Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 25, 2016

Winning Comes In Many Ways

Motor racing returned to New England this weekend, with NASCAR making its annual autumn visit to New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. As if on cue the weather turned. After a warm and humid week, Saturday dawned crisp and breezy for the Camping World Truck Series race. Just twenty-four hours later that seemed balmy as wind-whipped fans bundled in layers made their way into the grandstands around the one mile concrete oval for the 300 mile Sprint Cup Series showdown.

NASCAR’s second stop in New Hampshire every season, after an earlier visit in July, has long been part of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the ten race playoffs that have capped the season for NASCAR’s top circuit for more than a decade. This year a similar playoff series is in place for the two major developmental series, the Xfinity for cars and Camping World for trucks. That meant that Saturday’s main event was the first playoff race for the third highest North American stock car racing series, and Sunday’s was the second in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. The playoff formats are similar, with a small number of drivers qualifying based on the standings from the regular season, and that number then whittled down through the playoffs until only four drivers are left to compete for the title in the season-ending race for each series.

Racing is no different from other sports, especially when a championship is on the line. The focus is on winning, so most of the stories that casual fans read about this weekend’s events at Loudon will be about the winners. In Saturday’s race, sponsored by the University of Northwestern Ohio and happily shortened to the UNOH 175, it was no surprise that the dominant truck was driven by William Byron. He led the Truck Series regular season standings by a wide margin after winning five times. No other driver, including the small handful of Sprint Cup drivers who occasionally drive in a truck race, managed to win more than twice. In his number 9 Toyota, Byron led all but fourteen of the race’s one hundred seventy-five laps; and his victory punched his ticket into the next round of the Truck Series playoffs. What is surprising is that Byron is just 18 years old, and didn’t start racing at any level until he was 15. A true phenom behind the wheel, he seems likely to climb quickly through NASCAR’s developmental series, with a lot of checkered flags in his future.

On Sunday the lead story was about a thrilling finish between Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, two veteran drivers who are both competing in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Kenseth’s bright yellow number 20 Toyota was at or near the front for much of the race, as he sought to become the first driver to win three consecutive Sprint Cup races at Loudon after following up a victory last September with a win in July. But after a disappointing finish in the first Chase race last week, Harvick in his number 4 Chevrolet charged through the pack late, and on a restart after a late caution flag pulled away from Kenseth over the final laps for the win.

But there were other stories floating around the Magic Mile this weekend, accounts that do not make headlines. One of those on Saturday was the tale of Jordan Anderson, the 25-year old driver of the number 66 truck. Anderson’s Chevy is the lone Truck Series entry for Bolen Motorsports, and like many small teams, money is always a problem. Early in the week owner Jeff Bolen called Anderson to tell him that there wasn’t enough cash to cover the expense of this week’s race. Rather than despair Anderson took to social media, directing anyone who would listen to a hastily designed website aimed at raising the $15,000 needed to pay for one hundred seventy-five laps around the Loudon oval.

Little more than a day later Anderson was halfway to his goal, and soon enough he and the number 66 were on their way to New Hampshire. On Saturday he recognized those who had emptied their wallets for him with a decal on the side of his truck that read “Fueled by Fans,” and by writing the name of every donor on the rear deck of the number 66 Chevrolet.

On Sunday the two most remarkable stories had to do with the makeup of this year’s Chase contenders. After twenty-six regular season races, sixteen drivers qualified for the playoffs in NASCAR’s top series. Most of the drivers and teams were familiar names. Harvick and Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards, the Busch brothers and Tony Stewart; Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing, all would be on anyone’s list of NASCAR’s elite. But there among the sixteen were two interlopers.

Sixteenth on the list of qualifiers for the first round of the playoffs was Chris Buescher, a 23-year old Sprint Cup rookie who made the Chase on the strength of a win at Pocono. At the other end of the Chase drivers, the leader going into the playoffs was veteran Martin Truex, Jr. He opened his season with a heart-breaking and heart-stopping loss by one one-hundredth of a second to Denny Hamlin at the Daytona 500, before going on to win twice.

What sets Buescher and Truex apart is the same issue that nearly derailed Jordan Anderson. Buescher drives the number 34 Ford for Front Row Motorsports, a tiny small-budget team that struggles to support two full-time Sprint Cup Series cars. In the number 78 Toyota, Truex is the sole entrant for the equally small Furniture Row Racing team.

Given the week-to-week expense of stock car racing, it’s hard to explain the enormity of these two drivers making NASCAR’s playoffs. It’s not like a couple of low-budget baseball teams winding up in the postseason. Rather imagine those same teams making it to October while not being able to afford a farm system, and having to use equipment handed down from other major league franchises once they no longer needed it.

But against all odds in this weekend’s chill air at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Jordan Anderson took to the track on Saturday, and Chris Buescher and Martin Truex, Jr. followed one day later. In the Lifetime or Hallmark channels accounting of this story, one or two would have won a thrilling victory.

Reality is seldom so providential. Anderson finished 22nd in the truck race, down a lap to the phenom Byron. Buescher had a tough day from the start, winding up 30th. Absent a strong finish next week, he’ll be among the four drivers failing to make the first cut in the Chase for the Sprint Cup after that race. Truex had a good car and dueled Kenseth for the lead through much of Sunday’s race, bringing cheers from the fans. But in the end he was shuffled back to 7th as Harvick and Kenseth dueled, and he wound up losing his points lead to Brad Keslowski.

Perhaps the weekend’s results only remind us that life is not a Hallmark movie. Or perhaps there is another lesson. One that suggests that winning has multiple definitions. Sometimes just making it to the starting line counts as a victory.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 22, 2016

Remembering The Night When It Was Closing Time

A NOTE TO READERS: Here at On Sports and Life the tradition is to republish the following reflection, originally written after the final game played at the old Yankee Stadium on September 21, 2008, every year near the anniversary of that event. The grand old cathedral of the Great Game is long gone now. In its place is Heritage Field, a public park with regulation, Little League and softball diamonds sharing a common outfield. On a summer afternoon, headed for the new Stadium across the street, a few fans will pause to watch the young people playing on the old hallowed ground. If they are lucky and the light is just right, perhaps they catch a glimpse of the ghosts of baseball glory.

