Kobe Bryant

Maria Sharapova, common sense and "intent"

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It verges on the comical to read Maria Sharapova’s indignant assertion, after she was tagged by an anti-doping panel Wednesday for two years for meldonium, that the decision is, in her words, “unfairly harsh,” and that she intends to appeal to sport’s top tribunal, the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport. Have at it. Indeed, it’s way more likely that the relevant authorities are going to want to appeal because, in a passage that surprisingly has drawn little attention in the avalanche of stories about Wednesday’s decision, the ruling threatens to blow a barn door-sized hole in the rules as they not only were meant to be but have to be in order to have any chance at working.

To begin:

Sharapova and her entourage got ripped by the three-member International Tennis Federation-appointed panel, and deservedly so.

Tennis star Maria Sharapova announcing in March in Los Angeles that she had failed a doping test for meldonium // Getty Images

Rarely in the anti-doping literature do you read a case that proclaims, as this one does of Sharapova, “She is the author of her own misfortune.”

At the same time, the ruling trips all over itself in seeking to assert that she did not “intend” to cheat.

There is no quarrel with the basics: an athlete is responsible for whatever is in his or her system.

The ruling declares: “She must have known that taking a medication before a match, particularly one not currently prescribed by a doctor, was of considerable significance. This was a deliberate decision, not a mistake."

Isn't that the classic definition of "intent"?

Well, the panel goes on to say, on the one hand Sharapova “did not appreciate” that meldonium, the substance she tested positive for, had since Jan. 1, 2016, been on the World Anti-Doping Agency banned list. She tested positive on Jan. 26, after an Australian Open quarterfinal match with Serena Williams.

On the other, the panel says, Sharapova “does bear sole responsibility … and very significant fault, in failing to take any steps to check whether the continued use of this medicine was permissible,” adding, “If she had not concealed her use of [meldonium] from the anti-doping authorities, members of her own support team and the doctors whom she consulted, but had sought advice, then the [situation] would have been avoided.”

So which is it? Apples? Or oranges?

The stakes are considerable for all involved.

A two-year ban: sure, Sharapova would miss this summer’s Rio Olympics and the Grand Slams this year and next. But, like Nixon, she can come back tanned, rested and ready. She’s only 29. Williams is 34 and has come back repeatedly from time away owing to injury.

The way-more-serious risk, because it would be naive to believe that politics is not at work:

Sharapova is one of Russia’s leading athletic lights. Aside from her five Grand Slam titles, she won a silver medal at the London 2012 Olympics. More, she carried the Russian flag into the opening ceremony.

Being the flag-bearer at the Olympics is always fraught with political symbolism. In Russia, where Vladimir Putin has proven to be keenly and personally interested in the Russian team’s performance, all the more so.

A detail not addressed in Wednesday’s decision is why Sharapova, with her family — she came to Florida when she was a little girl and apparently now has a family doctor in California — felt the need in the first instance to go to a doctor in Moscow. Like, no one in American medicine was good enough? Or was there something else at work?

Beyond that:

There’s a fundamental financial risk to Sharapova’s endorsement career. For years, she was the highest-paid female athlete in the world. Forbes said she made $29.7 million in the 12 months ending June 2015. That’s more than the WADA’s 2016 annual budget, about $26 million.

Sharapova on May 24 in Chicago at the 'Sugarpova' chocolate launch // Getty Images

The endorsement angle is almost surely why Sharapova tried Wednesday to get in front of the story — a statement went up on her Facebook page literally within minutes of the ruling itself being made public — and why she is making it seem like she is the aggrieved party at the hands of a bunch of suits interpreting the anti-doping rules.

The challenge for Sharapova is akin to the situation facing the-then Los Angeles Laker star Kobe Bryant after events in Colorado in 2003: how long, like Bryant and “Colorado,” before she gets reported about without the word “meldonium”?

The key issue at hand for WADA, the International Olympic Committee, the ITF and every other Olympic sports federation is to divine the common-sense meanings of the words “mistake” and “intent.”

Some background, according to Wednesday’s ruling:

Sharapova started started using meldonium late in her teens, prescribed the stuff by Dr. Anatoly Skalny of the Center for Biotic Medicine in Moscow.

Skalny put her on meldonium, which also goes by the brand name “mildronate,” among 17 other substances.

That’s not a typo: in all, 18.

Meldonium is a blood-flow drug. Its primary use is in addressing cardiovascular disease.

The scientific literature is filled with studies showing that it is good for — in the Eastern European vernacular — “sportsmen,” meaning big-time athletes. As a study from a 2012 “Baltic Sport Science Conference” notes, it “increases endurance properties and aerobic capabilities of athletes.”

Just a quick science note, as the ITF-appointed panel explained, reviewing the evidence of WADA’s senior science director, Olivier Rabin:

Meldonium works at the cell level. It inhibits the synthesis of a substance called “carnitine.” When that happens, the cells switch to generating energy from glucose, meaning blood sugar, instead of fat. That requires less oxygen to produce the same amount of energy.

By March 2010, according to the ITF ruling, Sharapova was up to 30 substances, including meldonium.

She began to consider 30 “overwhelming.” So at the end of 2012 she dropped Skalny. But she kept taking meldonium and two more substances, magnerot and riboxin, from the list of 30.

Did she tell the nutritionist she then hired that she was taking meldonium plus two? No.

From the start of 2013, with the exception of one 2015 visit with a Russian Olympic team doctor, did she tell any “medical practitioner” that she was taking meldonium? No.

Did she take meldonium on match days, typically 500 milligrams, in tournaments? For sure.

