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James O'Brien's Blog

A Crack in Mount Rushmore

Monday, July 30th & Tuesday, July 31st

The last 24 hours have been hectic in London, so the foremost order of business is to catch up with all the NYAC results - of which there are plenty and which are mostly excellent. 

Our first judoka of the Games, Nick Delpopolo, was on the mats on Monday, contesting the 73kg division. The way it works in judo - and which is very cool, if you ask me - is that everything gets done on one day. Fencing works the same way. You have your first bout in the morning and you just keep going until, all being well, you’re in the final that evening. Which is great, but which also means that, by the time the medal rounds come around, you’re one beaten pup. It’s survival of the fittest - and strongest and fastest and smartest - and it’s one of the many elements that make Olympic judo fascinating to watch.

Delpopolo didn’t make it all the way, but he went a large part of it and gave evidence that, one day, his may be a name alongside the NYAC greats. 

In the early going, the NYAC man, who was born in Montenegro and who spent the first two years of his life in an orphanage, defeated Chi Yip Cheung of Hong Kong, a victory that advanced him to the round of 16 and a bout with Belgium’s Dirk van Tichelt. The Belgian, fifth in Beijing and third in the 2009 world champs, was no push-over; but Delpopolo did the job once again, earning himself a place in the quarter-finals.

With just eight men remaining, there is nobody left standing who’s not capable of going all the way. Standing across the mat from him was South Korea’s Wang Ki-Chun, the silver medalist in Beijing and the bronze medalist from the 2010 World Championships. Intimidated? I think not.
Delpopolo battled the South Korean to a standstill. At the conclusion of the bout, there was no score, meaning that it was all up to the judges. That’s no way to win or lose a match-up of this caliber. It’s like going to penalties in the World Cup final. It’s dramatic, but it’s always heartbreaking for one side, and it often doesn’t reflect the true ebb and flow of the competition.

But those are the rules, and you live with them. Or not. This rule didn’t go Delopolo’s way. The judges ruled in Wang’s favor, and that was all she wrote. It was high drama - you might say in the finest Olympic tradition. You might say that; Delpopolo surely didn’t. Even so, heartbreaking as it was, it gave indication that Delopolo can go all the way.

His day wasn’t over. A loss in the quarter-finals meant that he still had the chnace to keep going via the repechage. In that bout, he came up against Nyam-Ochir Sainjargal from Mongolia, winner of this year’s Paris Grand Slam. For non-judo experts, that means that the guy was not chopped liver. He proved it, by defeating the NYAC man and claiming a spot in the bronze medal match (which he won). This time, Delpopolo’s day was done. His ultimate placing was seventh, a sensational result and one indicating what may be still ahead. 

Switching to rowing, Megan Kalmoe was on the water yesterday (Monday) in the repechage of the women’s quad sculls. She, and her Team USA teammates, had reached this round by virtue of their second place finish in their heat on Saturday. A win would have got them a ticket straight to the final. In lieu of that, it was all about the rep. In this round, four would make it to the A final and a shot at the medals. For the rest, it was pretty much, “See you in Rio” (site of the 2016 Games). Kalmoe et al got the job done, taking second behind Australia and securing a place on the starting line for the final, taking place tomorrow (Wednesday) at 10:20am. Notably, the men’s eight, with David Banks in the boat, will be the next race up. We hope for a good NYAC day. 

The Club’s female epée fencers, Courtney Hurley and Maya Lawrence - were also in action on Monday. For Courtney, it was a short day. Although she received a bye into the round of 32, there she came up against five-time Olympic medalist Laura Flessel-Colovic from France. That’s a pretty tall order in your first bout in your first Olympics. Even so, Hurley gave it a good shot. After the first period, the score was tied at seven each. At the end of the second period, there was still only one touch in it, with the French woman leading, 13-12. But, Flessel-Colovic scored the first two touches of the third bout and, with it, she took the win, 15-12.

