney, Prieste will hand over the 80-year-old flag, now faded and thin as a moth's wing but very much intact, to Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee.

Prieste is ambivalent about losing the flag. "It's no good to me sitting in a suitcase," he said.

What makes him eager is the prospect of going to Australia. "I'm very excited to go because it keeps my Olympic experience alive," he said.

That experience is what Prieste says makes him the happiest, despite a long life filled with extraordinary adventures. Some might say even an Olympic medal pales.

In 1896, Prieste's parents and an older brother fled Armenia during a time of violent conflict. His father wore women's clothes because the Turks were letting only women and children leave the country, he said. His mother was pregnant with him.

"The Turks were killing," Prieste said. "They were Mohammedans and we were Christians; it was too dangerous, and my parents decided to come to America."

The family settled in Fresno, Calif. The coastal lifestyle lent itself to water sports, and the athletic Prieste was national diving champion by 1919 and made the Olympic team the following year.

While in Antwerp, Prieste met Hawaii's Duke Kahanamoku, an Olympic swimming champion and surfing pioneer.

"We used to go to the stadium together and work out," Prieste said. "We were good friends."

After the games, Prieste accepted Kahanamoku's offer to visit Hawaii. In 1921, Prieste returned to the shores of Southern California with a surfboard. He is credited by some with bringing surfing to America.

Prieste's athletic skills, developed from diving and surfing, caught the attention of Mack Sennett when the movie director visited Long Beach, Calif.

"I fooled around with him and did a couple tricks," Prieste recalled.

Soon, Prieste's star was launched as a member of Sennett's Keystone Kops. Stints with the Ringling Bros. Circus, the Ice Follies and vaudeville acts followed.

Prieste will be accompanied on his two-week visit to Australia by Carol and Nick LaMaina of Wildwood Crest. The couple became Prieste's caretakers a decade ago.

"He has no family," Carol LaMaina said. "We have become his family."

Prieste's hearing is failing, and so is his sight, but otherwise his body is strong and his mind clear.

"He's very animated and quite healthy," said Christopher Lyden, another friend at yesterday's send-off. "For someone who will be 104 in November, he is in fantastic shape."

Prieste was to depart from the Philadelphia airport last night, but before taking his leave, he shared what he called his philosophy of life.

"Keep your hand on the helm of thought," Prieste said. "Right thought is mastery, calmness is power, noble character is not a thing of chance."

The United States Olympic Committee is sponsoring Prieste's trip to Australia.

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