How many times did she take meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open? Five. Before each match.

How many times, for instance, at Wimbledon in 2015? Six.

Is there even one document after 2010 in her player records that “relates to her use of meldonium”? No.

Did she disclose its use to the anti-doping authorities on any of the forms she signed from 2014 to 2016? No.

Her coach, trainer, physio, nutritionist, WTA doctors that she consulted — did any of them know she was using? No.

Who knew?

Two people: her father and her manager since 1999, Max Eisenbud, a vice president at IMG.

This is where the story goes from the sublime to the absurd.

In a business generating the likes of $29 million in a calendar year, you would think that Sharapova would have assigned to someone two responsibilities: knowing what was on the WADA list and making sure she was in complete compliance.

As the panel put it, this is the “underlying factual puzzle.”

Eisenbud’s explanation for not reviewing the 2016 WADA prohibited list, and it should be observed that the panel notes "the evident implausibility of his account," calling the evidence he put forward "wholly incredible."

In 2015, he “separated from his wife, did not take his annual vacation in the Caribbean,” where he was in the habit of checking the list, ”and due to the issues in his personal life failed to review the 2016 prohibited list.”

In his testimony, Eisbenbud further said he had “no training” that would lead him to understand what was, and not, on the list. He also “professed not to have the basic understanding,” which every athlete subject to the WADA code is charged with, “of how the list works.”

As the panel notes, he did not explain why, among other matters, “it was necessary to take a file to the Caribbean to read by the pool when one email could have provided the answer.”

The panel, again: “The idea that a professional manager, entrusted by IMG with the management of one of its leading global stars, would so casually and ineptly have checked whether his player was complying with the anti-doping program, a matter critical to the player’s professional career and her commercial success, is unbelievable. The tribunal rejects Mr. Eisenbud’s evidence.”

As for Sharapova’s use of meldonium, it says:

“The manner of its use, on match days and when undertaking intensive training, is only consistent with an intention to boost her energy levels.”

And:

“The facts are consistent with a deliberate decision to keep secret from the anti-doping authorities the fact that she was using mildronate in competition.”

The conclusion: “… she took mildronate for the purpose of enhancing her performance.”

In the pre-2015 WADA code days, Sharapova would have gotten two years. Bam. Thank you.

Now, the penalty is four years unless an athlete can show she did not intend to cheat. That can cut you a break.

In the same manner that President Clinton’s conduct prompted an assessment of what the word “is” is, the issue before the ITF panel broke down to what “intent” means amid a conclusion she took the stuff to enhance her performance.

“If the player was genuinely mistaken as to the rules,” the ruling asserts at paragraph 70 of 104, “then she did not intend to cheat.”

Consider that for just a moment.

All anyone now would have to do is say, oops, I made a mistake?

If allowed to stand, this would make for a gaping hole in the rules.

Not a chance.

Here is the deal with an appeal, and while Sharapova can appeal, so can the ITF, WADA or the IOC.

In legal terms, such an appeal would be what’s called de novo. That’s a fancy term that means Take Two. In essence, everything starts from scratch.

That two-year ban? It absolutely could be reduced to something less.

At the same time, and especially given the assessment the ITF-appointed panel made in reviewing the conduct of Sharapova and her team — blunt, candid, harsh, pick your word — she is at considerable risk of seeing a suspension max out.

As ever, meantime, there are always two cases ongoing in any legal dispute — the one in court, and the one in the court of public opinion.

There’s a solid argument that it is spin that got Sharapova in the dilemma she’s in now. Which makes her reaction on Wednesday all the more curious.

It was on March 7 that Sharapova, at a hastily called Los Angeles news conference, announced she had failed the Australian Open drug test. She sought to take responsibility. She said then that she had been taking meldonium for years for a variety of medical reasons.

Obviously, she was seeking not just to get ahead of the story but bidding to control the narrative.

What she almost surely did not count on was the meldonium deluge.

This year, more than 170 athletes, most Russians or Eastern Europeans, have been tagged for meldonium.

A number of meldonium-positive athletes have come out and said, more or less, I haven’t had any meldonium since taking some on, oh, New Year’s Eve.

Whether that is ridiculous or not:

If Sharapova had not admitted she was still using, she might well have put herself in that big New Year’s Eve meldonium boat.

Wait now to see the allegations from most or all of those athletes that the science of how long the stuff stays in your system is squishy.

For Sharapova, in this instance, getting out front got her, at least for now, a two-year time-out.

Continuing that strategy, however, this was her gambit Wednesday:

She put up on her Facebook page a note saying, among other things, “I intend to stand for what I believe is right and that’s why I will fight to be back on the tennis court as soon as possible,” signing it, “Love, Maria.”

An accompanying “short summary” purportedly prepared by “my lawyer” — she has two, so it’s not clear which — went after the doping results management process, saying Sharapova had “no input in the selection of the Tribunal which hears and decides her case, no say in how the hearing is conducted and no right to challenge the fairness of evidence admitted against her at the hearing.”

Say what?

Sharapova’s case included testimony from herself; Eisenbud; Skalny; coach Sven Groeneveld; and, as well, from two experts, Dr. Ford Vox, who reviewed Skalny’s “diagnosis and treatment,” and Richard Ings, a former chairman of the Australian anti-doping authority.

The hearing absolutely provided for cross-examination, including of Sharapova herself.

Documents, too: at the hearing, it was confirmed that Sharapova disclosed each and every document in her possession related to the use of meldonium from 2013 until Jan. 26, 2016.

She was afforded, in every regard, the process due her.

