Forget College Sports' biggest rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State. Forget Original Six showdowns against the new kids on the block epitomized just a few months ago as the Detroit Red Wings defeated Pittsburgh for the Stanley Cup. Forget the Super Bowl and marquee quarterbacks such as Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, and Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Hasselbeck. If you want to witness the improbable and the rise of the underdog, if you want to see years of lonely training payoff, if you want to witness miracles and the smashing of world records, look no further than the Olympic Games.
Last night in Beijing, the U.S. Men's Gymnastic Team did what was thought to be impossible--win a Bronze Medal without their marquee stars of Paul and Morgan Hamm who withdrew with injury just prior to these Olympic Games. It came down to the very last event, the Pommel Horse, and the very last U.S. Competitor--2nd Alternate Sasha Artemov--who's father was an All Around World Champion for the Soviet Union but never had a chance to win an Olympic Medal because the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles in response to the United States boycott four years earlier of the Moscow Games.
The U.S. team performed their amazing feat by never giving up. By believing in themselves, and in each other. None of them had prior Olympic experience, and it was widely believed that without their leader, Paul Hamm, who won the All Around Gold Medal in Athens, their chances to medal would be slim. And then when the team's second best gymnast, Morgan Hamm had to withdraw just days before the Games, the U.S. team was all but written off.
But typically in the pressure cooker that is the Olympic Games, athletes who are only humor, succumb to nerves, to pressure, to high expectations and stumble. Maybe nothing major, maybe just a step here or a wobble there or a form break--but every error adds up and opens the door for other teams.
The U.S. team saw the open door and walked through. With absolutely nothing to lose, the U.S. team were solid. They did not make the small errors that plagued other teams. But after one catastrophic error on the last event, Sasha Artemov turned in the best performance of his career and sealed the deal, all but shutting out the German Team that was nipping at their heals. Not the first alternate, but the second. My heart was pumping and I was screaming at my television set last night. I knew I was witnessing not just Olympic or Gymnastic History, but one of the most inspiring feats of all time in sports--and the second such feat in as many days.
Jason Lezak Off the Blocks, anchoring the U.S. Men's 400 Freestyle Relay
We all know Michael Phelps will be the most decorated Olympian of all time after the Beijing Games are completed. I really don't care. It's a foregone conclusion. Whether he breaks Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one Olympic games is a footnote for the record books. Phelps has assured his place in sporting history and he will profit handsomely for doing so. But what happened in the Men's 400 Freestyle Relay was just as heart-pounding as the Men's Gymnastic Team's triumph, maybe even more so.
The 400 Relay used to be an event owned by the United States, but in 2000 at the Sydney Games, the Australian Team took the Gold from the U.S. with the help of the Thorpedo--Ian Thorpe. Jason Lezak was part of the U.S. Team that lost the Gold. In the world of swimming, this record is something akin to the America's Cup, so the loss and the blow to the U.S. Swim Team was hard indeed. Four years later, again with Jason Lezak anchoring the 400 Relay in Athens, the U.S. was beaten again and some began to question whether or not the state of U.S. Men's Swimming was in decline.
And then there was Alain Bernard of France, anchor of the French 400 Relay Team. God love him. He had the nerve to proclaim that the French Relay team would "crush the Americans." Arrogance and Smack talking in sports is usually frowned upon. It often comes back to bite you in the you know where. Sometimes it can be forgiven if the one doing the talking can back up the talk with performance, almost. But for whatever reason Alain found it necessary to bait the U.S. Swimmers, the French team was widely regarded as the favorite for Gold. On paper, no matter how the teams were composed, the French team was faster.
But that's why you run the race and don't decide it on paper. Somehow, not only did the U.S. Team find a way to win, they did it by smashing the old world record by 4 seconds. And Jason Lezak, in his third attempt anchoring this relay, made up half a body length in the final 25 seconds and touched the wall .08 seconds faster than the French team, and in the process, turning in the fastest split time in the 400 Relay ever. The race was so fast, the top five teams all beat the previous world record set just the day before by the U.S. Team in the preliminary heats.
And after the U.S. won, they erupted in jubilation and celebrated with class. And while Michael Phelps is chasing records, the footnote of this race is that Jason Lezak's effort of a lifetime helps make Michael Phelps' goal possible. That's what teammates are for, and on so many levels, this racing victory was the most improbable and inspiring of all.
"We will crush them!"
Which leaves me to wonder, what feats of athleticism have yet to be turned in? After the opening ceremonies, after the Men's 400 Relay, after the surprise U.S. Bronze in Men's Team Gymnastics, I wonder what will inspire us next?
Thanks for reading.
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