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My Sportsman Choice: John Kerry

Posted: Thursday November 18, 2004 2:20PM; Updated: Thursday November 18, 2004 2:20PM
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By Kostya Kennedy

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When John Kerry weighed in at 180 pounds for the political fight of his life this year, the American people knew they were getting a guy with some serious athletic chops: Cover subject of American Windsurfer magazine (in 1998), able to bike better than 100 miles at a stretch, a hockey player who, at 60, was still lacing 'em up and playing alongside ex-NHLers in charity games.

"It's like you're in heaven," Kerry told me during a February interview. "I mean, you come off your shift and your tongue is hanging out, and you look over and there's Ray Bourque sitting next to you. Then you look to your other side, and there's Phil Esposito. Then you feel a hand on your back and someone says 'nice shift,' and it's Gordie Howe. Come on, it doesn't get any better than that."

Kerry's accomplishments during his 20 years in the Senate were much-discussed during the Presidential campaign, though pundits rarely examined his true feats: On four occasions Kerry windsurfed six hours from Cape Cod to Nantucket. ("It's the mixture of the wind and the sea and flying," he said describing the sport). On a bitter, windy and sleeting day in May '02, Kerry participated in a bike-a-thon from Boston to Hyannisport (80 miles) and was one of the few who made it all the way, arriving soaked at the home of Ted Kennedy to take a hot bath. The next year, Kerry did another charity bike ride, where he finished 32nd out of 3,700 riders, covering 110 miles in less than 6 1/2 hours.

In this year's big race he finished second, of course, despite a late charge. He may not have gotten himself into the game at all if not for a life-shaping day in November '63. Kerry was on a soccer field, playing for Yale, when word came that John F. Kennedy had been shot. "I still remember the hush [that fell] over the crowd," he told me, "But I don't remember the score." Like many Americans, Kerry was shaken to his core by the event, and his mourning had a personal resonance: In '62 he and Kennedy had sailed together on Narragansett Bay.

There are other fine points to be made of Kerry's athletic life -- we haven't gotten into his high school days as a lacrosse player -- but what made him a real Sportsman was his Nov. 3 concession speech, a model of fair play. When he stood at the podium to acknowledge defeat, there were unresolved votes in Ohio and elsewhere; a less gracious man might have gone on contesting what was clearly a hopeless fight. Kerry stood up. "I'm sorry that we got here ... a little bit short," he said.

Over the course of his speech, he would congratulate the President and Laura Bush, and he would pledge to help bridge the nation's partisan divide. He thanked American citizens who "made me stronger." And, as he stepped aside, he made a final, rousing appeal to his supporters to keep on rallying. "The time will come, the election will come, when your ballots will change the world," Kerry said, then added, "I'll never stop fighting for you."

Say what you will, the cat has game.

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Sports Illustrated will announce the 2004 Sportsman of the Year winner on FOX on November 28. Check back every weekday until then to read more Sportsman picks from SI writers.

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