An Olympian’s Ties to the Horrors of Gun Violence

Longhorn Townley Hass is a newly minted Olympian and the future of the U.S. men’s 200 freestyle… He is also intimately acquainted to the epidemic of gun violence in America. Nine years ago, his sister Emily was among those shot in the Virginia Tech massacre…

On the morning of April 16th, 2007, 10-year-old Townley Haas was sitting in elementary school in Richmond, Virginia. His oldest sister, Emily, was sitting in French class at Virginia Tech University a little over 200 miles away. Soon after 9am, a gunman, a senior English major by the name of Seung-Hui Cho barricaded the doors of Norris Hall and began executing classroom after classroom in one of the worst mass shootings in American history.

One of the rooms he entered was the one where Emily Haas was studying French. Seung-Hui Cho entered armed with two semi0-automatic weapons. His executions continued, killing 11 of Haas’s classmates around her, before turning his gun on himself and committing suicide in that, the last room he would reach. Emily Haas had been shot twice in the head. But she was one of the lucky ones. The bullets grazed her skull and left her lucid enough to perform an act of extreme heroism. She managed to place an emergency call in quiet and kept police dispatchers on the line. Her call was credited with helping first responders to find the killer’s exact location.

When he was found dead in that room police discovered 203 live rounds left in his weapons. As State Police Superintendent William Flaherty stated at the time, “We was well prepared to continue on.”

The call placed Townley’s sister Emily may have helped save untold lives. 32 people were wounded that day at Virginia Tech. 17 more were wounded, Emily Haas among them.

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It’s Ryan Murphy’s Turn

On night six of the U.S. Olympic Trials, Cal’s Ryan Murphy stepped up to a throne that has long awaited him…

The torch was officially passed a little after 8pm. It wasn’t when he touched the wall in a lifetime best and secured his second Olympic berth. It wasn’t when he embraced his friend and fellow Olympian Jacob Pebley in the lane beside him. It wasn’t when he high fived his Cal teammates and coaches, who have all been killing it this week in Omaha.

It was when Ryan Murphy rose from that rock star platform during the awards ceremony and found Aaron Peirsol waiting for him. The symbolism was on obvious display. Peirsol was there to do more than just pass Murphy his medal. With a tight hug on the podium, Peirsol was there to pass on the tradition.

Much was made of that American men’s backstroke tradition after the 100 earlier in the week. It extends for four decades now, through a succession of dominant dorsal champions. But the 100 back was really David Plummer’s story, even as Ryan Murphy touched the wall first. Tonight though, he is the headline. He is America’s new standard bearer of his stroke.

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The Joyful Foursome

Nathan Adrian, Caeleb Dressel, Ryan Held, and Anthony Ervin – Olympians in the men’s 100 free… A snapshot of collective pride and joy…

“Veterans, meet rookies. Rookies, meet veterans,” said Brendan Hansen in his post-awards interview.

There stood a pair of Olympic champions alongside a pair of wide-eyed Olympic rookies. All four beamed like there was no place on the planet they’d rather be. And there wasn’t. How could there be? These four gentlemen were the latest newly minted 2016 Olympians in Omaha and there was no hiding their bursting pride. They’d all taken long roads to this spot.

It was the destination all along. It was hard to tell who was happiest.

First came Caeleb Dressel, the next chosen one of American sprint kings who’s always appeared uncomfortable with the mantle of heir apparent. This is a man who followed one of the most stunning high school careers in history by quitting the sport for six months. The expectations got to him, there’s no way around it. But now those expectations were fulfilled. The weight was lifted from those tattooed shoulders.

“Olympian,” he told Hansen. “That’s a title that no one can ever take away from you.”

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The Ghosts of Dying Flyers

The 200 fly is one of those races… It sets up for heartbreak. The last 50 is frequently cruel and ugly, as veterans fall apart in the closing meters and are passed by charging young upstarts… Last night in Omaha the old guys were dying, but this time they held on…

How many times have we seen it? The aging flyer taking it out hard, wanting it so bad, only to feel the piano falling from the rafters… That last lap can be brutal to watch, unless you’re pulling for the young closers.

You know the ghosts – Mel Stewart getting swallowed up by Tom Malchow in 1996; Auburn’s Jeff Somensatto falling apart in 2000 and being passed by none other than 15-year-old Michael Phelps; Georgia’s Gil Stovall charging past Davis Tarwater in 2008; and Tarwater snake-bit again four years ago after turning for home looking Olympian.

That’s what happens in the men’s 200 fly. It’s been a running theme. And last night it looked like the stage was set for more final meters heartbreak. Tom Shields was the most likely suspect – a 24-year-old vet vying for his first Olympic berth. A man loaded with front-end speed with a history of tying up at the end… The headline almost wrote itself.

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The Wildcats Own Omaha

In the water, on the field, and on the broadcast, Omaha has been overrun by Arizona Wildcats…

A pair of circuses have come to town and tonight the main attraction at each is a collection of world class Wildcats. At one end of Cass Street here in downtown Omaha, swim fans are pouring into the best swim meet on earth as the US Olympic Trials reach their midpoint at the Century Link Center. At the other end of Cass St, the College World Series has reached its final game – between Costal Carolina and the University of Arizona.