One more Sunday in the Bronx. One more ride on the 4 train from midtown Manhattan up to the 161st Street station. One more winding one’s way up the ramps and along the narrow passageways of The Stadium. One more walk up the entryway directly behind home plate, and at last out into the open of the Tier, the upper deck with its vertigo-inducing pitch. Down the steep steps of Section 607 to Row A, Seat 16. Second row on the aisle, looking down on the batter’s box for left-handed hitters. All of the ballpark is once again spread out before me; from the huge interlocked NY in foul ground behind home plate, out to Monument Park. It is the same routine as at all the many previous games this season, and in seasons past. It is the same, but of course it is entirely different; because this Sunday evening, it’s closing time.

Why should it matter really? The Stadium is ancient. They’ve played the Great Game here for nearly 90 years. The mid-70’s renovation made it an entirely different place that the old heroes might well not recognize. Long gone are the days when the monuments were in play in that deepest of center fields, while the right field foul pole seemed but a pop fly away from home plate. It’s only concrete and steel. And the new stadium being built across the street will offer far superior creature comforts for both players and fans. But still, we all know that it’s closing time.

What does it matter? The pre-game ceremonies serve to remind. The introduction of a pantheon of heroes, whether by video, by actors walking into center field, or by their presence in the flesh, brings back a flood of memories of all that has happened here. Right here, on the southwest corner of 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx. Whatever form the concrete and steel around it may have taken, it all happened on this field.

It was here that the Babe homered in the very first game; and here was where he set the home run record that stood for almost two generations. On this field Roger broke it on an October afternoon in 1961.

At this location a still-young hero, cut down by an insidious disease, stared death in the face and pronounced himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Right here in the months before America went to war, Joltin’ Joe hit, and hit, and hit again; until a record was established that still stands, and may well defy the maxim that they are all made to be broken.

In this infield, along the first baseline, Yogi leapt into Larsen’s arms to celebrate something that had never been done before in a World Series, and has yet to be repeated in the Fall Classic.

Across the impossible green of this outfield Mickey ranged, for more games than any other Yankee; at least until the career of a certain shortstop began late in 1995.

Right here, right in that left-handed batter’s box below me, Reggie flicked his wrists three times and became Mr. October. With those three magnificent swings he brought new hope to a city obsessed with the Son of Sam.

And here too it was that a previously unsuccessful manager was given one more chance, and found a way to lead a team to phenomenal and repeated success, as an old century ended and a new one began. We are reminded of all of that as prelude, and still we have a game to play.

That game unfolds like so many others, because the ebb and flow of the Great Game is unfailing. The visiting Orioles take the early lead, then we come back; but the question of who leads at the end is somehow more important this time. Because it is the last time. Tonight it’s closing time.

Andy Pettitte is not dominant, but then domination is not his style. Pettitte is a grinder who pitches to contact and counts on being good enough to win. After we trail early Johnny Damon homers to bring us back. And then Jose Molina homers into the visitors’ bullpen in left field to put us ahead. So now we wait for the last home run at The Stadium. Because it cannot come from Molina, a .215 hitter whose most recent blast was just his third homer of the year. But after more than eight decades The Stadium appears to have its own mind; and it gives Molina a place in its history to remind us that along with the stars, there were thousands of bit players without whom 26 championships would never have been won.

So it comes down to the 9th inning, which for the Yankees and their fans means but one thing. The bullpen gate opens, he walks through a step or two before pausing a moment on the outfield warning track as always; and then Mariano Rivera, the last active player wearing number 42, begins his jog in to the mound. We fans erupt, and in doing so relax; for we know that victory is at hand. Mo faces three batters, throws eleven pitches, and the final game is won.

And so, at last, it really is closing time.

But we stay. We stay and cheer for this ground and all that has happened right here. Then the captain, that aforementioned shortstop, assembles the entire team in the middle of the infield. He acknowledges the history, the tradition, the excellence, and most of all, the fans. He invites us to bring our memories across the street, and by so doing wed them to new memories as yet uncreated and pass the whole history on to the next generation. Then he leads his team around the field in appreciation of us, all four million of us who have walked the aging ramps and passageways this final year. We are grateful for the latter, and we will of course do the former. But as the clock strikes the beginning of a new day we all know, players and fans alike, that on this side of 161st Street, it’s closing time.

But still we stay. We cheer. We take pictures. We stand silently. We gaze at the immaculate swath of green and brown through eyes moistened by a flood of remembrances. We are in awe, fans and players alike; not of each other nor of the cement and steel and cantilevered decks, but of what has happened here. Right here. Right here. We stay in the stands. They stay on the field.

It’s closing time. But on the field and in the stands, there is not one among us who is ready to leave.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 18, 2016

The LPGA’s Problem That Michael Whan Can’t Fix

Sports history was made on Sunday, though the casual fan might never know. The Evian Championship, the fifth and final major of the LPGA season, came to a conclusion at the Evian Resort Golf Club in the French Alps. In Gee Chun opened the tournament with an 8-under par 63 to share the lead with fellow Korean Sung Hyun Park. Chun followed that up with a 66 on Friday to move two shots clear of Park and China’s Shanshan Feng, and then all but locked up the tournament with a third round 65 that put her four strokes ahead after fifty-four holes.

At 19-under par after three rounds, Chun had already matched the record for lowest score in relation to par at a women’s major. Dottie Pepper at what in 1999 was known as the Nabisco Dinah Shore (now the ANA Inspiration), Karen Stupples at the 2004 Women’s British Open, and Christie Kerr and Yani Tseng at the 2010 and 2011 LPGA Championship (now the Women’s PGA Championship) respectively, all won with a final score of 19-under. After three scintillating sub-par rounds Chun seemed poised to shatter that mark. She also appeared likely to break the 20-under par record for men, set first by Jason Day at last year’s PGA Championship, and matched earlier this summer by Henrik Stenson at the Open Championship.

But while the players had been forced to contend with rain and wind at the start of the tournament, the weather turned especially raw and wet for Sunday’s final round. Although organizers sent golfers off both the 1st and 10th tees in hopes of beating the worst of the rain, much of the round was played in heavy downpours, making scoring more difficult. Still Chun displayed the same steady play she showed all week, and recorded her first birdie of the day at the par-4 3rd hole when her approach took the left to right slope of the green and finished six feet from the cup. She added another birdie at the par-3 8th to move into the uncharted territory of 21-under par at a major.

