Sunday, October 11, 2009

World's Greatest Athlete?

It's one of those things that people sometimes debate simply to prove their point. Who is the world's greatest athlete today? There are those who would argue Tiger Woods, and I think it's a start. Roger Federer certainly comes to mind as well.

All that being said, I think we are in the midst of a performance by the world's greatest athlete, and most people don't even know who it is. In fact, 99% of America could sit right next to this person at a cafe and have no idea they are in the presence of an extraordinary talent who is redefining what is possible in their sport, as well as with the human body.

Chrissie Wellington burst onto the Ironman scene three years ago, coming out of nowhere to obliterate the field at Ironman Kona. That's the triathlon world's version of the Superbowl. Think 2.4 mile swim. Then a 112 mile bike ride. Then follow that up with a full marathon, another 26.2 miles. All of this occurs in 100+ degree heat and winds that have knocked bicycle riders over. Wellington won last year too, even though people knew her and what she was capable of. Her second victory came in spite of a flat tire on the bike (Rebekah Keal, in a display of sportsmanship that defines Ironman, gave Chrissie her extra CO2 canister so Wellington could get back in the race).

So you had to figure this year everyone was gunning for her. They were. The problem was, no one could catch her. She swam and biked her heart out. At one point, she was in 11th place. Not 11th woman. 11th person. To put that in perspective, these are the best of the best in triathlon today. If it were the NFL, she would be a starter. With the men. She got off and ran 26.2 miles through that 100+ degree heat and never stopped smiling. As she approached the finish line, she high-fived volunteers along the course. And she never stopped...wait, was she smiling? Why, yes, she was. She was smiling at everyone, because she knew just how special her performance was.

She set a course record. She beat the next nearest woman by 20 minutes, an eternity in Ironman terms. And, after she rolled across the finish line in a salute to Jon Blais, an Ironman finisher who passed away from ALS but forever left his mark upon the race, she left the finisher's area, took a shower, then returned to pass out finisher's medals and sign autographs for hours, revelling in the spirit of just what it means to be an Ironman Champion. Mahalo, Chrissie.