Friday, October 24, 2008

Good Sportswomanship Carries The Day

I’m what you call a part-time sports fan. I don’t subscribe to cable TV. My weekends are not given over to endless football games. My entertainment dollars are more often spent at the bookstore or the theater, than at an arena. The wretched excess and ridiculous salaries of professional sports appall me. Yet I do spend time watching the Olympic Games every couple of years and I do enjoy the occasional baseball game.

I moved to America, to Denver, just before the Colorado Rockies were born. The baseball team, not the mountain range. As I was immersing myself in my new home and a new culture, the city of Denver was being introduced to professional baseball. And I was swept along in the excitement. Everybody was a fan. The stadium was sold out for every game for years. The team broke every attendance record in the books. It was a fun time to be a casual fan. Go to a game, sit in the sunshine, eat hotdogs, and cheer, surrounded by 50,000 of your closest friends.

However, like all new toys, the luster wore off, the results never quite lived up to the promise, and the city turned its attention to other matters. Not me however. I still went to my handful of games a year, listened on the radio every night while washing the dishes, and checked in with the box scores in the morning paper.

It was on one of these forays into the sports pages in the spring of 2008, that a short paragraph, parked in a corner of an interior page, caught my eye. There was a small picture and the following headline accompanied by a few words: “Good sportsmanship carries the day” (Denver Post 5/1/2008)

I like headlines like that. Such a refreshing change from the usual doom and gloom. I read on. In a women’s college softball game between the universities of Western Oregon and Central Washington, senior right-fielder Sara Tucholsky, hit a home run. As she made her turn at first base, she failed to touch the base. Turning to make a second attempt at touching it, she twisted her knee, fell to the ground, and was clearly unable to complete a tour of all the bases, a requirement to score the home run.
How could an experienced college player fail to complete such a basic task, I asked myself. After a little research, I discovered that Sara Tucholsky was not one of the stars on her team. Over her entire college career, she was a .153 hitter. Most players would get kicked off their team for such ineptitude. Over the last four years, Sara had a hit every six and a half times she came to the plate. That’s like you or me showing up to work for half the days we are supposed to. She had never hit a home run, not once, not in a game, not even in practice.

And here, in her last season, she finally muscled the ball over the outfield fence. Not only that, two of her Western Oregon teammates were on base in front of her, meaning this was a three-run homer, a dinger of monumental proportions which would give her team the lead in the game and ruin the last chance the Central Washington team had of winning the conference and making the playoffs. Sara Tucholsky was so surprised at herself, so ecstatic at watching the ball sail over the fence, that she failed to touch first base.

Realizing her mistake, she made a quick turn, felt something in her knee pop, and crumbled to the dirt. Her first base coach couldn’t help her because softball rules state that if her coach touched her she would be out. In pain and humiliation, she crawled back to first base.

Her head coach ran from the dugout to confer with the umpires. The rules were clear. Sara would not get the home run unless she touched all four bases. She could not be helped by her coaches or teammates, and if they substituted a runner for her, she would only be credited for a single, for the one base she had reached. Her coach did not know what to do. In one of her last games, Sara Tucholsky had hit a home run, was finally the star of the show, and she was sitting in agony in one corner of the diamond.

Into the picture comes Central Washington first basewoman Mallory Holtman. Mallory was everything that Sara wasn’t. The big star on her team, the all-time home run hitter in the Great Northwestern Athletic Conference, the player with the most to gain by her team winning the championship. Mallory knew exactly how to solve the situation successfully.

She checked in with the umpire and inquired whether they was anything in the rules about an opposing player helping an injured home run hitter around the bases. There wasn’t. Putting aside her team’s playoff aspirations, Mallory Holtman, along with shortstop Liz Wallace, picked up the Western Oregon hero and carried her to second base. By the time they got there, they were laughing. Mallory asked Sara which leg was injured; told it was the right one, she and Wallace gently lowered Sara down so she could touch the bag with her left leg.

Moving on to third, the whole crowd was roaring. Players and coaches from both teams were standing in support. Rounding third, and heading for home, the applause was immense. Players and spectators were in tears. The five foot two Sara Tucholsky, clad in red and white, being carried to her ultimate goal, the only time she was ever going to reach it in her life, by the kindness and compassion of her opponents. She touched home plate to a thunderous ovation, tears streaming down her cheeks. When asked later about missing the playoffs, Holtman, the star who already had all the home runs, said, “In the end, it is not about winning and losing so much. It was about this girl. She hit it over the fence and was in pain and she deserved a home run.” Amen to that.

Mallory Holtman deserves a place in the annals of sports history. Who won or lost this game may not be remembered. What will be remembered is the grace and willingness one person showed in helping another in need, a magnanimous heart reaching out in selfless concern for another. This act will keep Mallory Holtmans’ place in the sun.


A few months later, I was reminded again of this story. I was at home watching the Games of the XXIX Olympiad from Beijing. The Olympics Games are the epitome of good sportsmanship. Or at least they used to be, before big money got involved. In 1908, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, wrote the creed of the Olympic Games: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

In the first part of the twentieth century, true amateurs matched strength, skill and wits against each other in good-natured competition and retired to the bar afterwards to share stories and a beer. Try telling that to the athletes of today, where a gold medal can lead to seven figure endorsements and the multi-millionaires of the professional leagues around the world are in it to win, and to pad their pockets. Corporate sponsorship and network ratings are king. Winning is paramount, along with getting one’s face on a box of cereal.

Enter Dara Torres, an American swimmer from Beverly Hills, California. Dara is no ordinary member of the U.S. swim team. This is her fifth Olympics. She has medaled in her previous four. The mother of a two year-old, at age 41, AGE FORTY ONE!, she is warming up for her last day of racing.

