August 6, 2012

Olympic inspiration

The Olympics - there really is nothing like them.

I had the chance to catch quite a bit of coverage last week. I was house sitting, and didn't have any plans in the evenings, other than staying up til midnight each day to watch the world's best.

Much of the first week was dedicated to swimming and gymnastics. Though Michael Phelps turned out to be human, and did not repeat his spectacular run in Beijing, he still became the most decorated Olympic athlete in history with his 22 total medals, 18 of them gold. The women seemed even more impressive this year. 17 year old Missy Franklin came away with four golds and a bronze, Allison Schmitt earned a medal of every color in the freestyle, and Rebecca Soni set the world record in the 200 meter breaststroke semifinals, and then broke it again the next day in the finals. Both the men and women capped off the London games by capturing the gold in the team 100 medley, both setting new world records.

In gymnastics, the women dominated in the team competition, earning their first gold medal since 1996. They won by more than five points in a sport normally decided by hundredths. Three Americans took the top four scores in qualifying for the individual all-around competition. One of those, Gabby Douglas went on to win the gold in the individual all around event. The men did not do as well. After coming in first in the qualifying round, the team faltered repeatedly (particularly on the pommel horse) and finished fifth. In the individual all-around, both Americans did poorly on the pommel horse once again, but Danell Leyva managed to claw his way back to a bronze medal finish.

Normally, I don't give much of a rip about swimming or gymnastics, but during the Olympics I am drawn in. I am caught up in the athleticism, focus and dedication these athletes bring to their sport. I find myself leaning in as they push on to the finish, and pumping my fist to celebrate their victory.

Not every sport grabs me. There are more events every year, and some just don't seem to fit. Major sports like soccer and tennis already have their worldwide tournaments, and basketball just seems out of place. Anything that has "synchronized" in the title is also lost on me. Though I know the sports are still incredibly demanding in their physicality and precision, it just seems a little silly. I tuned in one morning to find whitewater canoeing, and I thought to myself, "seriously?" But a few minutes later I found myself cheering on home team Great Britain to an upset gold and silver. Olympic moments just have that kind of pull.

The first week of the Olympics have been great, but I was really looking forward to two events - the women's and men's marathon. This is the one event I can somewhat identify with. I will never approach their performances, but I have at least run in their footsteps and understand what it takes to complete the distance. The women's marathon was yesterday, and it did not disappoint.

The Kenyans and Ethiopians have dominated the marathon for some time now, particularly the men. Since 2001, Kenyan runners have owned more than half of the top 20 times each year. In 2011, they owned them all. They not only won every one of the World Marathon Majors last year, they set course records each time. However, for all their dominance during the year, their record in the Olympics is not nearly as successful. A Kenyan woman has never won gold, and Sammy Wanjiru was the first Kenyan man to capture gold in 2008. The Americans had three strong competitors in the race this year - Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, and Desiree Davila. None had personal bests that matched the Kenyans or Ethiopians, but the Olympics are not like any other marathon. Anything can happen.

The marathon course was a series of twisting loops through London. Commentators expected that many of the runners would stick together for the first couple of laps while they learned the course and looked for best opportunity to break things open. Through the halfway point, a pack of 30 held the lead, including Flanagan and Goucher. Unfortunately, Davila showed up with an hip injury, and pulled out somewhere after mile two.

Soon after mile thirteen, the pace picked up and the crowd thinned. With each mile, more runners fell off the back, unable to match the pace of the leaders. Soon the lead pack was down to six runners, three Kenyans and three Ethiopians. It seemed both inevitable and surprising how clear cut the break was. But a couple of women kept the lead group in sight, including Shalane Flanagan. She couldn't reel them in, but tried to limit the damage, hoping someone would falter.

And then someone else joined the party. Russian runner Tatyana Petrova Arkhipova bridged the gap and joined the group of six as they entered the last eight-mile lap. She looked strong and settled in. Over the next few miles, two of the Ethiopians and one of the Kenyans fell back, and the group was down to four. Flanagan would eventually pass one or two of the stragglers, but was still losing ground to the leaders. Goucher seemed to have disappeared entirely as the commentators never mentioned her. It looked certain that four would stay away, and that only one of them would lose out on a medal.

The group of four ran together until the last mile when Ethiopian Tiki Galena threw in a surge. The four runners who had been running in a tight bunch for so long, stretched out into a line as the finish line approached. Surprisingly, it was race favorite Mary Keitany (who had won the London Marathon in April) who fell off the back. She had looked much more in control than her Kenyan teammate Priscah Jeptoo, but she faded fast. Galena looked over her shoulder once or twice, but the surge had worked and she won the race by the slimmest margin in Olympic history, beating Jeptoo by five seconds. Arkhipova came in seventeen seconds to win the bronze. Galena had set a new Olympic marathon record with her finishing time of 2:23:07.

Though Flanagan had passed some of leaders that had faltered, others caught her and she faded to tenth place in a still great time of 2:25:51. Goucher, who had disappeared from the commentators view, finished just behind her to take eleventh in 2:26:07. Flanagan had collapsed to the ground after finishing, and her teammate and training partner Goucher, helped her to her feet. They walked off arm in arm, heads on shoulders after a great effort.

Like so many other Olympic matches, the women's marathon was inspiring to watch. As I think I have mentioned somewhere before, it was watching Deena Kastor win the bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics that first planted the seed in my head that I wanted to run a marathon. Watching her give it all, refusing to wilt in the Athens heat, and cross the finish line in joyful tears left an indelible impression on me. I could picture the moment in my head, her hands on her face as the emotions of the moment overwhelmed her, falling to her knees just after crossing the line. It spurred me on to go farther than I thought I could.

I looked for a clip of her finish online some years later. You can find nearly anything on YouTube these days, but the Olympic committee is very protective of its footage, so I looked in vain. Then in January of 2008, the movie The Spirit of the Marathon came out in a limited theater release. The movie follows a couple of pros, some amateurs and first timers as they prepare for the 2006 Chicago Marathon. There are interviews with racing legends, a great history of the marathon, and clips of special moments of the sport. And there in the theater, I saw the moment once again that had been living in my head and pushing me along - Kastor crossing the Olympic finish line.

I don't know that it would hit you in the same way it hit me, but if you want to see it, you can watch the movie trailer here. Kastor's finish is in the first minute or so.

Once every four years, the Olympics bring the world together to celebrate human excellence and competition in sport. War, politics and cynicism do not always fade into the background, but at its core the Olympic spirit is there to give us a taste of something better, meeting as equals, trying our best to excel on common ground. We at home embrace their dedication and achievement, and get a glimpse of what is humanly possible. It is inspiring.

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