Out There: The Agony of Defeat

The thrill of victory!

And the agony of defeat.

The human drama of athletic competition…

When I was a kid, ABC’s Wide World of Sports opened its weekly highlight reel with dramatic fanfare and deep-voiced narration as a montage of pain played: a ski jumper hurtling to the ground in upsetting fashion, an airborne car during the Indy 500 race, a motorcycle and its rider flipping in the dirt.

Of course, there were also images of victory in that opening sequence: a weightlifter victoriously hoisting his bar above his head, a laurel wreath, sprays of bubbly champagne from the podium.

But it’s the agony everyone remembers.

We, as humans, are captivated by images of pain. There’s a morbid thrill that comes with watching others in painful situations – not necessarily because we want to see others hurt, but simply because we can’t turn away. We follow the action with rapt attention. When something goes wrong, we shriek in horror. When the inevitable happens, we cover our eyes and wince with secondhand pain.

Physical pain is difficult to watch. Emotional pain might be even worse.

Last Monday, during the women’s 800-meter final at the U.S. Track and Field Trials, Alysia Montano was making her final surge for an Olympic spot. It looked like she’d get it, too – a hard-fought reward for the 30 year-old runner and fan favorite. Montano is beloved for a lot of reasons: her sheer speed; a staunch dedication to clean sport; wearing a flower behind her ear while racing (and winning); racing at the 2014 USA Track & Field Championships while 8 1/2 months pregnant to promote women’s health; keeping a positive attitude after being cheated out of Olympic and World Championship medals by doping Russian athletes in recent years. She’s a darling of track and field: hard-working, honest, and strong.

And on Monday, she looked strong. With only 200 meters separating Montano from Rio and redemption, the thrill of victory was well within her reach.

And then a fellow racer stumbled, tripping Montano as well. It was at this point we all collectively reached out our hands and shrieked in horror.

Watching Montano fall was gut-wrenching. Watching her get back up, only to realize her insurmountable loss, was heartbreaking. Watching her crumple on the track once more, sobbing – well, by that point, most of us covered our eyes and winced.

The agony of defeat.

There are plenty of victorious stories for this year’s Olympic Trials highlight reel – former refugee Charles Jock earning his right to represent the USA in the men’s 800 meters, Molly Huddle’s magical win in the 10,000 meters – but it’s the image of Alysia Montano that will be seared in our brains for quite some time. It’s the agony everyone remembers.

Montano’s fall is certainly not as graphic or gruesome as an ill-timed ski jump or high-speed car crash. She wasn’t carried out on a stretcher, nor did she even require medical attention. But that doesn’t make her fall any less excruciating.

After all, broken bodies and cars can be put together again. A broken heart is not quite so easy to mend.

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