This is a brief and incomplete synopsis of a talk I gave in Morning Meeting last week about sportsmanship.
This morning I want to continue our discussions of sportsmanship that we began last week. While this story does not involve me rowing quite as slowly or losing quite as badly as I did in last week’s story, it does speak to the topic of sportsmanship, and relates the incident that led to my first run in with the police. When I was young all of my heroes were cross country skiers from Scandinavia. My top hero of all time was an outstanding Swedish skier named Thomas Wassberg. I remember a number of my teachers in middle school playing “ice breaker” games with their classes where they would ask us who our sports heroes were. We would go around the room and kids would say names like John Elway or Nolan Ryan. When I said “Thomas Wassberg,” the other kids would give me strange looks or throw pencils and erasers at me. It was hard being one of the three or four middle school boys in the United States having a Nordic skier as a hero.
I followed Wassberg on the World Cup circuit long before the age of Youtube or ESPN. I remember begging our coach at that time to find some footage of Wassberg racing, so the coach would call friends in Europe who would call relatives in Scandinavia who would take out their giant, shoulder held VHS cameras and film Wassberg’s races off of the television screen. Months later the postman arrived with a package from Stockholm with two video tapes in it. The footage was very shaky and grainy, but to me it was gold. One of the tapes was of a Swedish television show that featured Wassberg demonstrating his unorthodox training methods. While it was hard to make out what he was doing on the screen my friends and I watched it over and over and then went outside and attempted to replicate his training methods. We were going to be Olympic gold medalists after all!
In one montage Wassberg kayaked across a lake. We went kayaking until our hands were bleeding. In one he rode his bike pulling a large car tire behind it on a rope. We did the same until we knocked a couple of kids over in the neighborhood while going around our cul-de-sac’s center triangle and their mother’s complained. My favorite segment involved a sequence where Wassberg would dig giant holes in his backyard and would then fill them in using the shovel as if it were a ski pole. This had to be the secret sauce, we thought. We started digging holes like crazy, but filling them in was not as fun. One day I looked out my window and saw a squad car in the street. A police officer came to the door where he was greeted by my mother. When my mother asked what was wrong the officer replied, “apparently…” By the way, nothing good ever follows the word “apparently.” “Apparently Mrs. Bates,” the officer went on, “your son has been found digging graves in neighbor’s backyards. Miss Webster almost had a heart attack when she nearly tripped into her grave this morning.” Well, I quickly learned how to fill in the holes that we had dug. The encounter with the cops just made us feel even more like Swedish tough guy Nordic skiers.
Thomas Wassberg achieved a whole new stature among our Nordic gang at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Wassberg, using his powerful and unrelenting classic rhythm, dominated the Games. The race he is most famous for took place in the 15 kilometer event. I have since skied that Olympic 15 kilometer course multiple times while thinking of the events that transpired that day, thirty-six years ago. It was an individual start race, meaning that skiers started every thirty seconds and raced against the clock. Wassberg was facing his biggest rival, the Finnish skier Juha Mieto. And when I say big, I mean big. At the time I pegged him for being over eight feet tall. Wassberg had the advantage of starting after Mieto and received timing splits throughout the race telling him that we has within seconds of Mieto. In a stunning finish sequence Wassberg beat Mieto by 1/100 of second and won the gold medal.
Instead of jumping up and down, Wassberg was despondent. He shoved the medal in his pocket after the medal ceremony and later asked the Olympic Committee if he could share the win with Mieto. They rejected his request. You see, for Wassberg skiing was not about beating other people. He was racing his friends and using the speed of the other racers and the competition itself to bring out his very best. His competitors deserved that he give his very best in every race, even if he was not feeling his strongest or his kick wax was not working on a given day. He could not enjoy his gold because he thought the margin of victory was too small to declare a winner in the truest spirit of competition.
Legend has it that Wassberg went home and took matters into his own hands. As the story goes, he went into his shop and cut the gold medal in half and mailed one half to his friend Mieto in Finland. Other people say that Wassberg tried to do this, but Mieto told him not to disrespect the medal by cutting it. I like to believe that he cut it and mailed it.
I believe there are many lessons in Wassberg’s life about sportsmanship and competition. I see these lessons in the way our seniors carry themselves with grace and integrity. I see it in the way our athletes play and our artists perform. I see it in the way our faculty and staff live their lives each and every day. A community like Dublin is a place where we can build each other up and bring out the best in one another.
So yes, Thomas Wassberg was my sixth grade hero and I am darn proud of that.