by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

ATLANTA — What does it mean to have a rival? That you hate him? That you envy her? That you study everything he does? That you look the other way and hope that she is studying you?

The big pool at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center was all about rivalries Thursday night, two in particular, one between two men, the other between two women. Within their emotions was the whole spectrum of human competition, splashing quickly into the water.

The first splash might have been felt all the way in Hollywood. Two handsome young rivals, one American, one Russian, both long and lean and without a trace of body fat. Gary Hall is from the States, and he has the cool to prove it. He is the son of a former Olympian, the grandson of the jailed Charles Keating, a free spirit who hates practice, loves ’70s clothing, and once swam a race with a painted black arm band to mourn the death of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia.

His arch rival, Alexander Popov, is everything Hall is not. The defending Olympic gold medalist, a serious Russian who must train in Australia because his country can no longer serve an athlete of his caliber, a guy who speaks several languages and takes practice mileage as seriously as Einstein took physics.

Hall once said, “I believe in the Woody Guthrie philosophy, ‘Take it easy, but take it.’ “

Popov once said, “I don’t envy movie stars. They should envy me.”

Ego, they have. Speed they have, too. Popov is unquestionably the fastest in the world, and Hall is a breath behind him and three years younger. As they came out Thursday night, you were tempted to call them the Ali-Frazier of their sport. They already had raced the 100 meters a few days ago, with Popov winning by a finger. Now they took their places next to each other for the 50-meter freestyle. Hall had Blondie music blasting in his Walkman. Popov came out in shaded goggles. They did not make eye contact.

What does it mean to have a rival? That you try to outcool him.

A game of inches

They hit the water hard, and came up nearly even. The 50 is over so fast, you almost think guys like Popov and Hall (6- feet-7 and 6-feet-6) could just jump in and stretch to the wall. But they both need strokes, and they both stroke like factory machines. Popov, despite an average start, churned a fraction harder, and had a lead by the finish, maybe the length of your hand. It was enough. He touched the wall less than two-tenths of a second ahead of Hall. The gold was his again. Hall got the silver.

In the press tent, the rivalry continued.

“Alex, what would you tell Gary if you coached him?”

“That maybe he should come train with me in Australia — and be prepared to do a lot of swimming.”

“Gary, are you tired of finishing second?”

“Alex has got three years on me. In the year 2000, I’ll be at my peak, just like he is now.”

“Alex, how are you able to swim so fast when you do 150 miles of training a week?”

“A gift from God. Maybe you should ask Jesus Christ.”

“Gary, is the rivalry still on?”

“When we meet again — and we will meet again — it’ll be a hell of a race.”

They left separately. Mr. Gold. Mr. Silver. What does it mean to have a rival? That you always leave him thinking about next time.

The march of time

Unless of course, there is no next time. Which brings us to the other rivalry in the pool Thursday night, in the long, grueling 800-meter freestyle between Janet Evans, the aging queen of American swimming, and Brooke Bennett, a bushy-haired high school sophomore who still wears braces on her teeth.

Eight years ago, as a child, Bennett watched Evans win three gold medals in Seoul and shouted, “Mommy, I want to do that!” She developed quickly, and when she reached the national level, Evans welcomed her, coddled her, helped her do her homework. But Brooke kept getting faster, and Janet did not, and one day, when Evans skipped a meet, Bennett told the press: “I think she’s a little scared. She knows someone is coming up behind her.”

What does it mean to have a rival? That what they say hurts. Evans was stung by her young protegee’s arrogance. They drifted. They avoided each other. But there was no avoiding at these Games. On the platform Thursday night, they stood three lanes and a generation apart. This would be Evans’ last Olympic final. It was Bennett’s first.

They hit the water hard, and it was over fast. Evans was a stroke behind after one lap, a body behind after two, and five seconds behind by the midway point. She finished sixth. Bennett won the gold easily.

Afterward, Bennett was polite. She called Evans “the queen of swimming” and said she could only hope to match what Janet did in her career. When someone asked Brooke what she was going to do now, she said, “Finish high school, sky-dive and get a tattoo.”

When Evans finally met the press, she was crying happy tears. She said these were her favorite Olympics, even though she goes home empty, because she finally appreciates the full picture of being an Olympian, highs and lows. When asked what she would do next, she did not say tattoos. She said: “Take a vacation . . . and look for a job.”

Someone told her what Bennett had called her and she seemed surprised.
“That’s nice to hear,” she said, then added, “especially from someone who just won a gold medal.”

What does it mean to have a rival? It means your wins are sweeter, your losses more bitter. And if you’re lucky, when it’s over, you both took each other places you might never have gone.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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