One final note:

Sharapova even argued that “any period of ineligibility” would “disproportionately affect” her, causing “a very substantial loss of earnings and sponsorships, exclusion from the 2016 Olympics and irreparable damage to her reputation.”

As if. That’s the risk you run when you don’t pay attention to the rules. No matter what you may, or may not, “intend.”

Thoughts at tax time of $26 million budgets

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The mind wanders as our friends at the U.S. tax agency, the Internal Revenue Service, prepare to say thanks ever so much for the notion of taxes being the mark of civilization, or something. In that spirit, here are 10 things to think about: 1. You want to get serious, really serious, in the anti-doping campaign? Let’s see governments step up their financial support of the World Anti-Doping Agency. WADA's annual budget is roughly $26 million. For comparison, that’s annual revenue of the sort the university athletic departments at Texas-San Antonio or New Hampshire work with, according to a USA Today survey. Let’s see what might happen were WADA to run with money along the lines of annual athletic department revenues at Oregon ($196 million), Texas ($161 million) or Michigan ($157 million), the top three in that survey. And here’s a telling stat: Ohio State’s athletic department received more in donations than WADA’s entire budget — $28.2 million of its $145.2 million annual revenue.

Maria Sharapova bidding to control the narrative at a March 7 news conference in LA, announcing her positive test for meldonium // photo Getty Images

2. Who believes the tennis star Maria Sharapova? Really? With now more than 100 positive tests for meldonium in all kinds of sports?

3. You hear over and again that the role of anti-doping agencies is to protect the rights of clean athletes. If that’s true: how do you bar the entire Russian track and field team from Rio when, presumably, some on that team are clean?

4. They open the Main Press Center in Rio. But — is this a sign of how these Games are going to go  — the press isn’t allowed in to cover the opening?

Kobe Bryant at the 2008 Beijing Olympics // photo Getty Images

5. Outside the 1992 Dream Team, is Kobe Bryant — whose last game as a Los Angeles Laker is Wednesday — the most important figure in USA Basketball’s Olympic history? Or is it Doug Collins, with those clutch free throws at the 1972 Games? Or — who?

6. With apologies to the creators, who purportedly have “poured their hearts and souls into their designs,” all four would-be Tokyo 2020 emblems are legitimately terrible. One looks like the conflation of hallucinogenic mushrooms and someone’s brain (“D,” “flowering of emotions”). One of the Paralympic logos evokes — unfortunately — nothing so much as Donald Trump’s hair (“B,” “connecting circle, expanding harmony”). Please, can the soulful designers keep at it?

https://twitter.com/Tokyo2020/status/719824639204012032

7. It is now a year since SportAccord imploded. Isn’t it time to acknowledge the obvious — that Marius Vizer was right? Disagree all you want — if you want — with the way he said what he said. But who quarrels with the substance?

8. The Australian swim Trials just went down. Look out, Rio: 21-year-old Cameron McEvoy went 47.04 to win the men’s 100, the fastest time ever in a textile suit. That is just 13-hundredths outside Brazilian Cesar Cielo’s world record of 46.91, set at the plastic suit-dominated 2009 world championships in Rome. Check out a video of the race:

9. Alysia Montaño, the U.S. 800-meter runner, went off at the recent U.S. Olympic Committee media summit, saying, “Once a doper, always a doper.” Then, when asked by the veteran Chicago-based sports writer Philip Hersh if Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay — both of whom have served time for doping — should be allowed to compete in Rio, she said, "No.”

Alysia Montaño surrounded by reporters at the USOC media summit // photo Getty Images

LaShawn Merritt posing for a portrait at the same USOC summit // photo Getty Images

Besides the sweet team spirit that ought to engender, there’s this: what about the notion of redemption? Further, doping matters tend to be complex; they do not necessarily lend themselves to a binary, all-black or all-white, sort of resolution. At issue, typically, are different — 50? — shades of grey. If it’s one thing for Athlete X or Y to do time for, say, illicit steroid use, what about the case of LaShawn Merritt, the U.S. 400-meter champion, who was busted for ExtenZe, a different sort of performance enhancer? He bought ExtenZe at a neighborhood 7-Eleven. “I spent $6 and it cost me millions of dollars,” amid a 21-month suspension, Merritt once said. Putting aside the legal formalities and the practical realities — these include double jeopardy concerns and human rights considerations noted by tribunals in rejecting the idea of most lifetime bans — there are moral and ethical matters, too: on what grounds should Merritt be out forever? Answer: none.

10. The underlying big-picture purpose of the Olympic movement is to move the world, little by little, day by day, toward peace. What does it say about the terrible, awful disconnect in our broken world when a teen-age suicide bomber blows himself up at a boys’ soccer game in Iraq? What, if anything, is sport to do when sport itself becomes the target? The death toll: 43, 29 of them boys who had been playing in the game or watching their friends. “It was a children’s soccer game. Of course he knew he was going to kill children,” said a local sheikh. Please read this harrowing account from the Washington Post. Then ask: how do we — all of us with a conscience — stop our children from killing and being killed?

Kobe, Tiger, Lindsey, Rita, First Amendment and more

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A quick quiz. How are Kobe Bryant and I alike? For starters, let’s count the ways in which we’re not: he makes $25 million a year, has a cool nickname — Black Mamba — along with a way better jump shot and can dunk. The world has to be different for people who can dunk. I wouldn’t know. That two-handed dunk Wednesday night, in the second quarter of the Los Angeles Lakers’ loss (another loss) to the New Orleans Pelicans, apparently proved too much. Like me -- aha! -- he has a bad right shoulder. Him: torn rotator cuff. Me: torn labrum. Me: surgery last Thursday (thank you, Dr. Keith Feder). Kobe: got examined Friday, and now will be examined again Monday, probably out for the season if he, too, needs surgery.

