True American Underdog Stories
The past two weeks have reminded me of why I love sports. Seeing athletes compete for the pride of their country in the 2012 London Olympic games was quite refreshing when compared to the monetary forces which drive most of American professional sports. The Olympics provided us with moment after moment of true exhilaration. Records were broken, goals were met and above all else, America proved to be the dominant country as we blew out all competing nations with a stellar 104 overall medals, 46 of them of the gold variety. Though Americans were favored in many of the competitions, there were still quite a few underdog stories coming out of the U.S. For the sake of my closing Olympics article, I have highlighted the Americans I feel overcame the most difficult odds to successfully represent their country, states, hometowns, friends and family. These athletes have all had their backs against the wall and made all of us believers in the Olympic spirit and what is possible when an individual is determined to overcome all obstacles.
Michael Phelps: I know it’s hard to look at the all-time Olympic Medal leader and call him an underdog, but coming into the London games, Michael Phelps was just that. All the talk heading into these games was about Ryan Lochte, which looked reasonable after witnessing Lochte defeat Phelps in their first head-to-head matchup. However, after the first night the Olympic belonged to Phelps again. He ended the London games with 4 golds and 2 silvers, putting his overall career medal count at 22, 18 of which are golden. Phelps proved that we should never count out a true Champion and Lochte has to wait another 4 years to make a name for himself with his performance instead of his mouth.
Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman: The women’s gymnastics team was one of the easiest to root for coming into the games. They were favored to win the team event, especially led by Jordyn Wieber, the favorite to win the individual overall gold heading into London. However, both Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman outperformed their teammate Weiber, causing Weiber to not even qualify for the overall finals. Gabby Douglas shined in the overall competition, becoming the first African-American woman to ever win gold. Raisman went on to win two individual medals, a bronze on balance beam and a gold on the floor exercise. Though Wieber is bringing a gold back to the states because of the U.S. victory in the team competition, Douglas’s two medals and Raisman’s three are what the American public will remember from the gymnastics segment of this year’s games.
Allyson Felix: Allyson Felix was known as a second place finisher. She won silver in both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics in her best event, the 200-meter dash. However, the third time was the charm for Felix, as she finally broke through for gold in London. Felix was also a member of two relay races which also earned her gold medals, including the 4×100-meter relay team, which set a world record. With her stellar Olympic performance, Allyson became the first woman to win 3 gold medals in track and field since Florence Griffith-Joyner in the 1992 Barcelona games. She will no longer be known as a second place sprinter.
Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells: LoLo Jones was the media darling heading into the 100-meter hurdle competition. People had focused on her poverty stricken upbringing and her announcement that like Tim Tebow, she was a virgin. However, Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells had stories of hardships that outweighed Jones’ by a landslide. Wells was abused by her stepfather growing up. A month after she ran away from home, her mother and abuser were killed in a car accident. Prior to Beijing, she tore her hamstring and was forced to watch the Olympics instead of participate in them. Harper, who actually won gold in the event in Beijing, has since battled through two knee surgeries, continuing to fight even after doctors told her to retire. She always ran in Jones’ shadow and wanted to keep fighting to outshine the media sensation. When the 100-meter hurdle race actually ended it was Harper who took home the silver and Wells the bronze, while LoLo Jones settled for fourth place. Though Jones childhood and tough road are well documented, the end result is that the lesser known Olympians are bringing home the hardware and have earned their place in Olympic history just as much as LoLo.
Allison Schmitt: Heading into the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps’ practice partner and best friend was a female swimmer named Allison Schmitt. While Phelps was making history in Beijing, Schmitt managed to bring home a single Bronze medal. Heading into these Olympic games, all the attention was one Missy Franklin, the new female swimming sensation who deserved all the hype. For the second straight Olympics, Schmitt was in the shadow of a U.S. swimming teammate. After her London performance, Allison Schmitt never has to worry about anyone stealing the spotlight from her again. Schmitt collected five medals, 3 gold, 2 silver and 1 bronze. She was a member of the 4×100-meter medley team that broke a world record. Michael Phelps’ training partner made a name for herself and is as vital a member of the U.S. Olympic effort in the pool as anyone.
Women’s basketball team: The U.S. men’s basketball team was by far one of the most followed squads during the Olympics. With names like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul up and down the roster, they were a favorite by people all over the world. However, it was the U.S. women’s basketball team that was the truly dominant hoops team in the Olympics. While the U.S. men won only their second consecutive gold medal, the women made it their fifth in a row. While the men struggled at times and played close games throughout the tournament, such as a single digit win against Lithuania and yesterday’s closely contested gold medal game vs. Spain, the U.S. women spanked their opponents, beating France by 36 in the finals. The U.S. women haven’t lost a game since 1992, winning their last 41 Olympic games. Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and the rest of the team doesn’t get near the attention as their male counterparts, but if we were to compare either team to the 1992 Dream Team, the ladies have more of a case than the current NBA ballers.
April Ross and Jennifer Kessy: Everyone who follows women’s beach volleyball knows two names: Misty May and Kerri Walsh. Heading into London, May and Walsh were the two-time gold medal champions and made it a three peat last week. The team people didn’t know about was referred to as the “other American team”. April Ross and Jen Kessy have been playing together since 2007, but were unable to qualify for the 2008 Beijing games. However, even at an advanced age the two women fought for the last 4 years and qualified for London. They were not content just making the games though, as they fought hard and shocked the #1 ranked team from Brazil in order to meet Walsh and May in the gold medal game. Even though they came up just short against the defending champs, Ross and Kessy truly won themselves a silver medal, rather than losing the gold.
Manteo Mitchell: One of my favorite moments from the game came from a little known U.S. sprinter, who had accidentally injured his leg walking up the stairs a day before his relay competition. Manteo Mitchell didn’t think his injury was that serious and suited up for the 4×400-meter relay. Halfway through his run, he felt his leg pop as his fibula broke. He yelled out in pain and wanted to stop running. However, something inside him allowed him to finish his race on a broken leg, which allowed the U.S. to get 2nd in the heat and eventually win a silver medal in the competition. I can’t imagine walking on a broken leg, let alone run 200 meters at an Olympic speed. Mitchell’s achievement is easily one of the most heroic in Olympic history.
David Boudia: Something I learned about the Olympics was that the Chinese dominate diving. Going into the 10-meter platform final, China’s Qiu Bo was the heavy favorite. At the 2011 World Championships, Bo beat the second place American David Boudia by 40 points. However, Boudia, Qiu Bo and British sensation Tom Daly were all neck and neck throughout the final event at the London games. Heading into the last dive, Boudia needed to be near perfect for a chance to win gold. All he did was deliver the best dive of the entire competition, receiving a 102.6 score to beat the crowd favorite Daly and the World Champ Bo. In closing a 40 point gap in a year’s time, Boudia became the first U.S. man to win gold on the platform since the legendary Greg Louganis in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Kayla Harrison: Kayla Harrison is a 22-year-old Judoka. However, she almost quit the sport 5 years ago when it was discovered that she was being sexually abused by her Judo coach for a period of 4 years. The affects that this abuse had on her caused Kayla to question her self-worth and her ability to continue in the sport. Eventually, in searching for a new start, she linked up with a new coach and moved away from home. A few days ago, she managed to bet the #1 Judoka in the world and win the 1st ever gold medal by any U.S. athlete in the sport of Judo. She has battled through the most horrific events imaginable to a young girl and has reached the mountain top in a sport that has provided both pain and joy to her.
Can’t wait for the 2016 Rio Olympics to rejoin these amazing athletes and learn the stories of many other competitors who overcame obstacles similarly to these!