Friday, August 15, 2008

Lovin' Those Underdogs! by Barb McKone

Lovin' Those Underdogs! by Barb McKone

Ahh, the Olympics!  Every two years it's the same.  I tell myself I'll just watch just a few evenings, or throw in an afternoon from time to time.  Never happens.  The minute those opening ceremonies commence, I'm hooked.  I love the human stories, I love the falls from the high bars- I'm stuck in front of the screen until the last torch is snuffed.  With the exception of boxing, that is.  Everyone needs a popcorn break.  This year, the big events begin so late in the night I can barely keep my eyes open- I'm staying up way past those nine-year-old gymnasts' bedtimes.  Somehow, I've managed. I've watched every beach volleyball match.  I'm tired, but I'm doing it for my team.  I'm watching for the underdogs.     

So far, this year's games are pretty much a scuffle between China and the United States.  I've watched a lot of gymnastics.  From time to time there's a flag of Germany or Japan waved, but for the most part, it's been about the Big Two.  Swimming is the exception.  Michael Phelps is the big name, of course, but some other cream is bound to surface.  There are a couple thousand races, after all.  Several interlopers from stray countries have snuck into, and even won, some races.  I thought I was just about to watch one such race.  Surprise- Rebecca Soni from the Team U.S. just beat the Spandex off of a great swimmer from Australia who was supposed to win by a mile.  Super Exciting!!!  Soni was so adorably happy and genuinely surprised at her own success that she could hardly stand still when interviewed.  She told her story just as she will tell it again and again to her friends and family, trembling and giggling.  It was a moment that, clearly, will shape her life. No one expected this of her, and SHE WON.  Hooray for her!!!   You gotta love those underdogs. 

We've all had our underdog moments.  Not the break-loose-during-the-Thanksgiving-Day-parade moments, but the how-the-heck-did-I-get-here-at-the-front-of-the-pack moments.   My underdog moment happened when I was about twelve.  I was on the summer swim team for the sixth summer, and frankly, no one expected much of me.  I was a pretty good little swimmer, but not compared to Betsy Harris and Lisa Stifler.  They were the stars.  They were always placed in the two center lanes, and they were the start off and anchors of every relay in our age group.  Laura Murrin and I were the others in the relay.  The solid fill, so to speak.  We were fine.  We just weren't Betsy Harris or Lisa Stifler.  

Every summer started with a week of hard early morning practices in a frigid pool, followed by the inevitable Friday morning time trial.  Time trials, if you've never been involved in one, are sheer torture.  For the purpose of swim meet placement, the racer waits to dive into a timed swim, watching and hearing the times of all of their potential opponents.  Club records are neared. The coach paces, stopwatch in hand and whistle around his neck, taking notes and nodding. Excitement builds.  And, finally, it's time.  

In our case, two swimmers at a time were tested.  It was the 50-yard Freestyle.  Betsy Harris and Lisa Stifler had already been timed, and our coach looked pleased with their results.  It was going to be a good season for the Danville Dolphins.  Laura Murrin and I dragged up to our starting blocks.  I can still remember the sandpapery feeling of the block under my feet, and the sun baking onto my goofy white cap.  I remember the starting whistle, and diving in.  I remember cutting through the water, feeling strong and losing track of Laura Murrin.  She was usually either right beside me or ahead of me.  I slammed my hand into the wall and climbed out of the pool, and then realized Laura Murrin was just finishing.  Drying off,  I noticed the quiet.  No times had been shouted out to be recorded.  I turned to look at the coach, still checking his stopwatch, and saw the confusion, then surprise, then amusement on his face.  

"She beat them all," he said, shaking his head in the truest disbelief I think I've ever seen.  "Barb beat them all."

Did you see the face-off of Team USA and France in the 200 Free Relay?  The French relay anchor, a giant of a swimmer named Bernard, had said prior to the race that his team was at the Olympics to "smash the Americans."  They were supposed to.  The French were highly favored to win, as I understand it.  Why anyone on earth would ever issue a challenge (especially with a French accent) to a relay team that includes Michael Phelps, I can't imagine.  It fired up the American underdogs, and none more than 31-year old relay anchor Jason Lezak.  He evidently had a reputation for being an outstanding swimmer who did not always perform to his potential.  I still don't know why he was swimming last, but he swam his leg against the challenger Bernard.  It was amazing.  Behind by a body length, Lezak swam the fastest free relay split in (I hope I've got this right) Olympic history.  It was, other than a few perfect 10s through the years in gymnastics, my favorite Olympic moment ever.  Lezak looked absolutely stunned, gazing up to see the crowd in the Bubble Palace erupt.  Shocked.  But not nearly as shocked as the French team.  

A win by an underdog often trumpets the arrival of a new leader.  A new super-kid in town.  In some cases, it signals the triumphant perfect time to retire.  In Bernard's case, it's a lesson in keeping one's lip zipped.  In my case, it was really just a fluke.  The perfect combo of too much protein and sleep, perhaps, but that moment, over thirty years ago, seems like yesterday.  It was a life changing moment.  I learned how great it felt to win, and Betsy Harris and Lisa Stifler learned that they should swim faster.  I never beat them again.   

It's okay.  Because of Betsy and Lisa, I know how the little Russian gymnast who just unexpectedly stuck her landing off the balance beam feels.  She can't hold back her smile.  

Go, underdog, go!  




Daisy said...

Oh, that relay! The French swimmer just had to shoot his mouth off and incite a near riot on the USA side. Our swimmers took it in stride -- in stroke? -- and really did us proud.
You must have just about fallen over when you realized your time was better than the stars! What a great memory.

Barb McKone said...


I was thrilled! I saw Lisa Stifler at a party once, long after our swimming years. She was so friendly. I wondered if she remembered that fateful morning, but I didn't have the nerve to ask--

Angie Ledbetter said...

I've always loved underdogs too. Something about getting a little glory after paying so many dues. Glad you had your moment in the swim meet, and many more in your writing and other endeavors.

Barb McKone said...


Thanks for the support! Have you been watching Track and Field? Underdog city-

lisa_stifler said...

It is always strange to think of how others see you--particularly when you are a child. My memories of being a swimmer were more a series of impressions related to small town life and long days that stretched endlessly; I always thought of myself in the context of the team--and as the one sport I did out of pure instinct and passion. I loved being in the pool and everything was an expression of that connection. You are probably right that I took it for granted, but as an educator these last twenty-five years, the one thing I have learned is that everyone on a team contributes and is a star in his or her own way--a gifted coach or educator will know that and maximize the potential of each player or student. Certainly, in those days of the Danville Dolphins, we were blessed by some good coaches; however, we also had the advantage of living in a time where every day was like the Olympics--do your best and you are the star that day! I think it is wonderful that you had your moment--and thanks to you, I now have mine! What wonderful memories; I hope this finds you well, and I trust life is good. Thank you for this piece; take care, Lisa Stifler