Sometimes jumping with joy, sometimes laughing, sometimes bent over and sobbing – and clinging tightly to an American flag around her shoulders – wrestler Tamyra Mensah-Stock stood after her victory and on the course in front of a microphone of four minutes, showed a series of emotions, which were as diverse as each of their winning maneuvers on the mat.
And when it was time for the interviewer to ask the most mundane questions: “In your wildest imagination, did you think that you would ever win an Olympic gold medal?” – the answer shot like confetti from her lips.
“Yes, 100 percent, yes! I knew I could do it, ”said the Katy Morton Ranch High School alum, the first black woman and second American woman to win gold in wrestling.
This belief, this courage, this will to train freight trains – perhaps as much as physical ability and strength – are what distinguish even the great athletes from the Olympians.
And this year as they return from a game like no other, we owe our Houston Olympians – and each athlete who represents Team USA – all the pride and gratitude we can muster.
Mensah-Stock’s signature heart hand sign, held high for her family to see from afar in Florida, is sure to be one of the most enduring images of this Olympics. Her captivating energy after the game radiated a love of the country and triumph over tragedy – she was sure that if her father had been there, he would cheer the loudest. He died in an accident on the way home from one of their wrestling meetings. She later said she planned to use some of her prize money to get her mother a food truck and we will have our wallets and appetites ready.
How did she do it
“I pray all the practice – the hell my damn coaches put me through – pays off every time,” she said, a little breathlessly on NBC.
Even this time it paid off – when we asked so much more of the Olympians than in other games.
In the pre-pandemic, pre-pandemic, each Olympiad reminded us anew of the sheer strength and endurance of the human form. In a time of global peace and prosperity, the Olympics have not come to us, but the Tokyo competitions brought new pressures from quiet stadiums, isolation from friends and family, lockdowns and constant COVID-19 testing.
Even the name of those Olympics felt strange thanks to the decision to keep the nickname “Tokyo 2020” despite the virus-related postponement. Many observers expressed understandable concerns that these games would even be played; In the end, officials performed nearly 600,000 COVID-19 tests during the Olympics and only about 450 people tested positive, according to Reuters.
Here in Houston on Thursday afternoon, a hilarious crowd of more than 100 well-wishers at the Bush Intercontinental Airport screamed and cheered to show the love of Houston’s own Simone Biles and Jordan Chiles as they returned from those busy and memorable two weeks in Tokyo. The rain of support reflected the appreciation so many of us feel.
Biles, whose temporary retirement from competition demonstrated the importance of mental health prioritization and its connection to physical performance, was far from the only Houstonian to be in awe during these Olympics.
WNBA Veterans Center Brittney Griner was the color offensive and defensive in the women’s basketball gold medal game. Griner, a legend of Nimitz High School Cougar and Baylor Lady Bear, scored 30 points and added three blocked shots as the US beat Japan 90-75. In one particularly demoralizing 12-second sequence, Griner blocked a shot, rushed across the floor, and drilled a 16-foot jumper, which set the tone when the U.S. team won gold for the seventh straight time.
After helping the U.S. softball team win a silver medal, prolific pitcher Cat Osterman – a 38-year-old UT and Cypress Springs legend who won gold in 2004 and silver in 2008 – returned to Houston and threw the first throw at the Astros game on Friday evening.
Before landing a punch in the glove of Astros’ mascot Orbit, Osterman told the Chronicle, “The greatest thing I could take with me was the influence and inspiration I have now had for generations.” With Osterman nearing the end of a historic, sport-changing career, it seems extremely important to us that we take the time to say thank you.
Two other track stars, Hiram Clarkes Raevyn Rogers and Missouri City and Texas A & Ms Bryce Deadmon, helped lead the men’s and women’s 4 x 400 meter relay to gold medals.
Houston weightlifter Sarah Robles winked at the camera – as she lifted 282 pounds over her head, it should be said – on her way to a bronze medal. Baseball players Scott Kazmir, Simeon Woods Richardson and Shane Baz from the Houston area posed with their silver medals after a heavy loss to Japan.
Swimmer Simone Manuel, gold medalist at the 2016 Games in Rio, also fought against exhaustion and stress to secure a bronze medal in the 4×100 meter freestyle relay.
Another brilliant Texas tied Olympian, former Texas A&M track star Athing Mu won two gold medals and became the first American to win the 800 meters since 1968.
When US Olympians left for Tokyo 4-6 weeks ago, they were leaving a country that finally seemed to have the pandemic under control. You’re returning to a mess this week that will almost certainly get worse before it gets better.
As the Delta variant spreads and cautious people retreat from social life and watch the news with fear, we America’s Olympians owe special thanks, whose victories offered as much respite from doom and darkness as they did inspiration.
We have long admired the endurance and strength of the Olympic athletes, but in these Games they reminded us of another quality that can serve humanity well in these dire times: adaptability.
Team United States, well done and thank you very much.