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(post for BVOF New Years Blogging Brawl)

(posted 30 December 2008 - 16:22 Eastern)



Bigalke - The Cerebral Vortex






Sunlight finally finds its way through the clouds here in Eugene, illuminating the penultimate moments of 2008 as the annual clock ticks toward midnight. Along the way we’ve witnessed the innumerable rises and falls which make the world of sports so fascinating for both diehard fanatics and casual observers. Records both venerable and dubious have fallen. Laughingstocks have risen through gritty perseverance from their graves. We have been reminded many times that even the grandest collections of talent can implode. Even as things change, they have a propensity for remaining the same...

We rediscovered that perfection is attainable, but it must be fought for ceaselessly. Michael Phelps learned four years earlier that lesson as he challenged the mark of Mark (Spitz, that is). Phelps finally found his perfect moment in Beijing, but not before being pressed to the tightest of photo finishes by Serbian swimmer Milorad Cavic in the 100-meter butterfly final. Gold was secured, one-thousandth of a second separating the two swimmers as Cavic was relegated to second. Winning the seventh gold, though, would be for naught if that eighth couldn’t be achieved.

The fortitude gained from swimming mere millimeters faster than his fiercest challenger reappeared in his final event of the Games. When Phelps hit the pool in the 4x100-meter medley relay final, the American team was trailing to both Australia and Japan in the water. By the time he hit the wall to send off anchor Jason Lezak, he had built a half-second lead and pulled the fastest butterfly medley split in history. Eight gold medals later, records across the board tumbled, Phelps had reached the pinnacle of his profession and earned the adulation of an amazed globe full of spectators...

Phelps’ achievement was all the more impressive considering that, even when perfection seems inevitable, it can vanish in an instant. For the New England Patriots, their date with a perfect destiny had looked all but certain as they demolished their way through the NFL season to wind up at Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Arizona. But for them, no photo finish could prevent their tumble from grace by a New York team led by a coach left for dead earlier in the season and a quarterback clawing his way out from behind his brother’s shadow.

Their offense had broken records, their defense had clamped down on opponent after opponent. Their eighteen straight wins had surpassed the single-season record set by the perfect Dolphins over a quarter-century earlier. But all the regular-season accolades amount to little if the deal can’t be seen through to the end. What Spygate and other teams couldn’t accomplish, the Giants’ roster managed -- to wipe out the goose-egg in the loss column for the high-flying boys of Belichick...

A similar fate befell Big Brown, the Thoroughbred who looked like the surest bet for becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Coming into the 134th Kentucky Derby, the colt from Monticule Farms was undefeated and the favorite for the win. Two minutes later -- actually 2:01.92 -- and the three-year-old was across the line nearly five lengths before Eight Belles. The luster soon vanished from the afternoon, though, as the placing filly broke both ankles in the post-race cooldown. The Churchill Downs crowd bore witness to the euthanasia as a festive day turned dour.

Horse racing returned to prominence two weeks later as the 133rd Preakness Stakes saw Big Brown take the second leg of the Triple Crown by an even wider margin. Over five lengths separated Big Brown from second-place Macho Again, less than two minutes all that was needed to reassert his dominance over his counterparts. Still undefeated in all races heading into the 140th Belmont Stakes, Big Brown’s trainer Rick Dutrow announced that the Triple Crown was “a foregone conclusion”. Yet whether tactical misfortune or the lingering aftereffects of a hoof injury or the weight of expectation or a loose rear shoe (or a combination of all the above), no excuse could mask the ignominious fate of becoming the first Triple Crown hopeful to finish last at Belmont Park in the final leg. Even foregone conclusions aren’t guaranteed until the final race is run...

“You're trying to get ready for the Olympics, and you just get this huge bomb dropped on you.” We often learn the most poignant lessons not when everything is clicking perfectly but when adversity is skirted to achieve some measure of success. Take the case of Eric Shanteau, the 24-year-old from Georgia who realized his Olympic dreams just one week after being diagnosed with testicular cancer. Postponing treatment, Shanteau headed to Omaha for the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials with an outside shot in the 200-meter breaststroke. But with a second-place finish behind Scott Spann and ahead of race favorite Brendan Hansen, Shanteau needed only 2:10.36 to book his place in the Olympic Village.

Once in Beijing, the young breaststroker battled valiantly toward his gilded dream. In his preliminary heat, Shanteau took second place behind Mike Brown of Canada in a new personal-best time of 2:10.29. He bested that with a 2:10.10 in the semifinal heat. But his personal best proved thirteen-hundredths of a second too slow for a spot in the final. Despite reaching his ultimate goal, though, Shanteau embodied the Olympic spirit. He challenged his body to go faster than he’d previously thought possible and persisted against the odds to come as far as he did.

After his chance at the medal fell short, Shanteau told the press, “It's tough that I didn't get to be in the final and have a chance to medal. But my goal was to swim my best. Now I've got a much bigger battle to win, and I know I'm gonna win that one.” His performance illustrated perfectly that, despite being overlooked coming into the trials, there is a reason that we run the races -- and even if a favorite does not make the cut, those who do are more often than not worthy of their place in the limelight...

The beauty of sports is that anyone can have a shot; talent alone cannot lead an athlete to the promised land. All the dollars in the world cannot keep a team like the Tampa Bay Rays from surpassing their richer compatriots in New York and Boston. A minnow like Fenerbahce can take the best players that Chelsea’s Russian oil money can buy to the brink of elimination in the Champions League. On any given day guys like Trevor Immelman and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga can take down Woods or Federer. And past failures and embarrassments could not keep NFL franchises down in Atlanta and Miami. Now as for those Lions...

... they were but one of the resonant stories of woe that serve as the alter ego to all that is good in sports. In the grand scheme of things, though, to go 0-16 clean and fighting for victory (no matter how ineptly) is inherently more noble than dominating the field synthetically. From Roger Clemens and Marion Jones at the beginning of the year to Manuel Beltran and Riccardo Ricco this summer all the way through to the interior Williams presence in Minnesota, many an athlete eschewed penitence and offered up the familiar blame game. But one sprinter challenged our notions of the reticent sports figure blindly denying involvement.

Joy Goodwin, writing for of all publications ELLE magazine, conducted a revelatory interview with American sprinter Kelli White as she revealed and admitted publicly that she had been one of Victor Conte’s lab rats during the BALCO days. For once, a human side showed through the tough veneer of professional athleticism as White contritely bared her flaws for all. As I have written at great length over the past several years (and should probably compile into a book by now), everyone compromises his or her morals now and then. But it is whether we can honestly own up to our flaws which truly defines what kind of a person we are. White, regardless of her usage, stood head and shoulders above the Joneses of the world when she came clean -- we can learn more from our missteps than the victories borne of those indiscretions...

As we close down 2008, that is the most important lesson that we can possibly garner from the world of sports. We can revere athletes all we want, but we must temper that reverence with the realization that, at the end of the day, they are as human as each of us. Here’s to hoping the coming year provides us with yet more opportunities to see the best and worst of our world. For the thrills of victory and the agonies of defeat can all be witnessed, year by year, through the lens of athletic achievement and can serve to better allow us to recognize them in our daily lives...





Bigalke is a freelance journalist who has been writing for FanNation since December 2007. He is also is a contributing writer at Helium and a managing editor of Visit his personal site, The Cerebral Vortex, to find a full archive of his work both on sports and other subjects. Got something to say to Bigalke -- questions, comments, suggestions, derision to sling, vengeance to exact, commendations to render, or contracts to offer? You can reach Bigalke through FanMail, the comments box below or here...



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