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James O'Brien's Blog

Prevailing is the Point

Sunday, August 12th - Part 2

If you had to decide the worst place to finish at an Olympic Games, I imagine you’d choose fourth. That’s the position closest to the medals without actually getting one. When people hear that you competed at an Olympic Games and then ask you if you got medal, you have to say “No.” They don’t wait around to hear the addendum; that you’re world class and that you were oh so close. Much as I’d like to compose a sterling argument as to why this is a misguided perception, I’m not sure that I can. Fourth position is just plain hard to love.

Margaux Isaksen - and Meb Keflezighi and Travis Stevens and David Banks and Seth Kelsey - will explain that far better than I can. Margaux contested the women’s modern pentathlon today, the final day of the Games of the XXX Olympiad. She competed like a champ - like a medalist, in fact; but, she placed fourth; a world class performance, but with no hardware to show for it. Margaux might heed the words of Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich (see Part 1 of today’s blog): “In every competition, the best athlete on the day always wins.” The point being that, at the leading edge, the line between winning and losing is gossamer thin. Tomorrow, Margaux might be the winner; but, today she was fourth. it’s the painful beauty of competition.

A superb opener in the fencing competition saw Isaksen in equal fourth place, 72 points shy of the leader. In the modern pentathlon, 72 points is the blink of an eye. In more meaningful stats, Isaksen fenced all of the other competitors in a one-touch competition, scoring 22 victories and 13 defeat. That’s a pretty good record. 

In the second event, the 200m swim, Isaksen recorded the 16th fastest time (2:18.53), superb, but dropping her to sixth overall. Next came riding, a show jumping style competition, in which competitors are assigned a horse at random from a communal pool. You may like your horse, but the beast may not like you. Or, vice versa. Either way, it can be a complicated relationship, as relationships invariably are. I could tell you stories, believe me. I digress. Sticking with the Olympic Games, Isaksen weathered the relationship in fine style, ending the round in seventh place, 80 points shy of the gold medals place, 72 shy of bronze, and with her two favorite events still to come - running and shooting.

Contrary to how things used to be, these two events are now one, a biathlon of sorts, such as they have in the winter Olympic Games. You run with your rifle, stopping to shoot at targets along the way. It was tough before; this permutation makes it doubly so. Imagine running flat out for a mile or more, then trying to hold a rifle steady enough to aim at a target with pinpoint accuracy. You heart will be pumping like a steam piston and your arm will be shaking like...well, something that really shakes a lot. It’s not easy. But Isaksen was superb. Her combined score brought her to within 76 points of the gold medal, 16 points of silver and eight points of bronze. Is it better to be fourth a hair’s breadth removed or fourth, beaten out of sight? I can’t answer that question. Isaksen, though, should feel delighted, all the more so given the knowledge that she is among the best in the world and, on any given day, is the best.

Not to be overlooked in today's competition is Suzanne Stettinius. The second ranked modern pentathlete in the USA broke her collar bone in training this year, but still made the Olympic team and placed 28th in today’s competition. When obstacles present themselves, you persevere. That’s how, eventually, you prevail. Prevailing is the point.

The Best Athlete Always Wins

Sunday, August 12th - Part 1

On the final day of an Olympic Games, you may expect Olympian competition. The NYAC’s competitors - Mebrahtom Keflezighi in the marathon, Margaux Isaksen and Suzanne Stettinius in the modern pentathlon and our nine members of the US men’s water polo team - all did just that. The results differed; but, if everybody won all the time, what would be the point? You play to win, and sometimes you do. Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich would concur. You’ll meet him later.

In the pool this morning, the US water polo men suffered a disappointing 10-9 loss to Australia. This was the game to decide the seventh and eighth positions in this tournament; it left the Americans in eighth. Coming to London, the USA and its cadre of NYAC players had hopes of becoming the first US team to win Olympic gold medals since the Games of 1904 in St Louis. They were justified in aiming so high, having taken the silver medals in Beijing and with 10 of that team back in the squad for London.

Things started well, with a win over the powerful Montenegran team in group play; but, once the US faced Croatia in the quarter-finals, those finely laid plans started to come undone. Of its last five games at the Games, the US won none. 