Beyond the ubiquitous Wildcat presence, these two events have a lot in common. For those in-the-know, they’re two of the finest sporting events in America. Neither can exactly be called mainstream. Even with the Phelps-led fever pitch of an Olympic year, swimming remains only-ready-for-primetime in these four year windows. As for the College World Series, ask around and you’ll find zealots quite similar to those screaming poolside. They’re a pair of special events that both come with a family feel. Everyone seems eager to take ownership and displays an inordinate pride in their attendance.

Whether you’re a fan of aluminum bat college baseball or elite swimming, both are filled with that huggable brand of sport geeks.

And both are presently dominated by Wildcats.

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David Plummer Took the Hard Road

If you want to be an Olympian, here is the hardest possible path: Try qualifying in the American men’s 100 backstroke…

You’re 30-years-old. Your second child just arrived. Your wife is in med school. You’re one of the best swimmers in the world, but that doesn’t mean you’re flush. Things are tight. The stress is real. It’s not like the supposed stress of the college kids in the lanes around you. They’re on full rides and in that four year haze of pre-life. The weight on your shoulders is something else. It can be crushing. It can cause a man to question just why the hell he’s doing this.

Because it’s the Olympics, that’s why.

That’s a title for life. Olympian. You like the sounds of that. It’s a suit that will always look sharp, come what may.

But first you have to make the Team. It so happens that what you’re best at also happens to be what your country is best at. The men’s 100 backstroke. There is literally no harder way to become an Olympian – no matter what sport, country, or gender. There’s never been a single Olympic event so owned by one unending line of champions from the same country.

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Katie Ledecky Wants to Fail

And that’s why she never loses… The psychology behind one of the toughest athletes on earth…

She knows what’s coming. She’s courting it, daring it every time she charges out there at kamikaze pace. It’s pain, and it’s coming soon, and Katie Ledecky doesn’t care. Is it masochism? Does she relish that excruciating sensation that most of us dread? Is her pain tolerance in some superhuman stratosphere? Or is she just that much more determined than anyone who dares to race her?

Whatever it is, we are witnessing something so rare and so special that comparisons lead to icons. To men like Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan – competitors so committed to their mission they were willing to eat pain. Watching them, it appeared they were willing to die for it. Watching Ledecky feels the same way. You get the feeling that she is willing to suffer like they did. And that has made her unbeatable.

Over 15 races at major international competitions Ledecky has won 15 of them. Her record is spotless. NBC aired that graphic last night before her 400 free final. Expect that stat to get a lot more play in Rio.

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Bet on Beisel

The indefatigable Gator, Elizabeth Beisel, qualified for her third U.S. Olympic Team tonight… Disregard her time. She’s going to be a player in Rio…

The Trials aren’t about times. They’re about place. As in 1st or 2nd – those are the only two spots that matter in Omaha. Or 3rd through 6th if your event happens to be the 100 or 200 free, but for bad asses like Elizabeth Beisel, relay tickets have never really been an option. She swims the 400 IM and the 200 back, and at the last two Olympics she’s competed in both of them. Four years ago in London, she raced to a pair of medals – silver in her IM; bronze in her back.

Tonight she’s a three-time Olympian. She nabbed the second spot in the 400 IM behind Maya Dirado. If you look only at her time, it would seem that this is her swan song, a gasping third trip to the Games at age 23, no longer at the top of her game. If you don’t know the background she’s not really a story at all. Her time tonight was 4:36.81, eons off her personal best of 4:31.27, and probably not good enough to make the final in Rio.

Throw out the time. It doesn’t matter, and it’s not representative of what’s in store.

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Ringside Inspiration

In 2012, at age 11, he was a walleyed spectator. Four years later, at 15, he’s a participant. A few weeks ago he dropped a 1:03.62 in the men’s 100 breaststroke at a meet at MIT, seven one-hundredths inside the qualifying standard. He’ll be one of the youngest guys at the meet, and his eyes have gone from wide to narrow with intent. He won’t be in the mix this time, but he’ll be taking notes. He intends to be under the bright lights four years from now, and in eight years too.

His name is Dillon Hillis, of the Manhattan Makos, and he’s not alone.

Tomorrow, the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials begin in Omaha and there are over 1,700 entrants there to “compete” for less than 60 spots on the U.S. Olympic Team. The great majority of those have little to no shot at making it. Like 1,500 of them; that’s about 90%. Consider that for a moment. Nine in ten Olympic Trials qualifiers are not in the hunt to become Olympians. Even though the feel-good rhetoric is that everyone going to Trials “has a shot at making the Olympics.”

They don’t. And this is not a bad thing.

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Icons at the Pool

Beatles-pool - sml Ali Underwater-sml Keith 2 EH-C675T HST-Pool Polaroid - sml Fitzgerald family at pool - sml Dylan diving - sml Bill Murray underwater, Rushmore - sml