Each week Sports Illustrated's faces in the crowd column presents the pure visage of American sport. These are the athletes who perform and the coaches who teach far from the gaze of network cameras, whose talents are little known beyond their neighborhoods and towns. Their games are the ones played in high school gyms on Friday nights and in municipal parks on Saturday mornings.
Faces in the crowd sings the praises of these unsung sports-people, folks who are like the rest of us, but more talented. Or more disciplined. Or more determined. Or all those things. Like us, they try and fail and try again. Unlike most of us, they have attained a moment of triumph or a high level of performance that has set them apart.
In one format or another SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has been celebrating those moments and those performances since 1954, the year the magazine was launched. Since 1960, when FACES IN THE CROWD first appeared in its present form—six faces a week—the purpose of the feature has been to train a spotlight on ordinary sportspeople who have done something a little extraordinary, to locate them in the throng and single them out for recognition with a small picture and a few lines of text. (Each Face also receives a small silver bowl engraved with his or her name.)
Except that this week's Faces in the Crowd show up twice, both here and in their usual slot, on page 103, they are a typical selection. They range in age from 14 to 59, they are male and female, they hail from sea to shining sea, and they include a high school swim coach, a golfer, a basketball player, a tennis prodigy, a horsewoman, and a long distance runner who is not lonely at all. The possessors of these singular faces are alike only in their love of their sports. The word amateur derives from the Latin amator ("lover"), and in that sense these are true amateurs. They are also amateurs in the currently outmoded but nonetheless admirable sense that their effort is its own reward. Without fanfare, without inducement of riches or fame, sometimes without even the recognition of their friends, these faces standing out from the crowd belong to individuals who love what they do and, above all, do it well.
Gina Suh is 14 and the youngest Minnesota high school girls' tennis champion ever. To her, success is no mystery. "It just feels better not to be a loser," she says. Gina is decidedly not a loser. Her 3.7 grade point average in the eighth grade should, if she keeps it up in high school, propel her into almost any college she chooses. She would like to be a surgeon, she says, now that she is "not that grossed out by blood anymore."
Shinjae and Jai Suh, who immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea in 1969, are not pushing their daughter forward on the treacherous trail to tennis stardom. Says Shinjae, "She's a little better than average at tennis. But she has a good brain, and so it would be best to use it in some other way, to help people." Gina's father, Jai, an anesthesiologist, says, "Frankly, I don't think our family is that much dedicated to tennis." Indeed, they would prefer that their daughter devote herself to the violin (which she has dropped) and the piano (which she has not). Regardless, they support her. Among their contributions: about $500 a month for lessons, court time and other tennis-related costs.
Gina's goal is to play tennis in college. Her teacher, Brian McCoy, says she is "about at that level right now." But being the next Steffi Graf is not on Gina's itinerary. A poster of Graf hangs on the wall in her bedroom, but, she says, "I didn't put it there. My dad did. All I did was leave it up."
Last summer when a girl Gina had previously beaten turned the tables on her, Gina climbed into her mother's Saab, slammed the door and announced, "I quit. I am never playing again." That evening she was back on the practice court, but her mom says, "If it gets too much, she can quit anytime. This was her idea, not ours."
While Gina does not mind being a face in the crowd, she is ambivalent about standing out from it. One minute she says, "I don't like being the center of attention. I get embarrassed. I feel dumb when people talk about it." And the next she says, "It's kind of neat. I'd like to be famous. That would be fun."
Nor is she certain how she feels about tennis pressures. "I like being under pressure," she declares. But later she says, "I don't have pressure on me. All [hat happens is I get tense, I get scared, I make mistakes, I lose. So what?" And still later: "I hate losing. Winning is such a great reward for hard work."