“Because it is there.”--attributed to George Mallory, as his answer to the question: “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?"
Mallory's disinclination to let the giant mountain stay unconquered was the end of him, of course—he vanished in 1924 during an attack on the summit, and it was not until 1999 that an expedition found his frozen remains and laid them to rest. The death of the great British mountaineer did not stop attempts to conquer the world's highest mountain, of course, and in 1953 Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay of Nepal reached the summit. Since that day fifty-five years ago, thousands have made it to the top of Everest—and hundreds have died trying. Everest has been different things to different people, and in the world of athletics, most athletes have their own Everest to shoot for.
Sometimes, the mountain gets you.
Brendan Hansen waited uneasily in the starting blocks as he prepared for the 100 meter men's breaststroke final. The breaststroke is the most demanding of the strokes contested at the Olympics: its requirements have been repeatedly tightened up over the years (once to split the butterfly stroke off, once to prevent competitors from saving time by staying underwater most of the time)--and it was the last stroke that men managed to take under the 1 minute mark for 100 meters. Until two months ago, Hansen was the world record holder in both the 100 and 200 meter breaststroke. However, a familiar adversary started making a move on him: defending 100 and 200 meter Olympic men's breaststroke champion Kosuke Kitajima claimed the 200 meter breaststroke record in June, and was clearly headed into the Games under a full head of steam. Then disaster struck—Hansen failed to qualify for the 200 meter breaststroke in the US Olympic trials: he would have no opportunity to avenge his loss to Kitajima four years before and to reclaim his world record in the event. He had one individual race, and it was the event he still held the world record in—the 100 meter breaststroke. He qualified in fifth position in the semifinals, and thus was in lane 2 as the chime went off to start the race.
In spite of his recent problems, Hansen had grounds to be optimistic: Kitajima had not beaten him head to head since the 2004 Olympics, and no one had ever defended the 100 meter men's breaststroke gold medal. After the first fifty meters, Hansen was second, trailing Alexander Dale Oen of Norway by 0.12 seconds, with Kitajima 0.06 seconds behind him in third. At that point, the defending champion turned it up a notch and blew by Hansen, then Oen—the NBC video feed showed that Kitajima was ahead of world record pace by the 75 meter mark, and he stayed there—touching the wall first with a time of 58.91 seconds: shattering Hansen's world record of 59.13 seconds and making him the first human being to break the 59 second mark in the breaststroke. Hansen strove to keep up, but Oen held him off as he touched home second, and Hugues Duboscq of France slipped by him to take the bronze. In what was probably his final individual Olympic race, Hansen lost his world record, was shut out of the medals, and had to watch the coronation of Kitajima as the consensus greatest breaststroke swimmer of all time as the Japanese swimmer won the 200 breaststroke in Olympic record time on August 14th—repeating his 2004 sweep of the men's breaststroke medals.
It must have been tempting for Hansen to retreat from the scene of his failures, but he still had one more competition to deal with: the 4 x 100 men's medley relay—the event that would represent Michael Phelps' eighth gold medal should the US win it. While Hansen did not swim the fastest breaststroke leg in that final—that honor went to Mr. Kitajima yet again—he helped keep it close with a solid 59.27 leg before handing it off to Michael Phelps, who set up history with his own blistering butterfly leg of 50.1 seconds—the fastest 100 meter butterfly leg ever. Jason Lezak sealed the deal for the second time that week for the US men's swimming relay team by holding off Eamon Sullivan, and the gold medal was safely in US hands. The four Americans celebrated, and Phelps thanked his teammates for the great effort. As far as could be seen on NBC, Hansen never even looked at Kosuke Kitajima during the celebrations. That mountain had beaten him decisively—but he was enjoying being at the top of this mountain instead.
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Sometimes, the mountain takes notice as you approach the summit.
An athletic, serene-looking brunette in her mid-thirties watched quietly in the stands at the Water Cube in Beijing as the last preparations for the 800 meter women's freestyle were made. Her name was Janet Evans, and she had won this event in overwhelming fashion in 1988 and 1992: starting at the age of fifteen in 1987 and for most of the next decade, Evans had been the most dominant women's long-distance swimmer in history. She finished her career with four Olympic gold medals and a silver, and the world records in the 400, 800, and 1500 meter freestyle events—all set during the heyday of the East German cheating machine that gave Erich Honecker's monstrous regime dozens of undeserved gold medals and world records. East Germany vanished, but Evans' records endured into the twenty-first century with few signs of looking vulnerable. Many swimming records were shattered repeatedly at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics and at the World Championships in between, but Evans' records remained untouched.
