Thursday, February 20, 2014

American Kudos

My last post opened with a segment about Shaun White and Shani Davis being disappointments, and proceeded to pooh pooh the attention being given to the preliminary round win by the U.S. men's hockey team over Team Russia.

Almost as soon as I hit "publish," I worried that I might have given the impression that I think our athletes are having a substandard Olympics and are not giving us anything to be proud of. Since that is certainly not the case, I have come back to mention positives about American Olympians in Sochi.

Admittedly, as I type this I am overlooking the epic collapse of our women's hockey team this morning, but enough about that. We currently have two more medals than any other country, and here is a small sampling of the great stories surrounding our athletes in Sochi:

The Stunt(wo)men
On February 9th I enthused about Americans Sage Kotsenburg and Jamie Anderson sweeping the slopestyle snowboarding golds, and went on to praise that sport's free-wheeling nature as being quintessentially American. In a larger sense, what I sought to praise was all of the acrobatic and relatively new snow sports that have been working their way into the Winter Olympics over the past generation.

In the last 48 hours the United States has scored another gold sweep in one of these events -- ski halfpipe -- with David Wise winning the men's and Maddie Bowman winning the women's. Ski halfpipe has been around for a while but this is its first year in the Olympics.

Wise and Bowman hail from close to one another. He is a product of Reno, Nevada, from which the snow-capped peak of Mount Rose appears close enough to touch. From the ski resort on Mount Rose you can gaze down at the blue waters of Lake Tahoe as it straddles the Nevada-California border, and on the shores of that lake sits the town of South Lake Tahoe, which is home not only to Bowman but to the aforementioned Jamie Anderson.

David Wise is only 23 and sits atop one of the most individualistic sports known to man, yet he's the married father of two-year-old Nayeli. After winning the halfpipe gold, he said he "could just feel her spirit cheering for me" while making his historic run. Sniff sniff.

There is no reason to be euphemistic: Historically, men's bobsled is a sport in which Americans have absolutely sucked, so we should be very happy that we are now among its leaders.

Throughout my childhood I sat in front of the TV every four years and watched teams from East Germany and other Soviet Bloc nations fly down the track while the poor sap American sled kept slipping farther and farther behind. It was as if the Commies brought MiG jets and our guys brought covered wagons, and unfortunately our ineptitude continued for two decades after the Cold War ended. 

Then came 2010, when the Americans won gold in the four-man bobsled to break a 62-year drought in that event. Piloting our sled was Steven Holcomb, a then-29-year-old National Guard veteran who had overcome serious vision problems caused by the eye disease keratoconus.

Then, three days ago over in Sochi, Holcomb broke another 62-year medal drought by piloting our two-man bobseld to the bronze. I am usually not one to make much of a fuss over bronze medals (doesn't third place mean you didn't win?), but when you consider that Harry Truman was president the last time an American earned any medal in this event -- and when you consider that Holcomb made the podium despute being plagued with a calf injury that surely affected his push-off and thereby hurt his time -- there is no denying that this bronze is a big deal.

My inclination to not "make much of a fuss over bronze medals" is based on an assumption that is not always true: Specifically, that the person who gets bronze was thought to have a genuine chance to win gold but came up short. Fortunately, pauper-to-prince stories like that of Alex Deibold prove that not all third place finishes are created equal.

The Manchester, Vermont citizen made it to the 2010 Winter Olympics, but not as a participant. He was the guy in the wax room who inhaled acrid odors while dutifully applying wax to the bottoms of the snowboards on which our athletes hoped to (and in some cases did) attain glory. Over the next four years he trained diligently at snowboarding in order to earn an Olympic berth, while working odd jobs to pay the bills.

When Deibold arrived in Sochi, he did so as an Olympic participant in snowboard cross, though not a highly regarded one. Team USA brought four competitors in the event and Deibold was considered the least talented of the bunch -- which is to say, he was thought of as being nowhere near the third best snowboard crossman on the entire planet. His name did not appear on observers' lengthy lists of medal contenders.

Snowboard cross is not a race against the clock with one person at a time coming down the course, nor is it a gymnastics-like discipline decided by judging and made suspect by subjectivity. It is a head-to-head race in which boarders take off at the same time and zoom down a steeply sloping, often undulating course. As the qualifying races unfolded Wednesday, Deibold seemed to always finish as the last or next-to-last person who qualified to advance to the next round. And he would not have made the medal race if not for the fact that in the semifinals, he reached the finish line six inches ahead of teammate Trevor Jacob while both were splaying out for it.

In the final Deibold spent much of the race in fourth place behind France's Paul Henri De le Rue, but on a late turn he cut to the inside and passed De le Rue as the latter hit a brief skid. From there on his lead over De le Rue never contracted. When he crossed the finish line he was mobbed by his American teammates, each of whom was more highly regarded and all of whom had been eliminated before the finals.

Never before has a third place finish felt so worthy of celebration.

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