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James O'Brien's Blog

McGill Moves On. Water Polo Wins

Thursday, August 2nd - Part 2

NYAC swimmer Tyler McGill contested the opening rounds of the men’s 100m butterfly today (Thursday). He made everything unexciting, which is a good thing. He breezed through the heats, then placed second in his semi, advancing to the final with the third fastest qualifying time. Michael Phelps (20 Olympic medals as of today) was fastest. No surprise.

In men’s water polo, also no surprises. The powerhouse US team, comprising mainly NYAC players, went head to head with Great Britain this evening. Water polo is almost unknown in the British Isles. There is polo with the horses; but, with water, it’s not really their thing. The water notwithstanding, the Brits have mounted some valiant offensive plays in their games to this point. They haven’t been decisive; but, a few more years will tell a different tale.

For now, though, the home team had to take a solid beating at the hands of Tony Azevedo (three goals in the first four minutes) and his crew. The final score was 13-7, enabling the US to move to the head of its qualifying group. Next up will be Serbia on Saturday. Whenever the US plays the Balkan nations, a war is inevitable.

Not to be forgotten is the legendary three time gold medalist Tamas Kasas who, though a proud NYAC member, plays here for defending champs, Hungary. This evening, Hungary clashed with Montenegro. No way was that ever going to be anything other than ferocious, which it was. But the champs prevailed, 17-15, and will next play Great Britain on Saturday,

Should Hungary win the tournament outright, one squad member, Marton Szivos, will be the first person in any Olympic sport to join his father and grandfather as a gold medallist. It would be a wonderful Olympic moment, an historic story, epitomizing the spirit of Olympism and all that is best about a life in athletics. I hope it doesn’t happen. 

The Fantastic Four, Kayla and Kipling

Thursday, August 2nd - Part 1

Kayla Harrison, Caroline Lind, Caryn Davies, Taylor Ritzel, Erin Cafaro. Write those names down. Today, they made history. Harrison won the first ever Olympic judo gold medal by an American. Lind, Davies, Ritzel and Cafaro comprised 50% of the US women’s eight crew that successfully defended the title it had won in Beijing four years ago. (Lind, Davies and Cafaro were also in that boat. The US also won the women’s eight in 1984. Only East Germany and Romania have also won this event three times).

So, let’s review. Yesterday, Megan Kalmoe won a bronze medal. Today, the above won five gold medals. And these Games aren’t yet half over. In addition, Seth Kelsey, Travis Stevens and the men’s eight, with the NYAC’s David Banks aboard, have all placed fourth. We hope for still more, of course - the bar at the NYAC is set intimidatingly high - but, it has to be conceded that the tally so far is nothing less than stellar.
Although neither Harrison’s nor the women’s eights’ medals were unexpected - the US crew set a world record in May, and Harrison was the world champion in 2010 - there is nobody here just handing out medals. You have to go and get them, all the while facing down the hoards of hugely talented, gimlet-eyed athletes intent on sending you back Stateside with nothing more than a chip butty in your carry-on.

The rowers had charged through their preliminary round in fine fashion, claiming a victory that gave them an automatic berth in the A final. Canada posted the fastest time in the prelims; but, even they had to concede that toppling the mighty Americans was going to be more than they could handle. After all, the US had not lost a race in seven years. You’ve got to wonder if there’s a winning streak as long as that in any other sport, anyway.

So it was that, while the Dutch and Canadians charged off the line, their battle was always for the silver and bronze medals. The US eightsome, took the lead from the gun and was never headed. Caroline Lind, a national debutante and, now, a two time Olympic gold medalist, recounted a pre-race conversation she had had with cox, Mary Whipple. “I said, ‘You’re our brain and we’re your body.’ She said, ‘What a great body!’ ”

Rowers, it seems, have a way with words. 

At the finish line, the American boat clocked a time of 6:10.59, nearly a second and a half ahead of the Canadian crew (6:12.06), with the Netherlands taking the bronze medal in 6:13.12.

With the Fantastic Four’s four medals, the NYAC Olympic gold medal tally stands at 123. But then came Kayla Harrison. 

