Within each of us is a hero. I do not mean Superman, but super heart. In a time when we are encouraged to be ambivalent, cynical, and abandon hope – do not. If you live long enough, you see – and remember – things that cause pause, bring you to stunned quiet. They are beautiful things.
Some will see a life saved by CPR or a nurse who – in the dark of night – does not give up on a desperate patient. Some will see acts of charity, mercy, uncommon kindness, courage, unexpected selflessness. From these people, we draw inspiration, recall the possible. Heroes surround us, live within us.
Just now, the Olympics have world attention. Two epic running events, one at the Olympics, one in the Australian National Championships, have always lifted me profoundly, as they epitomize super heart.
Not superhuman athleticism, training, or performance – that is not what I am talking about. But spellbinding, transcendent, momentary acts of goodness, pure gold. Let me explain, show you.
Some years ago, three men competed to break the four-minute mile. Contenders were America’s Wes Santee, a Marine who competed in the 1952 Olympics; Roger Bannister, an Oxford medical student also in the 1952 Olympics; and John Landy, an Australian Olympian in 1952 and 1956.
As fate would have it, Bannister broke the four-minute mark first, May 6, 1954. Landy broke it second, June 21, 1954. Wes Santee nearly did, running a 4:00.5 in 1955. Their stories are epic because of records held, grit shown, times recorded, and how hard they pushed each other.
But I do not want to talk about any of that. This background is so you may know John Landy.
Here was a young man who practiced on a scrabble track, often at midnight, after a full day of work. He was of humble origins, seemingly single-minded, and was a great competitor.
At age 26, in 1956, he found himself in a field of 10 at the Australian National Championships.
By that time, a world record holder, many thought he would again break the four-minute mark that day. Chances were few; this was one. Stands were jammed, world press was in full attendance.
Landy started mid-pack, running fifth. From that position, if he could hold, a kick at the end might produce another world record.
In the first of four laps, leaders clocked 59 seconds. Two laps were done in two minutes, two seconds. A new record was within Landy’s reach.
Then, in a sudden turn, Ron Clarke – another legendary miler – fell hard on the track. Landy – in a moment of pure heart – stopped, turned around, came back to help Clarke to his feet. Landy was not the cause of Clarke’s fall. Still, something inside him said, stop, help. So, he did.
Spectacularly, perhaps a sign of the power in heart, Landy surveyed the field. Helping Clarke cost him 35 yards on the leaders, some five seconds. In a mile, four laps, that is a monstrous gap.
Nevertheless, Landy set to. Putting heart and legs in gear, he sought to finish. More, he aimed to catch the leaders. Cameras rolling, what happened next – for many reasons – is legendary.
From helping Clarke to chasing the distant field, he never hesitated. Stride on stride, from 35 yards back to 20 yards back, to 10 yards off leaders; he never imagines defeat. Catching number four, he then passes three, then two, then one, puts in what announcers describe as a “paralyzing burst,” leaves the field yards back.
First through the tape, nursing an injured instep, no world record, Landy searches Clarke – assures he is okay. Point of that race, point of this memory, is that one of the greatest competitors of all time, had a beautiful heart, sacrificed a record sought for kindness, taught.
You need not take my word for it, however. That race lives on, as does Landy, these days retired at 91, enjoying a slower pace in his native Australia. Race clip here: Amazing Sportsmanship: Landy Assists Fallen Opponent – Still Wins Mile!.
Fast forward to Olympics, 2016. Second heat, women’s 5000 meters, a Dartmouth student named Abbey D’Agostino, most decorated Ivy League athlete in track and cross country, winner of seven NCAA titles, toes the line. Medal contender in a field of 17, she is the one smiling.
On the backstretch, two runners go down hard, one is up fast – then realizes the other is hurt.
She forgoes the pack to help her fallen competitor. The runner who helps her competitor, just as Landy did 60 years prior, is Abbey D’Agostino.
The tape is painful to watch because the irony in this act – and in what follows – is as bold as the gold in the hearts of these women. Abbey – who helped her fallen friend, Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand, is grievously hurt.
Abbey, it will be learned later, tore her ACL and meniscus yet was first up, tending to Nikki. She should not have been able to move. Every step was sheer nerves, as leg support was gone.
What the tape shows is heart by both women, Abbey helping Nikki, then Nikki helping Abbey.
Together, they manage to finish the race, which earns them – by dint of extraordinary example – places in the finals, which Abbey cannot run. That said, the spirit of Landy was lived in them; their example will outlast all records.
Again, you need not take my word for it. In a world of downdrafts, and wonder about whether real heart exists – whether it lives within those we know, within ourselves, we have examples. We still do. They remind us that heroes live around us and – perhaps when we least expect it –within us. Race clip here: The Most Beautiful Moment of Rio 2016 | Fair Play.
So, when you awake with doubt or are encouraged not to believe, not to think, not to feel that beautiful, good, true, and selfless things are still possible, even probable, just remember – they are and are in you. Imagine how many hearts Landy and D’Agostino touched, now ours too.
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