Vaulting in gymnastics takes a particular kind of bravery. It’s one thing to do a handspring on the floor. Even on the balance beam, you’re either upright most of the time or moving slowly. Doing a handspring after running as fast as you can, so that you can launch off a trampoline to push off another object as high as your shoulders to do three somersaults, a twist, and land standing perfectly still? Divers at least land in the water, not on their feet.
American Olympic fans remember the spectacular courage of Kerri Strug in Atlanta 1996, when she vaulted for gold after injuring her ankle. But Americans don’t corner the market on audacity or determination, and the vault needs it all, as the stories of Svetlana Khorkina and Oksana Chusovitina also demonstrate.
It’s simple Gymnastics 101, as NBC announcer Tim Daggett always says:
Lord Sebastian Coe, double gold and double silver medalist.
The idea of an unbreakable Olympic record may seem contradictory. As one announcer paraphrased Lord Coe, World records are borrowed, but medals are forever.
Yet there do seem to be some records that will never be broken, and others which seem to last a lifetime. As I near the alphabet in this A to Z Olympic Challenge, it’s time to celebrate these incredible achievements.
Twenty-Eight–Count ‘Em–Freakin’ Medals
*yawn* Oh, is Michael Phelps winning again? Bor-r-r-ing! I’m sick of hearing about Michael Phelps. You’re sick of hearing about him. Want to know why? Because he’s won more medals than anyone will ever get close to winning. I’ve disparaged it myself mentioning that he had opportunities to swim in so many different races, including relays. Which means he could beat everybody at everything, as good on a team as by himself. He even just missed out on a medal in Sydney 2000 at the tender age of 15.
In Athens, he was compared to Mark Spitz, so when he “missed” Spitz’s golds by one, the tagline was “he didn’t do it.” He did pass Spitz in Beijing, winning eight golds in his third Games, an incredible accomplishment that likely no one will match. Then he came back–two more times. Joining Carl Lewis and Al Oerter, he won gold for the fourth consecutive time in the 200m medley in Rio, making him untouchable for twelve years. Those records–all his records–will be untouchable forever.
Today’s A to Z challenge entry was originally a chapter in my Olympics book, cut for brevity’s sake (more info on Triumphs You Didn’t See here). I still had the notes though; never throw away all your edits! Because the Women’s Triathlon in Rio remains one of the most memorable races I’ve seen.
Gwen Jorgensen, American Olympic triathlete, was doing tax work as an accountant at Ernst & Young when she got the call.
For the record, there have been other accountant athletes — Ray Wersching, champion kicker on the 49ers and Craig Counsell, second basemen for the Brewers, to name a few. Accountants take the CPA exam to get employment, a set of professional tests after college, a tough, exhausting exam. At two and a half days long, it covers four separate sections, fourteen hours of seat time. Most people don’t pass it the first go-round, and it takes months or years of preparation, typically with coaching.
Claressa Shields would be considered a Cinderella story, if Cinderella could be described as a brutish annihilator who liked “to make the girls cry.” Whose nickname is T-Rex. Who talks trash like crazy and is dismissive of anyone who dares challenge her. Still, Shields overcame odds just to make it into the Olympics, then accomplished what no American had ever done, winning back-to-back gold medals in boxing. Even now, with a lifetime record of 87-1, she could be considered an underdog. Because Claressa Shields is from Flint, Michigan.
Though some people chose to focus on my hair, my body and the way I talked, I couldn’t care less about a hairstyle or the way I spoke. If you asked me about college, family and my upbringing, I was mute. I didn’t want to talk about anything I didn’t understand or anything that was hurtful. Now, if you asked me about boxing, we could have a conversation.
Shields, “A Letter to Boxing Fans,” in TheUndefeated.com.
Let us export rowers, runners, and fencers; there is the free trade of the future, and on the day when it is introduced within the walls of old Europe the cause of peace will have received a new mighty stay.
Pierre de Coubertin, quoted on heartheboatsing.com
I just read that Pierre de Coubertin was an avid rower; of course, he was. He was a French aristocrat mesmerized by the English public (for Americans, that means wealthy private) school system. I’m kind of surprised the modern pentathlon didn’t end up with rowing rather than swimming.
The Boat Races
If you think the Olympics are old, dating back to 776 BC, consider that the earliest boats from Finland and the Netherlands go back much further, to 5800 and 8000 BC, respectively. If there were boats, there were races. The Egyptians and Phoenicians established civilizations with cultures trading across the Mediterranean, and, of course, the Vikings dominated with their plundering er … trading in the north. Don’t forget the Polynesians, Chinese, and Indonesians; obviously, there have been lots of seafaring cultures around the globe. (I wrote about such sailing history when I was crossing the Atlantic last year.)
Regattas developed formally in Venice, another great water-based society, and they still hold races today. As does Cambodia, whose Water & Moon Festival is centuries old. Today, they still race 44-men crews. That’s Boys in the Boat times five!
De Coubertin did manage to get his beloved Rowing inserted into the 1896 Games, although bad weather forced cancellation due to choppy seas. Apparently, the breezes were so strong that dust clouds blew through the city, and some of the launch spots were thrown up on to the shore.
Even so, a pair of German scullers said they entered the race, though no one else showed up. The Germans rowed; they won; they got medals from the Prince of Greece. Or so Berthold Küttner and Alfred Jaeger later claimed in 1936, the year of the Berlin Games, and there isn’t enough evidence to prove them otherwise. The official history of 1896 says the rowing was cancelled, but Küttner wrote a detailed account, including how the prince’s entourage laughed at his modest clothing. Someone took a picture of them in Greece. Whether it was during the Games or not, who’s to dispute?
