The Best Things All Week: Olympic Recap Week 1
Let’s all take a deep breath. Wow.
After an admittedly analog, thoughtful, colorful and celebratory opening ceremony, competition kicked right off. We had many ideas of what we thought would happen. Some proved to be true. Others proved to be a part of the ongoing Olympic narrative to expect the unexpected. Along the way, we cheered, groaned and even cried as the Olympic experience showed us how marvelous it can be during these two weeks
Mike Doing ‘Mike’ Things
Before the opening ceremony, I watched Bob Costas’ in-depth interview with Michael Phelps. During that interview, Phelps said upon reflecting on his loss to South Africa’s Chad le Clos in the 200 fly in London, that he wasn’t “ready” for competition up to his standards. While older, and maybe not as spry as he was at 23, when he went 8-8 in 2008, he said that he was probably stronger and much more prepared this time around. Still, there were people around the world (myself included), who questioned whether he could still compete at an elite level at 31 years old.
He said he was. And we should have listened.
The first indication I had that this Olympic run for Phelps would be different was the 4 x 100 free relay. He was a bit of an unexpected addition to the final relay team on Sunday night seeing as though he did not swim the 100 at the U.S. Trials and wasn’t included in the six top finishers in Omaha that were included in the relay pool. When he rocketed off of the wall from the 1st 50 of the 2nd leg of the relay, he emerged from underwater with at least a quarter body length lead. The U.S. would go on to win gold in the event for the first time since 2008.
The attention shifted to the feud with le Clos. Le Clos, since out-touching Phelps in the 200 fly four years ago, was vocal recently in his disdain for Michael’s comments on the time in the butterfly events in 2015. This time around, le Clos seemed to be goading Phelps by shadowboxing and dancing right in front of him in the ready room. What happened became a worldwide phenomenon of #PhelpsFace. We know how that ended.
Amazingly, later that evening, he anchored the 4 x 200 free relay to his third gold medal. The signature, however, to his dominance was on display in the 200 IM final, where he was slated to go against his good friend and rival Ryan Lochte one more time. It wasn’t even close and as we all know now, NBC commentator Rowdy Gaines still found a way after 16 years of watching Michael Phelps to completely lose his mind completely on air.
I think that he’s better than he’s ever been. I’ve seen him do some amazing things in the pool. But I haven’t seen him this focused, ready and determined before. Tonight, he swims his last race (we think) in the 4 x 100 medley relay.
Which leads us to…
“The Kid” upsets “The King”
After all of that praise for Phelps, he finally met an obstacle that he couldn’t conquer. Eight years ago, prior to the 2008 Summer Olympics, USA Swimming held a training camp in Shanghai. It was there that then 11-year old young swimmer Joseph Schooling of Singapore met one of his idols-Michael Phelps. The two took a picture that resurfaced once Schooling, now a sophomore swimming at the University of Texas, became a factor in the 100 fly-a race that Phelps won at three straight Olympics. Last night, School pulled off a fairly convincing performance, defeating his childhood idol as well as Chad le Clos and Laszlo Cseh who tied for silver. Finally, during these Olympics, he looked human. Schooling has won his country’s first gold medal and announced his arrival on the world stage by beating the greatest swimmer in history.
Simone Biles = G.O.A.T
Watching Simone Biles perform gymnastics is like watching Roger Federer at Wimbledon circa 2003-2008, Michael Jordan in Chicago Stadium circa 1988, Tiger Woods at his peak at Augusta National, and seeing Da Vinci paint his greatest portraits. Whatever parallel that you can draw from the world’s greatest athletes and artists on their most glorious stage, that’s what she is.
After the U.S. women’s gymnastics team Angola’d the rest of the world (if you don’t know the reference look up the Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics) in the team competition to win gold, Biles took center stage in the coveted all-around competition expecting to be crowned the fourth consecutive American gymnast to win the women’s all-around competition.
But after the second rotation, she found herself slightly behind 2012 all around bronze medalist Aliya Mustafina from Russia. One massive balance beam routine later, she surged back to the lead. Then, in true boss lady fashion, she stepped to the plate to close out the competition with a floor exercise routine that we’ve never seen before. Those of us who watched felt like it was sublime moment, a performance that was equally beautiful, powerful, masterful and emotional at the same time.
When it was all said and done, her margin of victory of 2.1 points over teammate and silver medalist Aly Raisman was larger than the last nine Olympics women’s all around margin of victories-COMBINED.
Gymnastics is not just about degree of difficulty, but execution. It’s simple: If you do difficult routines and minimize your mistakes, you can score high. She’s performed at a level for three years that no one in the sport has even approached. Don’t believe me? Ask Mary Lou, Nadia, Carly, Nastia and anyone connected to the sport of gymnastics with clout. SHE IS THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME-and not even close. When the greats unanimously say that someone is the best, please pay attention.
The best part about it at all? She’s not even done in Rio. She could be atop the podium at least three more times. No women’s gymnast has ever won five gold medals at an Olympics.
