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Sports On My Mind

The ramblings of a friendly sports fan from Boston.

Olympics: Mara's Race

I know that in some distant future, when I think about the 2016 Olympics in Rio, I'll remember Mara Abbott's ride in the Women's Cycling Road Race.

This 87-mile road race featured a demanding climb, a devilish descent, and a near straight line flat track to its finish by Copa Cobana beach. To win a one day race, you have to be near the front, and Mara Abbott (United States) joined Annemiek van Vleuten (Netherlands) in a breakaway up the climb to Vista Chinesa. With about a minute ahead of a small chase group, the two leaders began the steep descent.

In the men's race, just 24 hours prior, several crashes occurred as riders sought out the favorable line across the sharp curves. The women experienced the same problems, to devastating effect. Annemiek had a brief lead on Mara, but in one terrible moment she made a bad turn on the descent and tumbled head over wheels into the curb. She lay still on the side of the road, and I feared the worst.

A few seconds later, Mara passed the prone Annemiek, and at that moment the clock and urgency began to tick. "She could win a gold medal here," I exclaimed. The NBC announcers (Paul Sherwen and Christian Vande Velde) were cautiously exuberant as well, explaining how her lead could be enough to stay ahead of the chase group in order for her to claim the gold.

One of the remarkable things about cycling is that a group of riders can cover the same distance faster than an individual rider, because the group can take turns at the front, shielding the riders behind from the wind. The choreography of riders taking turns makes for a mesmerizing image. In many professional races, nearly all breakaways are caught, but some do succeed. I was hoping today would be the USA's day.

Mara rode alone, maintaining a 30-second lead ahead of a three-person chase group. As she got closer to the finish, the announcers and myself kept getting more excited. The flat finish demands a sprinter though, and one look at Mara's legs told me the obvious: she's a mountain specialist, a climber.

With less than half a mile to go, I let myself think how awesome it would feel for Mara to win a medal, but clearly the chase group had different thoughts. Composed of three riders, Anna van der Breggen (Netherlands), Emma Johansson (Sweden) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy), the NBC announcers conjured up a few scenarios in which they wouldn't catch Mara, mostly around avoiding a fourth place finish. I nodded along, agreeing, hoping they were right.

"Don't ever look back," Christian Vande Velde said. "It does you no good." But at 200 meters to go, Mara had to look back. She must have heard the crowd, perhaps the sound of support vehicles, maybe the spinning wheels of the chase group right on her wheel. She stood on her pedals, but riding alone without support had taken up all of her strength.

When you see the replay, you saw the Italian, Elisa, catch Mara's wheel. At that instant, the Dutch woman Anna van der Breggen stood on her pedals and accelerated past the newly formed group. She charged ahead, the Swede on her wheel. Everyone had reversed positions, and on this day, no one would catch Anna as she won the gold medal.

"The teammate for the one who crashed!" I exclaimed. Then I sat silent, letting the emotions well up as Mara crossed the line in fourth place. The finish was fitting: the rider who won was a teammate of the rider who crashed, and that symmetry works. But the finish also revealed the mettle of Mara, who said that she had raced the best she could. What if she and Annemiek rode the flat together? We can only wonder.

As the Twitter-sphere exploded with praise for Mara's ride, an article by Helen Pidd (The Guardian) was shared. Mara is a two-time winner of the Giro Rosa (an 8-10 day stage race that is the equivalent of the men's Giro d'Italia), but because the earnings in women's cycling is not the same as the men's, she ends up working at farmer's market, along with other here-and-there jobs, to make ends meet.

The Olympic ideal is often about the winners, the medalists. Their achievements are the culmination of years of effort. But in fourth-place finish like Mara's, you can still see the value of the effort, and how competition reveals what is in each person. Her finish honors the medalists: she was the one they chased! Mara Abbott came so close, and by doing so she wins the gold of our hearts and minds.

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LeBron's Block

Game 7 of this year's NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors was as epic a basketball game as I have seen in quite some time. The stakes were already pushed to the limit: the Cavs had gotten all the way back to Game 7 after being down 3-1.

What made the game epic was that singular defensive play by a completely determined LeBron James. Everyone knows what block I'm talking about: the one with less than two minutes left in the game with the score tied at 89-89.

I remember thinking: really? Did LeBron really get to that shot? He was at the top of the key when Steph Curry made a great bounce pass to Andre Iguodala. He made a slight adjustment to get past the lone defender for the Cavs, J.R. Smith, and then Iguodala was in the air, kissing the ball off the backboard for an uncontested layup. From out of nowhere James streaks into my HDTV picture and rejects it.

I rewound the video to listen to the succinct color commentary: "Wow." In some articles I read, the block was a great non-call by the referees. Indeed. LeBron made a block that was completely fair. The Warriors would not score in regulation again. The next play from the Cavs following the block? Kyrie Irving's step-back three.

From now on, the block will be one of the stock clips in LeBron's endless highlight reel. It will instantly conjure up the sensational Game 7 that brought a championship back to Cleveland.

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Round 2 Rooting Interests (NHL)

The NHL is now down to eight hockey teams competing in the 2nd round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Here is who I'm rooting for.

Washington Capitals versus Pittsburgh Penguins. Of all the teams remaining, my strongest rooting interest is with the Washington Capitals. My favorite cousin lives in the Washington DC area, and I love that he's gotten the bug of playoff ice hockey. The other side of the story is that my sister-in-law hails from Pittsburgh, and she'll post pictures of her little son in Pittsburgh gear. These teams are famous, they've got big names (Ovechkin and Crosby) and because I have this dual-family thing going, I can't lose!

Tampa Bay Lightning versus New York Islanders. My former ice hockey coach lives in Tampa. Originally from Massachusetts, he grew tired of the New England winters, and headed South. I see his posts attending TB games and wearing TB gear, and if a team is good enough for coach, they're good enough for me! (I did grow up in NJ in the 70s, so I witnessed the dynasty of the NY Islanders. Mike Bossy was one of my favorite players from childhood.)

San Jose Sharks versus Nashville Predators. Many years ago I was on a business trip in San Jose, and on a lark I went to a Sharks game one evening. I rooted for the Sharks then, and I root for them now, from afar. The Sharks seem to always be on the verge, and perhaps this is their year. I also like Joe Thornton, who played for the Bruins (my home team) in his early career.

Dallas Stars versus St. Louis Blues. I'm going with the St. Louis Blues. A good college friend of mine lives in St. Louis, and they're like the Sharks: always on the verge. Dallas does have Tyler Seguin, who spent a few years with the Bruins in his early career. The management deemed Seguin a flash in the pan, but he's doing good things with Dallas. We'll see if he can get it done!

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