Saturday, June 2, 2012

Underdogs and Legacies

In the opening to NBC’s coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs on Wednesday night, Bob Costas declared the past year one of underdogs in sports. Last September, the St. Louis Cardinals clinched a wildcard playoff spot on the last day of play in Major League Baseball, but only after they beat the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves lost to the Philadelphia Phillies. Had either game finished with the opposite result, the Braves would have made the playoffs instead of the Cardinals. Led by Albert Pujols, the Cardinals went on a run to the World Series and a world championship.

On New Years’ Day, in a do-or-die game and the last regular season NFL game of the year, the New York Giants beat the Dallas Cowboys to clinch a division title. Two weeks later, the Giants met the defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers in a playoff game. The 9-7 Giants crushed the 15-1 Packers on their way to a Super Bowl title. The Packers only lost one game all regular season? Too bad; history will forever remember the Giants as the winners of the 2011-12 NFL season; the Packers lost in their first playoff game.

This Stanley Cup final features the sixth-seeded New Jersey Devils taking on the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings. Who could have picked this matchup? One team will go down as this season’s champion, and that team will not be the top-seeded New York Rangers or Vancouver Canucks, eliminated by the Devils and Kings, respectively. Those two teams won the most games this year? That means nothing now. The Chicago Bulls finished the NBA season tied for the best record. Those same Bulls lost in the first round of the playoffs. Regular season accomplishments are great, but only the eventual winner matters.

Michael Phelps won gold after gold, setting world records day in and day out. The 2008 Olympics? Nope, I’m talking about the 2007 World Championships. Phelps set five world records inside the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne and won seven gold medals. He did not earn a shot at an eighth when Ian Crocker false started in the prelims of the 400 medley relay before Phelps would have joined the team for the final. No doubt, that performance ranked as one of the greatest in sports history. In the end, though, it meant nothing. The world needed to see that performance on the Olympic level, where of course Phelps achieved perfection. Despite his World Championships performance, Phelps had achieved nothing until he went to Beijing. To the world, all that matters is the Olympics. Nothing mattered but his performance there.

Over the past four years since Beijing, I’ve watched Ryan Lochte emerge as the best swimmer in the world, Missy Franklin make quantum leaps each and every season, and Sun Yang announce himself as the next king of the distance events. They’ve won world titles and set records across the board, but as the world finally turns its ugly head towards the pool once again, what do those accolades mean? Absolutely nothing. The past four years have been a thrill ride for swim geeks like me, but to the rest of the world, nothing has happened. Michael Phelps equals swimming, most of the world believes, and some people may remember Natalie Coughlin, Rebecca Soni, or Ryan Lochte from Beijing. Dana Vollmer? Nope. Matt Grevers? I doubt it.

At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Kosuke Kitajima swept the breaststroke events, beating out world record-holder Brendan Hansen in both. For the next three years, though, Hansen re-established his dominance, winning three world titles and lowering both world records. Kitajima, meanwhile, struggled to qualify for some of Japan’s national teams and continually played second-fiddle to Hansen. His lone title came at the 2007 Worlds in the 200 breast, when Hansen pulled out sick.

In 2008, though, Kitajima broke Hansen’s world record in the 200 breast two months before Beijing, and at U.S. Olympic Trials, Hansen watched two of his training partners swim right past him on the last lap to earn Olympic bids in the event, which Kitajima ended up winning. Hansen finished fourth in the 100 breast in Beijing as Kitajima broke the world record. Hansen’s domination over the past three years meant nothing now; Kitajima had won both breaststroke titles again and staked his claim as the greatest breaststroker of all time.

Since Beijing, Kitajima has layed low, other than a sparkling performance at the 2010 Pan Pacs. Daniel Gyurta has claimed two world titles in the 200 breast, and Kitajima lost the 100 breast at Worlds last year by almost a second and a half to the late Alexander Dale Oen. However, none of that will matter if Kitajima wins either event again to become the first ever to win three Olympic titles in one event.

Remember how Leisel Jones did not lose the 200 breast between Athens and Beijing? Well, Rebecca Soni chased her down in Beijing to end that streak, and she reigns as the 200 breast Olympic champion. Grant Hackett lost the mile once between 1996 and 2008 and posted a still-standing Olympic record in the prelims in Beijing. Doesn’t matter, because Ous Mellouli won the gold medal. Kate Ziegler won World titles in the 800 and 1500 in both 2005 and 2007 and took down Janet Evans’ legendary world record in the 1500. Most saw it as a matter of time before Ziegler took down the 800 mark as well. But in Beijing, Rebecca Adlington won the gold and lowered that world record; Ziegler did not make a single Olympic final.

This is an Olympic year, and Olympic Trials are this month. Over the next ten weeks, legacies will be written as the accomplishments of the past four years mean next to nothing. A swimmer could come out of nowhere to claim an Olympic medal, even gold, and that swimmer will go down as an Olympic medalist. A two-time world champion in multiple events that fails to make an impact at the Olympics? Here come the media labels of choker. The regular season has been going on for nearly four years. Time for the playoffs to begin. The athletes have set themselves up for a run at Olympic glory. Now, we see what they are made of. History will be written, and legacies will be crafted at the Games of the Thirtieth Olympiad.

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