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By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian
BY JOE CONROY Special to The Californian
Visible from Interstate 5 is a tribute to one of Kern County's firefighters. The chain-link fence that sits just above the highway holds colored cups in the shape of the Olympic rings, the letters USA and the name Jim.
That tribute is situated across Dennis McCarthy Drive from Kern County Fire Station 55, where Jimmy Watkins has worked since 2004.
Well, every day that he's not training for or competing in the Olympics, that is.
Watkins, a Bakersfield native, recently returned home from London, where he finished sixth in men's sprint track cycling at the London Games just a few weeks ago.
Now he's getting back to work as a full-time firefighter, back to normalcy.
"It's great to be back home with my family ... and I had a great experience," Watkins said Tuesday morning, a blue and white Station 55 ladder truck behind him. "You don't really understand what it is to be an Olympian until you get there and you see the environment and what it's all about."
"It all happens so fast and you don't really grasp the magnitude of it, but now, it feels great.
"It is also different as far as being around all the other athletes. It's great and grand, but when you're actually there and eating lunch with them -- somebody who just won a gold medal -- and you see them in the lunch line, it kind of normalizes it. It kind of makes it seem like maybe this is possible. It's kind of motivating."
Watkins, who turns 30 Sunday, started cycling about seven years ago, doing it just to get in and stay in shape. Just a few years later he decided to ramp it up and take it more seriously.
He's since competed for the U.S. team in the Pan American Games twice and took first place in 2008 (Keirin, Sprint and Team Sprint) and 2010 (Team Sprint) at the USA Cycling Elite Track National Championships held in Carson.
So when he lined up for his first race in the United Kingdom's capitol, he wasn't overwhelmed by the moment.
"It's kind of the same (as the Pan Am Games)," he said. "That's pretty big and has all the sports so the (athletes') village is similar, though not as big by no means. But just like world cups and world championships, the crowds are at the same level.
"It was kind of -- I don't want to say routine -- but the whole Olympic thing really hits you when you do the Opening Cermonies."
Though he enjoyed his "once-in-a-lifetime experience," Watkins isn't quite sure yet if he wants to try to make it a twice-in-a-lifetime one.
"I get that question a lot, but I have no idea," he said about seeking a berth for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. "All I want to do right now is enjoy my family, take time off from training. You have to be so devoted to compete at that level. I love riding, so I'm going to keep doing that and you never know, maybe in two years -- maybe in a year -- I'll get the bug and start training hard again."
One thing he is sure of is that he's happy to be home.
Watkins said he didn't shed any tears about leaving London and the Olympics when he was done.
In fact, he was so ready to come back to the States that he skipped the Closing Ceremonies on Aug. 12 and flew home a day early to surprise his wife, Emily.
And surprise her he did.
"She thought I was the pizza man because she had ordered pizza," Watkins said. "It worked out perfect."