On the first weekend in June, I joined thousands — maybe millions — of other TV fans to watch the Belmont Stakes horse race. I was eager to see if history would be made — if the heavy favorite, Smarty Jones, would become the first Triple Crown winner in 26 years. In a heart-breaking finish, Smarty Jones was passed in the final 70 yards. As the TV cameras scanned the crowd of 125,000 spectators, it seemed like the wind had just been let out of their sails.
What a buildup there had been to this race! The story behind the owners, the jockey, the horse, had all the pinnings of the second coming of Seabiscuit. OK, maybe that’s pushing it a bit, but it was an inspiring tale. And it was an inspiring race. Very tactical. Very hard-fought. Smarty Jones was so favored to win that it was inevitable that the questions would begin IMMEDIATELY.
What went wrong? How could this have happened? Who is to blame for this? Was it the trainer, who had the horse run too fast a couple days prior to the race? Was it the jockey, who held the horse at the front the entire way, only to lose at the end? Heck, as a strong finisher in races myself, even I immediately said the other horse had better tactics, and stalked Smarty Jones simply to win, and that if Smarty’s rider had only gone for the win, and not a HUGE win, he would have had a better chance of success.
In reading more about the race in the past few weeks, however, I became more educated. Turns out, Smarty Jones LOVES to run in the lead, and short of YANKING the horse’s head back, there was really nothing the jockey could do to slow him down. He was challenged all the way — one horse here, another there — and these other horses faded. Finally, one horse (who, as it turns out, skipped the Preakness and who had been specifically trained for a distance race), ran down the battle-worn Smarty in the final few yards. This horse was Birdstone.
As I read more about the race, I learned that it was a valiant effort by Smarty Jones, his jockey, and his trainer. The more I read about the horse, the more I respected him in defeat (his first ever), and the more I criticized myself for my initial reaction. I had made an uneducated conclusion. Smarty Jones is truly a great athlete but, alas, won’t be remembered that way in history. It’s likely that he will be remembered for what he didn’t do.
This is the great danger in watching any athletic event, but especially in watching the mega-championships such as the Belmont Stakes or the Olympics. Society seems to place a huge burden on its elite athletes. Every performance must be ultra heroic…or else it’s nothing. Spectators come with incredible expectations, rather than coming just to revel in the fact that Smarty had already WON the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, victories that would normally MAKE a horse’s and trainer’s career. We want it all. We aren’t satisfied with one win, we want 10, and anything short of that simply means the performance wasn’t good enough. Or that someone failed.
With all the championships going on right now, it’s easy to fall into this trap as a spectator. The Stanley Cup just came to a finish — a seven-game barnburner — with Tampa Bay beating Calgary 2-1 in what was one of the most intense final 10 minutes of any competition I’ve ever seen. All right, I admit I’ve not watched much hockey but, hey, when it’s game seven you have to tune in. The Pistons and Lakers are heavy into their championship as well and, oh yeah, we’ve got Olympic Trials coming up in early July.
Do we expect a lot from our sport this summer? SHOOT…are you kidding? It’s already the biggest build-up for swimming in the history of the sport, and it all revolves around one swimmer, with incredible expectations placed on him. Because I live close to this swimmer’s town (Baltimore), I get to listen to sports commentators talk about…no kidding…SWIMMING! No matter how little they know, it’s GREAT to NOT have to listen to them talk about baseball trade rumors, football injuries, hockey fights, and poor basketball officiating. Instead, they casually debate, “Is it going to be 7 or 8 Gold Medals for Michael?”
I’m not going to speculate on what I expect, or even hope for. What I will say, however, is that winning a SINGLE Olympic Gold Medal is an incredible accomplishment saved for a select few who have been gifted with a skill, who love practicing that skill and have developed it to its ultimate extreme for years, and who have the mental fortitude to get through all the torture of that training. Then, if they can stay CALM ENOUGH during the actual race to allow their training to come through, they might…just MIGHT take the gold. Remember, that’s just ONE!
No matter what happens in the Olympic swimming events this summer, let’s revel in the FACT that we’re watching one of the most gifted, versatile, and hardest working swimmers to ever grace our planet. Enjoy the show, appreciate every race, and if he does do it…wow. Just remember: There are many other swimmers out there (Birdstones) who have specifically trained for ONE event. Michael is trying to cover all the bases, and that in itself is what makes him so special.
Oh, and don’t go speculating afterwards either; I learned my lesson after the Belmont. What if the jockey did this, what if the trainer did that, what if Birdstone tripped…what if Michael swam one less event? It’ll be what it’ll be. The athlete and coaches have made their decision, trained accordingly, and they’ll live by the result. The questions of “what if” can never be answered, so just stop being that Monday morning quarterback…or the talk-show caller who has it all figured out about how he/she would have done it differently. You’ll never know what really happened unless you were part of the preparation.
I, for one, am just going to enjoy the show, appreciate the moment, and respect the HUGE amount of preparation that EACH athlete puts in.