Kobe, I feel your pain.

I can also recommend many excellent prescription drugs.

So many interesting things have been going on while I have been lying low. Tiger Woods flies to Italy, where he appears with a skeleton-patterned scarf and then a gap tooth. The Kenyan marathoner Rita Jeptoo shows up in Boston 2024 bid committee documents. Then there’s a crazy First Amendment issue in those same Boston documents.

And I’m the one who was on prescription meds?

Tiger Woods in the ski mask, all incognito-like in a skeleton-patterned ski mask, in the finish area at Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy // photo Getty Images

Let’s start with Woods and significant other Lindsey Vonn. He flew to Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, to “surprise” her on the occasion of her winning her 63rd World Cup victory, most-ever by a female alpine skier.

To be clear: Lindsey Vonn is an amazing athlete. She deserves rounds of applause for this accomplishment, especially coming back from two knee injuries that kept her out of last year’s Sochi Olympics.

Vonn had recorded career win 62, tying Austria’s Annemarie Moser-Pröll, in Sunday’s downhill at Cortina. Victory 63 came in Monday’s super-G.

Cortina has always been one of Vonn’s favorite spots, along with Lake Louise, Canada. Nothing — repeat, nothing — is a given in alpine skiing. But it was hardly a surprise that she would win there.

Vonn’s family, in anticipation, had come to Cortina to share in her success.

It would have been kind of weird if Woods hadn’t been there, too, wouldn’t it?

Here's the thing: Woods doesn’t go anywhere without a security presence.

So he shows up. "Surprise"! But only on Monday, and trying to be all incognito-like, but then with the look-at-me skeleton scarf.

Strange, strange, strange.

Then, somehow the scarf drops, and there’s an Associated Press photo of him with the gap tooth.

“No way!” Vonn exclaimed when she saw him, according to press accounts. She also said, “I knew it was him immediately. He loves that stupid mask.”

Immediately, the gap tooth took virtually all the attention away from Vonn, and her accomplishment. The spotlight shifted to Woods.

His agent issued a statement that, in its entirety, read like this:

“During a crush of photographers at the awards’ podium at the World Cup event in Italy, a media member with a shoulder-mounted video camera pushed and surged towards the stage, turned and hit Tiger Woods in the mouth. Woods’s tooth was knocked out by the incident.”

Seriously?

We are to believe that Tiger Woods showed up at an event jam-packed with cameras and videographers and no one — not one single lens — captured this riveting action? It hasn’t yet shown up on TMZ? For real?

What is this, Cortina by Zapruder? A gap in the teeth but are there holes in the story? What?

As the expert alpine ski writer Brian Pinelli wrote in USA Today, quoting race secretary general Nicola Colli, “If you look at the pictures, there was no blood, nothing of pain in his face. He was calm, he was quiet.”

As for the statement itself from Woods’ agent — that’s it? You go to the effort of issuing a statement to the hungry press but there are no words of congratulations from Woods to Vonn? Just: some cameraman knocked out my tooth?

Further, and more to the point: it might be understandable why Woods — or Woods’ people — would want to villainize the media.

But Lindsey Vonn? What’s in that sort of play for her? Or U.S. Skiing?

She is the one cross-over star in winter sports. She is the one who, after all, got hurt and seized the opportunity to make a documentary out of it, which is showing Sunday on NBC. Football players get knee injuries all the time. Do they make documentaries out of their rehab? Of course not. Lindsey Vonn? Why not?

So what’s really going on here?

Very strange.

As was the decision by Boston 2024 organizers to include the photo of the marathoner Jeptoo in their bid presentation, the one that purportedly wowed the U.S. Olympic Committee board of directors.

Timeline: that presentation was made in December. Jeptoo, winner of the 2013 and 2014 Boston Marathons, among other major races, had tested positive in November for the banned blood-booster EPO.

Hard to understand how the USOC board could have been so wowed when her picture came up. Was anyone seriously paying attention?

Why didn’t Boston 2024 just go with Meb Keflezighi on that very same page, for goodness’ sake? After all, he’s an American, the 2014 Boston Marathon winner as well and the 2004 Athens marathon silver medalist.

Very strange.

The Boston 2024 documents, moreover, repeatedly observe that the city itself will be “Olympic Park” — for instance, “at the heart of the city, at its reinvented waterfront and in its cherished parks.”

It is understood that these documents are a “plan” and not a finished product. Even so, there is a real reason that in recent editions the International Olympic Committee has opted for real Olympic Parks.

The IOC has said time and again that security is priority No. 1. Olympic Parks are more easily, in a word, secure-able.

Think back to the last Summer Olympics in the United States, which featured tremendous open space in a major American city. Within the IOC, Atlanta 1996 is remembered mostly for its transport and technology woes, and for the bomb that went off in Centennial Park.

The less said here about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings the better. Just this: at this very preliminary stage, has anyone stopped seriously to think about the security implications of making the city of Boston “Olympic Park”?

Switching gears:

The provision that caused such controversy mid-week, when it was discovered that the USOC had included in its contract with Boston a non-disparagement provision — that is, city workers would not criticize the Games during the bid process -- this is very serious stuff.

Think back a year ago, before the Sochi 2014 Games, when much of the West was up in arms about a Russian law targeting “propaganda” aimed at gays.

Now the USOC writes into its deal with its chosen bid city a clause that would appear to fairly directly contravene not only the letter but the spirit of the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights? The fundamental thing that makes the United States different from so many places around the world?

