W is for Water Polo

Serbia, a country roughly the size of my own Bay Area but with half the population, shows us how to get a country excited about water polo. In a 2016 video, the European, World, and World League Champions exhort everyone–kayakers, radio DJs, children with leukemia, poets, and even bikers–to don caps and sing their team to “the throne.” Serbia won their first Olympic water polo gold medal in Rio 2016, defeating their neighboring countrymen, Croatia.

Eastern Europeans are passionate about water polo. These are countries torn by revolutions, assassinations, and war, which spills over into sport in ways that Americans would understand. Fistfights in the stands, hooligans attacking players in restaurants, and opponent’s flags set on fire outside the stadiums. Every match is a grudge match, which makes this combination of swimming, basketball, and pro-wrestling always exciting.

How to properly support your winning water polo team. Photo from video, “Serbia Is Mad About Water Polo,” at swimswam.com.

Too bad America doesn’t appreciate the game. Especially when Team USA is a threepeat World Champion, back-to-back gold medalist, and has won a medal in water polo in every single Olympics. Oh, not the men’s team. I’m talking about the women’s squad. This explains why our dominating water polo beasts, who would be mobbed by fans in every cafe in Serbia, can’t get the time of day in the U.S. Still, our women’s water polo team is a force to be reckoned with in a sport that calls for extraordinary speed, strength, and teamwork.

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V is for Vault

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.

Kerri Strug in Atlanta 1996, hopping after she stuck the landing. Photo from Pinterest.

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:

Just fly high and stick the landing.

Gold medalist Tim Daggett
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U is for Unbreakable

World records are only borrowed.

Lord Sebastian Coe, double gold and double silver medalist.
Florence Griffith Joyner, “Speed, elegance, beauty, femininity, suspicion.”

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.

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T is for Triathlon

The Spirig/Jorgensen duel in Rio 2016, a remarkable race that garnered little notice. Photo at ESPN.com.

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.

Kind of sounds like a triathlon.

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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 TheUndefeated.com.
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