In 2006, the adamantine began to show cracks. Laure Manaudou of France—who ended up having a rather poor Olympics after her personal life became a soap opera in the past year—claimed the first of the three records by finishing the 400 meter freestyle in a time of 4:03.03, shattering the mark that Evans had set in winning Olympic gold in Seoul: she had held the record for almost eighteen and a half years, as she had broken her own standing world record with her Olympic victory. The 1500 meter record—a distance not contested among women at the Olympics—fell next, as Kate Ziegler of the United States completed the distance in 15:42.54, breaking Evans' record by almost ten seconds. The mark had been set in March of 1988 and—as with the 400 meters—had involved Evans breaking her own world record in the event. Janet Evans had owned the 1500 meter freestyle record for one month short of twenty years, and now it was down to the 800 meters—her signature Olympic event. As the swimmers stepped up to their marks for the final, she had owned the record for almost nineteen and a half years—the next longest standing long course record for women's swimming had been set in 2000. Janet Evans had predicted that her final record would fall in Beijing, and the field that qualified was lightning-fast—seven of the eight qualifiers put up times that would have beaten Janet Evans' gold medal winning time in 1992—and had left the two American swimmers—Kate Ziegler and Katie Hoff—as frustrated observers. The field was fast, but all eyes were on Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain—who had put up the second fastest time ever in the 800 meters in qualifying after winning the 400 meter freestyle earlier in the week, though it was still fully two seconds slower than the legendary record that Evans had finalized in Tokyo in August of 1989.
Janet Evans watched quietly, ready to mark the splits as the race progressed. The crowd—still excited after Michael Phelps' astonishing razor-thin victory in the 100 meter butterfly-- hushed. The signal went off.
The NBC announcers were still excitedly talking about Phelps' win, but the view on the screen spoke for itself—Adlington was swimming far ahead of world record pace, as the green line following her more than two body lengths away indicated. About two-thirds of the way through, the view changed to a split screen for a moment—revealing that Janet Evans was watching the scoreboard with attentive eyes, marking down the split times that were supporting her pre-Olympic predictions for the race.
At about the 650 meter mark, Rowdy Gaines suggested that Adlington would be giving back a little of the distance to that moving line, as Evans was a remarkable back end swimmer—making her late race splits insanely difficult to beat. It never happened. Adlington kept her head down and swam hard for the finish in spite of having no one nearby to push her—a circumstance that Evans herself was all too familiar with in her career—and powered into the finish with a time of 8:14.10, beating the oldest record in the sport by 2.12 seconds and completing the 400M/800M Olympic double gold that Janet Evans herself had accomplished twenty years before in Seoul. The two golds were Great Britain's first women's swimming golds since 1960.
As Adlington celebrated, Janet Evans flashed a brilliant smile and applauded: The final footnote to her own legendary contributions to the sport had been written, and magnificently so. Celebration was definitely in order.
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Sometimes, that mountain doesn't turn out to be as difficult as you thought.
Janet Evans' last Olympics—where she failed to medal in any event, but had one of the most memorable moments in the Games when she handed the Olympic torch to Muhammad Ali—was in 1996. She retired after those Games, at the age of 25. Dara Torres was a three-time Olympian as of 1996 as well, but she did not participate in the Atlanta Games: she was at that time 29 years old and had been in retirement since the conclusion of the 1992 Olympics. She had a collection of Olympic medals won in relays, and had settled down to a new career as a sports commentator and a model, once gracing the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. In 1999, she decided to make a comeback, and she qualified in three individual events in the Sydney Olympics at the age of 33—winning bronze medals in all three for her first individual Olympic honors, along with two gold medals in the relays. There were some raised eyebrows, but Torres passed all her drug tests with flying colors, and Torres took her Sydney haul back into retirement, where she remained as the 2004 Olympics were held and she celebrated her 37th birthday.
