Monday, July 24, 2006

The Human Spirit in Sport

We hear a lot of negative things about athletes lately, from steroid scandals to spousal abuse to simple greed. But over the weekend there were two stories that can restore some faith in the spirit of athletes to overcome obstacles when few think they can.

First, Tiger Woods won his third British Open, and his second in a row, with a brilliant strategy and his trademark tenacity on the final round (he is 11-0 in majors when leading going into the final round). No big deal, you say, he is the best golfer in the world. But it is a big deal.

On May 3 of this year, Tiger's father and best friend passed after a long battle with cancer. Tiger has been deeply impacted by this loss. Only nine weeks after losing his father, playing at the US Open, Tiger missed the cut in a major for the first time in his career. Most thought he had come back too soon. Few gave him a chance of winning the British Open after that performance.

After the final putt had sealed the victory, Woods shouted a defiant YES! then sobbed into the shoulder of his caddy, then cried again with his wife. It was a show of emotion we are not used to seeing with Tiger -- the passion that made him great but has been missing in recent years.

Said Tiger:
"After the last putt, I realized my dad's never going to see this again, and I wish he could have seen this one last time," Woods said at the trophy presentation. "He was out there today keeping me calm. I had a very calm feeling the entire week, especially today."
[Tiger Woods photo from Sports Illustrated.]

Meanwhile, also in Europe -- France to be precise -- an American cyclist few would have picked to be in contention for the Tour de France title, became the third American to win the sport's biggest race.

[photo source]

Floyd Landis, a former teammate of Lance Armstrong, won his first Tour this weekend, finishing the race on Sunday with the traditionally ceremonial ride into Paris. But the race was really won last week, with one of the greatest comebacks ever seen in the Tour or in any cycling event.

After riding a strong stage on Tuesday up the L'Alpe d'Huez, Landis was in the yellow leader's jersey and did not plan to give it back. But the very next day disaster struck as Landis was dropped on the final climb and lost more than ten minutes to the other contenders. Now sitting more than 8 minutes back, the race seemed over. British oddsmakers dropped him to a 1 in 200+ chance of winning.

But on Thursday, Landis's Phonak team attacked from the beginning. They split the field early and put pressure on the top riders to keep pace on a hot day with many climbs ahead. With still 80 miles to go, Landis was 8 minutes clear of the leaders, but few thought he could keep that pace. Soon he had caught the early break-away, a group of riders not in contention for the overall title who were trying for the glory of a stage win. They helped him stay clear until it was just Landis and the last climb. He finished far enough in front that, with time bonuses added, he now only trailed the leaders for 35 seconds or so. An amazing turn of events.

At this point, with still three stages left, including a time trial on Saturday, the race was Landis's to lose. After nearly falling so far behind that everyone had written him off, he pulled the most amazing rebound I have ever seen in cycling. His stage win on Thursday is the stuff that true champions are made of.

And, one final note. Landis did all of this while riding on a hip that will have to be replaced soon, probably during the off-season. The pain on some of those climbs must have been incredible. But so was Landis's spirit.

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