Ghosts of Game Times Past…and Future
…Continued from the previous post.
For several weeks now, it’s been one coincidence after another around here, all revolving around a one-year journey I once made in search of the rhythm of sports in this country. Apparently, the rhythm has now come looking for me. Either that, or it’s been lurking around ever since. Whatever the case, I could knit a sweater with all of the old story threads that have popped up of late: Mo Martin, Manny Machado, Marqise Lee…
Eventually, I decided to dig out the notebooks—the ones in which I entered all of the thoughts and impressions that presented themselves as I watched more than 100 different sporting events. And in so doing, I found myself amazed at the number of athletes I saw in humble surroundings that went on to achieve great things.
At a golf course a couple of towns over from the middle of nowhere, I witnessed a quiet but confident young golfer see his efforts pay off when his fourth-place finish in a just-completed Nationwide Tour event all but guaranteed that he’d “graduate” to play on the PGA Tour the next season. Less than one year later, there he was on my television screen, holding the Wanamaker Trophy as the winner of the 93rd PGA Championship. Later this month, Keegan Bradley will play on his third U.S. Ryder Cup team. At the time of this photo, though, my wife was simply trying to coax a smile out of him because she thought he looked like someone that one of our nieces should date. True story.
And then there was this: in three different venues I saw three different athletes who, anonymous outside the cognoscenti of their own sport at the time, would go on to Olympic glory…
I was one of perhaps 75 fans who’d made the trip to Cal-Berkeley’s cavernous Edwards Stadium to watch the Pac-12 (Pac-10 at the time) heptathlon and decathlon conference championships. I was admittedly undereducated about the track and field “combineds” at the time, but I knew enough to understand that I was seeing the elite’s elite in the decathlon. I was even so bold to state categorically (with tongue only partially in cheek) that this Oregon senior would someday be known as the World’s Greatest Athlete. Two years later, at the Olympic Trials, Ashton Eaton broke the world’s record in the decathlon, on his way to the gold medal in London. He hasn’t finished anywhere other than first in an international competition since. Eaton even wound up marrying Brianne Theisen—the girl that won the heptathlon championship on that day I first saw each of them.
By the time I attended the USA Swimming National Championships, Michael Phelps had already eclipsed household name status, so I can’t say that seeing him medal was an entirely unexpected thing. There was this other guy, however, who seemed like he had it going on in a big way. Blessed with exceptional talent and movie-star looks, he was certainly popular with the swimming fans on hand—the women in particular. But up to that point, he’d always been known as one of those “relay guys,” with just one individual international win to his name. Fast forward to today, and Ryan Lochte’s seven individual Olympic gold medals stand second in swimming history only to Phelps. Add to that his four standing world records, and you could say he’s done OK for himself since I saw him. Even if you do take into consideration his ill-conceived reality show, What Would Ryan Lochte Do? which was mercifully cancelled after eight episodes.
Months later, at the USA Indoor Track & Field Championships, I was introduced to a woman who was unquestionably considered to be the best in America at her craft—the pole vault. Initially, there wasn’t much to marvel at, as Jenn Suhr passed on the first half-dozen heights. No use wasting your efforts at a height you know you’ll clear with ease. But by the time the rest of the field had been eliminated and Suhr had won, she had vaulted just twice, clearing each height with ease. It turned out, though, that her work had only begun. Winning the event was only a byproduct of her actual intent, which was to set a new American indoor record. As she closed in doing so, I, in turn, closed in on missing my Southwest Airlines flight home, and despite pushing off the sprint to my rental car for as long as I possibly could, I missed witnessing the blessed event.
Suhr’s 5’11 ¼” did indeed set a new American record. But here’s the thing—it was well short of the world record, which has been held at various times by women from pretty much any country but the U.S. The shock waves that would have reverberated had an American broken the world record would have been global. Which is to say that, when Jenn Suhr won the Olympic gold medal the next year in London, it was even more of a massive upset. I could say I saw it coming that day in Albuquerque…but I would be lying.
“So what’s the point of all this reminiscing?” you may ask. Well at first, even I didn’t know. While I certainly enjoy mentally reliving some of the memorable aspects of that year, I haven’t ever really dwelt upon them. But eventually I started picking up on a common thread.
The athletes that have recently inhabited my encounters with ghosts of Game Times past were more or less unknown when I saw them. They were each clearly dedicated to their sport, and by the time I saw them, they’d made sacrifices both physical and financial to get to where they were. Which, however, when measured by the barometers of success in the U.S. (People magazine cover fame and/or massive wealth), was basically…nowhere. They were all more or less invisible.
So why did they do it? I’ve wondered. And more to the point, why do others—particularly those with almost no realistic chance of achieving breakthrough success—do it? I don’t honestly know… but I have a strong feeling it’s a question worth exploring.