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Read didn't make the 2000 Olympic team and watched the Sydney opening ceremonies from a dorm room at Princeton, where he was training. He promised himself: There's no f---ing way I'm watching on TV in 2004. In the days after the attacks on 9/11, Read, who was both training for crew and working as a chief rescue officer, spent four days working on the pile at Ground Zero. "My generation had never seen anything like this," Read says. "No World War II, no Korea, no Vietnam. But I had always felt pulled toward citizenship and service." The work unhinged Read, as it did many others. "There was a palpable and incredible spirit down there," says Read. "But once you withdrew from that environment, it was hard to reconcile the work you had been doing, which was pulling bodies out and putting them in body bags."
He found release back on the water, his hands on an oar. "What got me out of it was rowing," he says. And then even more. "I've probably done CPR on 100 people," says Read. "I did CPR on an 11-year-old boy who was on his way to church, and died. But in that role, you detach yourself. The lesson of 9/11 for me was that reality can become mortality in a nanosecond. And hard exercise is the most underprescribed antidepressant on earth."
In the summer of 2004, Read sat bow seat in the U.S. eight that won its first gold medal in 40 years. At 33, he is the oldest man actively competing for a sweep spot in the U.S. team that will row in London next summer. He remains driven by the urgency he learned a decade ago and intoxicated by the athletic performance it fueled. "You're representing everyone," he says. "You can win a gold medal to honor those who were killed."
TEN YEARS ago Americans watched their Piazzas, their Andruzzi boys. They watched in New York City, and they also watched in places far from New York City and drew strength from being together and embracing the familiar. "People were looking for some association with consistency and normalcy as it was known prior to that day," says Bobby Valentine, who was the Mets' manager in 2001. "Sports provided that."
A memorial will officially open at the World Trade Center site on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. But the grieving will continue a very long time for America, the healing even longer. Epic as they can be, the sports we adore as fans are not built to carry us emotionally forever. They move us through the cycles of a game or a season, letting us escape into a world that is more exciting than our own. An athletic metaphor is appropriate: Sports could not possibly keep up the pace at which they helped soothe Americans in the days following the attacks on 9/11. Eventually, they would just be sports again. Have people used them to remember? Or to forget and escape? And would this question have been answered any differently on Sept. 10, 2001?
Joe Higgins, 50, is a former Marine and retired New York City firefighter who lost his older brother Tim on 9/11. Higgins left the fire department in 2003, suffering from illnesses he believes are related to his time at Ground Zero. He is also a boxing coach who runs one of the top amateur gyms in the New York metropolitan area, and like Jason Read, he sees athletics as a conduit for patriotism. "I absolutely believe that I can change attitudes and make kids feel proud to fight for their country and fight for the flag," says Higgins.
But that's very different from deputizing America's professional athletes and teams to extend the feelings beyond the early recovery. Higgins remembers the Piazza home run. "It was therapeutic," he says. "It was almost like a reverse situation. They were treating the real heroes in this world like they should be treated, and we appreciated it." But now? "I don't think 9/11 has changed sports at all."
No, it changed us. And since 9/11 the experience of going to a game has changed significantly. It's not possible to enter a professional or major-college stadium without surrendering to a security search of some type, one that many fans find superficial at best, comical at worst. And there are often ceremonies like the one that brought Bridget Lydon back to Boston. At Nationals Park in Washington, for instance, around 30 premium seats for each game are set aside for veterans, active-duty servicemen and their families. They are introduced at the end of the third inning, to regular ovations. Cynics might dismiss such rituals as forced or even exploitative, such applause as the perfunctory expression of a guilt-ridden, captive audience. But it should be noted: As 9/11 recedes in memory and wars continue in remote regions with little media coverage, stadiums have become one of the few public venues that regularly ask Americans to pause and reflect on American suffering and sacrifice.
Consider William (Spanky) Gibson. A native Oklahoman and wrestler in high school, Gibson enlisted in the Marines at 17, completed Ranger school and did combat tours in Iraq and Somalia before he turned 30. He was working as a recruiter in Japan on 9/11 and volunteered for more combat. On May 16, 2006, in Iraq, he was shot in the left knee, and his leg was amputated above that knee. Five months later he ran a 5,000-meter road race on his prosthesis, followed by a half-Ironman triathlon and the Marine Corps Marathon. "When you're hurt like I was, people keep telling you what you can't do," says Gibson. "My first reaction was to say, 'I'll show you what I can't do.'" He later returned to Iraq as the U.S. armed forces' first above-the-knee amputee to be deployed in a combat zone.