This is not, despite anyone’s best efforts to explain it away as “boilerplate,” anything of the sort. This is a deliberate attempt to chill speech. It is not, in any way, acceptable.

Granted, the parallels are hardly precise -- but if you were Mr. Putin, wouldn't you find some ironic comedy in this episode, in the effort by the U.S. Olympic Committee, of all parties, to restrict free speech? Wouldn't that seem to him a little bit like a case of the pot calling the kettle black?

The Boston Globe was absolutely right in an editorial to insist that Mayor Marty Walsh and the bid committee drop that ban. The mayor has since seemingly been backtracking.

While that gets sorted out, mark your calendars: IOC president Thomas Bach is due to attend the Super Bowl next weekend in Arizona.

It will be fascinating to see whether he meets with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft — assuming, of course, the NFL doesn’t do what it should do, which is disqualify the Patriots for deflategate. If this were the Olympics, there's a very good argument to be made that the Patriots should be out and the Indianapolis Colts in. The evidence would seem manifest that the Patriots cheated.

At any rate, it was always understood that while the USOC was always in 2024 for one thing only, and that was to win, at the same time any American bid for 2024 was going to travel a long road. In that spirit, Bach met Wednesday — at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — with the head of the Italian Olympic Committee, Giovanni Malago, and the Italian premier, Matteo Renzi, to discuss Rome’s bid for the 2024 Games.

Renzi: “We can say that after this meeting the bid for the 2024 Olympic Games can continue with more enthusiasm.”

Very interesting.

For the record, and with enthusiasm: Kobe has more gold medals than I do. He also speaks way better Italian.

Maggie Steffens: time to shine

Under the lights last week in Irvine, Calif., in the second period of a FINA World League Prelims game against Canada, the score tied at 3, the Americans on offense, Team USA attacker Maggie Steffens was lurking about seven meters from the goal. In basketball terms, she was on the left side, at the top of the key. The ball swung her way. Again, think basketball. When Kobe Bryant gets the ball like that, what happens? It's catch-and-shoot.

It's a no-fear, no-mercy style of play that's rooted in confidence and mental toughness. It's what special players do because -- they can.

Maggie Steffens caught the ball and did not hesitate. She swung and fired and, that quick, just like Kobe would, she scored, putting the United States up, 4-3, en route to an eventual 11-7 victory.

Maggie Steffens is 18 years old.

Water polo can be a capricious game. But Maggie Steffens is fast earning a reputation for reliability under the most extreme pressure. Last summer, at the Pan American Games, the Americans and Canadians staged an epic contest that went through two standard overtimes and then to 20 penalty shots before, finally, there was resolution. On the line: not only the gold medal but an Olympic qualifying spot.

The Americans prevailed, 27-26. Who nailed the winning shot? Maggie Steffens.

Assuming she makes the U.S. team that goes to the Olympics, and all signs are she will, Maggie could well be a star in the making for a team and a sport that has everything going for it to be a potential hit.

Expect the U.S. women's water polo team to be featured prominently in NBC's coverage of the London Games.

Why?

Over the past several Olympics, the U.S. women's team has done everything but win gold -- silver in Sydney in 2000, bronze in Athens in 2004, silver again in Beijing in 2008.

The U.S. women's team is made up of a collection of personalities that is fit, tan, well-educated, well-spoken and not averse to publicity -- in October, 2010, for instance, most of this bunch posed in the all-together for ESPN The Magazine.

And while Maggie Steffens may herself be on the verge of breaking out, she also figures to be part of one of the great personal stories of the Games -- layered with family, with Olympic history and with powerful notes of redemption.

Maggie's oldest sister, Jessica, 24, a standout on the 2008 U.S. team, apparently recovered from a 2010 shoulder injury, is in strong contention to make the 2012 U.S. team, too.

The Steffens house has roots in water polo that run deep and strong.

The girls' father, Carlos, played for the Puerto Rican and U.S. teams in the early 1980s.

Their mom, Peggy, comes from a family of 13; she is the 11th. The family name is Schnugg. Peter Schnugg is a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that would have gone to Moscow.

Carlos and Peggy met in college at Berkeley. They have four children: Jessica, Charlie, Teresa and Maggie.

Growing up in the Steffens house, sports was an essential part of the rhythm of life. As was school. As was family -- their own home and their extended family. There are something like 45 cousins.

For Carlos, sports was the way up and out of a house in Puerto Rico where he had almost nothing.

Peggy said, recalling her own childhood, "My mom out of sheer duress would drop us off at the pool and we would stay there all day long." And, in a family of 13, "There was always competition. It was great."

Even so, Peggy said, referring to their four children, "Most of their mental toughness comes from him," meaning Carlos, adding, "Every day he has a story or an analogy. It has been ingrained in them since they were little."

In turn, Carlos was quick to praise Peggy, saying she's the one who did the carpooling, the sandwich-making, all of that, when he was traveling on business. "I spent quality time with them," he said, "teaching the passion and the love for the sport."

Both Jessica and Maggie said their parents emphasized not only sports but school and doing the best you could at each. Charlie played water polo at Cal and graduated last December; Teresa went there to play but then opted to focus on school and is now a junior majoring in media studies; Jessica is a 2009 Stanford grad; Maggie is headed to Stanford this fall.

"If any of us were feeling sorry for ourselves, our parents were quick to nip it in the bud," Jessica said, adding a moment later, "It's like putting change in your pocket -- that's what we grew up valuing. That has continued through with us.

"At this level you need that mentality. We put in so much work, so much time, so much effort just to survive in the game. It's a tough sport but at the end of the day I think we love the grind, we love the competition, we love the toughness of it all."

