Category: Sports

Lessons in Heroism from the 2013 Triple Crown of Horse Racing

I have a great respect for anyone who breaks historic barriers in the worlds of business or sports — and right now my heroine is jockey Rosie Napravnik.   This month she became the first female Triple Crown jockey in horse racing, a truly amazing feat.

I ‘ve been following Rosie lately because I have a tradition of watching the Triple Crown races –the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont — that goes back to the days of Secretariat, the wonder horse who set the standard and set records for winning all three with spellbinding ease and panache in 1973.  I didn’t get to see that series live, but witnessed two other astounding Triple Crown winners closing the deal in style at Belmont just a few years later.  They were Seattle Slew and Affirmed  in 1977 and 1978.  Since then, there has been a long drought and I’ve been focused on spotting the next winning Triple Crown combination of horse, trainer, owner and jockey.  This year it seemed to be Orb, who won the Kentucky Derby handily for legendary trainer Shug McGaughey, owner Stuart S. Janney III and jockey Joel Rosario.  But by the time the Triple Crown ended with Orb defeated in both the Preakness and Belmont, my attention had shifted to another phenomena – a gutsy female jockey getting rave reviews from fans and sportswriters for setting a new kind of record.

Rosie Napravnik did not win any of the Triple Crown races this year, but she came in 5th, 3rd and 6th on two different mounts – her finish in the Belmont on the filly Unlimited Budget showed a raw determination to break down the barrier that said female jockeys couldn’t cut it in three classic races in a row this tough.  If you’d like to read more about what makes Rosie so special, follow this link to a great article that catches her special spirit and bravery:   And if Rosie is riding in next year’s Triple Crown series, you should consider paying close attention!

Lance Armstrong and the Sad Tale of a Fallen Sports Hero

Lance Armstrong seemed like an epic hero – a sports figure who used his second chance after surviving cancer to inspire an international audience following his Tour de France cycling race victories.    He seemed to easily rack up seven titles, beginning in 1999, without succumbing to a pervasive drug culture.  Like countless others, I thought his foundation Livestrong proved his integrity.  His incredible triumphs on the world stage under the banner of the US Post Office gave him Olympian status. Now he has revealed to Oprah that it was all a big lie.

Tennis champions Serena Williams and Roger Federer were quoted by AP and Reuters as saying that Armstrong let all athletes down by doping and lying about it for so long:–ten.html Williams said that  “as an athlete, as someone that works really, really hard since I was 4 or 3, I think it’s a sad day for all athletes in general. Overall, it’s even more disappointing for the people that were adversely  affected through everything.  You can only just hope for the best for them.”

Armstrong was a champion in a sport that personally gave me so much joy in my own youth and helped me to learn to push myself hard in life and overcome the pain.  I gave up cycling after I was married in the ’80s and joined my husband in working out in the gym.  It wasn’t until I was a widow on my own again in Brooklyn that I rediscovered the joys of cycling.

In fact, long bike rides have helped me feel less fearful  about the challenges of aging – and as I started cycling in Prospect Park in 2010, I enjoyed watching Lance Armstrong compete.  So it was devastating to first hear that he was finally implicated in drugging and then to learn that he had admitted his lies to Oprah.  I listened to the Oprah interviews to try to understand why such an astounding athlete felt he needed drugs.  Armstrong told Oprah that he didn’t believe he could live up to his own myth without doping.  Once he started, he claimed that the same dogged willpower that helped him beat cancer set in and he bullied his way through his seven Tour de France victories. He swears that he didn’t use drugs for his comeback races.

The saddest realization during Part I  of the interviews with Oprah was that Armstrong did not strike me as remorseful, but cocky and cold.  The cockiness broke in Part II when he briefly cried as he talked about his children. While Armstrong repeatedly told Oprah he was sorry, he made exceptions on what accusations he would discuss and who deserved an apology. The result was that most news commentators agreed that  Armstrong did not in fact seem very contrite.  I still hope that Armstrong eventually finds a way to make amends to those he hurt.  Even more, I hope the drug culture is finally scourged from professional cycling and other sports mired in scandal.  Sports heroes have always been great beacons of hope and inspiration, but we need to know again that true effort, not bullying, wins out in the end.

A New Dream Team for Detroit

As the public corruption trial of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick continued to unfold in Detroit and yet another police chief was embroiled in charges of a sex scandal, diehard Detroit baseball fans at least got some relief as Miguel Cabrera, third baseman, became just the 15th player to win baseball’s Triple Crown and the first since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. It happened as the Tigers beat the Kansas City Royals 1-0 this week.

Since I returned to the Detroit area this summer, I have warmed to my hometown team again and started to appreciate the way it has energized a city struggling to rebound along with the auto industry. I admit to reluctantly giving up my love of the Yankees, who have clinched the American League East title, while the Tigers just won the Central Division.

The real story for me is the low key nature of the Venezuelan native, despite his dazzling American League-leading credentials: .330 batting average, 44 home runs and 139 RBI (runs batted in). Cabrera, who is idolized by his South American countrymen as well, has been called one of baseball’s reluctant superstars and he’s been described as never one to crave attention. Tigers catcher Alex Avila told a reporter that he’s not a talkative guy and “he lets his ability carry through.”