Chun wobbled briefly with a bogey four at the short 14th hole, but immediately bounced back with a birdie at the reachable par-5 15th. She came to the finishing hole still at 21-under, four shots clear of her closest pursuers. With the tournament result no longer in doubt Chun was chasing only a spot in the record books. That seemed in danger when she missed the fairway wide left. The 18th at Evian is the longest par-4 on the course, with a large water hazard fronting the green. Chun wisely took the advice of caddie David Jones, laying up short of the water with a wedge from the heavy rough. From ninety-five yards her third shot with that same wedge came to rest ten feet below the hole.

In her post-round interview Chun admitted to being beset by nerves as she made the walk to the green, and credited her caddie for calming her down as they made their way to the putting surface. But while her heart may have been racing her hands were steady. The putt for par and the record was never in doubt, falling into the center of the cup as Chun raised both arms in triumph.

Yet by Sunday evening, hours after that putt had fallen, there was no mention of Chun’s historic finish on the main sports pages of either the New York Times or Washington Post’s websites, to pick two major news outlets at random. Nor could news of the Evian result be found at CBSSports.com. There the lead golf stories were of a player from the PGA Tour’s developmental Web.com Tour hitting a 45-yard field goal at the Boise State football stadium using an iron, and a video of a 4-year old with an “incredible golf swing.”

LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan has done a great job at rebuilding the women’s tour from the depths in which it wallowed when he took over in 2010. Purses and the number of tournaments have both increased and he’s forged a close working relationship with the vastly more visible men’s tour. Women players understand their need to constantly seek a larger audience, which is surely one of the reasons why unlike many of the top male players, virtually none of the leading women opted out of the Rio Olympics, despite the obvious fact that they stood a far greater risk from the Zika virus.

The LPGA will always play in the shadow of the PGA Tour, because men’s sports simply have larger fan bases. The WNBA is two successful decades old, but attendance at any game is a fraction of that for an NBA contest between cellar-dwelling teams. The U.S. women’s national soccer team has achieved far more than the men’s squad in both the World Cup and the Olympics, but Major League Soccer is vastly more popular than the struggling National Women’s Soccer League.

But a problem unique to the LPGA, which makes the struggle for recognition even greater, is the lack of dominant American talent. It’s not that American golf fans won’t root for foreign players. Gary Player was wildly popular half a century ago, and the likes of Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson attract massive followings at every PGA Tour event they play. But U.S. fans root for those players because they can also cheer for Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson, among many other Americans.

Of the twenty-six LPGA events completed this season, just two individual tournaments were won by Americans. Lexi Thompson won in February and Brittany Lang captured the Women’s U.S. Open in July. The four women U.S. squad also took the International Crown team event. Thompson and Stacy Lewis are currently the only two Americans in the top ten of the Rolex Rankings. But Lewis hasn’t won in more than two years, and having recently married has conceded that her focus is no longer exclusively on golf.

Thompson is only 21, and with power off the tee that rivals many male players. Jessica Korda and Allison Lee are not exactly household names, but both are in their twenties and ranked among the top forty in the world. Perhaps in time a new American generation will rise, and LPGA events will seem more relevant to golf fans in this country. But for all of his marketing skills that’s not something that Michael Whan can control. The good news for In Gee Chun is that even if no one knows about it, the record still counts.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 15, 2016

Drama Aplenty In The Longest Season’s Final Days

Here in New England the overnight temperature will drop into the forties this evening. Autumn is at hand, and that means that after winding its way from the first contests in earliest April, the longest season nears its end. Three weekends hence the final games will be played, leaving fans of just ten teams with the happy prospect of following their heroes on into the playoffs. With their 7-0 shutout of the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday, the Chicago Cubs became the first franchise to clinch a spot in the postseason. As soon as this evening the Cubs can formally secure what has been a forgone conclusion for weeks, the title of NL Central Division champions.

Barring collapses that would become the stuff of legend, the Washington Nationals and Texas Rangers should follow the Cubs as divisional winners well before the final weekend of play. While Cleveland and Los Angeles enjoy smaller leads in the AL Central and NL West respectively, each team is a strong favorite with better than a ninety-six percent chance of winning its division according to FanGraphs. Only the AL East seems truly up for grabs with just over two weeks remaining. The Red Sox, Orioles and Blue Jays are bunched together, and each still has a series to play against both of the others.

It’s very possible that the two teams that miss out on winning the AL East will capture the two American League Wild Card spots, and advance to the win-or-go-home confrontation that kicks off the Great Game’s playoffs in each league. Given the solid leads held by the top team in five of the six divisions, the Wild Card races are likely to hold most of the drama over the longest season’s final days.

Right behind the Orioles and Blue Jays in the American League are the Tigers, Mariners and Yankees. With eight wins in a row going into Thursday night’s action, Seattle is the hottest team in the majors. Houston and Kansas City aren’t out of it quite yet, but either would have to play torrid baseball from here on out in order to win the chance to continue on into October. Realistically the AL Wild Card chase is a battle among five teams, Detroit, Seattle and New York, as well as whichever two squads don’t win the AL East, for the final two postseason spots. While the Mariners and Yankees are given the longest odds of making it, since the All-Star break those two teams are tied with the Rangers for the best record in the American League.

In the senior circuit the competitors are fewer in number. As this is written the Giants hold a half-game edge on the Mets, with the Cardinals on the outside, but only by another half game. That the Metropolitans are still in the picture is little short of remarkable. Every season one or two teams are widely acknowledged as having been bitten by the injury bug to a disproportionate degree, and if they win nothing else this year the Mets will claim that crown. New York lost Matt Harvey, David Wright, Lucas Duda and Neil Walker to season-ending injuries. In addition to Harvey, starting pitchers Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz are currently sidelined, and Yoenis Cespedes and Asdrubal Cabrera returned from stints on the disabled list late last month. Yet with seven wins in their last ten games the Mets have the best recent record of the three teams fighting for the last two playoff spots.

New York also has the scheduling good fortune of playing thirteen of the remaining sixteen games on the schedule against Minnesota, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. The first two could wind up losing a hundred games this year, while the Phillies may well lose ninety. In contrast to that soft schedule the Cardinals and Giants face each other in a four-game death match this weekend; and St. Louis still has a series against the Cubs while San Francisco must play the Dodgers six more times.

