Devers should be U.S. delegation's choice for flagbearer
Posted: Wednesday August 11, 2004 7:50PM; Updated: Thursday August 12, 2004 4:40PM
The U.S. delegation in Athens will select its flagbearer soon, when the captains of each individual sport nominate their representatives and vote on the nominees.
To many, the honor of carrying their nation's flag exceeds any other distinction, including the winning of medals at the Olympics.The flagbearer isn't necessarily the best athlete, but someone who displays longevity or overcomes severe obstacles in order to compete at the Games at a high level, if at all. To that end, there are several candidates worthy of the honor:
JENNY THOMPSON, swimming: Thompson, 31, has won eight gold medals in her Olympic career, all in relays. This is her fourth Olympic Games. She will compete in the 100-meter butterfly and 50-meter freestyle in Athens and the races represent her last chances to win a gold medal in an individual event. She will also compete in at least two relays. With two more gold medals, Thompson would become the most gilded Olympian in history, breaking the mark of nine held by Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi, Russian gymnast Larissa Latynina and U.S. swimmers Mark Spitz and Matt Biondi. Yet, she is only back in the pool by accident, having caught the bug after jumping back in the water again for a casual swim while a med student at Columbia University.
RULON GARDNER, wrestling: The superheavyweight greco-roman wrestler beat the unbeatable Russian Alexander Karelin in Sydney, then celebrated by doing a cartwheel on the mat. Gardner has had three brushes with serious injury. After he won the 2001 world title, Gardner got lost on a snowmobiling trip in Wyoming and nearly froze to death and had a toe amputated. A year later, while riding his motorcycle, Gardner hit a car that had stopped suddenly in front of him. He flipped over the car, landed on his back and walked away with just road rash. Earlier this year, while playing pickup basketball, he dislocated his wrist while diving for a loose ball. Gardner nevertheless came back and won the Olympic trials, with pins in his right wrist. He is a realistic contender to win again in Athens, but his decision to stay with his sport (for considerably less money than the $1.5 million he was offered to join the WWE) makes him a worthy choice.
BLAINE WILSON, gymnast: The three-time Olympic gymnast tore his biceps in February and fought back to make his third Olympic team. Wilson, 30, has undergone half a dozen surgeries on various parts of his body throughout his career and he has still managed to win five consecutive U.S. all-around titles. Still, Wilson has never won an Olympic medal. The U.S. men's team may help him end that drought this year, but the injury is nevertheless doubly frustrating to the 5-foot-3 gymnast. His best event is the still rings, the apparatus on which the ailing biceps afflicts him most.
Put asterisks by each one of the names. Thompson must swim the day after the opening ceremonies, and U.S. swim coaches traditionally do not allow swimmers to attend the ceremony, much less play a major role if the turnaround for their first race is that short. Gardner carried the flag at the closing ceremonies in Sydney, and while that wouldn't disqualify him from doing it again in Athens, U.S. team captains are likely to look elsewhere. Wilson isn't as well known among the U.S. Olympic fraternity because he hasn't won an Olympic medal, and is known for an uncompromising attitude that has rubbed some coaches the wrong way.
So that leaves us with our choice . . . GAIL DEVERS. Though Devers, 37, is a two-time Olympic champ in the 100 meters, she has been a better hurdler during an incredible career that is taking her to her fifth Olympics. Over the past two decades she has won ten national championships and three world titles in the 100-meter hurdles. She is best remembered for leading the event in Barcelona for most of the race, then tripping over the last hurdle and stumbling across the finish line without a medal.
But there is more to Devers than her five Olympic teams. Early in her career, she was diagnosed with Graves Disease, a hyperthyroid condition, and came within days of having her feet amputated when doctors were unable to slow the swelling in her legs caused by radiation treatments. She has set up a foundation to raise money for various charities and has comported herself with consistent class, a trait that is sadly becoming less and less common in her sport. Later this month, you'll see Devers gunning for her first Olympic hurdles title and another Olympic gold in the 4x100-meter relay.
Given the way she has carried herself, Devers is our choice to carry the flag.