Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Greatest Day

First, we Americans should appreciate that our country's Olympic history is marked by an abundance of victories and accomplishments.

Undoubtedly (at least in my mind) the greatest moment in that history was the Miracle On Ice -- the sight of our hockey youngsters tossing their sticks in the air as the final second ticked away on their shocking upset of the Soviet National Team in 1980.

But there is a seemingly endless number of contenders for the #2 spot on the list.

Jesse Owens winning four golds in the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, refuting Hitler's notion of Aryan supremacy in front of Hitler himself, was seminal.

Mary Lou Retton nailing a perfect 10 on the vault in LA in 1984, thereby becoming the first American gymnast to win the individual all-around, stands out like a solar flare -- as does Kerri Strug nailing her vault in Atlanta 12 years later, thereby securing the first ever women's team gold for American gymnastics.

When Mark Spitz notched seven golds in one Olympics in 1972, it seemed like something that couldn't be duplicated... until Michael Phelps notched eight in one Olympics in 2008.

There is speedskater Dan Jansen finally winning Olympic gold, in his final Olympic race, in 1994 -- and breaking the world record in the process -- after literally years of unspeakably freakish misses, one of which happened on the same day his sister died.

There is polio survivor Wilma Rudolph winning the 100- and 200-meter sprints in Rome in 1960; and Michael Johnson, wearing gold-colored sneakers to emphasize his goal, winning the 200- and 400-meters in Atlanta in 1996.

There is Bob Mathias winning the decathlon in back to back Olympics in 1948 and 1952, a feat matched by only one other person in history.

The 1968 Summer Games produced two athletically momentous events: 1) Dick Fosbury taking the high jump with a revolutionary technique -- backwards, head first, back down, kicking his legs up at the last second -- that came to be known as "the Fosbury Flop" and is now used by everybody; and 2) Bob Beamon taking the long jump and pulverizing the world record by such a large margin (21¾ inches) that his mark was not broken for 23 years and has not been equaled in the 25 years since that.

With all that in mind, we should especially appreciate that this past Tuesday, August 9, 2016, was probably the greatest single day in American Olympic history. What made it so was not the fact that Team USA won four golds that day, but that all four had a feel of legend about them.

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It began in gymnastics with our female team (they're more girl than woman) prevailing not only by the largest margin ever, but by one so large the outcome was never in doubt. I'm exaggerating only slightly when I say it looked like the Harlem Globetrotters going up seven Washington Generals.

They were so dominant it felt almost anti-climactic to see defending all-around champ Gabby Douglas perform her best balance beam of the year and current queen Simone Biles conclude with a sizzlingly mind-bending floor routine.

Then they went out and declared themselves "the Final Five" to pay homage to Martha Karolyi, the longtime coach who has been America's national team coordinator since 2001. Because she is retiring this year, these five girls (Douglas, Biles, Aly Raisman, Lauren Hernandez, and Madison Kocian) are the final team to be fielded under her watch.

And we should say a thank you to Romania, since that is where Martha Karolyi and her even more legendary husband Bela were born. Before they defected to the United States in search of freedom, Bela coached Nadia Comaneci when she won gold and scored the world's first ever perfect 10 at the 1976 Summer Games. Once here, he coached Mary Lou Retton to her 1984 gold and proceeded to coach several others (including Strugg, Kim Zmeskal, and Dominique Moceanu to name a few) to great heights.

And while "the Final Five" were making history on Tuesday, Comaneci watched from the stands. Now a US citizen, she lives in Oklahoma and runs a gymnastics school with her husband, Bart Conner, who captured a pair of golds in '84.

Seriously, what could be more All-American in this nation of immigrants?

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The rest of Tuesday's historical glory took place in the pool at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, where Katie Ledecky's championship in the 200-meter freestyle cemented her a place among the best women swimmers in history.

She had already won the 400-meters in word record time, almost 5 seconds ahead of silver medalist Jazmin Carlin, but she was heavily favored in that race and not so much in this one. The 200 included the world record holder, Federica Pellegrini of Italy; most observers considered it a toss-up between Ledecky and Swedish superstar Sarah Sjostrom, with Pelligrini, China's Shen Duo, and Australia's Emma McKeon and Bronte Barratt also being major threats.

Sure enough, as the swimmers chopped toward the wall in the final leg, it came down to Ledecky and Sjostrom battling each other stroke for stroke and the field pushing strongly right behind them. At the very end, the 19-year-old American reached the wall thirty-five hundredths of a second ahead of the 22-year-old Swede.

Added to her performance in London and in the previous days in Rio, it was her fourth overall Olympic medal and third gold. Combine that with the fourth gold she added on Wednesday -- when swam a decisive, tour de force of an anchor leg in the 4x200 freestyle relay -- and she it puts her in the same league as Jenny Thompson, Janet Evans, Natalie Coughlin, and the mystifyingly overlooked Amy Van Dyken.

And since she is not yet 20, there is reason to believe that Ledecky will eventually surpass them all and stand alone.

However, even she was eclipsed on Tuesday by another American: her fellow Marylander, Michael Phelps.