Of all the teams still in contention, none is more baffling than San Francisco. In the distant days of Spring Training, clever wags were picking the Giants to go the distance this season based on recent history alone. After all 2016 is an even-numbered year, and the Giants were World Series champions in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Through the All-Star break it looked like those predictions were more than just numerological fantasy. At 57-33 San Francisco had the Great Game’s best record, ahead of even the magical Cubs. The Giants were 6 ½ games clear of the Dodgers and postseason baseball at AT&T Park seemed a certainty. But after being swept at home by the lowly Padres this week, San Francisco has gone from first to worst. The team’s 20-35 record since the All-Star break puts the Giants dead last among all thirty teams since the Midsummer Classic.

It’s a collapse of historic proportions, reminiscent of the Braves and Red Sox in 2011. That year Atlanta had the second best record in the National League at the break, and enjoyed an 8 ½ game cushion in the Wild Card standings with a month to play. Boston led the AL East and was nine games up in the Wild Card at the start of September. Both teams missed the playoffs. If San Francisco follows that path, it will be a long and bitter offseason in the Bay area.

Of course some fans will question the value of the Wild Card, since with two spots it now guarantees only a single postseason game, with the second Wild Card team playing even that game on the road. But since the Wild Card was introduced in 1994 teams that made the playoffs without winning their division have played in twelve World Series and won six. Since the two Wild Card format started in 2012, lowly second Wild Cards have won three of the four play-in games in each league. Twice the Washington Nationals had the best regular season record in the NL but couldn’t make it past the second Wild Card in the Division Series. Last season the Cardinals won 100 games, but fell to the second Wild Card Cubs, also in the NLDS. Most notably, two years ago the Giants were the NL’s second Wild Card, while the Kansas City Royals were the first Wild Card in the American League. The two wound up meeting in a thrilling World Series.

The longest season is in its final days, and five of the six division races are all but over; but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty left to play for. For fans of every team that still has a fighting chance, the only games more exciting than those in the last half of September will be the ones they are still hoping to see come October.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 11, 2016

A New Generation Rises In Women’s Tennis

In sports, as in life, the full significance of a moment is sometimes not immediately apparent. Only with the passage of time, as that moment cascades into all those that follow, can one appreciate what one witnessed. Tennis fans were aware of the obvious implications of Thursday’s results in the women’s semifinals at the U.S. Open. But the stray thought that perhaps they were seeing something more must have occurred to more than a few of the thousands packed into Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, or watching on television. More than just an upset, perhaps they were witness to a changing of the guard.

When 24-year old Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic emphatically ended Serena Williams’s run through the Open draw with a 6-2, 7-5 (5) straight set victory in the semis, many of the ramifications were well known. For the second year in a row Williams was denied a spot in the finals of her national championship. Her victory earlier this summer at Wimbledon was Williams’s 22nd Grand Slam title, moving her into a tie with Steffi Graf for the most in the open era; but now her quest to move ahead of Graf must wait at least until next year’s Australian Open.

The loss, coupled with Angelique Kerber’s earlier advance to the finals meant that when the new women’s rankings are issued next week, the 28-year old German will supplant Williams as the number one woman player. As fate would have it, this week marked Williams’s 186th consecutive week as number one, again matching Graf for the longest streak at the top. Facing her 35th birthday later this month, Williams must surely know that any hope of breaking Graf’s consecutive week mark is now extinguished. With 309 total weeks at the top of the rankings, beating Graf’s total of 377 was always a tall order for Williams. Now that too seems out of reach.

None of those facts should lead one to pen the tennis obituary of Serena Williams. If she is no longer number one, she has slipped only to number two; and it would certainly not be a surprise if in the months ahead she reclaims the top spot, at least for a time. And one might want to be careful about placing too large a wager against Williams eventually breaking the tie with Graf for career Grand Slam titles. She arrived at Flushing Meadows with a nagging right shoulder injury, and then hurt her left knee when she took a tumble during her second round match. Her coach Patrick Mouratoglou told the media that the knee got “worse and worse” as the tournament went on.

But then nagging injuries tend to nag more when a player is in her middle thirties. What is inescapable is that the past year has been shockingly different for the player so long at the top of the women’s game from what fans had grown used to. Last year on the same Stadium Court fans were stunned when Williams lost the Open semifinal to Roberta Vinci in three sets. She had already won the “Serena Slam” by capturing the prior year’s U.S. Open and then the first three majors of 2015. Just two matches short of becoming the fourth woman in history and the first since Graf in 1988 to capture the calendar year Grand Slam, the idea of Williams losing was incomprehensible to most fans. Starting with the 2008 U.S. Open title, she won thirteen of the next thirty-two majors. Over that period she failed to win at least one of the four Grand Slam events only in 2011, when she was hampered by injuries.

Then came the semifinal against Vinci, who at age 32 was the oldest woman in the open era to reach her first Grand Slam semi. The first set went to Williams by a score of 6-2. Exactly what the crowd expected. Yet the veteran Vinci refused to go quietly, rallying to even the match and then capture the third set in stunning fashion. After her 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 triumph Vinci even managed to charm the overwhelmingly pro-Williams crowd in her tearful victory speech by congratulating Williams and apologizing for the fans disappointment, saying “Serena is an incredible player. Today is my day. Sorry guys.”

The shock upset was thought to be a bump in the road for the world number one; but since then the path has just been bumpy for Williams. Most tellingly, this year has been a reminder that tennis is a young woman’s game. The new number one Kerber, who went on to defeat Pliskova in the women’s final on Saturday, is almost seven years Williams’s junior. At that, Kerber is the oldest woman in the history of the rankings to be making an initial appearance at the top. It was Kerber, who celebrated her 28th birthday on the first day of the Australian Open in January, who stopped Williams in the final at Melbourne Park. At the French Open 22-year old Garbine Muguruza was the youthful opponent Williams could not overcome. At the Rio Olympics the foe was 21-year old Elina Svitolina of Ukraine who ousted Williams in the third round. The early defeat denied Williams a spot on the medal podium, where gold went to 22-year old Monica Puig. Finally at Flushing Meadows it was the 24-year old Pliskova putting an end to Williams’s title hopes, and depending on the state of her injuries, perhaps her 2016 season.