That wasn’t the only crazy occurrence in the rowing contests. Going in to 1920 Antwerp, Jack Kelly (USA) had won 126 races straight, when he was barred from competing at the famous London Diamond Sculls at Henley over a dispute with his famous Vespers Boat Club. He went on to take revenge on his British rival, Jack Beresford, in the Olympic race. At the end, the two men were so exhausted, they couldn’t shake hands. Or refused, hard to say. Still, Kelly went on to win another gold in the double sculls a half hour later. His son, John Jr., was also a winning Olympic and Henley rower, although it was his daughter who became even more famous: Grace Kelly.
Sabotage, Heart Attacks, and Kids Off the Street
All Olympic events are fraught with unusual incidents, but rowing seems to take more than its share. In Los Angeles 1984, for example, one of the oars in the French eight broke during the repechage (redemption round). Closer inspection found that the oar had been intentionally weakened. A spectator named S. Nidely Whiplash was questioned.
Rob Waddell, a New Zealand sculler, had to switch out of coxless fours in 1995 because he developed a heart condition that caused him to lag mid-race. He didn’t want to bring down the team. But medication two years later helped him back into contention, and he won the gold in single sculling in Sydney 2000. I’ve heard of athletes with asthma, but rowing with a heart condition seems kind of crazy.
Then, there was the Unknown Coxswain. In the first official Olympic contest of 1900–never mind what Kuttner and Jaeger claim–one event was a paired shell with a coxswain. Three Men in a Boat! The Dutchmen Brandt and Klein expected to win but were upset in their heat by the French. They realized that while their cox was 132 lb. Dr. Hermanus Brockmann, the French were using children, getting away with much less weight. The Dutchmen then brought in a local Parisian kid whose 72 pounds was apparently so light that they had to add weight to the rudder in order to keep the cox’s end in the water. After winning the race, the young unnamed cox disappeared, after posing for a photo. Speculation for years suggested he might have been the youngest Olympic competitor, though he looks older than a ten-year-old gymnast from the Greek team in 1896.
The Elf With a Truck-Driver’s Vocabulary
The cox plays an interesting role in the rowing competitions. In theory, the cox isn’t an athlete in the sense that they don’t do any rowing. But this is like claiming that an equestrian rider doesn’t do any of the work. As we’ve seen, in fact, the rider is considered an athlete and actually gets more credit than the horse. Similarly, the cox will get credit or blame for the results of the race because the cox runs the boat.
On the water, the cox is captain, manager, coach, play-caller, and motivational speaker all rolled together. Since the cox faces forward, the cox is the only one who sees where their boat, and everyone else’s boat, is going. A five percent degree error can cost a race, so directing the steering–and setting the pace–is the difference between winning and losing.
Since the cox needs to motivate, coxes over the years have become infamous for using colorful turns of phrase. In 1928 Amsterdam, correspondent Wythe Williams described US cox Don Blessing as follows:
[It was] one of the greatest performances of demonical howling ever heard on a terrestrial planet…He gave the impression of a terrier suddenly gone mad. But such language and what a vocabulary!…One closed his eyes and waited for the crack of a cruel whip across the backs of the galley slaves.
In the Olympic replays from London 2012, the cox for the women’s eight was Mary Whipple, a 5’3″ double medalist from the University of Washington, one of America’s great college rowing powers. Whipple’s force of personality and language causes half of her comments to be deleted, although if you listened to them live, she was a dead ringer for Sam Jackson.
The Most Dominant Rivalry You’ve Never Heard Of
Whipple helped the American women’s eight rise to be one of the most dominant athletic teams in the U.S., although they hardly got the credit. While the men’s eight have had rough times since their early winning Olympic years, the women’s eight rose out of nowhere to win four consecutive medals, three-peating with gold in Rio 2016. In fact, by the time they were racing in Rio, they hadn’t lost a race in 11 years.
Under coach Tom Terhaar and cox Mary Whipple, they went from a whisper of a loss in Athens 2004 to preeminence in the following decades under what Terhaar called the “Beijing plan.” Their loss in Athens dethroned the team who also hadn’t lost much in their reign of the women’s eight, from 1980 through 2004. The great rivals? Romania.
Romania won eight consecutive medals between 1980 and 2008, including their own three golds from Atlanta to Athens. Nicolae Gioga, their famous coach, had developed a unique style of rowing that others called “deadly effective,” and some of his winning athletes remained on the team for decades. Like their better-known gymnastic counterparts, the Romanian team had grown out of state-sponsored sports, but unlike the gymnasts and coaches, the rowing team kept going even after the fall of communism. Still, by 2012, turnover in the coaching and team staff had put them on hard times, and they fell off the podium entirely in London.
Just as the US completed their continued sovereignty in Rio 2016, with a third consecutive gold medal, guess which team had crawled their way back into the medals? Romania came in a surprising third, a suggestion of what may be things to come. In the Championships in 2017, the Romanians displaced the Americans at last, winning Worlds. By 2018, however, the USA took their revenge and reclaimed the title. The Romanians were contenders but mismanaged their race into fifth place. In 2019, the New Zealanders finally managed to take out both USA and Romania, though the Americans edged to a third place.
Back and forth, like a contest of sluggers, the American and Romanian teams have continued the punch and counter-punch. The 2020 races have been cancelled, although both these teams have qualified for Tokyo based on their 2019 finish. Of all the sports rivalries, I can’t remember one that has gone on for over two decades. Lakers-Celtics, Cowboys-49ers? those were hardly a decade of head-to-head contests. Maybe the Yankees-Red Sox. Except that these two teams don’t hate each other, and the crowds don’t throw beer bottles.