Work in Sports
No medal? No problem
Zeiger thrilled with fourth in inaugural women's triathlon
SYDNEY, Australia -- One of the hoariest of all Olympic clichés (and there are many, most pertaining to the hopelessly idealistic concepts of unity and purity) is that there is no pain worse than finishing fourth at the Games. The theory is that athletes would rather finish 17th than fourth, thus avoiding the pain of knowing that they nearly stood on the podium. This theory was probably proposed by the same genius who surmised that football and basketball teams would rather get blown out than suffer the agony of losing close, and it is a load of dung.
On Saturday morning in the first women's Olympic triathlon, 30-year-old Joanna Zeiger of the United States missed a bronze medal by just 17 seconds, losing ground to -- the gold, silver and bronze medalists, respectively -- Brigitte McMahon of Switzerland, Michellie Jones of Australia and Magali Messmer of Switzerland only in the last 15 minutes of an event that lasted more than two hours. When Messmer crossed the finish line, Zeiger could nearly see her from behind, celebrating. Of this tragedy, Zeiger said, "I had a blast."
This is a refreshing bit of perspective that more closely represents the emotions of many fourth-place finishers. Olympian drama can be tiresome, but the fact remains that people dedicate large chunks of their life to an event that occurs once every four years. Just making an Olympic team is an enormous accomplishment; winning a medal is ... well, it's damn near impossible.
Zeiger finished fourth in a race that celebrated, in no particular order, a gender, a sport and a setting, each in bold and mighty brushstrokes. Zeiger promised herself that she would appreciate the moment and not just the result. She swam through Sydney Harbour's Farm Cove, against the backdrop of the Sydney Opera House, and she ran and biked through the streets of downtown Sydney, through a tunnel of ceaseless noise. "My goal today was to be out there and realize that I'm doing something that I will remember for the rest of my life," said Zeiger. "On the fourth lap of the bike [out of six], I said to myself, This is totally awesome."
For the record, her work was also awesome. (Work, in this case, should be defined. Zeiger is pursuing a Ph.D. in epidemiology and brought thesis work to Sydney with her.) A former swimmer at Brown who finished 30th in the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in February, Zeiger came into this race ranked just 38th in the world in the triathlon. She was 12th out of the water after the swim, essentially part of a tight pack that trailed her U.S. teammate, Sheila Taormina, by roughly 40 seconds. On the bike, where she is weakest, she got drafting help from Taormina and her other U.S. teammate, Jennifer Gutierrez -- "I could not have done this without them," Zeiger said -- and then she gutted out the run after dropping in the first kilometer an inhaler that she often uses.
As she reached the final straight, consigned to fourth, Zeiger was embraced by a crowd that filled the concrete steps of the Opera House. She snatched a small American flag and waved it wildly, full of a joy that didn't need a medal's validation.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back daily to read Layden's behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.