Rosenblum: Humility, grit and grace in defeat are also medal-worthy

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 1, 2012 - 9:00 PM

Things have looked positively brilliant for the U.S. Olympians the past few days. Swimmer Michael Phelps now owns 19 medals, more than anyone else in Olympic history.

Abby Wambach led the U.S. women's soccer team to first place in its group. And, after a highly disappointing performance that eliminated her from the all-around competition, gymnast Jordyn Wieber held hands with best friend Aly Raisman as they clinched the team gold.

One commentator described Wieber's comeback performance Tuesday as a leap from "the abyss to the mountaintop."

So, heck yes, let's celebrate the U.S. team's marvelous athleticism and professionalism, their determination and maturity. But let's not forget some medal-worthy performances early in the London Games when things looked rather dismal.

Our athletes know how to win with gusto. But they know also how to lose with grace, and that's harder.

It's especially hard in a win-at-all-costs culture in which competitors make racist tweets and badminton teams get kicked out for trying to lose on purpose and, closer to home, parents aggressively coach their kids from the sidelines.

So, along with the well-documented medal count, I'm tracking the too-quickly-forgotten examples of the high road taken by many of our own.

First up, Wieber. It will be hard to forget the devastation on her face after her series of uncharacteristic mistakes that resulted in a fourth-best individual score. The world champion buried her face in her hands and cried, and if the cameras had edged in any closer, we could have seen the workings of her inner ear.

Still, when she pulled it together, she didn't make excuses. She tweeted, "I am so proud of our team today, and I can't wait for the team finals!!" A gold for grit.

When U.S. forward Wambach ended a match with a black eye, courtesy of Colombian Lady Andrade, Wambach didn't retaliate, even though she was quoted as saying she thought the competitors were egging her on to do that very thing.

"I'm proud of myself for not doing that," Wambach said. A gold for self-control.

Phelps won big on Tuesday. But remember Saturday, when he finished fourth in the 400-meter individual medley? Stunned and unnerved, he quickly regrouped, explaining to reporters how he was beaten by teammate Ryan Lochte, Brazil's Thiago Pereira and Japan's Kosuke Hagino:

"They just swam a better race than me, a smarter race than me, and were better prepared than me," Phelps said. "That's why they're on the medal stand." A gold for humility.

Lochte had his dark moment, too. After finishing fourth in the 200-meter freestyle, he told reporters, "I did my best. [Yannick] Agnel is a great racer. There's no doubt about it." A gold for graciousness.

Eden Prairie's Rachel Bootsma, whose Olympic medal bid ended swiftly, told the Star Tribune's Rachel Blount that "it was an amazing experience, with or without how I swam." The opportunity to compete, she said, will give her "motivation to keep working hard." A gold for perseverance.

Lee Kiefer laughed and joked after being ousted in the individual women's foil quarterfinals, 15 to 10, by the eventual silver medalist Arianna Errigo of Italy. Kiefer, an 18-year-old from Kentucky, said, "I'm not at my full potential yet." She heads to Notre Dame to study, and fence, in the fall. A gold for the enviable confidence of youth.

John Orozco fell during his landing in the vault, one of many mistakes that shoved the American men down to fifth place. "I wasn't exactly confident, but I tried my best, and that's all I can do," Orozco said. "The team just kept fighting." A gold for the good fight.

It's hard for most of us to imagine the risk-taking, gravity-defying, endurance-challenging life that these young men and women live 24/7. But facing disappointment? We can all relate to that, more often than we'd like to admit.

Fortunately, we have top-notch coaches in that endurance sport.

"Every day is a new beginning," Bootsma tweeted after not qualifying for the 100-meter backstroke finals.

"Take a deep breath and start again."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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