Maya Lawrence also earned a first round bye; then, defeated Mara Navarria of Italy, 15-12, to reach the round of 16. There, she met another Italian, the seventh-ranked Rossella Fiamingo, who, no doubt, wanted to exact a degree of revenge. She did, claiming the win,15-7, and consigning Lawrence to a still superb 16th, her best ever in a tournament of this caliber.

“I know I should be happier than I feel right now,” commented the NYAC woman. “I’ll probably feel a little bit better about it tomorrow. It’s the best result I’ve ever had, so I have to try and think about that.”

Lawrence’s Games aren’t over, though. Now she has to focus on the team event, where she will be joined by Courtney Hurley and her sister, Kelley. That competition will take place on Saturday (August 4th). Their first opponents? Italy. 

“We’ve fenced Italy a bunch of times,” explained Lawrence. “The last time we won in overtime. We’re definitely expecting a close match. We have a plan.”

Closing out Monday’s action was the women’s water polo team, which includes six NYAC members, including Betsey Armstrong, designated the world’s top female player in 2010. With an opening match against Hungary, though (where water polo is akin to religion) this was not about to be just a quick dip in the pool.

The Americans came out hammering. At half time, the score was 8-7 to the US. Throughout the two remaining quarters, the game remained just as close. At the buzzer, it was decided by a single goal, the US prevailing, 14-13. There were a lot of NYAC water polo fans in the arena who left very happy. Next for the US women will be the game against Spain tomorrow (Wednesday). 

That was a lot to catch up on, but let’s now talk about today (Tuesday) - which was, fundamentally, more of the same - meaning enthralling, captivating, thrilling competition, even the parts that were a scoche disappointing. (Is there a difference between a scoche and a tad?). 

In rowing, Nick LaCava - a man with his own chocolate company - contested the semi-final of the lightweight four. His boat needed to make top three to advance to the final. It wasn’t to be. A fifth place finish was the best they could manage, a spot that sends them to the B final, which must be like being the understudy in a Broadway show. You’re one of the best there is, except for the ones that are better. 
Possibly, NYAC judoka Travis Stevens will feel similarly philosophical in a few months time. It’s possible; but, I sure wouldn’t bet on it. Following his loss to Canada’s Antoine Valois-Fortier in the bronze medal match of the 81kg division, he commented, “My grandfather died last year. This feels pretty much the same way. There’ll never be another London 2012.”

By his own admission, Stevens was devastated. Having sat through his semi-final match at the ExCel Arena this afternoon. I can understand why. This guy is an Olympic champion, if ever there was one. He just hasn’t got a medal.

Stevens reached the semis, by disposing of the Games’ number one seed, Brazil's Leandro Guilheiro, in the quarter-final. “We planned the whole year around this,” he stated. “I wanted to fight the number one seed in the quarter finals.”

With that accomplished, he faced the defending champion, Germany’s Ole Bischoff. A win would mean that the next fight would be for the gold medal. “I’ve met him before,” said Stevens. “We always have physical matches. We don’t see eye to eye.” That’s fine...but, bloody hell. Just seconds into the bout, Bischoff planted a head butt above Steven’s left eyebrow that would have cracked Mount Rushmore. The bout was stopped while a doctor was called to bandage the NYAC man’s head. Even so, that had to have rung his bell in a serious way.

But these guys eat this stuff for breakfast. Stevens was implacable. Even so, the ill will was palpable. At one point, the two black belts just stood, nose to nose, like heayweights at the weigh-in. You’ve got to understand; this is judo, the sport where you bow to your opponent, where you take your shoes off before stepping into the dojo, where you call your coach “sensei” - master. Nose to nose? That doesn’t happen.

Stevens and Bischoff went at it like there was a gold medal on the line. Bu, there was no score. With 1:40 remaining, Stevens took a second nasty head butt, and on comes the doc again. This time, with blood flowing, he had to bandage Stevens’ entire left eye. Yes - the guy is fighting for a spot in the final, with only one eye. How can you do that? You’ll have to ask him. It was an act of courage that you’ll only see at an Olympic Games. There was more than one person who later observed that Stevens was the personification of the spirit of the Olympic Games.