Jessica, as a player, is indeed more of a grinder. Maggie, by contrast, is more of a, hey, everybody, look-at-me -- the sort of natural talent people have been noticing since she was kicking soccer balls as a 5-year-old.

Her father said of his youngest daughter, referring now to water polo, "She has feeling for the game. She understands the game. And she loves it. When you see her play, she anticipates. That is the key to everything -- in life, right?"

"I have seen Maggie play since she was 12," said Adam Krikorian, the U.S. women's head coach, who used to be the coach at UCLA. "I knew she was special at 12. It was no surprise.

"… I knew from before, from watching her, before ever coaching her, that she was incredibly talented, she was coachable and she was tough as nails. That was why I wanted her from the get-go."

"Maggie is good," Carlos said, and always has been, dominating 13-year-olds in the pool when she was 8.

"But," he said, "she has yet to do what Jessica did at the 2008 Olympics. I don't know if you noticed but they made an all-world team," the Olympic media all-star team, "and the only one that made that team from the U.S. is Jessica. This is a girl who [barely] made the [U.S.] team. Maggie still needs to show that."

He also said Jessica has been a "great sister," adding, "She has really helped Maggie a ton going through the journey. Maggie has always looked up to Jessica."

Jessica said, "I'm trying to take it day by day. Ultimately, it's one thing playing with your teammates who become your sisters. It's another to have your sister be your teammate. I know she and I can go through hell together and we'll come out okay.

"I feel that way with the other girls but it's completely natural with us. There are things we see and do in the pool together that are so cool. It's a really fun thing to be a part of."

For her part, Maggie said, "It's a very surreal thought, to be able to not only have one person but two people on one team sharing that same experience. It's pretty amazing -- a crazy experience."

"We are working so hard," Jessica said. "We are taking it step by step."

As is Carlos. And here is a little secret.

Carlos was good enough, probably, to have made the 1984 U.S. team. But, with his degree from Berkeley in hand, he had to make a living. He had to support his mother back in Puerto Rico and then his wife and then a growing family.

When the Olympic Games would come on television, it hurt to watch. For a long time it hurt.

"In water polo, there's nothing bigger than becoming an Olympian," he said. "I made sure, and I still do, that I offer my kids the best possible opportunity that what happened to me will not happen to them. I will support them as much as they can to make sure they don't have that empty feeling."

That feeling lasted until 2008, when Jessica played in Beijing. The whole family went to watch. "Man," Carlos Steffens said he remember thinking in the stands, "how lucky I am to live this through my kids."

Something else happened in those stands. After the U.S. team lost in the gold-medal game, defeated 9-8 by the Netherlands, Carlos gave his attention to Maggie, who was sitting next to him. She had just turned 15.

"I looked at her and she at me and I said, 'Now it's your turn to get the gold.' She was all business. She nodded her head.

"And now here we are, four years later."

Track and field -- going nowhere fast in the United States

A friend and I were sitting outside at a great little restaurant in Eugene, Oregon, on Friday when some dude with his shirt off, two feathers pasted to the back of his head, went riding by on a bicycle, smoke billowing around him. The feathers were black and red. Each was at least two feet long. Not sure what kind of smoke it was but many fine people in Eugene are often, you know, mellow.

Watching the dude go by, I thought, everything seemed pretty much normal in Eugene, which bills itself as Track Town USA.

It's a lovely thought, Eugene as Track Town USA, except -- really -- it's not. There's no place that's Track Town USA. It's a big problem. After this weekend's Prefontaine Classic, before the meet this weekend in New York, before the nationals back in Eugene later this month -- it's time for everyone connected to the sport to recognize that it's time for a thorough re-think.

Track and field is going nowhere fast in the United States.

It can, and must, do better -- especially because USATF, track and field's governing body, is getting $4.4 million annually in grant money from the U.S. Olympic Committee, the most any governing body is getting, and with that kind of cash comes heavy responsibility.

USA Swimming, for comparison, is doing all kinds of clever stuff. At its Olympic Trials, they're plunking down a temporary pool inside a basketball arena. They shoot off fireworks and they play cool music and they have hard bodies and, frankly, it rocks.

Track and field needs to do the same kind of out-of-the-box thinking.

For instance:

What about holding the track Trials at, say, Cowboys Stadium? Make the event an -- event. If Cowboys Stadium is good enough for the Super Bowl, it's good enough for the Trials. Okay, the 2012 Trials are set for Eugene. Beyond?

In the meantime: Why isn't there a reality-TV show where, for example, a bunch of sprinters are all living in the same house and vying for a shot at the Olympics? Surely some cable network would buy that concept.

At meets, why aren't camera crews on the infield, up close and personal, listening to the athletes grunting and breathing hard and talking smack with each other? Why not at the Trials? The cameras are right there on the floor on the basketball floor during NBA games; they're practically in the huddles during time-outs.

Track needs more personality and it needs to develop strong personalities; it needs sweat and drama dripping in high-def TV.

Frankly, the sport needs a lot more TV and, at the same time, a lot less TV. That is, it needs to be on the air a lot more but in shorter blocks.  It needs to be on regularly but  for, like, an hour. That's all. An hour. It can be done. You don't need to watch every prelim, every throw, every everything.

Track needs this kind of stuff to move past its doping-soaked past, and the sooner the better. When I got home from Eugene, I asked my youngest daughter, who's 12 -- our three kids are not big sports fans -- to name some basketball players. Shaq and Kobe and other names came right out. Football players? Tom Brady and some others. Track? "Usain Bolt and that Marion lady who went to prison."