Now I know all about 41; I am uniquely qualified to tell you what 41 looks like and feels like. I can even tell you what it means to be a 41 year old swimmer. I turned 41 about twelve weeks ago, a couple of months after Dara Torres. I eat a respectable diet and exercise in the pool fairly regularly. But my back hurts, my hair is abandoning me at an ever-increasing rate, chopping wood for the fire does a number on my shoulder, I snore, I have occasionally been known to drool on my pillow, and my doctor checks things in places he never did before. When I do swim, and I try to get in a decent number of laps of the pool a few times a week, it is taking me longer, with greater need for breaks. Bottom line, I am fatalistically resigned to the fact that I am no longer twenty and my body wants me to slow down.

Dara, she is competing on the world’s brightest stage with women less than half her age, in the flower of their youth, with girls who were not born when she first dived into Olympic waters. In fact, she was competing in her third Olympic Games in the year that one of her present-day opponents, an Australian, was born. And, in truth, this could have been her seventh summer games. She began her Olympic career in Los Angeles in 1984 with a gold medal. She continued in Seoul in 1988 (a silver and a bronze), Barcelona in 1992 (gold), missed Atlanta in 1996, was a five-time medalist in Sydney in 2000, and then did not participate in Athens in 2004. At the ripe old age of 33 in Sydney, she could have been forgiven for hanging up her goggles. But now here she is, eight years later, in China’s capital city, going for her eleventh and twelfth Olympic medals – in the span of less than an hour.

With one silver medal from a team relay race already under her belt in these Beijing Olympics, she is now emerging poolside to go for individual gold in the 50 meter freestyle race.

50 meter freestyle. That’s the shortest race there is, the one which requires the most power. The winner has to explode off the blocks and hurtle herself down the pool with no regard to those in the next lanes. Pure energy and speed. The eight contestants emerge knowing that Dara Torres qualified with the fastest time. They are intensely focused. They are silent, determined, one objective in mind: winning. They are concerned about no one but themselves and the goal they have worked a lifetime to achieve. They take their places by the starting blocks when Torres leaves her station and walks to the side of the pool. What is going on? This is peculiar to say the least, and certainly unprecedented. Approaching one of the race officials, Dara is requesting a delay of the race.

One of the swimmers, Therese Alshammar from Sweden, has not come out to the pool deck with the other competitors. Dara is informing the judge that the racer’s super-thin, new-age swimsuit ripped while she was warming up. She is back in the changing room desperately trying to change into a new suit and take her place in the race. Would it be possible to hold off the race for a couple of minutes to allow the Swede to participate? With a worldwide TV audience and a tight schedule, the answer is unclear. But the experienced American, one of the most decorated athletes in Olympic history, persists. She does not take her position on the starting block until all eight finalists are present and ready.

It is one thing at my daughter’s school field day, to make sure everyone is ready to take their marks and get set. Usually the teachers are the ones who notice and hold up the race. But this was a top contestant at the highest peak of international competition, in the gold medal final of the Olympic Games, making sure that everyone was included. It is not the winning that counts, but the taking part. And Dara Torres was going to make darned sure that everyone took part.

As for the race, Torres did not win gold. She took silver, beaten by the smallest of margins: one one-hundredth of a second. Upon seeing the results, her face broke into the most beautiful smile. She had done her best, beaten her personal fastest time and the Olympic record to boot. Her comment following the race? “I’m totally thrilled. I realized I shouldn’t have filed my nails last night. But it’s my best time ever. As much as I wanted to win, I’m very happy I got the silver”.

Alshammar was thrilled too. Thrilled to participate, thrilled that a 41 year-old mother, a medal favorite, an experienced competitor who was supposed to be focusing on herself and her own race, was looking out for others.

The other American swimmer in the final, nineteen years Torres’ junior, was quoted as saying: “To put things in perspective, she (Dara) was talking about childbirth in the ready room. She thought swimming was tough, but childbirth was harder.” Twenty minutes after collecting her silver medal on the podium, Dara Torres was back in the pool helping her teammates to another silver medal in the 4 x 100m medley relay, her third silver medal in the Beijing games. After the closing ceremony, she noted that some of the other swimmers were going to Bali or backpacking to Paris. They asked her what she was doing. “Well, I leave here at 10:30 Tuesday night and Wednesday I’m taking my daughter to school and I have a list of school supplies to buy.”

My guess is that that is one lucky little girl. She has a mother she can look up to. Not for all her accolades and medals, but because she is teaching her to share, to be empathetic and compassionate to others, and to enjoy and value participation over winning. Just like Mallory Holtman, she has been taught the lesson that being a good sport counts for more than being good at sports. We can all learn from this spirit.

I wonder if it’s not a coincidence that these stories are about women. If male athletes at the college or Olympic level had been present under the same circumstances, would the results have been the same? The caring male in me wants to think that they would be, but somehow I just doubt it. Would Sara Tucholsky, playing in a men’s baseball game, have been left at first base? Would Dara Torres, in a men’s event, have ignored the missing swimmer and kept her focus on herself? Probably. Women are competitive athletes, just like men, but they are also more likely to keep one eye out for their fellow athletes and to keep compassion in their hearts.

“The most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.” Which is more valuable – winning or caring? In the game of life, that’s an easy one.


Amy said...

This is fantastic and is something everyone should read. Share this with your students! They need to see this side of you!

Anonymous said...

So inspiring!

This brought tears to my eyes. This is definitely a message I would like my children to imbibe... The impetus from this essay certainly can change lives. You should share it with the local newspapers during baseball season.

Deb said...