Eva-Maria Raudsepp, the lone Estonian wrestler was, at 17, the youngest of the athletes and also the smallest. "But don't let her size fool you," says Blakey. Though Raudsepp lost her Saturday match in the women’s lightweight division, she won two matches the following day in the women’s open division before losing the next two. As Blakey notes, "While she didn't place, she was tough and easily the sold-out crowd's favorite."
Traveling to the U.S. expecting to meet her coach, Raudsepp was disappointed to learn he had a last-minute conflict and was unable to make the trip. With an unfamiliar coach in his place and her family unable to travel, she was essentially alone. Blakey, being a faculty member and a mom, immediately stepped in and took the lonely and homesick Raudsepp under her wing saying, "we became very close during her time here."
While most teams left Monday morning, Raudsepp stayed an additional day. Though Blakey's volunteer shift technically ended on Monday, she couldn't leave Raudsepp alone to fend for herself, so she asked the young woman if there was anything she wanted to do during her remaining time in Birmingham. Says Blakey, “I expected her to say some landmark that she'd researched, another sporting event, shopping. No. She wants to see a giraffe." Raudsepp, Blakey explained, had never been to a zoo and seeing a giraffe, her favorite animal, was a life-long dream. "As you can imagine," Blakey says, "my heart melted. It melted [even] more when I had to tell her that the zoo is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.”
Blakey's self-described stubbornness then kicked in. Getting out her laptop, she began emailing and calling anyone who might be able to help, including the mayor of Birmingham. By mid-afternoon on Monday, she feared it impossible to fulfill Raudsepp's dream. As a last resort, Blakey says, "I was actually going to park near the zoo and walk her as close to the giraffe fence as possible. Yes," she says, "I did my research on the giraffe fence and am that crazy." It was then the mayor's office called with good news. After reading Blakey's email, Mayor Woodfin had called Chris Pfefferkorn, the president and CEO of the zoo and arranged a private hour-long tour early the next morning.
Woodfin didn't stop there. He personally escorted Raudsepp and Dr. Blakey on a tour, the highlight of which was, not surprisingly, the giraffe enclosure. There, through tears of happiness, Raudsepp interacted with Willow, one of the zoo's giraffes, feeding her lettuce and leaves.
The south's reputation for warmth and hospitality remains untarnished thanks to the extraordinary efforts of Dr. Blakey, Mayor Woodfin and representatives of the Birmingham Zoo who all worked together to make one young, homesick athlete's dream come true.