Judo is not an American sport. Baseball is an American sport. And football. And things like swimming and track and field. Judo is oriental. And sometimes European. It’s not American. Never has been. Most likely, never will be. The proof is right there: an American has never won an Olympic judo gold medal. They’ve come close, that’s for sure. NYAC Hall of Famer Jason Morris won a silver in Barcelona in 1992. And NYAC Hall of Famer Jimmy Pedro, these days the US team coach, won a bronze medal in Athens in 2004. (He also won a world title, by the way). But no gold. Americans don’t do that.

Now, that thinking has to change. Kayla Harrison was a world champion in 2010. Now, she’s an Olympic champion and an iconoclast. Much has been written about the things Kayla has had to endure on her road to the top. You can google that stuff elsewhere. Let’s just say that most people, ordinary people, would have thrown in the towel a long time ago. Ordinary people don’t win Olympic medals. You already knew that.

As I write this, at 8pm, Kayla is about to begin her press conference in the Main Press Center, which is a good hour’s traveling from where I am - in the media center at the judo venue. Which is to say that she’s had one long day - though she tried to make it as short as possible. Her first bout, against Russia's Vera Moskalyuk, lasted less than one minute, ended by one serious ippon. (A full point score, instant win).

Next up, in the round of eight, came Abigel Joo from Hungary, a five time European champion, and no push-over, if I do say so. Although, Kayla did. One more ippon, and onward to the semi-final against Brazil's Mayra Aguiar. The problem here was that Aguiar is the world’s top ranked judoka. As you might expect, this bout went longer; but, with 14 seconds remaining, Harrison scored yet another ippon, guaranteeing her a place in the final and, at worst, a silver medal. No American woman had ever won a judo silver medal at the Olympic Games. Now that I think of it, they still haven’t. (The NYAC’s Ronda Rousey, these days tearing up that ultimate fighting scene, won a bronze in 2008). 

The final, inevitably, posed its own set of issues. For one thing, Harrison’s opponent was English. English! This bout being right here, in England. Yes, there was vocal US support; but...well, you can imagine who most of the noise was for, and its volume. For another thing, the English girl, Gemma Gibbons by name, was only ranked 42 in the world before these Games. She wouldn’t even have qualified to compete here if she wasn’t from the host country. Obviously, she didn’t know her place. En route to the final, she beat the numbers three and four rankers in the world. It was a great Cinderella story; and next in her sights was the former world champ, Harrison.

It was an achingly close contest, one only decided by a pair of yukos, the smallest score that can be earned. But two yukos are better than no yukos and it was all Harrison needed to become the Olympic Champion and, dare I say, an instant judo legend. When you endure all manner of obstacles, when you refuse to be beaten and when you redefine the possible, to my mind it’s OK to dub you a legend.

A little Rudyard Kipling is in order:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

He may well have written those words for Kayla Harrison and Caroline Lind and Caryn Davies and Taylor Ritzel and Erin Cafaro and David Banks and Seth Kelsey and Travis Stevens and all of the NYAC’s Fabulous 55 who are here in London. I’m sure they know those lines by heart.

Today was a tough day to be Kyle Vashkulat and Nick LaCava. Both competed like Olympians, but on a day when five of your club-mates are claiming gold medals it can be hard to feel the love. Vashkulat, in his first Olympics, came up against Uzbekistan’s Ramziddin Sayidov in the first round, and that was pretty much it. “I’ve been feeling great; but, I let up for a second, and that was that.” he said. “I was hoping that I would be the dark horse, but today isn’t that day. I had hoped that this Olympic experience would be more than a minute long.”
The unforgiving minute, as Rudyard Kipling might say. Actually, did say.

For rower LaCava, his semi-final placing in the men’s lightweight four secured him a spot on the starting line in today’s B final. With his three team-mates, he competed powerfully, placing second to France by almost one second. It’s a bitter-sweet experience; second, but no medal. The Games are like that; it’s not all fun and games.

Wrapping up today’s NYAC action, swimmer Tyler McGill progressed to the semi-finals of the 100m butterfly and the men’s water polo team went face to face with Great Britain. I’ll be back later with  news of those events. For now, it’s late and time  to head for the DLR to the Tube to get back to my gaff. Maybe I’ll have a ruby en route. And a cup of rosy. Yes, I’m starting to learn the language.

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