Cabrera has also had to overcome a drinking problem that flared out of control during spring training last year when he was arrested in a drunken driving incident in Florida.  As testimony to his determination to be a model player since then, Cabrera is the team’s nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, awarded to the player “who best represents the game of baseball through positive contributions on and off the field, including sportsmanship and community involvement.” As the city of Detroit struggles to turn around years of decline, Cabrera is one of the shining lights. The Tigers last won a World Series in 1984 and last advanced to the World Series in 2006.  Now Cabrera faces the challenge of following in Yastrzemski’s footsteps even further – the Boston Red Sox advanced all the way to the World Series when their left field player won the Triple Crown 45 years ago. The Red Sox team that year was named the Impossible Dream.












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Lessons in Leadership from Phelps, Schmitt and the Fab Five in London

When I moved back to Michigan, I didn’t realize there would be so many local heroes to root for in the London Olympics – and so many lessons in leadership.  Yet today’s Detroit Free Press was loudly trumpeting not only the  USA’s Fab Five gymnasts, whose leader is from DeWitt, but also legendary  swimmers Michael Phelps of UofM’s Club Wolverine and Allison Schmitt of Canton.

Phelps became the most decorated Olympian in history on Tuesday when he captured his 19th medal and Schmitt is dominating the women’s swimming competition with three medals so far. Yet I found the most inspiring moments came from watching the US women gymnasts pull together to win gold as a team after their leader failed to qualify for the individual round.

Jordyn Wieber is the world champion and was expected to be the top contender for an individual gold medal – but instead the opportunity went to her teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas.  Jordyn broke down in tears when her early performance fell short and eliminated her from contention — and everyone questioned whether she could pull herself together to lead her team to victory the next day.

She not only did overcome her pain, but she did it with great style.  According to commentators, The Fab Five, also including Kyla Ross and McKayla Maroney, ended up winning over strong competition more convincingly than the Magnificent Seven, the legendary gymnasts who triumphed in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Jordyn emerged as a giant in Olympic team gymnastics by coming back from personal defeat to lead her team to victory and a lasting place in history.  Her courage provides a great lesson for all of us competing in life, whether it involves business, athletics or personal goals. Michael Phelps also had to settle for less than gold a few times on his way to immortality. There were many other lessons in courage on display already in the 2012 London Olympics and more to come.  Never give up!

The British Open and the Seeds of Winning Character

I watched the British Open golf tournament  over the weekend because I read that Tiger Woods was off to a great start and had a real shot at winning his first major since  the U.S. Open in 2008.  By Sunday, however, Tiger was flailing away in a sand trap and the final contest came down to a young Aussie named Adam Scott looking for his first win in a major tournament  and the veteran Ernie Els, a legendary South African golfer who had won the British Open ten years ago and had started this year at odds of 45-1.

During a weekend when the news was focusing on a 24 year old frustrated Doctoral student  turned drop out and vengeful  killer in Colorado, it was so calming to see a young golfer  and a seasoned player tee off with great respect for each other, despite the outcome.  In the end, Tiger, one of the early favorites, lost the limelight to a love fest between an Aussie and a South African who both showed remarkable grace during the tense final play.  In accepting his second British Open trophy,  Els saluted his opponent and said he knew Scott would win many majors ahead in his career.  The crowd loved both of them.

We need to remind ourselves in times of national tragedy when evil seems to triumph, that the world stage is full of aggressive young men and women like Scott who take defeat well and go on – or like Tiger, who fall tragically from grace and accept the pain of a slow path back while the world still cheers him on.  How do we help the troubled, isolated souls like James Holmes to accept the often humiliating challenges of the world, either in sports or life?  Many politicians and commentators over the weekend were suggesting  that with assault gun legislation unlikely in the current political climate, perhaps we need to  focus on finally figuring out which troubled youngsters will turn to guns.  We can’t afford to ignore them.

A Standing Ovation for The Return of a Yankees Legend

When I was a kid in Detroit, Baseball Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline of the Detroit Tigers was my hometown hero.  Kaline was humble and free of scandal, yet seemed overshadowed by more tragically flawed stars like Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees, whose charisma seemed to dominate the national psyche.  Later, as a transplanted Brooklynite, I found myself  first falling in love with the Amazing Mets team of 1986, so colorful and gutsy, but ultimately so troubled — and now I’m finding myself transfixed by the steadily evolving saga of the New York Yankees.

On  Mother’s Day, I was intrigued as 39 year old Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte took the mound for his long awaited come back after a year and a half in retirement.   He also recently gave testimony again in the perjury trial of his charismatic mentor and longtime teammate Roger Clemens. The soft-spoken Pettitte admitted using steroids in 2008.  His latest testimony against his friend backed off from the certainty of his original assertion that Clemens told him he was using steroids as well.  Some questioned whether that hesitation would hurt the trial or damage Andy’s image with fans.  Yet even though the final score in that Sunday’s emotional game against the Seattle Mariners went against him 6-2, the crowd gave the legendary winner of five world series titles a standing ovation as he left the mound.  That sounded like unconditional love to me.

I don’t think Yankee fans will ever forget the stunning Game 6 victory Pettitte gave his team in the 2009 World Series and then his emotional retirement.  But now Pettitte is being given the chance to save the Yankees’ suddenly endangered pitching line up this year.  In a time of so much uncertainty, I think we need more Andy Pettittes, and not just in baseball.  Back in 2008 sports blogger Richard Justice wrote that “Andy is a man of such decency and humility that it’s impossible not to admire the things he has attempted to stand for. He admitted his mistakes and asked for forgiveness. What else can he do?”  Let’s hope he continues winning and inspiring us to do the same.