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Commentator jumps into Olympic duty

About 30 miles outside Atlanta at the site of the Olympic equestrian park, Clearwater resident Gina Johnson is busy working for both broadcast and print media.

It's a job that includes writing daily features for NBC and working as press boss and news broadcaster for the U.S. Equestrian Team.

In a telephone interview Friday from the Olympic park in Conyers, Ga., Johnson said no one can enter the park without first emptying their pockets and purses. "It all gets inspected by two mean-looking Army guys," she said.

And everyone has to park 2 miles from the park, then take a 12-mile bus trip to the back entrance. "The front entrance is reserved for dignitaries and heads of state," she said.

Just how tight is security?

"The dogs were at the park last night sniffing for explosives and helicopters are flying over the area day and night," she said.

"The story everyone is talking about today is about a guy driving a garbage truck in the park. He stopped the truck and got out to pick up a bag that fell off and rolled into the woods," she said. "When he bent down to pick it up, a voice suddenly came out of a helicopter overhead and said, "Stay where you are.' When those soldiers shout, "Stop!' you don't dare run."

Horses and riders for the three-day competition that beganSunday had arrived at the park. "The horses have a tremendous sense of themselves _ they're lean and fit and their coats are so shiny you can see yourself in them," she said. "They know they're special and they're here for a big deal. Their riders look just like their horses _ lean with a little bit of fire in their eyes."

The 40-year-old Tampa native is well-known for her skills as a writer and communicator and her knowledge of equestrian competition at the world-class level. She did her first NBC news spot during the 1992 Barcelona Olympic selection trials and since then has done equestrian work for NBC and ESPN.

Several years ago she went to work for Stadium Jumping Inc. in Tampa and is its vice president of business development, a job that includes work as media official and commentator for the grand prix shows that Stadium Jumping manages and produces from New Hampshire to Florida.

"She's well-educated and well-rounded," said Gene Mische, president and founder of Stadium Jumping. "She's doing an excellent job as vice president of development. It's a very important area for us and she has produced great results. It seems that whatever she takes under her wing, she does very well."

Johnson has a dozen years' experience in commercial advertising, and she is co-owner of a television production company that specializes in grand prix equestrian events.

Bob Standish, executive director of the U.S. Equestrian Team, with headquarters in Gladstone, N.J., said he approved Johnson to be the Olympic press officer because:

"She's the best. She's very professional and she knows the sport inside and out.

"Her commentary is always to the point and succinct. She has a certain enthusiasm in her voice that carries over to the audience. It's a delight to have her on our team. I'm convinced she'll do a great job for us."

Johnson, who graduated from Seminole High School in 1973, said she has been fascinated with horses since she was a toddler and for about 10 years had a string of grand prix show-jumping horses.

She loves the sport.

"There's excitement and there's drama," she said, "and I don't care how many times I'm around this sport, I'm just in awe of a 1,000-pound animal that has enough faith and trust in the human on its back to hit race horse speeds going toward a jump that's 6 feet tall and 6 feet wide and has water at the base of it _ to use his power to clear that element and go to the next one. You can't make an animal that big and powerful do anything it doesn't want to do."

Mische admits to being a workaholic.

"Find what you love to do and you'll never work a day in your life _ I read that somewhere and it's true for me. If you took horses out of my life, I don't think you'd have anything left."

_ To hear Johnson's daily reports of the Olympic equestrian competition, call (900) 454-USET. The calls cost $1 a minute and are limited to two minutes.