Finger Wags: Cheaters Never Prosper
Great rivalries, friendly or otherwise, make great drama at the Olympics. One of the most gangsta things to happen this first week was U.S. swimmer Lilly King channeling her inner Dikembe Mutombo to channel her disgust for Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova. Efimova was cleared to compete just prior to the start of the games due to a Russian state-sponsored doping scandal and the review of hundreds of athletes wishing to compete in Rio for the Games. Efimova has been suspended twice for doping violations and needed a special exemption to participate in the Olympics. She received it and swam the leading time in her 100 meter breaststroke semifinal and held up her index finger to signify that she was “#1”. King, who was watching in the ready room getting ready for the next semifinal, became a household name in pop culture by her reaction watching Efimova on the screen.
The internet went crazy overnight and memes popped up with King wagging her finger galore. It all would have been for naught had she not won in the final. But she did, and took the bragging rights along with her. If you talk on a stage like this, you better be able to back it up.
Spirit of Competition Wins Out
Many people noticed during the beginning of the Opening Ceremony that there was a small delegation walking under the Olympic Flag. They were the Independent Olympic Athletes, a delegation for athletes that hail from countries going through political turmoil, international sanctions or various other reasons. The independent athletes, nine of them competing in three sports and all of them hailing from Kuwait, included trap shooter Fehaid Al-Deehani. Al-Deehani and his countrymen were competing under the IOA banner after Kuwait’s Olympic Committee was suspended by the IOC for governmental interference. Most independent athletes are considered longshots for medal contention, but it is in the spirit of competition of the Olympics that makes their story so remarkable. Al-Deehani made history this week by becoming the first independent athlete to win a gold medal in men’s double trap shooting. A feel good story and a lesson to all those who face adversity in their quest to compete.
One Hop Costs a Lot
Heading into the men’s gymnastics all around final, it was a forgone conclusion that Japanese great and defending gold medalist Kohei Uchimura would walk away with his another gold medal. But through the first few rotations, there emerged a contender in Ukraine’s Oleg Varniaiev. For five rotations, he stuck with Uchimura and lead going into the last rotation on high bar. Uchimura, as he tends to do, demolished his high bar routine, putting a ton of pressure on Varniaiev to perform as the final competitor on high bar. Varniaiev needed a 14.899 to win gold. He had a great performance, but had a huge hop on the landing, usually a three-tenths deduction. As the score flashed up, it wasn’t enough. Varniaiev scored a 14.800 and had to settle for silver. The hop cost him not just gold, but a boatload of cash. A gold medal won by a Ukrainian athlete is reportedly good for a payment of $125,000 as a reward. If only he would have stuck the landing.
Simone Manuel-Black Girl Magic Personified
When Simone Manuel looked back at the leaderboard after she touched the wall, she gasped in shock and covered her mouth. Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine what she saw: her name with a (1) next to it.
When Simone Manuel won gold (she actually tied for gold with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak) in the women’s 100 free, she made history. It wasn’t that she won a medal; she won a silver as a member of the U.S. women’s 4 x 100 relay team earlier in the week. It was that she won gold in an individual event, becoming the first African-American woman to do so. Sixteen years after Anthony Ervin triumphed in the 50 free in Sydney, becoming the first swimmer of African descent to win an individual medal, and four years after Cullen Jones joined the club in London, Manuel became the first of firsts in a very big way.
She wasn’t favored to win, but definitely was in the mix for a medal. At the 50 meter mark, she trailed the race favorites in Australian sisters Cate and Bronte Campbell. Then, with 40 meters left in the race, something magical happened.
Manuel made her move and reached to the wall to make history. Her raw emotions mirrored so many that rejoiced in her victory and the significance of her win did not fly past her. With tears of joy streaming down her face, her reaction was that of many African-Americans who watched her triumph live. Yet another barrier broken, and there could not have been a more gracious and deserving vessel to carry out this mission than Simone Manuel. Well done, Simone!
Speaking of Ervin…
The Once & Future King
After Anthony Ervin won gold in the 50 free in Sydney in the 2000 Summer Olympics at the age of 19, he fell into a deep and dark place. He quit the sport at the age of 22, started drinking, using drugs and living a wild lifestyle. Not even 25, he found himself at a crossroads during which he joined a rock band and then became a youth swimming coach. A couple of years before the London Games, he got himself involved back into the sport and starting training for the 50 free. He qualified, along with Cullen Jones, for the U.S. team and finished fifth in the 2012 final. He stuck with it, qualified for the 50 free yet again and also was eligible for a relay spot on the 4 x 100 free relay. He won a gold medal by swimming in the preliminary round of the relay.
Last night, he lined up on the blocks of the 50 free final next to the defending gold medalist Florent Manadou of France. By the end of the race, he emerged from the water with his fist raised in exultation. At age 35, he was back on top of the mountain. It’s a great story and a throwback for those of us who remember his historic swim in Sydney 16 years ago.
One Last Throw: Carter Makes History
At the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, shot-putter Michelle Carter launched a massive throw to make the Olympic team. Last night, she found herself in the same situation; one last throw to get on the podium. What happened next was more than she or anyone else could imagine. Carter’s last throw of 20.64 meters overtook gold medal favorite Valerie Adams of New Zealand, becoming the first U.S. woman to win gold in the shotput. Carter joins her father, Michael Carter, who won silver at the 1984 Summer Olympics in the shotput as the only father-daughter combination to medal at the Summer Olympics.
With track & field coming up this week, it promises to be a memorable closing to the Games. Stay tuned.