My Top Three Olympic Underdogs

Every two years my patriotism gets a little out of control. I sport old glory with pride and chant “USA! USA! USA!” endlessly, cheering on my fellow American athletes in a timeless tradition of competition. This year the Summer Olympics return, hosted in the city of London, England. Between July 27 and August 12, I will be glued to my TV with bated breath in the hopes that my fellow Americans can bring home the gold. I watch for the champions, the best of the best, the unrivaled prevailers. But I also watch for the underdog. It’s the stories of the small guy with big dreams, doing the impossible and proving that the human spirit is stronger than the struggle. The moments that we remember most, are ones that touch our hearts and make us realize why we love sports so much. The Olympics bring together  moments of athletes with talent, passion, and courage. Below are a handful of my favorite Olympic Underdog moments.

Disclaimer: I know many would say I have excluded the best moments and stories in Olympic history (i.e. the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team or the Jamaican Bobsled Team of 1988), but I was not on the earth for these moments and therefore have only included those that I can recall from my own memory. So here are my own top three Olympic Underdog Moments:

1. Bradbury’s Stumbles Upon Gold – Call it luck or call it bogus, but Steven Bradbury’s win in Salt Lake City in 2002 is why we love the Olympics. In his quarterfinal heat of the 1000 meter speed skating race, the Aussie was up against two favorites, Apolo Anton Ohno from the U.S. and Marc Gagnon hailing from Canada. Only the top two from the heat would move on to the semifinals. Bradbury finished third behind Ohno and Gagnon and believed himself to be out of the competition. However in a stroke of good fortune for Bradbury, Gagnon was disqualified for interfering with another skater, allowing Bradbury to move onward. In the semifinals, Bradbury hung back in the race, knowing that he could not compete with the speed from South Korea, China and Canada. Again, Bradbury got a shocking advancement when three of his competitors crashed. In the final round, Bradbury was once again far behind the pack. However, in the final 50 meters all four of Bradbury’s fellow skaters crashed in a pile up coming around the turn. Bradbury was the last man standing and gracefully skated to a gold medal. As an American, I was furious that Ohno lost because of the crash, but I could not help but smile at the Aussie’s great joy at a winning a race that he never even expected to skate.

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3. Rulon Gardner Beats Goliath – Gardner’s struggles and triumphs began long before his shot at Olympic gold in 2000. In elementary school, Gardner was accidentally shot by in arrow during a show-and-tell presentation. In 2002, Gardner fell into a freezing cold Salt River in Wyoming on a snowmobile. He lost a toe to frostbite after being stranded for 18 hours. In 2007, he and two other men spent an entire night without shelter when the light aircraft they were traveling in crashed into a lake in Utah. His memorable Olympic moment came in the summer of 2000 when he wrestled and overcame his Russian opponent, Aleksandr Karelin who had been undefeated for 13 years. The bets were stacked against Gardner but just as he had done his whole life, he came out on top.

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4. Eric “the Eel” Moussambani Swims to a New Record – Ok, so he did not hit a new world record but this guy represents everything that the underdog is all about. Moussambani traveled to Sydney, Australia for the 2000 Olympics from one of the smallest countries in continental Africa –  Equatorial Guinea. He came with one goal: to swim. Moussambani had only been swimming for eight months prior to the 100-meter freestyle that would immortalize him in Olympic history. But Moussambani was not only fighting against inexperience. He also had to deal with less resources in training. The pool he trained in at home was a 20-meter hotel pool, a kiddy pool compared to the 50-meter swimming pool he was about to dive into Sydney. In a bizarre twist of fate, Moussambani’s two competitors dove into the water on a false start and both were immediately disqualified, leaving “the Eel” swimming alone in his heat. And swam he did. Finishing with a time that was more than twice as long as that of the fastest swimmer of the day, Moussambani was still able to make an astounding achievement: he set the 100-meter freestyle record for his country at 1:57:72 (Pieter van den Hoogenband set a new world record that day at 47.84 seconds). Moussambani knew the great challenge he had before him but he never backed down. They crowd at the pool cheered, I cheered, we all cheered and maybe even teared up a bit for the courageous man’s effort and desire to compete. For this reason, he will forever live in my memory as one of the greatest people to compete in the modern Olympics.

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Who are your favorite Olympic Underdogs?

– Amanda Keuler

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