Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sports Talk: My Favorite US Gold Medal So Far

As a correspondent sports writer for The Casey County News, I write an weekly editorial column for the publication. Published August 8, 2012.
I know that the track and field events just got underway this past weekend, but I think I found my most impactful moment in the 2012 Olympics on Friday evening in a non-running event.
It was indeed a race that resulted in a gold that has won my awe and it was even in my preferred distance: 800 meters. However, it was not on a track, but in a pool, when 15-year old Katie Ledecky blew away her competition in her unexpected swim to glory.
I believe much of my enjoyment in the swimming events this year is the parallel to track, which I spent a good portion of my life dedicated to. My appeal for swimming is the duration it takes for the finish.
Having been a 400- to 1600-meter runner,  my focused run lasted more than a blink of an eye, like the 100-meter. They required more strategy than simply all-out speed. You took things into account like your start and your pace and your kick. These things are not looked at in the same light for a 100-meter sprint, but they are in a 100-meter swimming event.
I love seeing come-backs, or watching the one competitor push the pace, or seeing someone decide to make their charge.
Ledecky—only 15—was not expected to win gold in the 800-meter freestyle. (Do you realize she was only 11 years old when the Beijing Olympics took place??) It was a hopeful thought that the youngster would make it on the medal stand when up against the reigning champion and the world record holder, Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain.
But I believe that her youth is the greatest advantage Ledecky had in that race. Rather than being intimidated on the big stage she swam with a ‘what have I got to lose’ attitude.
Ledecky took the lead early in the race with Adlington and the Lotte Frilis, Denmarke’s expected competition to rival Adlington for gold, comfortably behind her. I felt proud of the young American not afraid to go out with the big dogs and even push the pace.
In my mind, even with her early lead, I never expected her to win. In a distance race, the early leader never wins. It’s the same way I feel when I see my horse leading the opening of the Kentucky Derby.
The champ, the experienced, knows what their pace should be. That person knows how to stick comfortably with the pack and kick it into high gear at just the right moment to take over the event. Adlington would clearly do just that, right?
It was after 550-meters that my thoughts began to change. Ledecky remained on that yellow world record pace indicator. She was not only not backing off from it but Adlington and Frilis were not gaining on her. She had stretched her lead to a full body length.
By the time she was on her last 100-meter I was a believer that she just might hold this lead and, by golly, she might even break the world record! With her final turn she was over a body ahead of her competition. Unless she died to the point of being unable to swim, her competition was not going to catch her. Her lead was too strong.
Die she did not. She did not punch the wall in world-record time but she was only a half a second short.  Adlington’s world record time in Beijing was 8:14.10. Ledecky swam 8:14.63.
 All that came to my mind watching that young athlete swim ahead fearlessly was the most idolized runner of any track athlete: Steve Prefontaine. Anyone who knows the runner’s name knows he was much more than a record-breaking runner in the 70’s before his early death.
Prefontaine was a fearless runner who was oftentimes condemned by his coaches for not running a more traditional race, with a pace, a plan and a reserved kick. Prefontaine was the living  phrase “go hard or go home” and dying at the end of a race was never on his radar. If it happened, he would deal with it then, but the possibility of it happening never slowed his pace.
I suppose my newfound love of swimming really just proves my love of racing in general: pure gut, pure strength and pure athleticism on the line, side by side, in the spotlight to determine who is the best with a final time to declare it without question.
And the excitement is in the truth that on any given day in any given race, any given person has the chance to rise to the occasion and achieve the unexpected. For as much as we area amazed by through these Olympics, someone else is always waiting to give us another jaw-dropping moment.

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