You can say that they played well, which they did. But when hopes are so high, it is downright painful to have them dashed so low. One job for attendees at the All Sports Dinner this year will be to let these guys know that we are disappointed for them but not in them. They displayed the heart of champions and that never evokes anything but pride.

The heart of a champion was also characterized by Mebrahtom Keflezighi who placed fourth in this morning’s marathon, a race characterized by peculiar tactics and burgeoning heat. (Whoever would have thought that? In London? Where it’s been raining since the War?).

The four lap course - one lap of about two miles, three laps of eight miles - took in all the sights of central London, finishing with the spectacular backdrop of Buckingham Palace. Coupled with the teeming crowds that lined every step of the way, this became an inspiring event for the inspired.

Meb is one of those, a man who rises to the occasion when it matters most. He earned a silver medal in Athens eight years ago, in conditions that were simply dire; he rebounded from debilitating injury and a failure to make the 2008 Olympic team to win the NYC Marathon in 2009 - the first American to do so since Alberto Salazar in 1982; and he scored a spectacular win in this year’s US Olympic Trials in Houston, this time wearing the colors of the NYAC. But, now he’s 37, a pensioner in marathon terms. It was great to win the Trials, to book the ticket to London, to be an Olympian one more time. But, realistically, what could one hope for? Top 10 would be great. Even top 15. 

Such a performance would have earned him accolades; but, it wouldn’t have brought satisfaction. For an athlete of this caliber, satisfaction comes with winning and with medals. So, Meb went for it, which is what counts, and he almost found himself on the podium one more time.

From the outset, he ran his customary, astutely composed race. At the forefront of the large pack, he led the group through the early miles, before allowing a Kenyan/Ethiopian splinter group to charge onward. Then it became attritional. The pace intensified, as did the heat, initiating what you might call the business end of this race.

A competition such as this is as much a test of mental fortitude as it is a physical contest. The mind gives in before the body. Mens sana in compore sano. A sound mind in a strong body. The athlete’s creed. Keflezighi is its personification. 

At 10K, his split time of 30:46 saw him back in 16th position. By 20K (45:37), he had slid to 19th. At half way (64:30), he was 17th, and the tide was turning. Although the pace and the temperatures were taking their toll - he ran a 15:59 5K between 30K and 35K - so were they on the whole field. It became all about composure. By that 35K split, Meb had hauled himself into 6th position. His team mates, Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman, had fallen by the wayside long previously, leaving the NYAC man as the sole US competitor on the course. At 40K, he still held sixth, but close up on Brazil’s Marilson Dos Santos and Japan’s Kentaro Nakamoto. With the finish line on an ever closer horizon, those guys became targets. Meb ran them down, ultimately stealing the first non-medal position by a mere four seconds from Dos Santos (2:11:06 to 2:11:10). They were both over three minutes shy of the winner, Stephen Kiprotich from Uganda, who claimed the gold medal with a remarkable surge close to 38K which took him from off the pace to the gold medal.

Said Meb, “Coming here, I told my wife, ‘I have a feeling I’m going to finish fourth.’ Did I want to finish fourth? It’s not where you want to be sometimes, but fourth place at my last Olympics – I’ll take it anytime.”

It was the third placed finisher, Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich from Kenya, who encapsulated this competition - in fact, these Games - most adroitly. “In every competition, the best athlete on the day always wins. Everybody came here for gold, but the best athlete wins.”

In that, Kipsang (as he is best known) imparted the essence of sport and of the Olympic Games. Apprised of the date and time, you bring your best game, draw a line in the sand and say “Go.” From that simplest of constructs, emerges the best - for that day. The passing beauty of athletics at large and of their quintessence, the Olympic Games, is that everybody can prepare for and dream of having their day. 

As I write this, the modern pentathlon is on-going. After three disciplines - fencing, swimming and riding - Margaux Isaksen is lying in seventh place, with Suzanne Setettinius 29th. The final event - the combined (running and shooting) - begins in one hour. To quote the Governator, I’ll be back.

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