You may assume that Stevens was cowed at this point, fighting a rear-guard action. You may assume the heck wrong. “I thought he was looking tired,” Stevens proffered. “He was lucky that there were two cuts. It gave him time to gather himself. That doctor was taking too long. I wanted to get him off the mat.” If you’re thinking about making the 2016 team, this, take note, is the fortitude you will have to bring with you.

So, they hammered on. And still no score. With time expired, the bout had to go to a golden score, as had Delpopolo yesterday. Three extra minutes; first one to score, wins. Stevens, with only one eye working, fought the Olympic champ to a standstill. Three minutes gone; again, no score. So, it came down to the judges, and the decision went to the German. He was ecstatic. Stevens knelt on the mat, face in his hands, a vote of numbers being the only thing that could make a dent in his armor.

“The German coach apologized to me afterwards,” stated Jimmy Pedro, NYAC Hall of Famer and the US team coach. “A lot of people who know judo thought that Travis won.” 

It was a wrenching defeat and a wrenching way to lose. Stevens admitted that it was the loss to Bischoff that sowed the seeds for his loss in the next round for the bronze medal. “The German took it out of me today,” he proffered. Notably, Stevens has fought the newly minted Canadian bronze medalist on numerous occasions, losing rarely. “I came here to win a gold medal,” he said. “Nothing else. But, I can’t let my career end here today. I’ll be back.”

A press release from the International Judo Federation stated: “The semi final between Stevens and Bischof was one of the hardest contests in judo history.”

Stevens was asked what he would take away from his experience here: “Train harder.”

Closing today’s NYAC Olympic action was the men’s water polo match between the US and Romania. The stars and bars squad, with nine Club men on the team, including captain Tony Azevedo, eked a narrow win in its opening match against Montenegro on Sunday. This one was similarly down to the wire. 

At half time, the Romanians held a one goal advantage, 5-4, and with plenty of, how shall I say?, indiscriminant play. These boys could use Travis Stevens in there. Ironically, all the play that goes unseen below the water is, in fact, seen. They have cameras down there, these days. It’s very similar to Jaws, but with people.

These early matches are crucial for group standings and future clashes. So, every game is do or die; there was very little that was warm and fuzzy about this clash of titans. At the end of the third quarter, the USA had inched into a 7-5 lead, but it was like a war in the water every step of the way. If every match in this tournament is like this, I just hope they all survive.

With the fourth quarter little more than a minute old, Romania pull a goal back, meaning just one between them. The degree of US support in the arena is remarakble. I suspect most of that volume is coming from an NYAC contingent; and more power to them. As I write this, Adam Wright has just blasted one into the net, a quick response to a Romanian goal, leaving the score at 8-6. 

The Romanians are relentless, but Merrill Moses, the US goalkeeper is like a brick wall. For every shot that gets in, he saves four from point blank. Earlier, the Romanian coach was yelling like a demon; now, with hands clenched, he looks like he’s praying. It will take more than that to get past Moses. (Get it? Praying? Moses? Anybody?). I know very well that he’d be chain smoking, if they let him. 

With 90 seconds to go, it’s as if Moses’ hands are tablets of stone. (Are you with me? Yes?) But one gets through, and it’s 9-7. The US coach was looking fine moments ago. Now he looks like he wants to cadge a ciggie, as they say in East London. But the US claims two more in quick succession - though one disallowed, for reasons I can’t figure out. Romania get one back, but it’s a goal of little consequence. The buzzer goes and the US prevails, 10-8. 

Let's not forget that the Hungarian team - three time defending champions - was also in action this evening, and with NYAC member and water polo legend, Tamas Kasas, on the squad. London is Kasas' fifth Olympic Games. His record thus far: 4th, 1st, 1st, 1st. That's what you call impressive. This evening, versus Montenegro, the Hungarians prevailed, albeit by a single goal, 10-11. The US had also defeated Montenegro, on Sunday, 8-7. 

At which point, like just about everybody I’ve encountered today, I’m banjaxed. But these are the Olympics, and as my hero, Al Oerter, famously said, “You die for them.” I can only speak for myself, but I hope he’s wrong.

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