The last two evenings have produced stunning achievements by two American athletes. Michael Phelps and Nastia Liukin are about as mismatched a pair of individuals as can be found yet both stand atop the sports universe today and probably possess two of the best known faces in the world today.
I am writing this article about 30 minutes after Phelps won his seventh gold medal, in the 100 meter butterfly, tying Mark Spitz’s record set in 1972. Phelps will try to win number eight tomorrow night. I still have difficulty believing that Phelps won the race. I assume that Phelps did not trim his fingernails before swimming because it was that close. It was 1/100 of a second close. I have watched the finish in slow motion several times via the underwater camera and still cannot tell whether Phelps or Milorad Cavic of Serbia touched first. The clock does not lie and the 1/100 of a second will make Olympic history for Phelps.
Michael Phelps now has 13 Olympic gold medals which is the most held by an individual in history. An expected 14th will come tomorrow evening in the 400 medley relay. Say what you will about the Olympics, but Michael Phelps is engaged in one of the outstanding single athletic performances in history. It is the equal of a single season home run record, multiple Wimbledon titles, and Super Bowl championships. I can almost guarantee you that no one is going to win nine gold medals in one Olympics. Tomorrow night could be a historic sporting event so find a television and tune in.
Nastia Liukin is a different story. Her gold medal may not have been as historic as Phelps' but it was dramatic and unique. Last night she became the third American to win the all-around gold medal in women’s gymnastics. Let me go on record as saying that I am not a big fan of sports that are decided by judging. Give me getting to the line or the wall first or scoring more points than your opponent. Also gymnastics is not a kind sport. Women’s gymnastics is for the most part girls’ gymnastics. It is a sport where little girls put their bodies literally through torture for years. Thousands start but only the elite make it to an Olympic level.
Nastia Liukin also is coached by her father Valeri who won two gold medals for Russia at the 1988 Olympics. She has literally trained all her life and last night, under crushing pressure, upset American favorite Shawn Johnson to win the gold medal. Gymnastics is also an unforgiving sport as one extra step or a fall can ruin years of work.
I think my favorite part of Liukin’s win was her interview with Bob Costas. She may be of Russian heritage but she came across as pure American. She looked relaxed and I saw her laugh and smile for the first time that I can remember. I hope that she gets on with being a normal teenager. Someday she will be able to tell her grandchildren that she won a gold medal in one of the Olympics glamour sports.
Today I am saluting Michael Phelps and Nastia Liukin, who have not only accomplished remarkable athletic achievements but also have brought honor to their country.