Memorable Olympic Moments (cont.)
A third-place finish in tennis? In any other context, it would be a disappointment. This was something else entirely. "I'm the most happy man in the world at this moment," del Potro announced, having just won Argentina's first medal of the Games. "I think this is a gift for all of our country."
Tennis returned to the Olympics in 1988 but had been something of an outlier, an outer ring as it were. This was the year the sport truly became part of the tapestry. This was clear when eight different tennis players carried the flag for their countries. This was clear when athlete after athlete (from Kobe to Ryan Lochte) made it over to the tennis venue, trying to glimpse Federer or a Williams sister. This was clear when Serena Williams, who won the women's gold, played the best tennis of her life and Murray showed unprecedented courage. But to me, perhaps the most vivid illustration came when a millionaire star finished third and was still incapacitated by pure joy.
-- L. Jon Wertheim
We were sitting on the slick, wooden floor of a condo complex outside Albuquerque. Mohamed (Mo) Farah was comfortably stretching his limbs from a yoga-esque position, seemingly without joints to hinder him. I was squatting, asking questions with a smile to mask the shooting pain in my balky, old runner's knees. Nearby, Galen Rupp cranked out 40 minutes on a noisy treadmill.
It was the second week in February, not long after I had undergone a series of facial surgeries after skin cancer was found. This was my first travel assignment since then, and I was nervous about my appearance and my rustiness. It was a story that I had pitched to my editors -- the best distance runners in Great Britain and the U.S. training together for the Olympics. But getting back on the horse was difficult.
Yet we got through it. I watched Rupp grind out a tough weight session and Farah run indoor intervals. Talked to both at length back at the condo. They gave me what we sportswriters call good stuff. I was back on a plane in two days and then wrote a story that appeared in Sports Illustrated. Often these predictive Olympic-year stories fall flat. Profiled athletes win nothing. Yet on the night of Saturday, Aug. 4, Farah kicked home to win the 10,000 meters, the third British gold medal in 46 minutes on what was the best night of Olympic track and field. He called it the greatest day of his life. Rupp came in behind and took the silver. I sat in a trackside seat, taking notes and quietly thinking how far the three of us had come.
-- Tim Layden
His team of underdogs was hanging within six points of the Dream Team deep into the third quarter. Mark Worthington tried to lead Australian teammate Joe Ingles with a bounce pass on the wing. But Ingles misread the play. He was leaning the wrong way. He stretched his arms forward, but it was as if his sneakers were bolted to the ground. The ball that should have been within reach bounced past him out of bounds.
My favorite moment of these Olympics came as Worthington jogged back on defense, looking over his shoulder at Ingles without frustration or anger of any kind between them. They were sharing in this quarterfinal they could never win the understanding that there were plays they were never going to be able to make. But they were going to have the game of their lives trying to make them nonetheless.
Other teammates would have been yelling or glaring. As Ingles jogged back, his eyes cast down, he raised his hand in a salute of apology to his friend, Worthington, who smiled back at him.
And then Kobe Bryant drilled two threes and just like that the U.S. lead had doubled and the game was out of reach. The Australians kept trying to make plays to the end of their inevitable 119--86 loss.
"I don't believe the final margin is indicative of the game,'' said Australian coach Brett Brown afterward. For the Dream Team's opponent it wasn't the score that mattered as much as the way the game was played, and that is an ideal rarely found in professional sports anymore.
-- Ian Thomsen
Gymnastics is made for the ponytail and peach-fuzz set. It's the only Olympic sport in which retirement sometimes kicks in before puberty. In London it was refreshing to watch two gymnasts who, by their sport's absurdly accelerated timeline, should be cashing social security checks. Germany's Oksana Chusovitina is 37, and Bulgaria's Iordan Iovtchev is 39. Yet both grizzled vets acquitted themselves more than ably. Chusovitina placed fifth in the vault and the silver-haired Iovtchev took seventh in the rings final at his sixth Games, the most ever for a male gymnast. When Chusovitina, also a six-time Olympian, won her first Games medal, a gold in the team competition representing the former Soviet Union in 1992, no member of the 2012 U.S. women's team had yet been born. After the USSR broke up, she represented Uzbekistan for 13 years and then settled in Cologne, Germany, where her son, Alisher, now 12, could receive better treatment for leukemia.
Iovtchev has also exercised his skills in other nations. He trained and coached in the U.S. for 11 years, competed several times in the Sasuke obstacle-course television series in Japan and served as head of the Bulgarian Gymnastics Federation for three years, all while amassing four medals at the Olympics and 13 more in 17 appearances at the world championships. Few dismounts from gymnastics competitions have been as graceful or as long in the making as theirs.
-- Brian Cazeneuve
I've been at NBA Finals clinchers, watched ringside at Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather and sat on the floor for one of the greatest comebacks in NBA playoff history (Nets against Celtics, 2002), and never have I experienced an atmosphere like that in the ExCeL South arena for Irish boxer Katie Taylor's gold medal match against Russia's Sofya Ochigava. Taylor, a former national team soccer player, is an attractive, 26-year-old lightweight with deep brown eyes and a disarming smile. She has emerged as perhaps the most popular athlete in Ireland. And in the gold medal match, seemingly half the country had showed up to support her.
From the moment Taylor emerged from the tunnel the Irish fans were up, chanting, cheering, and singing, "There's only one Katie Taylor," to the tune of Felix Bernard's Winter Wonderland. Every punch by Taylor was met with a raucous ovation, every miss by Ochigava rebuked with jeers. The only silence came in the moments before the announcer read the judges' decision, after which the crowd erupted with such fervor the stands actually shook. It's often written how passionately a country supports its Olympic athletes; I bore witness to the best example of that.
-- Chris Mannix
It had been inconceivable until the split second it happened: On the very last stroke of the 200-meter butterfly, an event Michael Phelps had owned for the last decade, he was outtouched at the wall by a young swimmer who had idolized and studied him for years. Chad le Clos, a 20-year-old South African in a green cap who called himself Phelps's "biggest fan," pounded the water in triumph and disbelief, moments later telling a press scrum, "I'm as shocked as you are." As endearing as le Clos' reaction was, it was Phelps, in his defeat, who left the greatest impression. Up on the awards podium later, Phelps, who had won 14 Olympic gold medals in his career but had yet to win one in London (he would leave London with four golds and two silvers) became le Clos's victory coach, showing the still-shaking young man how to hold his gold medal up near his face for the photographers and reminding him, as they walked around the pool deck to accept applause from the crowd, to "live the moment and enjoy it because it really is special." As many Phelps victories as I've witnessed in the last three Olympics, it is this rare loss, and his humanizing reaction to it, that will stick with me the longest.
-- Kelli Anderson
Looking out on the field of 25 swimmers in the men's 10K open-water race, you couldn't miss Benjamin Schulte. The 16-year-old swimmer had fallen behind the pack early and swum alone for most of the race. By the time he finished his first of six laps of the Serpentine in Hyde Park, he was not within 100 meters of any other competitor.
Schulte was one of the eight Olympians in London representing Guam and was the last qualifier for the marathon swim. He's a pool swimmer who is aiming for Rio in 2016, but he embraced the opportunity to swim in London when New Zealand forfeited its spot. The youngest competitor by four years, Schulte knew he wouldn't compete for a medal, that his only company in the water would probably be a flock of swans. His goal was to finish the race.