For Part 1 of the "We Can Be Heroes" Olympics series, click here
For Part 2 of the "We Can Be Heroes" Olympics series, click here
For Part 3 of the "We Can Be Heroes" Olympics series, click here
For Part 4 of the "We Can Be Heroes" Olympics series, click here
For Part 5 of the "We Can Be Heroes" Olympics series, click here
For Part 6 of the "We Can Be Heroes" Olympics series, click here
THE DAY BEFORE the Olympics ended, I went to a small circus: one ring, one clown. Teenage boys turned back-flips on a sagging trampoline. A girl tumbled through the grass — and I thought, how far away from London. And how not far at all. A performer stumbled on the Wheel of Destiny, and the audience gasped. One teen did 52 consecutive flips, to cheers. Is it that different? After the show, there was another show, another, then the big tear down: rolling the tent, stashing the rigging, and driving, off to another town, another show, another attempt. Keep driving, keep going — maybe that, after all, is winning.
— Alison Stine, Swimming
— Lynn Melnick, Synchronized Swimming
FOR THIS YEAR'S medalists, maybe a few days and weeks of glory first. But soon, for all, including athletes slow by seconds, sidelined by injury, and those who will never compete, 2016 is what matters. In poetry, and in sports, it is difficult to not revel in success and languish over failure. A botched dive causes anger. A magazine’s rejection results in frustration. Yet all that matters is your next race, breath, and poem. The real game is being able to look backward and forward without stumbling over the present.
— Nick Ripatrazone, Track and Field & Baseball
Epilogue: Words for Limbs
“READ IT WHEN you’re thirty. It’ll mean more, then.”
The Prelude lay beyond we 18-year-olds. Wordsworth was a fearsome rower in all the wrong ways.
Next weekend I’ll be in Tintern, reading The Prelude. In a month, I’ll have joined a handball team in East London. Six months: started a team in Plymouth.
Turning 30 means understanding I won’t make the Rio 2016 squad. I never would have; now, I know I won’t.
The knowledge doesn’t diminish the desire. The Olympics were no more about inspiration than poetry is. Neither requires you to wait on the outside world. Stay still, and you’ll miss it. Turn pause to poise and then to pounce or prise and you’re one foot closer. We haven’t inspired a generation; instead, we’ve realised something about what breath feels like rattling inside the deepest recesses of our bodies, bounced around the ribcage then forcefully expelled.
Isn’t that the kinesis of poetry? To borrow from Thalia Field, “point and line to plane” — to plain, to track or field projected before you, a prospect:
— Lytton Smith, Handball and Football
SINCE BUYING A DIGITAL converter box two weeks ago, I’ve watched at least four hours of the Olympics every day. I’ve sent hundreds of texts to friends who were watching what I was watching. Hundreds more have gone out to friends who made the mistake of not investing in their own digital converter boxes. I don’t know if I’ll return the box to RadioShack or not, but I do know that I’m going to miss waking people up with an enthusiastic series of texts about the meaning of the word “apparatus.”
— Michael Heald, Track and Field
SOMETIMES POEMS START, then start again. Sun Yang leapt off the blocks when told to stand. He emerged alone in the pool. The false start was forgiven. He came off more deliberately, the second time. Soon, he was in the lead. At the end, he emerged alone, more than three seconds ahead of the record. And sometimes poems conclude, but are not done. As the race is over, but the most dramatic moment is Yang’s celebration: alternately beating the water with his palms and crying as what remains of the tension is released. At last and at last. Again and again. And again.
— Jake Adam York, Long Distance Swimming
AT THE END of a bout, fencers take off their masks and shake their ungloved hands. As a lefty, this meant I was most often not shaking my opponent's hand but grasping it, or being grasped by it, my four fingers neatly against a sweating palm. Personal. It felt personal. Then the unhooking begins, from the weapon, from the reel, with small metal clicks, as if to suggest to me a coldness. Ha! None of the sports are cold. If nothing else, these essays have shown me that.
— Sarah Blake, Fencing
“YOU KNOW WHAT, I knew these women were going to do their job, they were going to make it happen for me,” Jeter said. “All I had to do was bring the stick home.”
The relay makes me reach back. 1977. Or was it 1978? I can’t remember exactly. Only that it was less than a handful of years after the last Huey helicopter lifted off that Saigon rooftop — the line of Vietnamese, dark hair aloft in the wake of the departing blades. Less than a decade before I'd write the first of many poems about my father's return from that war. It was the year our relay team finished last at the district track meet. The year I learned to carry and pass on what I was given. We ran. We were last. We ran. Met every last waiting hand.
