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James O'Brien's Blog

Medals, Near Misses and the Train to Frognal

Wednesday, August 1st

Today was a good day. It’s always a good day when you win an Olympic medal. All the more so when you combine it with something that your compatriots have never done before.

Competing in the women’s quad sculls today, the NYAC’s Megan Kalmoe and her three US teammates scorched to a bronze medal, becoming the first US foursome ever to take medals in this event. 

“We went out for gold,” stated the NYAC woman. “We went hard. We went aggressive and we came away with bronze.”

The foursome got off the line quickly and held second place to the Ukranian team for most of the race. The German boat came on hard in the third quarter, stealing silver; but, Kalmoe andher crew held on to take third. Respective times were Ukraine, 6:35.93; Germany, 6:38.09; USA, 6:40.63.

“We’re happy to bring home a medal,” Kalmoe continued. “The girls emptied the tank. We had our best performance, I think. I’m happy, but we came here for gold. That’s what all the athletes come for. We had a great achievement and we’re happy with that. But there is always room to go up a few steps. Hopefully, next time it will be gold.”

Athletes. Never happy. Although, that’s why they excel. Every failure is a spur to something better. Every success is even greater motivation. It’s a weird psyche, but it’s what distinguishes Olympic medalists from the rest of us. 

I’d wager some money that Seth Kelsey feels that way right about now. He and Soren Thompson contested the men’s individual epée competition today. Thompson went out in the opening round, a victim of Joerg Fiedler from Germany; but, Kelsey, competing in his third Olympics, battled his way through to the semi-final round, where he went toe to toe with Venezuela's Ruben Limardo Gascon. 

Kelsey couldn’t have known it at the time, but he was facing the man who was about to become the Olympic champion. The American fought a cagey bout, but it didn’t work.

“I felt like Limardo was pulling distance really well, and it would make it incredibly difficult to attack,” he explained. “I didn’t want to force anything on him, so better to take the passivity [a penalty call from the referee] and maybe the pressure would build on him and he’d crack. It didn’t happen.”

The score went 6-5 in the Venezuelan’s favor, which meant that Kelsey’s next fight was for the bronze medal. 

His opponent, this time, was South Korea's Jung Jinsun, and it was a thriller. Two world class athletes evenly matched at full tilt is something to behold. At one point, 60 seconds went by with no score, prompting another passivity call. That only heightened the tension. With time elapsed, the score was even. Kelsey called on his opponent to go to one-touch overtime. Evidently, that’s something they do in fencing. First touch wins. That’s it. Pressure is foreign to these guys. 

“It’s fun,” said Kelsey. “It’s an Olympic medal all in one touch. It’s very exciting.”

It sure is, but it can break your heart, too. Jung got the touch and the medal. Kelsey got fourth and a hearty handshake. Fourth at the Games is still a monumental result - a fact Travis Stevens should bear in mind, as should the US men’s eight team who,with the NYAC’s David Banks aboard, today claimed that position. Every one of those athletes will also say, I’m sure, that fourth is the worst place to be. I believe they’re right. 

The water polo tournament continued this evening, one of the few sports that lasts for the duration of the Games. First comes the pool play. OK, it’s all pool play, but you know what I mean. Then comes the knockout part. It’s a great means of separating the wheat from the chaff and, for those thinking about badminton - I know who you are - there is no opportunity to incur strategic losses. As I’ve said before, every game counts.

Time will reveal the long-term consequences of this evening’s women’s game between the US and Spain, the outcome being a curious tie. Between the middle of the third and fourth quarters, the US hammered four goals into the Spanish net, with no sign of a response. With three minutes remaining, the score was 9-6 and this deal was pretty much done. But, what the heck happened? In the succeeding two and a half minutes, the Spanish team scored three times, meaning it was all even when the buzzer sounded for full time. 

Nobody was happy with that result. In the same way that nobody likes fourth place, nobody likes a tie. It decides nothing; but, this will be significant. With one game left in pool play - OK, group play - that being versus China on Friday (August 3rd), the US team, with six NYAC women on board, is now in a tie for second place, with Spain. Hungary leads the group and Friday will tell a lot of tales.

The ups and downs, cheers and controversies of an Olympic Games are what compose its character. That evolves day by day, through the course of two weeks, created as much by events outside of the competitive arena as by those within. Over the last 24 hours, Michael Phelps’ record-setting 19th Olympic medal has been juxtaposed with the innuendo surrounding the break-out performances of 16 year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen. 

Ye stunned the swimming hierarchy on Tuesday by winning the gold medal in the 200m individual medley, her second victory of these Games. Three day earlier, she had won the 400m individual medley. Among those Ye defeated in the shorter event was Australia’s Alicia Coutts, a relay gold medalist here, Beijing defending champion Stephanie Rice and world record holder Ariana Kukors. It was inevitable that rumors of drug use would ensue.

That is one of the tragedies of top class sport in the 21st century. Concurrent with the manifestation of excellence comes the allegations of cheating. The athletes - and their agents, sponsors and sports’ administrators - have nobody to blame but themselves. Even so, IMHO it is, now, way too easy a recourse for the defeated to imply that their loss was unfairly inflicted. Drugs are rampant in sport, unquestionably; but, while many have claimed to be defeated by unfair means, I have yet to hear a victor claim that he or she reached that height by the same method. Only everybody else is using.

The Chinese swimming administration appears sensitive to this inequity. Responding to the allegations against their athlete, Jiang Zhixue, China’s anti-doping chief commented, “We never questioned Michael Phelps when he bagged eight gold medals in Beijing.”  A good point, if you ask me.

Those who have come to London for the Olympic Games will have quickly realize that one of the most prevalent Olympic sports is getting from point A to point B. If you’re track person, I guess that’s fundamental. (One hoary track coach was asked for the best advice he could give to a track runner. “Stay to the left,” he responded,” and get back as quick as you can.” I love that one). Anyway, getting wherever you need to go as efficiently as you can becomes a preoccupation for all at these, or any, Olympic Games. 

Picture this: you’re in Stratford at the Olympic Park for cycling; but, then you need to get to the ExCel Arena in Canary Wharf for the fencing. Following that, rowing needs you way out west in Dorney Lake. As for sailing, good luck with that. There are ways and (efficient) means of getting to all of these places, but there’s always a ton of walking involved - from train to bus to venue and back again. Day by day, it becomes exhausting. That’s when you need to pay attention.

Get on the wrong train and you might end up in Mudchute. Or Theydon Bois. Or Totteridge and Whetstone. Or Kensal Rise. Or maybe even Tooting Bec. All I’m saying is stay alert. You don’t want to wind up in Frognal.
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