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Lately it has become a reflex to say Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time; but reflex or not, it is true.

Phelps finished the 2012 Summer Games with an astonishing 22 medals to his name -- and even more astonishingly, 18 of them gold -- over a career that had spanned four different Olympics. But it was obvious he had lost some of his spark, that he was no longer enjoying swimming as much, and few doubted him when he said on air that he was "done" and retiring.

He then went on a self-described "downward spiral" that bottomed out with a DUI in September 2014 and 45-day stay in rehab. Eventually he decided to help himself right his ship by returning to the pool, where, in his own words, he "fell back in love with the sport again."

Phelps qualified for these Rio Olympics at the overripe age of 31. In his first event, the 4x100 freestyle relay on August 7th, he pretty much single-handedly secured gold for Team USA, which was trailing when he dove in to swim the second leg. He proceeded to storm ahead of the field, execute a flawless turn at the midway point, and give the team a lead of more than a full second when he was finished his part. Its final margin of victory turned out to be sixty-one hundredths of a second.

And then came Phenomenal Tuesday.

One of the main reasons Phelps decided to un-retire was a lingering bad taste in his mouth from having "only" won silver in the 200-meter butterfly in 2012. In that race he was beaten by a fingertip (0.05 seconds) by South Africa's Chad le Clos; and he remained bothered by the result not so much because he came in second, but because he thought he gave it away with a slightly errant final turn. He arrived in Rio determined to make amends for what he considered a failure in London -- and an insufferably cocky le Clos arrived determined to duplicate his London success.

In the pre-race waiting room, while Phelps sat in a chair waiting for the swimmers to be called to the pool, le Clos stood in front of him shadow boxing over and over. When the swimmers went to the pool, le Clos stared at Phelps until it was time for the race to start. It was an obvious attempt to get inside the American's head, and the American responded by not responding.

Tuesday's race turned out to be neck and neck most of the way, not only between them, but between them and many of the others. These are, after all, the best eight butterfly swimmers on the entire planet. And in the last leg, Phelps reached down deep and found the mettle that makes him the best ever. As everyone neared the wall with several of them in position to pull it out, it was Phelps who actually did pull it out. His final stroke-and-touch put him to the wall 0.04 seconds ahead of Japan's Masato Sakai. It made him the oldest person ever to win an individual gold in any Olympic swimming event -- and the first swimmer ever to win individual golds 12 years apart.

But he wasn't done for the night, because less than an hour later he raced in the 4x200 freestyle relay final -- swimming the anchor leg to boot. Having to compete in two finals in such compressed time, both of them against the best in the world, would be too much even for most elite athletes to prevail in both. Especially those with 31-year-old bodies. But not this Balrimorean.

Team USA was ahead when Phelps entered the water, though not by an invincible margin. But he made that lead invincible by performing like only he can. When he finished a full body length of ahead of the UK's James Guy, Team USA's margin of victory margin of victory was 2.47 seconds, which is like winning the Super Bowl by four or five touchdowns.

Tuesday's golds gave Michael Phelps 21 for his career, far more than any Olympian in history, and they were accomplished in very different but equally indelible ways: one a nail-biter decided in the last hundredths of a second, the other a can't-touch-this display of domination.

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American highlights have continued to pour in since Tuesday, with so much greatness that it's almost impossible to distinguish the greatness of each triumph from the greatness of another.

Phelps added two more golds to his haul and Katie Ledecky added three more golds (and two world records) to hers.

In gymnastics, Simone Biles and Aly Raisman finished 1-2 in the women's individual all-around, arguably the most prestigious event of the entire Summer Games.

Michelle Carter became the first American woman to win gold in the shot put... and first to win any medal in that event since 56 years ago.

Kristin Armstrong won her third consecutive Olympic gold in the grueling bicycling event known as the road time trial... and did so at the age of 43.

Our women's eight rowing team won its third consecutive Olympic gold.

Kim Rhode's skeet shooting bronze made her the first athlete to medal in six straight Olympics. Starting all the way back in the 1996 games in Atlanta and ending (?) with these 2016 games, her medal-per-Olympics run includes three golds, a silver, and a pair of bronze.

And back in the pool, on Thursday, Simone Manuel won the 100-meter freestyle to become the first black woman ever to win an Olympic gold in swimming... and on Saturday she won another gold, swimming the anchor leg on the 4x100 meter relay.

Also back in the pool, Anthony Ervin won the 50-meter freestyle, and in so doing broke two of the marks Michael Phelps set on Phenomenal Tuesday: Because Ervin is 35, he became the oldest swimmer to win an individual gold in Olympic history; and because he had last won gold in Sidney in 2000, his 16-year span between golds eclipsed Phelps's 12-year span.

And how is this for something to say about Ervin: He was 19 when he won in Sidney and 35 when he won in Rio, yet he never participated in an Olympics in his twenties. Holy friggin' cow!

With all that it seems like it would be hard to pick any one day as the best, even of just these particular games, for our country.

But I still think this past Tuesday was not only the best in Rio for America, but the best in all of America's Olympic history... and I will always remember it with a smile.

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