— Deborah Paredez, Track and Field (Relay)
WE HOISTED THE hoop in the backyard garden after my mom got too sick to tend the plants. Ran post-up drills at the end of our concrete patio. From the grass opposite the basket, across that cracked slab, you could shoot jumpers at the net, a full foot taller than regulation. One summer, a hurricane knocked the basket over; the rim bent up. My mom died suddenly in 1995. That high-arcing shot from the grass was the toughest in the neighborhood. I practiced every day. I loved how hard all of it was — and God, wasn’t I absolutely terrible.
— Patrick Rosal, Boxing and Weight Lifting
- The stillness of archery surprises me. I fall for Louis Smith.
- Jordyn Wieber cries. I feel it.
- It’s official. I love Missy Franklin.
- Gabby, Aly, McKayla, Kyla, Jordyn! Magenta Sparkles!
- Danell comes from behind. Nathan Adrian’s golden smile makes me faint.
- Despite our doubts, Phelps is sublime.
- My heart breaks for Groff.
- Sad Silvers: McKayla “Face” Maroney and Louis Smith. Kirani swaps bibs with Pistorius. Tears.
- Divers are hot. Kirani James wins Grenada’s first medal. Gold. More tears.
- Epke defies what I know about humans. Dear Kellie Wells, I love your blue hair. Be my friend.
- Allyson Felix gold. Finally Beach Volleyball is over.
- Rudisha serves up Masai realness for 800m. Bolt is unreal for 200m.
- In love again: Ous Mellouli had the flu but gets gold.
- Mo Farrah does it again. Boudia revives my patriotism. I jump up and down. I cry. I believe.
- No more tears left in my depleted body. The SPICE GIRLS reunite. All’s Well That Ends Well.
— Liam O’Rourke, Gymnastics
IT SEEMS IRRESPONSIBLE OF ME not to point out the symbolic importance of ping pong to gaming culture. How many households like mine, Betamax-leaning in their politics, were revolutionized in 1978 by the arrival of the Odyssey 2 and its version of Pong which featured a bright green field of joy as an alternative to the dim cosmos of Atari play? How many red solo cups have floated ping pong balls in a viral marinade of frat house swill in a game whose popularity can only be attributed to its nominal association to ping pong? These thoughts occurred to me as I sat in Bryant Park recently, admiring the ping pong players while a book club discussion of Willa Cather’s My Antonia took place further under the shadow of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library. I joined the book club long enough to get my free copy of the novel. Then I went back my tribe where I spent the afternoon reading amid ping pong players whose hopes seemed to me Olympic in scope if not in orientation.
— Gregory Pardlo, Table Tennis
One Last Olympic Cloud, A Haiku, and Last Metaphors
Of course the clouds are
prettier than the players—
sweat is sweat, rain rain.
And a few last flashes of poetry from the commentators…
“Two out of three’s a different animal for these guys.” —John McEnroe
“Pinned him deep and then feathered the dropper.” —Brett Haber
“Mach 2 forehand there.” —John McEnroe
“In some ways Federer continues to hand it to him…bit of a silver platter…” —John McEnroe
“Andy Murray who has been knocking and knocking at the door of the big three, saying ‘let me in,’ well today he has finally made it in.” —Ted Robinson
— Matthea Harvey
Epilogue from the Air
I'M FLYING FROM Chicago to Miami tonight, typing this epilogue out on my phone, with my thumbs, a sport the generation behind me will master with an Olympic fluidity, if they haven't already. Two kids on the plane are wearing Slovenian soccer jerseys stained with melted chocolate. My Instagram feed is clogged with USA men's basketball players drinking champagne, while my Twitter feed is obsessed with Paul Ryan. The sport of elections is next, with far fewer rules and less competition. Back to rooting for myself I guess, a far more difficult task. We're taking off.
— P. Scott Cunningham, Men’s Basketball & Wax Bullet
An Ode to Lochte
COMMENTATOR: Hindsight is a funny thing. Maybe he was too ambitious.
Ryan Lochte is perhaps the best argument we have for the body knowing something of its own, something mostly — though not entirely — incommunicable. Writing in the New York Times, David Brooks joked to Gail Collins that Lochte’s interviews “would go better if he did them underwater.” I grinned and thought about echolalia, vibrational pulses, the submerged sound of that massive dolphin kick that Lochte is known for, the noises that move through and fill out the body’s stubborn silence. For all the winking and sighing (my own included) at Lochte’s inability to speak coherently above water, there’s something poignant in how he flounders to fill that dead air: with forecasting, with fashion, with Twitter. When asked to make metaphors — to tell the rest of us what it’s like down there — Lochte is out of his element. Underwater, he is master of the literal. On the third turn of the men’s 200-meter backstroke preliminary, he stays submerged longer than any other swimmer, belly up, body rippling like a seismic wave, speaking volumes. I hold my breath until he surfaces, just before the regulation 15-meter mark, out ahead of the pack.