That's what track must confront.

And this:

Eugene has a dedicated and knowledgeable group of track enthusiasts. Yes, Hayward Field is soaked in history and the University of Oregon program is traditionally one of the best.

So what?

That's a subculture even in Eugene.

You don't think so?

Check out the website of the Eugene Register-Guard, purported protector of the faith. Now click through to the sports section. Read the line at the very top of the page, where the newspaper gets to promote how it sees itself. Does it say even the first word about track and field? Nope.

It says, "Oregon Football, breaking sports updates, NCAA and Pac-12 news, prep sports."

Now let's get really real.

I am truly fond of Eugene. I saw it for the first time when I was 17, just three days after I was graduated from high school in southwestern Ohio. It looked like nothing I had ever seen before; it was love at first sight. During college at Northwestern, I came back to Oregon, to do a three-month internship at the newspaper in Bend, the Bulletin. After graduation, I tried to get a job with one of the Oregon newspapers but couldn't get any takers. My loss.

Oregon is a long way from everywhere. Eugene is farther still.

All the things that can make it charming can sometimes make it seem a lot less so when we're talking about the kind of logistics and production values associated with the major-league sports that track is competing against.

Parking around Hayward Field is difficult to begin with (by the way, thank you to Jeff Oliver for helping me out with a pass to the Pre meet -- much appreciated). It was more complicated this past weekend because it was move-out weekend at the university dorms across the street.

Those of us who have had the privilege of covering the Super Bowl had to laugh when the note went out that it would be helpful to bring our own ethernet cable to Hayward Field so as to ensure internet access. Do you really think the writers and broadcasters in Dallas this week covering the NBA Finals are being asked to bring their own cables so they can access the internet?

The New York Times was not in Eugene this weekend. Neither was the Los Angeles Times. These were just some of the other outlets not there, either: the Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Sports Illustrated.

But then, why would an editor at any of those publications authorize the expenditure of roughly $1500 to go to Eugene?

Sports depend on stars.

Bolt wasn't in Eugene. In fact, unless something changes, he's not due to run anywhere in the United States in 2011.

Tyson Gay wasn't in Eugene. (Instead, he was in Clermont, Florida, where he ran a 9.79 100 meters in a heat in something called the NTC Sprint Series, according to Reuters. He did not compete in the final, according to official results. A YouTube video shows that he ran before a crowd of dozens.)

Tirunesh Dibaba, the distance queen from Ethiopia, appeared in Eugene. But that's all she did. She appeared. She didn't actually run, citing injury.

South Africa's Caster Semenya, the women's 800 meter world champion, made her first American appearance in Eugene, and ran. She finished second in the 800. But she inexplicably didn't show at a pre-meet news conference. After the race, she had to be tracked down to talk to reporters for two minutes and three seconds.

Galen Rupp, the American distance standout, didn't run in the 10k Friday night. He and his coach, Alberto Salazar, cited concerns about allergies -- along with the worry, further spelled out on the USATF Facebook page, that if Rupp ran and had an allergy fit he wouldn't be ready for the nationals.

That decision underscores a major part of the problem.

There are really only two meets this year that matter -- the nationals, June 23-26, and the worlds, Aug. 27-Sept. 4.

The rest has devolved, regrettably, to varying degrees of noise, and everyone knows it.

Why should fans care if the athletes, coaches, shoe companies and other sponsors -- everyone else who has a meaningful stake in the game -- make it plain that an event such as the Pre, allegedly one of the nation's top meets, is something you can skip without any real consequence because you're way more worried about the nationals?

This disconnect has manifested itself at the top leadership levels of the sport. USATF's chief executive's job has now gone unfilled for months amid the departure of Doug Logan. Now there is talk, as reported by my colleague Philip Hersh in his Chicago Tribune blog, that the USATF board wants to pluck the president and chairwoman of that board, Stephanie Hightower, and put her in the CEO job.

For real?

That didn't work for the USOC -- see the example of Stephanie Streeter -- and it's going to draw special scrutiny if that's the decision at USATF.

For those who would say, oh, it did work at other, smaller national governing bodies -- track and field is not archery or fencing. Again, USATF gets $4.4 million a year from the USOC. It is the bellwether NGB. The situation is different.

It boggles the mind that USATF seemingly can't get anyone in the entire United States to take this job. Why, a reasonable observer might ask, might that be?

For starters, all the reasons detailed above. Plus, USATF is based in Indianapolis, which on the excitement scale beats out Milwaukee because Indianapolis has the Colts and the Packers play in Green Bay but maybe doesn't out-do New York; the factions within track and field can be notoriously partisan; there are the road runners and there is USATF and it's not clear where the two communities converge, even though it seems incredibly obvious that they should; the federation holds no realistic chance of staging a world championships in the United States in the foreseeable future; and on and on.

Oh, and the other reason USATF seemingly can't get anyone in the United States to take the job is because, after the Logan experience, USATF doesn't seem to be looking too far outside the existing track community.

When it's precisely outside-the-box thinking that's needed.

It all makes you sometimes just want to think to yourself -- what, exactly, is the USOC getting in return for that $4.4 million? Relay teams that keep dropping the baton at the Olympics and world championships and -- what else?

Joey Hagerty, and the Olympic journey

In baseball, when a really good guy retires, they have a ceremony on the field for him, and sometimes they go the extra mile and give him a brand new car. Maybe even a convertible. In Greco-Roman wrestling, they have a neat tradition when a guy retires. He takes his wrestling boots and puts them at the center of the mat.

In gymnastics, there's no such ceremonial farewell.