In a career that has already been marked by unexpected comebacks, perhaps Serena Williams is capable of another. Six separate times she has ascended to the top of the women’s rankings. Her place in the history of the game long since ceased to be in doubt. She will forever be one of the subjects in the always enjoyable if ultimately meaningless debates among fans and pundits about the greatest player ever. But the ancient lesson remains, time and chance happeneth to them all. When tennis fans look back a few years from now, perhaps they will see a reminder of that in Vinci’s improbable 2015 semifinal victory; and perhaps in the 2016 results they will see confirmation that in the women’s game, a new age has begun.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 8, 2016

Rory Beats The Field, The Storm And His Demons

Less than a half hour into his first round of the Deutsche Bank Championship, the last thing on Rory McIlroy’s mind was winning the tournament. So too it’s unlikely that any of the multitude of fans who have followed the career of the golfing sensation from Holywood, Northern Ireland would have forecast such a result. Starting on the back nine for his opening walk around the sprawling layout that is the TPC Boston golf course, McIlroy parred the 10th hole. But he followed that with a bogey on the uphill par-3 11th, and then recorded a disastrous triple-bogey seven on the 12th hole, a long par-4 with water fronting the green. Just three holes into the tournament McIlroy was already four over par.

For all the preternatural talent that allowed McIlroy to capture four majors by age twenty-five and spend more time at the top of the Official World Golf Rankings than all but three other players in the thirty year history of the rankings, he has always had a tendency to let misfortune gnaw at him. After a few dropped shots fans have seen his shoulders slump and his countenance turn dour. Soon enough a missed cut or a poor finish has followed. In March 2013 McIlroy walked off the course at the Honda Classic in the middle of a poor first round, claiming pain from a bad tooth. Early last year he tossed a fairway wood into a pond at Doral after hitting his ball into the same body of water.

But on Friday the familiar scenario did not play itself out. Perhaps it was a product of the maturity that comes with being all of twenty-seven years old. Perhaps it was confidence in a new putter and new putting coach. Or perhaps, having gone winless in the U.S. for more than a year and seen his ranking drop from first to fifth in that time, McIlroy felt like he had nothing to lose. Whatever the reason, McIlroy soldiered on, going bogey-free for the remainder of the Deutsche Bank’s first round while recovering all four of those early dropped shots.

After making a small change to his putting grip Saturday morning, he followed that even par start with rounds of 67 and 66 to climb steadily up the leader board. He closed his third round with a near albatross, his second shot approach to the reachable par-5 18th hole lipping out of the cup. Still at 9-under par he began Monday’s final round six shots adrift of Paul Casey, with five other golfers between himself and the 54-hole leader.

Along with the rest of the field McIlroy also faced changeable weather conditions. The storm that had once been Hurricane Hermine was swirling out in the Atlantic southeast of New England. The PGA Tour moved up the starting times and sent the players off both sets of tees on Monday, trying to get the tournament completed before predicted rain and heavy wind arrived. The rain never materialized, but the wind rose steadily as the final round progressed. Flags that were drooping when the first groups went off were whipped to attention by the time the leaders made the turn, even as the massive trees around the course swayed back and forth. Players were forced to repeatedly back off of shots, trying to time their swings for a break in the punishing gusts.

With the intensifying breezes scoring became steadily more difficult. The final threesome of Casey, Brian Harman and Smilie Kaufman shot a combined 13-over par. Two groups ahead Justin Rose, the Olympic gold medalist, was 2-under for the day through ten holes. He then played the final eight in ten strokes over par. Of the last dozen golfers on the course, just three managed to record a round under par. The best of those was McIlroy, whose closing 65 matched Adam Scott, who had finished almost an hour earlier, for the low round of the day.

After early birdies at the 2nd and 4th holes, McIlroy caught Casey with a string of three straight birdies to close the front nine. That improved putting stroke yielded dividends on the 8th and 9th holes, but the key to the round may have come on the par-5 7th. From the middle of the fairway after a 308 yard drive McIlroy went for the green in two. His shot from 274 yards was a foot from perfect, landing on the slope between a greenside bunker and the putting surface. But instead of bouncing forward it dropped back into the sand. Faced with a bit of bad luck and a long bunker shot, McIlroy’s shoulders never slumped. Instead he played a perfect sand wedge, the ball stopping three feet from the hole for an easy birdie.

An hour later, with the wind rising, McIlroy seized the lead for good by rolling in a twenty foot birdie putt on the 12th hole, the scene of his opening round embarrassment. Even as the cheers for that effort were echoing around the TPC Boston’s back nine, Casey was making bogey on the 11th, giving McIlroy a sudden two-shot lead. A little more than an hour after that, another perfect long bunker shot on the 18th left him with a tap-in for one final birdie that sealed McIlroy’s victory.

After winning both the Deutsche Bank and the BMW Championship in 2012, with this triumph McIlroy joined Tiger Woods as the only player to have won more than two FedEx Cup playoff events. He also moved to fourth in this year’s FedEx Cup standings, with two events remaining; and rose to third in the world rankings. He did it by shooting a lower score each day, and his best score of all under the most difficult conditions. He did it by ranking 7th in putting, one week after ranking 70th at The Barclays. He did it by storming through the field in the final round, recording an eight shot swing over the third round leader.

Most of all, as he acknowledged, he did it by not giving up on himself. “It’s just incredible, this game, how quickly things can change and how quickly things can turn around,” McIlroy said in a post-tournament interview. “It’s been a great lesson for me this week not to get down on myself, to stay patient. You learn with experience and a little bit more maturity that it’s four-round golf tournaments. It’s a long time. There’s a lot that can happen, and I sort of proved that to myself this week.” If he truly has learned that lesson, then it’s safe to say that Rory’s back.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 1, 2016

Colin Kaepernick’s Decision, And Ours

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be attending the PGA Tour’s Deutsche Bank Championship on Sunday and Monday. Hopefully the remnants of Hurricane Hermine will not. Barring a washout at the TPC Boston golf course there will be no post on Sunday.

