The Wright Call

By Dave Wright

For a lot of people around these parts, it’s been an unpleasant, hot summer. A relative who is a native Saint Paulite paid a recent visit to her hometown and, despite some relief from recent rains, noted all the brown lawns as she drove through Highland Park. Many gardeners continue to look at their wilted plants with dismay. Just about the time many local businesses began to see more customers stopping in, a new COVID-19 variant has come calling. Several local stores are now insisting their employees mask up again and have made it clear they’d like their customers to do the same.

To alleviate the frustrations caused by all of the above, we often turn to athletics for relief. Unfortunately, some of the local sporting news has been grim as well. The Twins started the season in a funk and have stayed in one for four months. When that happens, a garage sale of players usually takes place. Accordingly, we bade farewell to the team’s top home run hitter and best pitcher for a handful of prospects.

That news happened just in time for fans to turn their attention to the local pro football team’s preseason workouts. Unless someone gets hurt, the first week or two of training camp for the Vikings is rarely newsworthy. That wasn’t the case this year because Kirk Cousins, the quarterback the team is spending millions on, missed the first scrimmage due to COVID-19 concerns. By itself, that might not be a big deal. However, what upset folks more was Cousins parrying with the media over whether he has been vaccinated or not. And that was followed by a report that the Vikings were the least vaccinated team in the NFL. 

It doesn’t matter which side of this issue you’re on. What’s clear is that head coach Mike Zimmer was clearly not on the same page with several of his marquee players. The tiff dimmed the joy that Vikings fans felt over Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers sounding off about the management skills of his employer.

As a result, we desperately needed something to give us a reason to smile this summer. Just in time, there came a lot of fresh faces participating in the year-delayed Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Several of the faces were local. The Lynx had players competing in the women’s basketball tournament. Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve served as an assistant on the gold medal USA team. After a sluggish start, the men’s basketball team kicked it into gear and won gold as well. For an extra boost, hoop junkies got a chance to watch the debut of a 3-on-3 version of the sport that many play in their own gyms.

 

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Let’s not be naive here—there are real financial benefits to these Olympians’ successes. Even though several of the athletes we watched will go on to college this fall, they’re also in line to make a lot of money off their newly earned fame.

It was exciting to see the success of the USA swimmers. We marveled at Caeleb Dressel, the muscular star on the men’s side, whose five gold medals were something few had expected. Katie Ledecky, who has been in the women’s swimming spotlight for a decade, was impressive again, winning two golds and two silvers. Lakeville’s Regan Smith also earned two silvers and a bronze. However, the youngster we may remember the most was 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby, the first swimmer from Alaska to ever make the Olympic team. Winning her gold medal in the breaststroke was like having someone from, say, Warroad, accomplish that feat.

It was amazing to see Allyson Felix, the mother of a 2-year-old, sprint to more medals in track at age 35. Volleyball, both on the court and in the sand, also produced gold medal wins that were fun to watch. 

Still, our fondest moments came from watching 18-year-old Saint Paul gymnast Sunisa Lee. Simone Biles was supposed to be the star of the USA team, but mental issues got to her and she backed away in the middle of the Olympics. Lee stepped up and did us all proud, winning the most difficult of all gymnastics crowns—the all-around.

Lee’s win was especially inspirational to the local Hmong community. She had done much of her main training here, which gave serious street cred to the gymnastics clubs around town, while also giving young girls something to strive to achieve. An August 8 parade in her honor in Saint Paul was improvisational, short and sweet. It was a very Minnesotan thing to do, and we needed it badly.

We also needed to see the unbridled joy of Gable Steveson, the Apple Valley-raised wrestler who had excelled at the University of Minnesota. (His three-year record there is a gaudy 62-2.) Steveson’s gold medal win during the freestyle event in Tokyo was dramatic enough, but seeing a 260-pound man celebrate by doing backflips was icing on the cake. One could imagine several high school wrestling coaches making notes to remind their players not to try to duplicate his flip after a successful match.

Let’s not be naive here—there are real financial benefits to these Olympians’ successes. Even though several of the athletes we watched will go on to college this fall, they’re also in line to make a lot of money off their newly earned fame.

The new NCAA rules allowing college athletes to earn money while keeping their amateur status could lead to some serious cash. The flip side is, as Lee has already found out, it’s easy to spend too much time in the world of social media. And there are a lot of folks out there who are ready to make deals. The advice for them can best be described this way: “After you shake hands with them, make sure your wristwatch is still on your arm.”

Shortly, many people will turn their attention back to two successful local pro franchises—soccer’s Loons and the WNBA’s Lynx. High schools and colleges have started their fall practices. They are greeted with the usual optimism at the start of a season, along with the hope that a sense of normalcy will return this fall.

But, as is always the case, there’ll be down moments. When that happens, flip your mind (or your DVR) back to what we just witnessed in Tokyo. It’s possible to have fun and a joyful appreciation of athletes without reading about big contracts and a desire to go elsewhere.

For that, we should be eternally gratefully to Suni, Gable and all the rest of the gang.

Dave Wright can be reached at dwright53@msn.com.

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