Dara Torres gave birth to her daughter Tessa in April of 2006, and began swimming regularly again to get in shape. Still in excellent condition, she decided “why not?” and began training again for competitive swimming. What seemed ridiculous on the surface was suddenly no joke as in August of 2007—four months past her 40th birthday—she won the gold medal in the 100 meter freestyle in the US Nationals. She proved the win was no fluke at the Olympic trials in July the next year by winning both the 50 and the 100 meter women's freestyle events—setting a US record in the 50. She ended up dropping the 100 freestyle from her schedule as a concession to her age, but she still faced formidable obstacles: her times, while they were the best she had ever put up, were not as fast as the best times of several swimmers from other nations—she would be hard-pressed to do as well as she had in Sydney.
Torres' first event was the 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay, an event which US women have traditionally done well in, though Australia came into the Beijing Olympics as the defending champion in the event. Also looking dangerous was the team from the Netherlands, which had won bronze in the 100 free relay in Athens, and which had four solid 100 swimmers for the final. Natalie Coughlin—who would manage to receive a substantial amount of notice and praise in these Michael Phelps-dominated Olympics by medaling in six different events—led off for the US and gave a solid performance, putting the US in third behind Germany and Great Britain—neither a medal contender once their fast leadoff swimmers had finished—and ahead of Australia and the Netherlands. Lacey Nymeyer took over for the US and gained on the Germans as the British second leg swimmer fell out of contention, but Ranomi Kromowidjojo of the Netherlands slipped by her into second place as the third leg began. The German third leg swimmer was outmatched and quickly fell out of contention, and Femke Heemskerk of the Netherlands pulled away from Kara-Lynn Joyce of the United States, giving the Netherlands a 0.71 second lead as the anchor leg swimmers took over.
Marlene Veldhuis—who would later swim in the 100 meter freestyle final and finish seventh—took over for the Netherlands and Dara Torres was faced with two problems: the almost insurmountable lead that the Netherlands had, and Libby Trickett of Australia—who was left eight-tenths of a second behind Torres by her teammate's early problems, and was the world record holder in the women's 100 meter freestyle—coming up behind her. She settled down and swam her leg, and gradually closed distance with Veldhuis, as Trickett gained bit by bit against Torres.
The race ended with the first three finishers all swimming their 100 meter relay leg in less than 52.6 seconds. Velduis held back Torres, and Torres held back Trickett, leaving the order of finish: The Netherlands first, the United States second, Australia third. At age 41—the oldest person ever to swim in the Olympic Games--Dara Torres had managed to come within a tenth of a second of matching the time of a world record holder who had not yet been born when Torres won her first Olympic medal. It was an astonishing achievement, but more was yet to come.
The 50 meter women's freestyle was the first event held on August 17th—the final day of swimming competition in the Water Cube. Torres had already attracted attention for convincing officials to wait for a Swedish swimmer who had torn her suit just before the semifinals in the 50 free. The Swedish swimmer failed to make the final—Torres qualified fastest for the final, to the amazement of many.
The 50 meters is known as the “splash and dash”: there are no turns, and little time to breathe—just a dive into the pool and a mad swim for the other end. There is no room for error. Libby Trickett—still smarting from her defeat in the 100 meter freestyle—was an obvious threat as the world record holder in the event, as was Britta Steffen of Germany—who had been the one to defeat Trickett in that 100 meter final. Also waiting on the blocks was 16 year old Australian Cate Campbell—who had been only a few months old when Dara Torres was competing in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
The starting tone sounded, and eight women hit the water with a resounding splash, followed by enough whitewater to keep a hundred rafting daredevils happy. The replay would later show that Steffen had managed the fastest start, and at the end it ended up being the difference, as Torres took an early narrow lead, but wasn't quite able to hold it. As with the now-legendary finish in the men's 100 meter butterfly that gave Michael Phelps his seventh gold, it came down to a few centimeters at the finish, with Steffen out touching Torres 24.06 to 24.07 seconds. Cate Campbell came up right behind the older women to finish at 24.17—beating out fellow Australian Libby Trickett for the bronze. The good fortune that had blessed Phelps the night before wasn't there for Torres—but she had beaten her personal best in the event by two-tenths of a second: it would be hard to imagine anyone doing better.
There was no time for Torres to grumble over a lost opportunity—she was scheduled to swim the freestyle leg of the 4 x 100 medley relay after the men's 1500 meter freestyle and the medal ceremony where she would receive her silver medal for the 50 freestyle—a total rest of less than thirty minutes. After the thrilling 1500 meter race—in which Australian two-time defending gold medalist Grant Hackett narrowly failed to win the event for the third straight Olympics—the medal ceremony began: Torres was visibly fidgeting as she smiled—she wanted to get to the locker room to prep for the relay. Mercifully, she was released soon after the ceremony concluded, and she ran off, coming back out a few minutes later while still pulling her swimming cap on.
