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Olympic lessons come beyond the medals

BEIJING

When it comes to the Olympics, we tend to measure our moments in gold.

Which nation has the most? Which individual can stack his the highest? Which medals came in the competitions that matter most to us? And which medals came wrapped inside a world record?

We cannot help ourselves, especially not in these Games of the Phelps Dynasty. We are, after all, a win-it-all kind of society, and if an athlete wants to matter, well, he or she had better keep up.

It is our way, and it is folly.

Sometimes, you measure the Olympics by the catch in a young woman's voice. Sometimes, you measure them by the pressure she has placed upon herself. Sometimes, you measure them by the ache that remains long after the competition is over.

Sometimes that, too, is the Olympics.

Alicia Sacramone stood in the mixed zone of the National Indoor Stadium on Sunday, the legs of her sweat pants almost covering her bare feet. Her voice was hoarse, and there was a fresh bit of disappointment to it.

And yet, Sacramone was still standing.

That is something worth appreciating, too.

She had taken the disappointment of second place so hard. It was Sacramone, a 20-year-old from Boston, who had fallen off the beam and on the floor exercise to cost the U.S. gymnastics team a gold medal.

"It's kind of hard not to blame myself," Sacramone said at the time. "No one else made mistakes, so it's kind of my fault. I guess everything just got the best of my head."

Now, days later, Sacramone had gathered herself to compete again, this time on the vault. She performed well enough to finish fourth, and it wasn't hard to argue that she deserved at least a bronze.

If part of sports is rising after falling, however, Sacramone had done at least that. If it is performing after days of self-criticism, she had done that, too.

"I had to pull myself together," she said. "It hasn't been easy. It's been very stressful, but I look at it as a learning experience. I feel like it made me a better person."

According to Mihai Brestyan, her coach, Sacramone put too much of the responsibility for the team on herself and didn't concentrate enough on her own events. It is Sacramone's way. The rest of the team gives her leadership the credit for last year's world championship.

In these Olympics, however, her teammates have taken over the spotlight. Shawn Johnson was second in the floor exercise Sunday for her third silver. Nastia Liukin was third, giving her a gold, silver and bronze.

As for Sacramone, Brestyan thought the judges could have coughed up another medal in her name, too.

"I was pleased with what she did today," Brestyan said. "We worked hard to put herself in (the right) mind. She blamed herself for the team competition.

"I think she deserved the bronze medal, but I'm her coach, and I might be a little subjective."

Still, it's easy to understand Brestyan's point of view. Sacramone finished just behind China's Cheng Fei, although Cheng landed on her knees on the second vault.

"I thought this mistake would be enough for us to get ahead of her," Brestyan said, "but I am not judging."

"Considering she landed on her knees, I thought her deduction was going to be a little higher than it was," Sacramone said. "But she had real good form and everything when she was in the air."

This time, Sacramone had a couple of disadvantages. For one, the start values of her vaults were among the lowest in the competition. For another, she went first, when judges tend to be conservative with their scores.

Yes, there are lessons here. Not every dream ends on the podium. Not every practice leads to a medal.

Away from the podium, a different Olympics is going on. It has athletes who have trained for a lifetime and have to deal with disappointments. It is dreams dying hard. Sacramone, for instance, says she has dreamed about the Olympics since she was 10. Probably, her dreams did not end like this.

Of course, Sacramone still has her silver medal from the team event. How long, someone asked, would it be before she could appreciate it.

"I'm sure someday I will appreciate it for what it is," Sacramone said. "But I still have to get to that point."

From the sound of it, it might take a while.

Olympic lessons come beyond the medals 08/17/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 19, 2008 1:35pm]
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