Olympic heroes you may have missed

Posted: Sunday, March 07, 2010

I can tell from the talk inside the pool sauna that I have a slightly different take on the Winter Olympics. For me, the Olympics are all about refueling my global 'hope tank' for humanity. Whether it be the sluggish global economy, gridlock in Washington, the Christmas bomber, rise of the Taliban or the failed climate talks at Copenhagen, the world can be downright depressing at times.

It seems that more and more, problems mount and progress flees. Then, when the Olympics arrive, the world comes peacefully together to compete and celebrate. I find it's the best antidote for the world affairs blues. So I really dig into it, and in so doing come up with a few more of those special stories of courage, conviction and generosity.

I offer these stories out of a desire to compliment the heroes we all know about - Sid the Kid's winning overtime hockey goal for Canada and figure skater, Joannie Rochette's unshakeable performance for bronze just two days after her mother's sudden death. These were truly heroic and magical moments of the games. But there are others, less known but equally compelling.

For starters, you have to admire all those 15 single athletes being the sole representative of their country; marching ever frantically and proudly during the opening and closing ceremonies. Their pride was palpable from the Cayman Islands to Ghana, from Hong Kong to Pakistan; reminding each of us to never underestimate the power of one.

Speaking of pride, how about cross-country skier Kikkan Randall from Anchorage? She finished eighth in the women's individual sprint, the best ever for an American woman. Then, to show she can compete with the best in the world, Kikkan stayed with the leaders in the first round of the women's 4-by-5 relay; finishing her leg in fourth place. She did Alaska proud, mighty proud.

Racing along with Kikkan was my vote for hero of the games: Slovenia cross-country star Petra Majdic. Majdic crashed during training before the individual classical sprints, falling on a sharp curve and tumbling off course, then sliding on her back down a three-meter slope and onto some rocks.

Her first thought was, "It's over." Instead, she climbed out and competed not once but three times in excoriating pain. In the finals, she raced with a face twisted in pain and collapsed in third place utterly exhausted at the finish. After the event she learned about the severity of her injuries: four broken ribs and a collapsed lung.

"I was screaming my way around the course," Majdic said. "It was the first time all the coaches from all the nations were cheering for me." And why not have the world cheer for such courage and fight? Now her unbelievable stamina and ability to fight through severe pain has turned her bronze into gold as the president of Slovenia recently bestowed upon her the nation's Medal of Honor.

Next on my list of unknown heroes is Tugba Karademir, the first ever figure skater from Turkey. When she competes in her nationals, she is it. No one else to edge you on, to challenge you for your best. For Tugba it all has to come from within ... and it did.

While she skated a solid performance for a skater ranked 21st, her Olympic moment came through her parents. Unable to afford tickets to attend the games, a corporate sponsor stepped up at the last moment and flew her parents to Vancouver so they could be there when Tugba took Olympic ice for the first time. Waving their own red and white flag, they made sure the moon and star of Turkey flew proudly among the maple leaves. This was a true moment of Olympic generosity, allowing the world to beam alongside her proud parents.

In my book, the best race of the Olympics did not come from Team USA or Canada; it came from Norway and Poland on the last day on competition. While the rest of the world was rightfully glued to the gold medal hockey game, the most supremely fit athletes of the game were competing in the cross-country marathon races. Imagine racing 50 kilometers over undulating terrain in lousy, wet conditions for two hours only to have the race decided by the slimmest of margins - 0.3 seconds. That is what Petter Northug of Norway did to win gold. Simply unbelievable. Then it happened again! Indeed, Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland edged out her Norwegian competitor by 0.3 seconds in the women's 30-kilometer race.

Incidentally, with Norway's gold in the cross-country 50-kilometer race, Norway became the first nation to win 100 gold medals since the winter games began in 1924. Did you notice that four out of the top five finishers in the women's figure skating event were of Asian descent? Did you see the sliding belly flop finish of the German speed skater? In the end, her unflattering but persistent finish edged out the Americans in the team pursuit. Noble Germans winning by flop - you gotta love those leveling human moments. Did you know that the Netherlands got a medal in something other than speed skating? They actually won gold in the parallel snowboard slalom.

This list could go on, but I think you get the point. The world as shown through the Olympic Games is becoming more diverse; cultural stereotypes are fading; smaller nations get to shine and more nations are reaching out to join the brotherhood and sisterhood of sports. Thanks to Vancouver 2010 my world "hope tank" is no longer running on empty. I hope yours in fuller, too.

• Kate Troll is a long-time Alaskan who has more than 18 years of experience in fisheries and coastal management policy and has been working the past four years on climate and energy matters. Her column will appear twice a month.

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