Gold medalists moved to tears
LONDON -- There were so many tears shed in Olympic Stadium on Monday night it was as if they were showing a double feature of "Brian's Song" and "Field of Dreams." Everyone, it seemed, was crying. Especially the winners.
New Yorker Jenn Suhr won the women's pole vault with a vault of 4.75 meters, then crossed the track to sob in the arms of her coach and husband, Rick Suhr. Of course, she knew the tears were going to come. Before the race, Suhr imagined what it would be like to win and she started crying. And then she thought about what it would be like if she finished fourth. "And I cried over that, too."
Felix Sanchez of the Dominican Republic wept, too. Sanchez won the gold medal in the 400 hurdles at the 2004 Athens Olympics. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, he learned that his grandmother had died the morning of his race. Devastated, he ran poorly and then made a promise to himself. He would not retire until he won a medal in her honor.
That's a heck of a promise to make when you're a 30-year-old hurdler, but Sanchez fulfilled it Monday by winning the 400 hurdles. Eight years after his first gold medal and just three weeks shy of his 35th birthday, Sanchez ran with the word "grandmother" written on his shoe and a photo of her pinned inside his bib "so she could be close to my heart." When he crossed the finish line in first place, he shouted in triumph and then dropped to his knees, kissed the photo and started sobbing.
"When I went up to the podium for my medal, it started to rain," Sanchez said. "It made me think that my grandmother was up there crying, crying tears of joy and pride."
Feel free to grab a tissue yourself if needed after that quote.
Suhr's tears were of joy, pride and about every other emotion. "I've never felt so much pressure, relief, joy and happiness all at once," she said.
That's understandable. She was competing in the wind and rain against the best pole vaulter in the world, two-time gold medalist Yelena Isinbayeva, who beat her in Beijing. That silver-medal finish prompted much angst for the Suhrs -- not married at the time -- when NBC cameras picked up what sounded like harshly critical comments from Rick regarding Jenn's performance. "I took a beating in 2008 when that NBC camera hit me," he said.
The critique wasn't meant in that way, though. Suhr and her husband simply have their own way of making their relationship work. They train and motivate and argue as coach and athlete in a Quonset building on their property, then go inside the house and resume their relationship as husband and wife.
"It's definitely something we had to learn how to do, being married and having our training facility like 50 meters in the backyard," Jenn Suhr said. "A lot of it we used to carry over into the house. It's definitely hard to separate the relationship and the pole vault. But one thing we learned is that pole vault is something that we do, but it's not our life."
"We are completely dependent on each other for our success. Completely," Rick said. "I don't think there is a more unique relationship between a coach and an athlete -- or a more dependent one. It's good. Together we gain momentum. I believe in Jenn completely. And Jenn believes in me completely. And I think after tonight a lot more people will believe in what we do."
Sanchez became the oldest hurdler to win the gold medal in his event and in doing so, overcame four long years when he was all but written off as a contender. As he got older and older, the promise to his late grandmother became less likely to be fulfilled. But he kept trying.
"I was fighting my age and fighting their youth," he said. "Obviously, I wanted to win a medal, and I knew that 33 was the age of the oldest medalist."
Sanchez was born in New York and grew up in San Diego but he runs for the Dominican Republic because his parents are from that country. He and Angelo Taylor of the United States have been alternating as Olympic champion for the past 12 years, with Taylor winning in 2000 and 2008 before finishing a disappointing fifth Monday.
"At the end of the day I didn't achieve my goal but I still am blessed and happy," said Taylor, 33. "I won two Olympic gold medals. Not many men can say that. Before today, only two people had done it -- now Felix is in that company."
Taylor was emotional as well, falling short of a third gold medal in what will be his final Olympics. As was American Kerron Clement, who despite finishing last was so overcome with happiness to compete in the Olympics that he, too, teared up and had to walk away.
But it was that sort of night at the stadium, a night to give your all on the track and then let the tears flow.
The manager that Tom Hanks played in "A League of Their Own" would have been disgusted.