Far more attention is being paid to Thursday night’s NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and the San Diego Chargers than a final preseason contest normally warrants. Although to be precise, the focus is not on the meaningless exhibition itself, but rather on what happens in the moments before the opening kickoff. That’s when 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is expected to continue his protest against what he sees as a pattern of racial oppression in the United States by refusing to stand during the playing of the national anthem.

Kaepernick has staged his sedentary protest before all three of his team’s previous exhibition games. However between the crush of people on an NFL sideline and the fact that he wasn’t in uniform for the first two contests, no one noticed until last week when San Francisco played at Green Bay. Asked after that game why he remained seated on the bench during “The Star Spangled Banner,” Kaepernick said “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

The 28-year old quarterback, who has gone from leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl just three and a half years ago to a backup in danger of being released when final roster cuts are made this weekend, is scarcely the first athlete to use a patriotic symbol as the vehicle for wading into political controversy. A decade ago, when all major league baseball teams were playing “God Bless America” during the 7th inning stretch in the wake of 9/11, Carlos Delgado refused to join his teammates in standing on the field, citing his opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 1996 Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets preceded Kaepernick in refusing to stand for the national anthem because he believed the flag was a symbol of oppression. Three decades earlier, in an image fans of a certain age can immediately call to mind, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood with their heads bowed and black-gloved fists raised during the playing of the anthem for a medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics.

In all of those instances the immediate reaction generated enormous heat but precious little light. Such has predictably again been the case in the wake of Kaepernick’s protest. He was called an “idiot” by NASCAR driver Tony Stewart, and that was one of the less strident condemnations. An executive with one NFL team labeled Kaepernick a “traitor” while another lumped him in with Rae Carruth, the former wide receiver who was convicted of conspiring to murder the woman who was carrying his unborn child. Not surprisingly, those making such incendiary comments found the courage to do so only behind the cloak of anonymity. Speaking of incendiary, there were of course the requisite videos of 49er fans burning their former hero’s jersey.

On the other side those rallying to Kaepernick’s defense, while fewer in number, were no less strident. Singer John Legend and others denounced the anthem itself, finding in its largely forgotten third verse a stanza celebrating slavery. Several columnists praised Kaepernick’s “courage” in glowing terms.

Thus as is always the case, fans are expected to choose sides. Kaepernick is either evil or virtuous, utterly wrong or profoundly right. In these debates it is hard to find anyone holding out for nuance, or seeing things in what might pass for a shade of gray.

Part of that is because of the power of symbols. What was once just a song or a bit of colored cloth acquires mystical meaning when it becomes the national anthem or the flag. That is especially true in this country, where there exists a unique conjunction of those two symbols and our games. Here every sporting event of significance cannot begin without the playing of the national anthem, fans standing in salute to the flag.

This is not the case around the globe, nor is it here with our other entertainments. The crowds paying absurd prices for the chance to see “Hamilton,” the wildly popular musical about our founding fathers, don’t begin the evening by joining in singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” But no Seacoast Mavericks’ game can start until the recording of the anthem has blared through the loudspeakers at Leary Field in Portsmouth.

Yet by making his protest Kaepernick himself became a symbol, and isn’t it at least possible that there is something to be said for symbols of all kinds?

The rancid mutterings of the anonymous NFL executives aside, the fact that the quarterback can act as he has without fear of being arrested is the most awesome reminder of the qualities the flag and anthem represent. One can also hew to the obvious truth that all lives do matter while still recognizing that for many people of color history and personal experience necessitate loudly proclaiming that black lives matter not more, but as well. One can accept the reality that just like plumbers or politicians not all policeman are honorable without lessening the respect one pays to the local constabulary for the security it provides. One can acknowledge and even admire the professional and financial risks that Kaepernick is taking and still find his subsequent decision to wear socks depicting cartoon pigs in police attire to be nothing more than juvenile showmanship.

When these events occur, one always hopes that after the heat of the moment has passed, a conversation might continue. However halting, surely it could only help to move the country, if only in small steps, away from the nation’s original sin and towards the elusive but eternal goal of a more perfect union. Or we can all just retreat to our corners and scream at each other, our only apparent and base ambition being to see who can yell the loudest. Like Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit, it’s a choice we all must make.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 28, 2016

Reed’s Sunny Sunday Is Fowler’s Nightmare

It’s an axiom of professional golf, noted in this space as recently as the last post, that no one ever won a tournament on Thursday. After the opening 18 at The Barclays not just the winner but the final automatic spots on the U.S. Ryder Cup team that will host the Europeans at Hazeltine next month were still up for grabs. Now the remaining 54 holes have been played, the first of the four FedEx Cup Playoff events has a champion, and the eight golfers who played their way onto the U.S. team are known. As possibility gave way to certainty golf fans were once again reminded that if nothing can be won on the first day of a tournament, much can be lost in the space of a few minutes on Sunday afternoon.

The big winner of the week was Patrick Reed, the cherry-cheeked Texan who won for the fifth time on Tour, but the first in more than a year and a half. The 26-year old led by one after the opening round, doubled his margin on Friday, and then slipped a shot behind Rickie Fowler after Saturday’s third trip around daunting Bethpage Black. In the final round Reed fell two behind with an early bogey on the par-3 3rd hole, but bounced back quickly with three birdies in the next four holes. That streak enabled him to catch Fowler at 10-under par as the final pair made their way to the most remote reaches of the non-returning layout.

They were greeted on every hole by large crowds of raucous fans who the CBS announcers estimated were rooting for the enormously popular Fowler by a margin of ninety to ten. But no one has ever accused Patrick Reed of lacking in ego, and a gallery cheering for the other guy is just the kind of atmosphere to fire him up. At the 2014 Ryder Cup matches in Scotland, Reed was one of only three Americans to finish with an overall winning record, earning 3 ½ of a possible 4 points. As the Americans tried vainly to mount a charge during the Sunday singles, Reed scored the first U.S. point with a 1-up victory over Henrik Stenson. He also made either a star or an ass of himself, depending on one’s point of view, by frequently goading the Scottish galleries during the three days of play.

At The Barclays Reed added another birdie at the 12th hole, and by the time he and Fowler reached the 16th tee he led by three shots with just three holes remaining. That allowed him to coast home and claim the title, vaulting him to the top of the FedEx Cup standings with three events remaining. The win also clinched his spot on this year’s Ryder Cup squad. Reed arrived on Long Island clinging to 8th place in the standings, with a number of golfers nipping at this heels. He left with a spot in the Tour Championship and on the Ryder Cup team guaranteed.

