The Cosmonauts in the Mirror

As a person of a certain age, I always associate the word “cosmonaut” with space villains, who launch spy satellites and build giant lasers on the moon to execute secret plans for world domination. Everyone raised in the 1960-70s “knows” that America did all the important space stuff like design a plane to fly in space and land on the moon. The reality, of course, is that the Soviet and Russian space programs, like the American space program, have been a blend of science and humanity, ingenuity and bravery, success and failure. While many goals were military, the Soviet achievements were as much about beating the United States (or playing catch up to perceived U.S. advantages) as anything else. In that sense, the journey into space and advances in knowledge shared by humanity have derived from a giant game of tag between superpowers.

Since today’s launch of the first astronauts in an American spacecraft since the end of the shuttle program has been delayed until Saturday–godspeed Behnken and Hurley–perhaps it’s a good day to review some space history. But we often hear only about the Americans, like what John Glenn or Neil Armstrong experienced. What about their mirror image counterparts?

A Vostok 3KA descent module like the one used by pioneer cosmonauts. This one was auctioned at Sotheby’s for $2.9 million. Photo by Anatoly Zak.
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Z is for Zagunis

Punk rockers. Primal screamers. Saber fencers are the cool cats of the Olympics, carrying themselves with deadly grace but ready to strike to the death at the first Engarde!

America’s greatest fencer is a good Catholic girl until she puts on the mask. Then, she is All Ninja.

Mariel Zagunis qualifying for Tokyo, one last Olympics. Photo at Oregon Tribune.

Like ninjas, no one knows she’s even there. If you query who is the greatest American fencer, her name doesn’t even come up, until Touché! And, since ninjas never lose their skill and training, Mariel Zagunis, the one you don’t see until it is too late haha!, is going to Tokyo once more.

Maybe They Should Dress Like Luke Skywalker

Fencing is such a cool sport to watch that it’s hard to understand why Americans don’t follow it. Especially when we do follow it in movies, right? We love a good swordfight. Robin Hood, Zorro, Conan, D’Artagnan, the Man in Black! My name is Inigo Montoyaprepare to die. If you give kids a pair of sticks, the first thing they do is start poking each other.

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S is for Shields

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.

Claressa Shields, double gold medalist in boxing. Photo from ESPN, “Made in Flint.”

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
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N is for Nurmi

Paavo Nurmi was a beast. There’s just no other words for him. Nine gold medals.

I feel great chagrin for crafting an alphabetically-driven post about running so soon after my discussion of the Kenyans and my rant about the Metric Mile. I considered finding another appropriate topic for “N” but … NINE GOLD MEDALS! (Twelve overall). And he would probably have won more, if he hadn’t–because crowds flocked to see a man considered perhaps the world’s greatest athlete–if he hadn’t been paid.

Sorry, gentle readers, that Nurmi starts with an “N.” Attention must be paid to the Flying Finn.

Paavo Nurmi, the “Flying Finn,” the “Phantom Finn,” the fault-finding, fleet-footed, fractious Finn. Photo by

Mo Farah, Call Us When You Double Your Medal Count

Put Paavo Nurmi’s nine gold medals (plus three silvers) in perspective. Mo Farah, considered the greatest distance runner of our generation, only has four gold medals in distance running. Now, it is true that Michael Phelps does have 28 freaking medals, 23 gold. No one’s going to come close to that number. I’ll talk about that when I get to the letter “U.” But in his five Olympics, Phelps was able to enter in 30 races, including 12 relays. Swimmers simply have more opportunities for medals. Nurmi entered 12 races; 12 medals.

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L is for Louganis

Greg Louganis in 1980s Olympic form. Photo by Sadayuki Mikami.

Among the list of legendary American Olympians, the greatest profile in courage for me is Greg Louganis. Greatest diver of all time? If you factor in a troubled childhood, surviving past the boycott, breaking world records, fending off outstanding younger challengers, winning with a concussion, oh, and living with HIV throughout much of it… plus the five medals? No contest.

Scared of So Darn Many Things

Louganis has one of those histories so full of adversity that it’s amazing he ever stepped on to a diving board. Yet everything seemed only to contribute to success. His teenage birthparents gave him up for adoption to loving but stern birthparents. He stuttered. He had terrible asthma and seemed to be allergic to everything. School was a nightmare; along with his halting speech, the dark skin inherited from his Samoan father caused the kids to call him all sorts of names. “I got beat up at the bus stop a lot.” He started smoking and drinking before middle school. As his body matured, his knees didn’t grow properly and developed a gap that doctors thought might alter his walk.

But, as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Because of the asthma, his parents entered him in sports early to develop his lungs, in gymnastics and dance at 18 months. He was good at it, completing solo routines by age three. Afraid of speaking in public, Louganis poured his energy into physical pursuits. When his parents bought a trampoline, then moved to a house with a backyard pool, Louganis started trampolining on the diving board. Terrified Mom decided then that a coach would be a good idea for the eight-year-old. The gap in his legs that had developed as a “deformity” enabled him to see through his knees, even in a tuck, which turned out to be an advantage.

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