As with the 4 x 100 freestyle relay, Natalie Coughlin led off for the US—this time with her signature backstroke: she had won the gold medal in the 100 meter backstroke earlier that week by beating world-record holder Kirsty Coventry. Zimbabwe wasn't in this final, so it surprised few when Coughlin handed Rebecca Soni—winner of the 200 meter breaststroke earlier that week—a substantial lead going into the breaststroke leg. Unfortunately for Soni, Leisel Jones of Australia—who had finished second to Soni in the 200 breaststroke—had beaten Soni for the gold in the 100 breaststroke—and Jones' superior sprinting ability took its toll quickly: by the time the butterfly leg began, Jones had turned a 0.39 second deficit into a 0.98 second lead. Christine Magnuson of the United States managed to make up 0.12 seconds on Jessicah Schipper on the butterfly leg, but when the final leg began and Dara Torres hit the water, she found herself 0.87 seconds behind Libby Trickett of Australia, the world record holder in both the 50 and 100 meter freestyle. Jason Lezak had entered into Olympic legend earlier in the Games by overcoming a 0.59 second lead in a similar situation in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay—Torres' task looked hopeless.
It didn't stop her from trying, though. Torres tore through the water after Trickett, and the margin gradually lessened as the swimmers made the turn for the last fifty meters. The other swimmers were left far behind—as was the green world record line—as Trickett powered for home, with Torres doggedly hanging on behind her and closing the distance.
But it was not to be—Trickett touched first as Australia smashed the world record for the medley relay with a time of 3:52.69, while Torres touched second for the United States in an American record time of 3:53.30, going under the old world record in the process. China beat out the others in the distant field of pursuers for the bronze with a time of 3:56.11.
Dara Torres had won her third silver medal in Beijing, falling short of gold in her final effort thanks mostly to the brilliance of Leisel Jones in the breaststroke. She had more than done her job—in her desperate effort to catch Trickett, she had completed her 100 meter freestyle leg faster than any woman had done before—a breathtaking 52.27 seconds and a full quarter second faster than the world record holder from Australia had covered the distance. Astonishing.
She hasn't said for sure that this is it for her—how many athletes do retire right after putting up the best performances of their lives? But if I might presume to offer the remarkable Ms. Torres some advice—if you come back, do it right away in London in 2012 and don't wait for 2016. If you come back at age 49 and start winning gold medals in the pool, you're going to make some of those kids you're swimming with cry—and I'm not just talking about the women.
* * * *
Sometimes, you're lucky enough to have a friend join you at the summit.
The controversy about the ages of the gymnasts on the Chinese women's team was being discussed far and wide—as the Chinese and the IOC gracelessly sidestepped it—as the women's all-around competition began on the morning of August 15th. Two Chinese gymnasts—including Yang Yilin, whose date of birth had been shown in an official Chinese media article preserved by bloggers before it was scrubbed to be a full year later than the one on her passport—were in the running for the all-around women's championship, as were two Americans: Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson. They are very different: Liukin—the daughter of a Soviet Olympic champion—reminds one of the willowy grace of Nadia Comaneci, while Johnson has a compact, powerful build that is more like Mary Lou Retton—who was in the stands to cheer on her fellow Americans. Bela Karolyi—who had been at the head of those complaining loudly about Chinese age-related shenanigans—praised both Americans but gave Johnson the slight-edge to win the all-around.
There is no room for error in the all-around. Each woman in the final performs one routine on each of the four individual events of women's gymnastics—highest total score wins. With the recent changes in scoring, each event has different potential scores (they're supposed to be working on this to equalize the events more—it'll definitely cause problems in the long run if they don't).
Johnson, Liukin, and Yang all began on the vault—Johnson had the highest level of difficulty and therefore the initial edge, and while Liukin and Yang both performed solidly, Johnson took the early lead with a score of 15.875—giving her a 0.650 edge over Yang and 0.850 over Liukin. Jiang Yuyuan of China—also considered a contender up to this point—landed on her posterior on her vault and only managed a 14.825, taking her out of the medal hunt.