It's too bad. A class act like Joey Hagerty deserves better.

 

 

We in the press are all too ready to pay attention to our Olympic athletes while they are in the white-hot glare of the Games themselves. But when the spotlight fades, what then?

The truth is that in many ways large and small Joey Hagerty embodies what the Olympic dream -- more, the Olympic journey -- is all about.

He didn't get into gymnastics to make a ton of money, and didn't. He didn't get into it to become the star of stage and screen; he's not.

He got into gymnastics because he loved it.

He chased the Olympics because he had a dream.

He got to live that dream -- against, frankly, crazy odds.

Joey Hagerty, who turns 29 next month, leaves competitive gymnastics an Olympic medalist -- even though he never once made a team that represented the United States at a world championships.

If you know gymnastics, you know that's just implausible.

But it's so.

Joey said, "I was never on a worlds team. Never on a big, huge team. I always had surgeries. My name was never out there -- well, it was out there in a small way. I never had huge accomplishments. I never won the [national all-around] championship. I was the Trojan horse -- that's what Ed Burch called me," a reference to his coach at Gold Cup Gymnastics in Albuquerque, where he grew up.

New Mexico is obviously not densely populated. But Gold Cup has sent a remarkable number of talented gymnasts to the U.S. team, including 1992 gold medalist Trent Dimas.

So that's one reason for his success. He had role models.

Joey has three older sisters. He got into gymnastics in the first instance by tagging along after them.

Then, it turned out he was pretty good.

It turned out, too, that he had the one thing you have to have to be an Olympic athlete -- the killer passion for whatever sport it is.

That's what kept Joey going through the surgeries and all the ups and the downs.

Joey's time came in the spring and summer of 2008.

First, at the national championships in Houston, he won the high bar and took third in the all-around.

Then, at the all-important U.S. Olympic Trials in Philadelphia, he won both the floor exercise and the high bar, and took second in the all-around.

Nine guys make up a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. Six are in the starting line-up; three more, at the outset, are designated as alternates. There are all kinds of permutations involved in who makes the list of nine. Who, for instance, could help get points on the still rings? Who on the pommel horse? And so on.

Suffice it to say that a guy who wins two disciplines at Trials, who comes in second in the all-around -- that guy, even if he had never before been on a worlds team, that guy was going to be on the Olympic team and, moreover, in the starting-six line-up.

"It didn't even sink in until we got off the airplane in Beijing -- holy cow," Joey said. "We're here. We did this -- there were 'Beijing' signs everywhere. It was really surreal.

"Then we got to the Olympic village and the place was huge. The cafeteria was the size of football fields. It kept getting more and more overwhelming, and exciting, and fun. It didn't stop. Stuff happened every day. Like, look, there was Kobe Bryant. Oh, my god. There was Roger Federer. Every moment was -- precious."

Practice -- even that was a big deal at the Games. "We only got to see the arena once before we competed and seeing 14,000 people -- I don't know if you've ever been to a normal gymnastics meet, with a couple thousand people, maybe, but this was a sell-out.

"I wouldn't say it was intimidating," Joey recalled. No way. "It was that much more exciting."

The U.S. team's journey to and through its week of competition in Beijing was marked by ongoing dramas involving injuries to both Paul and Morgan Hamm. Raj Bhavsar replaced Paul. Sasha Artemev replaced Morgan, in an announcement made Aug. 7, 2008, literally the day before the Games would begin.

Artemev in particular was a gamble. For the U.S. men to have a shot at a medal, he had to produce on the pommel horse.

The U.S. gymnastics team -- unfazed.

"Never count us out," Joey recalled. "We were pretty determined to do our jobs.

"It didn't even matter who stepped in. It was going to get done. If they had chosen [David] Durante," at that point the sole remaining alternate, "instead of Sasha, we had the confidence it was going to get done.

"We were a group of nine. We were a clan. A family. All nine of us. They are my brothers for life."

The competition, predictably, came down to Sasha, and the pommel horse. The gamble paid off. He got it done. The American men took third -- a result they calculated on the sidelines as the German team was finishing their final turns.

"We had to calm ourselves down," Joey said. "We didn't want to be jerks. We had to contain our excitement. That was really hard. But once the meet was done and we knew we had won the medal, you could see the smiles on our faces."

And as for stepping onto the podium?

"How do you describe the best moment in your life, other than having a child and getting married? There's nothing else like it. There's no way to describe what you trained for your whole life and what you've dreamed of. You can't put words to that."

Life goes on after an Olympics, of course, and doctors said Joey had to clean out his right shoulder, which he did in December of 2009.

He came back from that, enough at least to do what needs to be done in the gym -- you're always sore if you're a gymnast. And now the London Games are only about a year away.

But, you know, that passion -- it's just not there anymore.

To be clear: There is no shame in that. None.

They say it takes courage to acknowledge that, and maybe that's the case, but it takes something much more.

It takes fulfillment, and peace of mind, and serenity.

That's what Joey Hagerty has.

He earned all of that.

"You have to enjoy what you do," he said. "I was getting to the point where I didn't want to go to the gym every day. My body was hurting and still hasn't fully recovered from the shoulder surgery. I was just ready to move on with my life."

Joey and his girlfriend, Ashley Van Orren, who is 23, have been together for two years. They're going to move back to New Mexico and consider their options. Maybe do a little traveling, figure stuff out.

"I was happy being an Olympian," he said. "The medal on top of that -- it's the frosting on top of the cake. I couldn't be happier with my career."

You lived the dream, Joey. Maybe you and Ashley can send us all a photo of the two of you together in Paris, or wherever, okay? Have fun out there.