The most amazing thing I saw in this most amazing sports year was not especially important or historic or even decisive. No one won a medal at the end of it, no trophy, no championship, no world record. There were no playbooks involved, no chalkboards, no swimsuits, no balls, no bats, no clubs, no rackets. The man who performed the miracle was only doing what every child does, and at the end of it he seemed utterly unimpressed with himself. He would become world famous, but that was later.
Even now, at the end of the year, those few seconds overwhelm everything for me, which is odd because the moment was so utterly simple and direct -- and this was a year of the overwhelming. How many "Greatests" did we have in one year? Greatest comeback. Greatest match. Greatest play. Greatest performance. Greatest achievement. It's always tempting to overstate the immediate and lose the perspective of history when you're still keyed up from something remarkable and present.
Still, this was an impossibly great year, right? I was 20 feet away from Kansas'
We saw the single greatest play in Super Bowl history this year. The game was already laced with that greatest tag -- it was supposed to be a coronation for the undefeated New England Patriots, the presumptive greatest team ever. Only the New York Giants, playing with a ferocity no one quite expected, kept the game close. The Giants were down four with roughly a minute left.
Then, Giants quarterback
On the other end, Giants receiver
This year we saw the greatest tennis match ever played, five sets of beautiful tension in the final at Wimbledon.
Then rain fell. When the players returned, Federer looked reborn. Nadal was supposed to be unyielding, this inescapable force of nature, a bundle of will, but Federer stared back, hit an ace with match point against him, hit brilliant backhand winner with match point against him again and won the next two sets to tie the match.
That led to more rain and, finally, to the unforgettable fifth set as darkness closed. The tennis was beautiful -- on grass the first great shot is supposed to be decisive, a winner. But some points Federer and Nadal would hit three, four, even five great shots that would have put away any other player in the world. The match went on. It ended in exhaustion, when Federer buried a forehand into the net, and Nadal tumbled to the grass and stared up at the sky, his body in position to make snow angels in the Wimbledon grass.
This was the year of
We spent much of this year learning about Phelps -- he is 6-foot-4, he has a 79-inch wingspan, he was raised in Baltimore by a single mother,
We knew about him, but we did not know what he was about, not until (are we going to use that word again?) the greatest race in Olympic swimming history, the 100-meter butterfly, when he swam against Croatia's
Cavic got the early lead -- nobody swims that first 50 meters faster. Phelps closed hard -- nobody swims that second 50 meters faster. They came to the wall together. Phelps went high, taking one final stroke. Cavic went low, stretching for the wall under the water. Phelps won by one-hundredth of a second.
"I wish we could have shared that gold," Cavic would say after the race, but he still slept with his silver medal, a symbol of how close he came to immortality.
Yes, there was so much this year -- there was the miracle of Tampa Bay, where the Rays went from the worst team in baseball to the World Series thanks to a bunch of young pitchers who did not know any better, a rookie third baseman with a name comically close to the actress from
And none of this yet mentions the Boston Celtics and their singular star, Paul
None of this mentions
Then, at Yankee Stadium, three months before the mausoleum would close down, he turned a silly All-Star sideshow called the Home Run Derby into an epic poem. He had a man named
Yeah. It was one heck of a year.
So ... how then can I choose a preliminary 100-meter dash race in Beijing as the moment that sticks with me? I don't have an answer for that except to say that emotions are not easy to figure, and memories do not always shine brightest for the big moment. I had never watched
Still, I was not ready -- could not be ready -- for what I would see. This was still a full day before the final; Bolt still had one one more qualifying race after this one. So the point here was only to get to the lead, cruise to the finish and advance to the next round. Bolt took the point very seriously. The gun sounded, and Bolt took off. He only exerted himself for two or three seconds, but those seconds were unlike anything I had ever seen -- he burst out of the scene, like he was in 3-D. It was like he had gone to light speed. And just like that, he shut it down. With 40 meters left in the race, Bolt slowed to a jog. It was like a parachute had ejected from his back. He was practically running backward when he hit the finish line.
He still won the race, of course. More, he finished with a time of 9.92. How fast is 9.92? It would have won him a gold medal in 1992 and just about every Olympics before that. It would have won him the silver medal in 2000. It would have, in fact, made him a contender for the bronze medal the next day. He had just run a remarkably fast time -- and he had not even tried.
I have never seen anything like it. There's something bewitching about the 100-meter dash because it's so childlike. Race you to the third telephone pole. That's all. There are no fancy lights, no teammates to set picks, no lucky bounces. Usain Bolt on that night showed us a gear that no other man has ever had. And, just as quickly, he pulled back. Could he have broken the world record with a little more effort? No doubt. Could he have run a time that would have left the world gasping? Almost certainly. But instead he jogged off the stage, content with the gasps he left behind, a carnival barker -- "Come back tomorrow, folks, I'll really give you a show."
And that's my moment. Yes, the next day he famously prepared for the final by eating Chicken McNuggets and he set the world record, though one his shoes wasn't tied and he cruised to the finish again. Yes, he would then break
But I'll remember him and this year for that first race I saw, the one where he left everyone wondering what was possible.