One of those chasing Reed was third round leader Fowler, who had said repeatedly that his goal was to play his way onto the team. With the lead at the start of the round and then that early two-shot bulge, he seemed well on his way to succeeding. Instead the 27-year old disappointed all those cheering fans by collapsing on the back nine. He bogeyed the 11th hole to drop out of the tie with Reed, and saw his deficit increase to two strokes when his fellow competitor birdied the 12th. Then with the tournament winding down Fowler hooked his tee shot on the 15th hole into the fescue, well wide of the fairway. He actually had a better lie there than did Reed, who had also misplayed his drive. But Reed’s second found the green, while Fowler dumped his approach into the front bunker. He was unable to get up and down from the sand, falling three behind with the resulting bogey.

Now desperate to go low, Fowler faced a 16th hole that had yielded just a single birdie all day. His tee shot again went left, and from the rough his approach came up short, once more into a greenside trap. His sand shot cleared the bunker but never reached the green, stopping in the heavy rough between the two. A poor chip skidded well past the hole, and the putt coming back never scared the cup. In less than twenty minutes the third round leader had followed a bad bogey with a worse double, wiping out any chance of victory. Perhaps worse, Fowler’s plunge down the leader board also eliminated his hopes of seizing one of the eight automatic Ryder Cup spots.

It’s certainly possible that Davis Love III could still make Fowler one of his captain’s picks. The first three of those won’t be announced until after the BMW Championship, so Fowler still has that tournament plus the upcoming Deutsche Bank Championship to make a positive impression. He will tee it up at TPC Boston as the defending champion at the latter event, having bested Henrik Stenson in a two-man duel down the stretch last Labor Day weekend. There, as was the case at Bethpage, the fans were overwhelmingly in Fowler’s corner.

But fans don’t swing the clubs or read the putts. As popular as Fowler is with both fans and fellow players, captain Love may look at his undistinguished record in team competitions. In two Ryder Cups and one Presidents Cup he’s won just 3 ½ of a possible 12 points, and has yet to win a singles match. The debacle at Bethpage also marked the fourth time that Fowler has started the final round of a PGA Tour event with the lead. From that position he has yet to seal the deal on Sunday. In the end Love’s choices will be his alone to make. But perhaps there’s a good reason why Rickie Fowler felt it so important to play his way onto this year’s Ryder Cup team.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 25, 2016

Here Comes The Ryder Cup

Thursday’s first round of The Barclays is in the books, which means the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs are officially underway. With the first of the four playoff tournaments being played this year at Bethpage Black, that sprawling beast of a public course on Long Island, almost all of the world’s top male golfers have made their way to Farmingdale. Of the names most casual fans would recognize, only Sergio Garcia elected to pass on The Barclay’s. Currently 20th in the FedEx Cup standings, the Spaniard is assured of advancing to next week’s Deutsche Bank Championship, when the field will be cut from the top 125 down to 100.

Full attendance was of course not the case for golf’s recent reintroduction to the Olympic Games after an absence of more than a century. Many of the top men, including four of the top five in the world rankings, found various reasons to skip the long journey to Rio; a fact that wasn’t all that surprising given that gold, silver and bronze medals hold no historical significance in the game. No young lad ever stood over a putt on a practice green thinking to himself, “Here’s a ten footer for birdie and Olympic gold!” In contrast at the end of the FedEx Cup rainbow lies the $10 million bonus awarded to the winner. Now that’s a prize to which members of the PGA Tour surely can relate.

But less one surmise that all professional golfers care about is the size of their bank accounts, there is another event on the near horizon that doesn’t award any kind of individual prize at all, and the stiff competition to get into it is providing a dramatic subtext to this weekend’s play at Bethpage Black. The Barclays is not just the first playoff event, it’s also the last tournament that counts in the two-year long standings for the eight automatic spots on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

The top five in the American standings going into this week’s play, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Jimmy Walker and Brooks Koepka, will all head to Hazeltine National Golf Club at the end of the month as members of the 12-man U.S. squad. Brandt Snedeker and Zach Johnson, currently in 6th and 7th position, are probably safe for an automatic spot, though Johnson may want to step on the gas a bit in his second round after finishing round one tied for 69th at 2-over par. A missed cut would allow the players pursuing one of the final qualifying spots an open opportunity to overtake him.

Behind Johnson in 8th place is Patrick Reed, and behind him are a list of accomplished players including many Ryder Cup veterans who would dearly love to make the team. Johnson’s in 7th place with 4,437.973 points, less than 160 points ahead of Reed. With 1,530 points awarded to this week’s winner, anyone in the top twenty can play their way onto the team in the next few days.

Ryder Cup veterans currently on the outside looking in include Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar, Rickie Fowler and Jim Furyk, 10th through 12th and 15th, respectively. Watson and Kuchar have each played on the last three U.S. teams, Fowler made the team in 2010 and 2014, and Furyk has a string of nine consecutive appearances dating to 1997. With its match play format and two days of foursomes and fourballs team play, the Ryder Cup is utterly different from the weekly 72-hole stroke play tournaments that make up the PGA Tour’s annual schedule. U.S. Captain Davis Love III would surely love to have some experienced hands to face Team Europe, which will be gunning for an unprecedented fourth straight victory.

Experience could be even more important than usual this year because of the makeup of the European squad. The continental qualification system awards nine spots automatically, based upon the European Tour money list and World Golf Ranking points. Although this is also the final week to earn points at the Made in Denmark tournament, the standings are such that all nine places are already locked in. Euro captain Darren Clarke has five rookies among those who played their way onto his team. And while Clarke has named Ian Poulter as a vice-captain, he won’t have the British golfer who has made a career out of excelling at this biennial event out on the course since Poulter had been sidelined for months with a foot injury.

While experience would be nice to have, at present Love’s list of automatic qualifiers is only slightly more seasoned than Clarke’s. Brooks Koepka will be making his maiden Ryder Cup appearance, and four others among the current top eight have been members of just one prior team.

