It’s A Big Week For The Team

One of the youngest members of the United States swim team in Athens was a sixteen year old called Rhiannon Jeffrey. She qualified for the Games in the 4×200 meter relay by placing fourth in the Long Beach trials 200 meters freestyle in a time of 1.59. At the Athens Games she was the third swimmer in the relay preliminaries and handed over to Jenny Thompson who at thirty was the team’s oldest member. To be story book correct it should have been the other way around, Jenny, the oldest handing over to Rhi, one of the youngest – the old, hands over to the new and all that sort of thing. But alas America’s coaches must have been more concerned with winning than writing historically correct footnotes. Later that day the American girls won the 4×200 meter final. Rhi was an Olympic Champion and had a gold medal to prove it.

I do hope no one is devaluing Rhi Jeffrey’s performance in Athens by mumbling something about it only being a relay. An Olympic Championship is without peer no matter what the event. That is especially true when the newspapers in New Zealand have been wetting themselves with glee about New Zealand’s performance at the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships – getting into a few finals. Rhi did win a race.

Devaluing her efforts reminds me of an occasion in the 1970’s when a good New Zealand 400m hurdler called Johnson won a bronze medal in the United States National Track Championships. Given that the United States is perpetually home to nine out of the world’s top ten 400m hurdlers, Johnson’s effort was commendable. Commendable that is except in the New Zealand press. Wellington’s Evening Post churlishly reported that Johnson had “only” won a bronze medal.

It seems to be the lot of the very good, to be sniped at by the not so good. The most extreme example would have to be Mohammed Ali – accused, abused and shot at by those unable to see his majestic talent or beyond the fact he’s black. Even Lance Armstrong has had to carry the burden of being drug tested every five minutes and still be the subject of taunts that his Tour de France wins are the product of a personal chemist. There are 100,000 reasons why Armstrong is as good as he is and every one of them is a mile on his training bike. The United States is blessed with many fine coaches in most of the sports played on this planet. One of the elite is their football coach, Bill Parcells. He has coached championship teams at the New York Giants and the New England Patriots. He is coaching the Dallas Cowboys now. In spite of his stellar record I’ve heard him criticized for just about every coaching sin – yelling too much, swearing, disloyalty, greed. You name it, according to this lot, he’s done it. His main sin of course is that he continues to beat the teams supported by his critics and for that he will probably never be forgiven.

Even personally you occasionally come across examples of the “tall poppy” disorder. I was standing behind an official at the 1992 New Zealand Swimming Championships. She obviously didn’t know I was there when she turned to a friend and exclaimed heatedly, “I don’t care who wins the 50 meters as long as it is not that girl Jeffs.” Predictably, Toni won. What wasn’t so predictable was watching the same official run across to congratulate Toni on her win. At another New Zealand Championships, one of New Zealand’s senior officials took the stroke judges, who would be judging that night’s finals, under the pool to watch the heats through an underwater viewing window. While they were there a lifeguard overheard this pillar of honesty say to the judges, “Watch Jane Copland in this heat. This is what you can disqualify her for tonight.” The lifeguard reported this fine example of all that’s best in sport to me and I took it to other senior officials with more integrity. Jane won the final.

Even I’ve had my moments. One disgruntled parent, in a two month period sent me 35 mainly abusive emails, contacted my employer – presumably to get me sacked, contacted my publisher – presumably to stop me being published and wrote an abusive email to my daughter threatening her education and US residence. Several emails included the phrase, “you are destroying my family.” That’s funny only because a year later we discovered that at the time he wrote the emails he was having an affair with a fellow employee. It was not because of us that his wife left him. He proved well able to “destroy his family” all on his own.

Talking about residence we’ve spent this week looking at houses in Florida. We have two estate agents – the Americans call them realtors – associated with the swim team. Darcy is a masters swimmer, but works out with the open team. So she should, she has just won the United States Masters National Open Water Championship. Jonathon has just got back into swimming – he swam in college. He is the poor soul who has shown us through an endless stream of houses. On Sunday he bought us lunch. The lady at the next table was clearly not pleased with her food. We overheard her complain, “This food is terrible,” she said, “and the servings are too small.” Give her time, I thought, and she will be deriding Rhi Jeffrey and sending me abusive emails.

I’ve wandered off the point a bit. You see the reason I started this piece was to tell you I’ve just had a call from Rhi Jeffery. She’s coming back to the Delray Beach pool to be part of our program as she prepares for the Beijing Olympic Games.