The leaders moved on to the uneven parallel bars, which is one of Liukin's specialties. However, Yang Yilin performed a routine of equal difficulty, and when the judges had evaluated both Yang outscored Liukin 16.725 to 16.650, producing some grumbling about the judging from various quarters. Johnson's routine was substantially less difficult than that of her rivals, and she only could manage a 15.275 in spite of near-flawless execution of the routine. Yang led, with Liukin trailing by about two tenths of a point and Johnson about three quarters of a point behind Yang.
The balance beam—a notoriously unforgiving event—was next, and Liukin rose to the occasion, putting up a near flawless, very difficult routine that was scored at 16.125 (with the score only being released after Nelli Kim—now the president of the organization that created the new scoring system—came out of the stands to nudge them along). Johnson also produced a superb routine that was scored at 16.050. Yang—perhaps feeling the pressure—had several small bobbles and only managed a 15.750.
After three rounds, Liukin had taken the lead over Yang by 0.150 points, with Johnson 0.600 off the lead. It would come down to the floor exercise.
Yang went first, and matched her lifetime best on the floor exercise with a 15.000 as the partisan Chinese crowd roared in approval. Liukin went next, and—as Bela Karolyi shouted with glee back in the studio sitting next to Bob Costas—she executed an almost flawless routine for a 15.525, her highest score ever on the floor exercise and allowing her to pass Yang into the top spot. It was up to Shawn Johnson—the gold was out of reach, and it would take a nearly perfect routine to pass Yang for the silver. She stepped onto the floor without hesitation—and put up a 15.525, matching Liukin's score and allowing her to pass Yang by a mere 0.075 for the silver medal.
The two friends embraced—they had pushed themselves hard over the months, hoping for this result with the only difference in agenda being who would be standing on the top of the podium. For the first time ever, women from the United States finished 1-2 in the all-around competition. Somewhere out there, little girls are watching this—probably on tape, given the hour NBC ended up broadcasting it—and dreaming of future moments of glory.
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Heck, sometimes you become the mountain.
Every Olympics has a thousand stories, many of which would be compelling in their own right even if one avoids the often maudlin excesses that NBC goes to in order to lure in female non-sports fans to Olympic coverage. It is perhaps unfortunate that the stories above—along with many others—will be largely forgotten due to the overwhelming publicity that Michael Phelps inexorable journey to an unprecedented eight gold medals in a single Olympics has generated. It would be more unfortunate if he didn't deserve every bit of the attention. While Phelps is one of the most talented swimmers ever, his will to win is what has served as the capstone of his legend. Along with the races that he won with ease, he won in spite of adversity—malfunctioning goggles left him virtually blind during the last third of the 200 meter butterfly, which he ended up winning in world record time—and dangerous opposition—he had lost the 100 meter butterfly until the very last instant, when a wrong decision by Milorad Cavic and a questionable one by Phelps himself left him in what happened to be the only situation in which he could pull off a win by the narrowest possible margin.
He needed help with a few of those medals, of course. The role of Jason Lezak in getting Phelps his second gold medal—along with his solid performance to lock down the eighth and final one—has exponentially increased the respect for his not inconsiderable skills. He will be remembered for a long time because of this, while Gary Hall Jr.--who was heard to denigrate Lezak as a “professional relay swimmer” before these Games—will be best remembered as a world-class jackass rather than as a gold medal winner in his own right. Who says life isn't fair?
Phelps is the new Everest in Olympic swimming, of course. Eight gold medals will be a devilishly difficult standard to reach again, and trying for nine will add an order of magnitude to the difficulty, at the very least. If it is done, it will be by a remarkably versatile and talented swimmer who is getting help from the schedulers. One can hope that if it is done, Phelps will be there to congratulate the winner as Spitz has been available with praise and encouragement for Phelps. One unquestionable advantage of sports over mountaineering is that one's opponents are human—whether they congratulate you, or sneer at you, or their families stop by to share their memories with you, the obstacle that you have overcome is now ready for someone else to take a shot at. Overcoming natural obstacles is an important part of the human condition, but overcoming the challenges that our fellow human beings throw our way is ultimately the path to reach the pinnacle of human achievement. It is this that makes sports great—and which will allow them to remain important as the human race completes overcoming the hazards posed by the natural world we live in and seeks out challenges beyond this fragile globe.
Next up: track and field—the heart of the Olympic Games.