Health

The most memorable sports moments of 2022

You’ll see a theme
emerging here.

At a time when sports
are painstakingly packaged and sold and many athletes zealously guard their
public images, our writers gravitated to the quiet moments when the
competitions were over and the stars seemed a little more like the rest of us.
— MIKE WILSON, deputy sports editor

A SHY, QUIET CHAMPION

Winners of the
Masters will tell you where they found fortitude or enlightenment or patience.
Sometimes it was in a hallowed locker room, or from a roar-happy gallery around
Amen Corner, or on the driving range where a tweak or two proved just enough
for Sunday.

Hideki Matsuyama’s
quiet ascendance into golf history bubbled up in a parking lot in Georgia,
invisible to almost everyone. Rain had chased the Masters field inside during
the third round, and Matsuyama, smarting from a tee shot on No 11 that had
landed behind some of the few spectators at Augusta National, had headed to his
car.

One of the game’s
shyest figures, but one who had long been lionised in Japan, he gripped his
phone and started playing games.

“Right before the
rain delay, I probably hit the worst shot I’ve hit this week,” he later said
through an interpreter, adding, “I just figured, I can’t hit anything worse
than that, and so maybe it relieved some pressure.”

He returned to the
course and finished No 11 with a birdie. Another birdie on No 12. An eagle on
No 15. Two more holes, two more birdies. At day’s end, after a third-round 65,
he had a four-stroke lead.

His advantage
narrowed on Sunday. But as sunset neared, Matsuyama tapped in a putt to become
the first Asian-born winner of the Masters — the rare green jacket, it seemed
in retrospect, sewn up less in the spotlight than in solitude. — ALAN BLINDER

A LIGHT IN THE
TROUBLED TIMES

The year in horse
racing began in scandal when Medina Spirit, trained by Bob Baffert, was
stripped of a Kentucky Derby victory after a failed drug test. It ended in
heartbreak, with the same horse collapsing and dying after a training run.

Beautiful moments in
the sport do happen, however, when people put their horses first. Ask the
owners, trainer and jockey who pulled into the Preakness Stakes in May with an
overlooked colt named Rombauer.

John and Diane
Fradkin were small-time breeders who took one or two horses a year to the auction
ring. Rombauer was in Baltimore only because they had been unable to sell him.

The trainer, Michael
McCarthy, kept his California stable small so he could work closely with the
horses. He had won some big races, but nobody would confuse him with his mentor
Todd Pletcher, who is in the Hall of Fame.

Flavien Prat, a
Frenchman, was best known as the accidental winner of the 2019 Kentucky Derby
astride Country House after the apparent winner, Maximum Security, was
disqualified for interference.

And Rombauer? He had
won twice in six starts but had skipped the Derby because John Fradkin did not
believe the colt was ready for the challenge.

Spectators checked
their programs to identify the No 6 horse as he rolled down the stretch like a
steamship, leaving Midnight Bourbon and Medina Spirit in his wake. It was
Rombauer giving the Fradkins their first graded stakes victory and reducing
McCarthy to tears.

“It just goes to show
you that small players in the game can be successful as well,” McCarthy said.

After the season, the
colt was turned out on a California farm for a well-earned vacation. He
recently returned to McCarthy’s barn. What’s next?

McCarthy says he will
let Rombauer tell him. — JOE DRAPE

‘I DON’T FEEL HAPPY’

She didn’t have to
say anything. That is usually the safest path, the one so many athletes choose.

After losing in the
third round of the US Open tennis tournament to Leylah Fernandez, an unseeded
Canadian, Naomi Osaka could have arrived at her news conference, said it was
not her day, tipped her visor to her opponent and slinked off.

It was late, nearing
midnight. No one had even asked Osaka about her overall state of mind. But she
felt she needed to say something, finally, after months of keeping it all
inside.

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Her handlers knew
what was coming and tried to stop Osaka, the highest-paid female athlete in the
world, with a $50 million endorsement portfolio, from speaking anymore. She
waved them off.

“When I win I don’t
feel happy,” she said. “I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel
very sad. I don’t think that’s normal.”

She teared up. The
moderator declared the night over. She told him she wanted to finish.

“Basically I feel
like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to
do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match,” she
said. Once more, the moderator offered her an out. She did not take it. “I
think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while.”

Then she got up and
left. She was done. — MATTHEW FUTTERMAN

THE WIN HE WANTED
MOST

Novak Djokovic began
Sept. 12 on the verge of tennis immortality, one win away from achieving a
Grand Slam by winning the sport’s four major tournaments in a single year. A
victory in the US Open final over Daniil Medvedev, a rising Russian, would give
him what he thought he wanted more than anything.

Djokovic had
manhandled Medvedev in the Australian Open final in February. Since then, the
Grand Slam had become his singular mission. This was going to happen.

