Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Hard Hits: Spirit of Olympic Games On Display

Believe it or not, there have been some tremendous stories taking place at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. If you avoided the classic overreaction to Wayne Gretzky's lack of involvement in his wife Janet Jones' gambling affairs with Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet, you actually might have noticed. Not that many of these obsessed people who are covering the Winter Games of The XX Olympiad seem to care.

However, if you tuned in to watch some of these remarkable athletes compete at the highest level for gold, you would've caught what the Olympics are all about. It's American Joey Cheek dusting the field to win a speedskating gold medal in men's 500 meters and then showing generosity by donating his $25,000 Olympic bonus to help children in the Darfur region of Sudan.

"I have been blessed with competing in the Olympics," Cheek explained to the Associated Press. Using his Mom Chris as a good example she told her two sons, "Not to have good intentions, but to do good things."

Imagine that. An athlete who doesn't bask in the glow of Olympic triumph and thinks of others in need. That's the kind of story which makes these Games so special.

It's 18-year-old halfpipe gold medalist Shaun White being overcome with emotion when he realized his Olympic dream in front of family- showing tears of joy to indicate how much it meant to the world's best snowboarder.

It's China's Zhang Dan showing the heart of a lion by continuing her routine with doubles partner Zhang Hao after straining a left knee ligament after a fall trying to land a historic toss quad. Remarkably, the 20-year-old who was in tears after crashing hard picked herself up and not only finished the long program with Hao but showed enough mettle to land all her jumps including a triple axel and triple sow en route to a miraculous silver medal when it looked over.

Dan's courage embodied what these Winter Games are all about. She easily could've quit due to the pain but instead, persevered.

"I think it's a very valuable experience for competition," Dan pointed out to reporters afterwards. "It's so important for myself because I made a mistake on the first element, but I think I can do all the other elements, so why not keep going?"

"We didn't say any words of giving up. We said we could go on," teammate Hao added.

Ironically enough, the gold medal Russian pair winners Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin overcame their own past, which saw Marinin drop Totmianina on her head giving her a concussion at the '04 Nationals in Pittsburgh. When they finished taking bows, an emotional Marinin bowed to Totmianina, thanking her for sticking with him.

Flawless during both their short and long programs this time around, it made victory that much sweeter. Winning by a large margin of 14.75 points, it was a fitting conclusion to their brilliant careers.

"I have no words to express how great it is to be Olympic champion," Marinin told the AP. "So many people try to be Olympic champion and not so many get to be it."

"It was a long, long way and it wasn't the easiest way. I'm just thrilled with everything," Totmianina added. "We did everything that we can do, we skated clean and got the gold medal."

It's 21-year-old American virtual unknown Ted Ligety coming back to win the gold in combined Alpine skiing. Imagine an unsponsored athlete who wasn't expected to medal let alone win an event having two great slalom runs to take gold after a disappointing downhill. This while the overhyped Bode Miller was disqualified for failing to cross a gate on the slalom. Combined with the outspoken Miller's disappointing fifth place finish in the downhill earlier in the week, can you say flop?

What I admired most was Ligety's honesty afterwards. He mentioned how he couldn't even picture making the Olympics let alone becoming the fourth American to achieve gold in Alpine skiing.

"It's great to be where I am but it's unexpected, that's for sure," he remarked to reporters later. "I have no idea how this will change my life. I'm pretty satisfied with my life so far, so I hope it doesn't change too much."

Sounds pretty sincere.

Sometimes, it's not even about medaling. Just ask women's skiier Lindsey Kildow. She returned to compete in Alpine skiing two days after a horrifying fall which in a bruised thigh, sore back and pelvis. None of that was on her mind Wednesday.

"I wanted to get a medal," she told anyone who would listen after tying for eighth. "But I still have more chances- so don't give up on me yet."

"It's definitely weird going from the hospital bed to the start gate. ... I was a little nervous, I'm not going to lie. I was definitely out of my tuck and just making it past that point and then once I got past that point, I was pretty relieved."

She might not have won gold like Michaela Dorfmeister but Kildow was a winner in my book.

And while I'm on the topic of what has made this week so special, let's not forget the kind of tough decision American figure skater Michelle Kwan made earlier this week. It took a lot for the popular 25-year-old nine-time national champion to realize she couldn't compete at her best due to a groin strain suffered while warming up.

Unable to complete a triple axel, the classy Kwan gave up her quest for Olympic gold in what could've been her third and final opportunity. She took silver in Nagano ('98) and bronze at Salt Lake ('02).

Granted the final spot when she petitioned the USOC due to a groin problem, Kwan showed what being a team player is all about- giving 17-year-old Emily Hughes a deserving chance to compete. Hughes is the younger sister of '02 gold medalist Sarah. She finished third at the '06 U.S. Championships behind Sasha Cohen and Kimmie Meissner.

"Taking myself off the team is the most difficult decision I've ever had to make, but it's the right decision," said Kwan at a conference call this past week. "This injury prevents me from skating my best, and I've said all along that if I couldn't skate to the level that I expected from myself, I'd withdraw from the team.

"The Olympics is the greatest sporting event in the world, and what's most important is that the United States fields the strongest team possible. As much as I'd love to represent the United States in Torino, I would never stand in the way of that."

How can one not appreciate that?

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