Commentator 1: Is that strength or technique?
Commentator 2: It’s memory.
All week I’ve been learning about turns: the underwater kind, the dramatic kind that commentators seize on, or speak into being, and most of all (most elusive of all) the poetic kind, the movement that tethers bodies to forms. The pivot or the torque of poetry: what Lytton Smith calls the “about-face, the line-break by which the game changes from pumped blood to calm conscience.” What Ross Gay and Patrick Rosal locate as the stanza’s resting place, its silent pause. What Deb Paredez suggests is maybe not a turn at all, but rather a hand-off: “a clasping link between what’s come before and what comes next.” In the backstroke, you have to know the turn so well you can make it blind. The body must remember where the break is; as in metaphor, you arc away from the thing you’re after in order to get back to it. Tropos, from the Greek “to turn.” Maybe Lochte knows how to spin figures, after all. The wall looms, he folds into the silence; then whirling and kicking, eight or nine enormous undulations, a metrical pattern his body knows so well that it comes out crooked (at best) when he tries to talk about it.
Ryan Lochte's deep tweets.
Or as Elizabeth Bishop puts it:
I never knew him. We both knew this place,
apparently, this literal small backwater,
looked at it long enough to memorize it,
our years apart. How strange. And it’s still loved,
or its memory is (it must have changed a lot).
I try to freeze these moments and replay them: a six-year-old runs toward me at full speed down the hallway of the Port Orange, Florida YMCA, where I work as a summer camp counselor. I brace for impact. He leaps into my arms, and circles his own so tightly around my neck I can barely breathe. The force of his clinging shakes me — another counselor has to help pry him off. Outside in the pool, Lochte may or may not have been practicing dolphin kicks. We go to the same high school, two years apart. I’ve been to a few swim meets, but I haven’t paid attention. It’s the summer after graduation, I’m reading Geography III and imagining a future that unfolds in New York or Nova Scotia. Anywhere but this suburb of a spring break town: a town where everything happens in the breaks. The place where Lochte must have acquired his much-noted love of bling (that awful diamond grill which, in the logic of strange mash-ups particular to Florida, marries hip hop to NASCAR). We both knew this place, apparently, and memorized it.
Lochte (over and over): "This is my time."
In the strange temporality of NBC’s broadcast, I’ve been watching everything after the fact, trying to keep up, even when I know the outcome in advance. Hindsight is a funny thing. We move forward by looking back; we register the strange / continuity of change (what we cling to is in motion: synchronic histories, bodies swimming parallel to our own). In hindsight, Lochte probably shouldn’t have talked so much. In the playback we watch him trying to catch up, not so much to Michael Phelps as to his own outsized ambition. Or maybe, our ambition: that Olympic-sized thing, that spectacle we consume the way I imagine NASCAR fans must consume speed (with some vague idea of the crash, both wished for and prayed against). This outcome, at least, we knew in advance. Lochte did fine in the pool, but he reminded us (again) how precarious the bling is, and the bodies that garner it.
Lochte bling (Robert Gauthier/LA Times)
Or as Kevin Young’s “Bling Bling Blues” puts it:
I’d like to thank
God, my agent.
My teeth went
platinum last week.
My ride’s seats
The spectacle of ambition is here as well, but it has a different edge, a built-in tempo change. Young’s speaker has felt hunger, and may feel it again; he knows fool’s gold and he knows the art of losing. The blues poem rests on the turns. If we follow them closely, God might be a double agent, our teeth might go, the golden fleece might turn out to be an impractical trophy. Cheddar, green, / cabbage, cream. In the poem’s persistent long e we hear the echo of “bling” as that which can’t sustain us: maybe not now, maybe not for long. Lochte (loch-tee) loves to state the obvious (and we love to hear him state the obvious). He’s fond of saying that when he steps up on the block, he’s racing to win. But the other obvious truth — the truth that poets and athletes know all too well — is that it might turn out differently.
The poem itself is what sustains us. The turn, the break, the thing we’ve memorized so that we might forget. We step up on the block: we know this place, apparently. Of course we want to do something worthy of the replay. But our time also belongs to someone else.
Still, Lochte doesn’t seem to be taking it too hard. Already he’s talking about Rio — Bishop’s favorite.
— Lindsay Reckson