And then it didn’t. Not
even close, though most of the 23,000 fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium that day
desperately wanted it to.

For years, Djokovic
had been widely considered the villain who crashed the Roger Federer-Rafael
Nadal tennis lovefest. But that afternoon, the fans screamed for Djokovic as
they never had, growing louder as he fell further behind in his bid to claim
unmatched greatness, his legs dead, his brain exhausted from trying to do
something Federer and Nadal couldn’t.

One game from defeat,
Djokovic sat in his chair on a changeover as the screams grew deafening. His
chest began to heave. He covered his face in a towel and sobbed.

When it was over, a
man certain that only one outcome could fulfil him said something few ever
expected him to say in defeat.

“I am the happiest
man alive because you guys made me feel that way on the court,” he said. “I
never felt like this.” — MATTHEW FUTTERMAN

KILLING IT

One of the beautiful
things about sports is the raw emotion. Perhaps more than in any other walk of
life, athletes in the heat of the moment, endorphins flowing, let loose.

After wrestler Tamyra
Mensah-Stock won the women’s freestyle 150 pounds competition at the Tokyo
Olympics, she formed a heart sign with her hands and showed it to both sides of
the arena. Then she cried.

Afterward,
Mensah-Stock explained that the gesture was a tribute to her loved ones: her
father, who died in a car crash after leaving one of her high school
tournaments, which nearly made her quit wrestling; an uncle who died of cancer;
a grandfather who also died of cancer; a late friend who also wrestled; her
husband; her mother; her aunt; her sister; and her country.

“I’m trying to send
love to everyone,” she said.

Mensah-Stock, the
first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling, spoke with an
earnestness and a thoughtfulness that were hard to forget. She name-checked the
Black female wrestlers who came before her. She detailed how she was going to
use most of her $37,500 bonus to fulfil her mother’s dream of starting a food
truck business. She said young women could be strong, silly, tough and fun, and
could wrestle.

“Look at this natural
hair,” she said. “Come on, man! I made sure I brought my puffballs out so they
could know that you can do it, too.”

And Mensah-Stock was
gracious to her opponent, Blessing Oborududu of Nigeria.

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“Oh my gosh, look at
us representing,” she said. “And I’m like, If one of us wins, we’re making
history.”

She added later:
“It’s fantastic. It meant a lot. I’m so proud of Blessing. I was looking at
her, ‘Dang, she’s killing it.’ But I can kill it, too.” — JAMES WAGNER

THE COST OF SUCCESS

Caeleb Dressel stood
shirtless in front of a pack of reporters just moments after swimming in his
final race at the Tokyo Olympics. The gold medal draped over his shoulders —
his fifth of the Games — gleamed upon a massif of muscle and a dark tangle of
tattoos.

Still, somehow, he
seemed feeble. It was the way he rocked on his heels, looked at the ground and
leaned on his teammate’s shoulder. It was his subdued tone in the presumed
afterglow of victory, and the remarkable things he went on to say:

“I wouldn’t ever tell
myself this during a meet, but after, looking back, it’s terrifying.”

“Some parts were
extremely enjoyable, but I would say a majority of them were not.”

“You can’t sleep
right. You can’t nap. You’re shaking all the time. You don’t eat.”

“I’m really glad to
be done.”

“I’m pretty over
swimming at the moment.”

Vulnerability had already
been a motif at the Games. Superstars like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka had
spoken candidly about the way mental health issues could contribute to subpar
performances.

Yet here, in Dressel,
was an athlete who had just exceeded every expectation, fulfilled his childhood
dreams and become an American hero, essentially, by claiming more gold medals
than any other athlete at the Tokyo Games.

The ambivalence of
his departing message, then, was almost exhilaratingly humanising: Success was
draining. Pressure could be crippling. Sports are work, and how many people
truly always love their work? — ANDREW KEH

LONG MARGINALISED,
NOW SEEN

Not long after Sunisa
Lee won the Olympic gold medal for the individual all-around gymnastics
competition, I saw lawn signs popping up all around Minneapolis and St. Paul
with her image on them. There were no words on the signs, just her image,
adapted from a photo of her competing in her Olympic leotard.

Cities love to
celebrate when one of their own wins Olympic glory, but Lee didn’t just
represent an American city. She represented a population that was being
recognised in a new way because of her.

Historically, the
Hmong people have been displaced and marginalised by wars and imperialism. Many
members of the Hmong community moved to the Twin Cities as refugees from
Southeast Asia, mostly from Laos. According to the Minnesota Historical
Society, more than 66,000 Hmong people live in the area, the largest
concentration in the United States.