Given those facts one can safely assume that both captains will look to veterans when making their personal selections. Clarke has three captain’s picks that he will announce next week; while Love gets to name four team members. Three of his picks will be announced following the BMW Championship, the third of the FedEx Cup Playoff events. The American captain gets to wait until after the Tour Championship to name the final member of the U.S. squad, allowing him to focus on a golfer not yet on the team who looks to be in top form just as Ryder Cup week starts.

Just as no one ever won a PGA Tour event in the first round, so none of those contending for the final automatic spots are locked into position with 54 holes of The Barclays still to go. But Patrick Reed opened with a 5-under par 66 to sit in a two-way tie for the lead, while Rickie Fowler shot 67 in his opening round and is tied for 3rd. Of all the players chasing one of the automatic spots Fowler has been most open about his desire to play his way onto the team and give Love greater flexibility in making his captain’s picks. He raced home from the Olympics to play last week’s Wyndham Championship in an effort to move up in the standings, and he’s off to a strong start on Long Island.

By Sunday evening the automatic qualifiers will be known, and Love will begin deliberating over his captain’s picks, as Clarke is already doing. When each makes his phone calls telling players they are in or out, a handful will rejoice but more will be bitterly disappointed. In like manner, when the decisive point is won at Hazeltine, one team will revel while the other sinks into despair. Whether they produce a historic win streak for Europe or redemption for the U.S. after the Medinah meltdown the last time they were played on home soil, the 41st Ryder Cup matches will offer decisive proof that at the pinnacle of the game, golf can be about something vastly more important than money.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 21, 2016

The Best And The Worst Of Rio 2016

With the closing ceremony Sunday evening the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, officially the Games of the Thirty-first Olympiad of the modern era, reach their conclusion. After a celebration of Brazilian culture the Olympic flag, with its familiar five rings on a white field will be lowered, the flame will be extinguished, and the youth of the world will be asked to reconvene four years hence in Tokyo.

For sixteen days we have watched those young men and women compete in a wide range of events, ever mindful of the Olympic Creed. It states “the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing is life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

For those same sixteen days, during the occasional programming breaks between commercials, NBC has provided coverage that has focused heavily on the medal count, which with Russia largely absent tilted heavily in favor of the Unites States. Winning may not be the most important thing, but it clearly helps if one wants to get on TV.

Of course both summaries of these Games are correct. More than 11,000 athletes from over 200 countries participated in the Rio Games. Including multiple medals given in team events a total of 2,102 gold, silver and bronze medallions were awarded, with a number of stars winning multiple times. Medals went to 87 different countries, but nearly one-quarter of those won just a single prize.  For the vast majority of not just athletes but entire national delegations, the Olympics truly are about the opportunity to do one’s best against fellow competitors from around the globe.

No moment in Rio so exemplified the Olympic spirit at the one that came during the second women’s 5,000 meter qualifying heat on Tuesday. Abbey D’Agostino, a native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, became the first Dartmouth College female distance runner to win an NCAA title in 2012. Nikki Hamblin was born in England and moved to New Zealand in 2006. While her best events are the 800 and 1,500 meters, she was running for her adopted country in the 5,000. With 2,000 meters to go the packed field came onto the front stretch and D’Agostino clipped Hamblin’s heels. Both runners went down hard onto the abrasive track. As the rest of the runners raced away, the American was the first to get up.

Her coach Mark Coogan later told USA Today that he had always advised D’Agostino in the event of a fall “to get up, dust herself off, have a quick look around and then get right back to running. Obviously she did pretty much the opposite of that, and the world got to see the kind of person she is. She did the right thing.” What D’Agostino did was immediately notice that Hamblin remained on the ground, seemingly dazed. Rather than run off she bent down and helped her competitor to her feet, saying to her “Get up. We have to finish this.” With D’Agostino’s help Hamblin got up and the two resumed running. It quickly became apparent though that D’Agostino was seriously injured. Hamblin stayed with her for a while and in turned helped the American up when her knee gave out. Finally, at D’Agostino’s urging, Hamblin left her behind and started chasing the distant pack.

What no one knew, though surely the pain must have told D’Agostino, was that in the collision and fall she had suffered a complete tear of her ACL, a strained MCL, and a torn meniscus. Somehow, against all probability, she limped through the final laps to finish the race without assistance. When she finally crossed the finish line Hamblin was there, waiting to embrace the fellow competitor whom she had never met until they tumbled together at the head of the stretch.

If the story of the two women middle distance runners is a reminder of what is best about the Olympics, then its dark counterpart is surely the deceitful saga of American swimmer Ryan Lochte. As an 11-time medalist at the three previous Summer Games, Lochte was the focus of much of NBC’s attention during the swimming competition, which was given prominent play in prime time during the first week. He won his 12th overall medal and 6th gold when he swam the third leg of the men’s 4×200 freestyle relay, adding to the medal count graphic for NBC.

But with swimming having wrapped up the network’s cameras had moved on. Perhaps the 32-year old Lochte felt some need to recapture attention, because last Sunday morning he appeared in an interview on NBC claiming that he and three fellow American swimmers had been robbed at gunpoint while returning to the Olympic Village the previous night. The network did itself no favors in handling the story. The original interview was conducted by Billy Bush, whose day job is hosting “Access Hollywood.” Perhaps it’s no surprise that Bush asked Lochte no probing questions, but NBC used the interview for hard news stories on both “Nightly News” and “Today.”

The story was questionable on its face. In Lochte’s account he was cast as the hero, refusing to go to the ground when ordered by the supposed gunmen. He also noted that only some money had been taken, and not either the wallets, smart phones or credentials of the athletes. In the reality of street crime in Rio and around the world, the former would likely earn one a bullet and the latter just doesn’t happen.

The world quickly learned that it was all a Lochte lie, a self-aggrandizing tale by a narcissistic punk who made sure to quickly fly out of Brazil before the fabrication became apparent. The swimmer and his “team” have moved into damage control mode now, in what one can only hope is a vain attempt to retain his sponsors.

No matter the sport, be it one that is a part of the Olympic Games or not, there will always be participants who may be heroes to some, but in truth are little more than self-indulgent and entitled cretins like Ryan Lochte. But the good news, as Rio 2016 has reminded us, is that in all of our games there will also always be participants like Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin. Maybe they should be the ones who get a Wheaties box to call their own.

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