Olympians I

God bless Joey Cheek for taking the nobility of success in competition up a notch with the nobility of charitable purpose. God bless Ted Ligety for making our “major” sports-addicted media dilettantes look like the buffoons they are. (“Bode! Bode! Bode! Bode! Bode! HEY! Who’s that guy?”) God bless the women of the U.S. Olympic hockey team for demonstrating in word and deed –as they have since 1998 – how real “sportsmen” behave. (Screw the Ivy League! Get your daughter an application and course catalog from the University of Minnesota – Duluth.) God bless Evan Lysacek for leaving the stomach flu and IVs behind him and bringing all that powerful beauty to the ice for us to admire. And, last but not least, God bless Shaun, Hannah, and Kelly – sweet and nakedly courageous Kelly, who threw caution and a Silver or Bronze medal to the winds to throw down in front of the boys – for daring every Jeep-cap-wearin’, McDonalds-eatin’, asphalt-and-plywood skater to dream bigger than Xbox 360.

More footnotes for my thesis: All current leaders should berth their ships of state and surrender the wheels to their youngsters who have aspired to be Olympians. I say “aspired” because those who’ve tried and not quite made it to the podium, or even to the ultimate competition, have already come to grips with life’s most important lessons, short of the loss of a loved one.

My younger son aspired to be an Olympian. Though he never marched under that five-ringed pennant, his journey, with its successes and failures, enriched our lives immeasurably and changed completely my perspective on the spirit and true value of competition.

He was one of the best athletes you mostly never read or heard about, nor watched on television. From 1995-2004, he was a decathlete. As a collegian, he was NCAA Division I champion; a three-time All-American; twice PAC-10 champion; Junior Nationals runner-up; and Junior Worlds finalist (the only competitor from this hemisphere.) He competed for three years as a professional in the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete program. For six straight years he ranked in the top 10 among all U.S. decathletes and competed twice in the Olympic Trials. His best finish there was sixth; only the top three finishers make the team. (Them’s the rules – though sprinters get a break in filling the relay pools.) One of fewer that 65 Americans – that’ all time, from Jim Thorpe forward – who’s broken the 8,000 point barrier.

The kid was always fearless; at seven, he dragged Dad onto the King Cobra at Busch Gardens six times in a row. (Fortunately, my equilibrium and stomach are strong; unfortunately, his stepmother’s aren’t. That was the occasion we discovered that when she whirled, she hurled.) An abundance of eye-hand coordination and native quickness made him a talented schoolboy baseball and football player. In youth soccer, he was usually in goal because he never thought twice about sticking his nose on the ball, even in heavy traffic. As a Little Leaguer, he was a natural second baseman/center fielder with an outlandish slugging percentage who preferred catcher, with its potential for contact. Basketball was another story; his smallishness at the time and “By Any Means Necessary” philosophy caused him to foul out of the grammar school games that I refereed in minutes. As a junior varsity cornerback he had six interceptions in nine games. He wrestled at 152 pounds for a season and a half, primarily for the conditioning. (It’s not called “the longest six minutes in sport” for nothing.)

A fluke steered him toward track and field. He reported for the first day of baseball practice his freshman year and, along with several of his equally-talented grade school classmates, was promptly cut. (Apparently, the coach had a thing for kids from that particular school; his charges won four games that Spring and he was gone.) I thought he’d be crushed – in truth, I was pissed, having shelled out for a new glove and cleats – but he shrugged it off. A senior who happened to be the state pole vaulting champion caught his eye and the rest, as they say, is history. A two-time state finalist in that event and reliable scorer in three others, he led his boys’ team to three consecutive league championships. (He gave up football his senior year to train with a gymnastics coach because he’d read that one of his vaulting heroes, Lawrence Johnson – then at the University of Tennessee and the Silver Medalist in Sydney – had done so. I was secretly overjoyed, already having seen too much adolescent tissue and bone sacrificed on the Altar of Win-at-any-Cost.)

I’d like to call a time out here to give my older boy his props. A fine artist, animator, and musician who teaches autistic kids, his scholastic athletic endeavors didn’t bring him the same success, but he compensated for a lack of size and natural talent with his superior intellect and a fearsome work ethic. He was the most coachable soccer player I ever had. He topped out in high school at about 5’10,” with a low center of gravity, but that didn’t stop him from trying out for basketball twice. When he was a senior, his sophomore jock of a brother talked him into going out for wrestling, so he put down his guitar; gave up ice cream; lost 30 pounds; and – relying on his wits, wild hair, and thick trunk and thighs – made it all the way to Sections. He had no obligation to do that, and words can hardly express how proud I was and am that he did it anyway. (The sight of them lying next to each other before matches in their singlets, quietly laughing, talking, and strategizing, remains with me to this day.) Their stepmother was delighted, too. She warmed to the sport beyond her own expectations, and they were so exhausted there was no fighting in the house five out of seven days a week that winter.

Time in – back to Son No. Two. Am I proud of his achievements? Of course, but I’m prouder of how he did it and some other things it earned him.

  • At 5’11”, 185 pounds, and with his genetic composition, he had no right to do that well. Your prototype 21st century decathlete is at least 6’2”, about 200 pounds, and carries an abundance of fast-twitch muscle. (Brian Clay, Athens’ Silver Medalist and probable Beijing winner, is the exception; he’s 5’10” but his speed, explosiveness, and heart are apparently limitless.) My kid did it with self-discipline, study, and enough determination for a half-dozen people. (I’m that tall, by the way, and he still holds it against me. I blame his mother, who was a better athlete anyway.)

Next Week: The rest of what he earned, and what I learned.


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