Living in Minneapolis
means seeing the community’s influence in every professional space. I’ve often
seen people gather in a local park wearing ornate Hmong clothing for picnics or
photos. Throughout the summer, I bought my farmers’ market vegetables from
Hmong farmers. When my favorite local dumpling pop-up, the Saturday Dumpling
Club, collaborated with another pandemic pop-up called Union Hmong Kitchen,
their Hmong sausage dumplings sold out in minutes.

Lee was the first
Hmong American to even compete in the Olympics, much less win a gold medal. The
day she won, her family hosted a watch party nearby. It was broadcast on a
local Hmong television channel and covered by Sahan Journal, a newspaper
dedicated to local immigrant communities. Lee returned home after the Olympics
to a parade in St. Paul, and to gratitude. — TANIA GANGULI

THE FLAME STILL
BURNED

Never has an Olympic
flame been seen by so few. Never has it meant more.

It was near dusk a
week into the fan-deprived Tokyo Games. A colleague and I walked the mile or
two between the media headquarters and the sport-climbing competition venue.

The direct route was
a pedestrian promenade raised above city streets. It cut through a sprawl of
malls, museums and cruise-ship terminals rendered lifeless by the pandemic.

The 2020 Olympics —
still called that, in 2022, because time and space no longer mattered — were
detached from reality and disconnected from the Japanese. Venues allowed no
spectators. Streets were drained of atmosphere. The Olympics, sequestered from
their hosts, had no soul or spontaneity. So I thought.

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Ahead on the
promenade, in the day’s faded light, appeared a small orange glow and a tangle
of humanity. Like desert wanderers spotting an oasis, we could not make sense
of it at first.

Beyond the scrum was
a shrunken replica of the Olympic cauldron, a dinky thing propped on the
promenade without majesty, maybe not even a sign, behind cheap sidewalk
barriers. It held an auxiliary version of the official Olympic flame, which
burned at an empty stadium a few miles away.

People circled the
glow, like moths. Older couples, off-duty Olympic volunteers in their uniforms,
parents with children hoisted on their shoulders — they nudged as close as they
could, turned their backs to the flame and leaned into one another.

They held cameras in
front of them. Some pulled down their masks to free their selfie smiles.

They shared a moment
that almost felt like a secret. — JOHN BRANCH

‘I AM A STRONG
INDIVIDUAL

The day Simone Biles
testified to Congress about the FBI’s failure to properly investigate serial
molester Larry Nassar, who abused Biles and hundreds of other girls and women,
I was sitting about 10 feet behind her in the hearing room. I couldn’t see her
face. But I could hear her.

It was Biles’ first
time addressing Congress about Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics doctor. Her
voice cracking, she insisted that a broken system that leaves athletes
vulnerable must be fixed.

She lashed out at FBI
and sports officials who did not protect children. She criticised the FBI’s
mismanagement of the case, mentioning horrific details included in a Justice
Department inspector general report.

The timing of that
report was cruel.

The Justice
Department had made it public in July, just as Biles — the sole Nassar survivor
competing at the Tokyo Games — was flying to Japan as the headliner for the US
Olympic team. I often wonder how it affected her performance.

Biles withdrew from
the team competition while in Tokyo, citing mental health challenges that made
it unsafe for her to perform her dangerous gymnastics moves. In doing so, she
trained a spotlight on the importance of mental health.

Testifying in
September, she showed, yet again, the strength of a champion who changed and
even transcended her sport.

I will remember her
words.

“I am a strong
individual and I will persevere,” she said. — JULIET MACUR

MOVING EVER FORWARD

Hurricane Ida
pummeled Grand Isle, Louisiana, but Londyn Resweber, 14, continued to train for
the state cross-country championships. At dusk one day in late October, a man
stood on his deck as she ran below, pointed to the sky and said, “Aliens are
coming down tonight to make everything normal again.”

It was unclear
whether he was joking or offering eccentric inspiration. But in truth, the
ravaged barrier island could hardly have seemed more otherworldly if a
spacecraft landed on Highway 1, the only road in and out of town.

Resweber’s
grandfather Scooter Resweber, 72, is Grand Isle’s police chief. Sometimes he
glimpsed his granddaughter training outside his office window. Elected in 2020,
he joked that he thought he would attend a few parties, write a few tickets,
put a few people in jail. He never imagined anything as terrible as Ida. In his
office, he kept what little he salvaged from the storm, plastic bins of
photographs and clothes. Sometimes, he said, he felt like crying.

But people are
accustomed to storms on the island as they wrestle with climate change. Community
resilience was evident in the Grand Isle School cross-country team. Windblown
across the South, a handful of runners returned home for the state meet. Londyn
Resweber did not win a medal as she had hoped, but team effort seemed to matter
more this year than the result.

“Something like this
has never been done before,” coach Denny Wright said. “I’m so proud of them.” —
JERÉ LONGMAN

©2022 The New York
Times Company

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