The most dominant athlete in sports doesn’t wear red on Sunday’s. She doesn’t drive race cars around a track nor does she rock a headband with a swoosh on it. Tiger Woods, Michael Schumacher, Roger Federer – not a bad group, but their accomplishments pale in comparison to Esther Vergeer.
The placement of the Paralympic games after the spectacle that is the Olympics has always been strange to me. Two weeks of international competition featuring sports previously unheard of is just about all Joe Sportsfan can take. Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps are exceptions to the rule – you won’t hear much about the performances of Mo Farrah and Rosie MacLennan in a couple months.
And while that is a shame it’s another thing to be ignored while actively competing. Outside of London, coverage of the Parlaympic games is almost non-existent. The fourteenth edition of the summer Olympiad ends on Sunday – how many people knew they were even going on is a question worth asking. The biggest story to emerge during the past two weeks centered on allegations of blade lengthening – a story picked up by many news outlets because it was Oscar – blade runner – Pistorius making the accusations.
So be it. I’d love to do my best crotchety old sportswriter impression and lambaste the viewing public for misplaced priorities, but I haven’t watched a second of the action myself. And though the internet was created so people could claim they were better than other people based on seemingly trivial things like who watches the most obscure sports, let’s move forward.
Fact is the Paralympic games are pretty damn awesome. Want inspiration? Check out Italy’s Annalisa Minetti bronze medal win in the 1500m race for the visually impaired. Want goosebumps? Observe Canadian swimmer Summer Mortimer’s double gold, record setting performance. Then there’s Alex Zanardi – eleven years after losing both legs in an horrific Champ Car accident – claiming gold in the 16km H4 class time trial handbike race.
Want unrivaled dominance – by anyone, in any sport? Vergeer’s your woman.
Watching wheelchair tennis for the first time was disorienting to say the least. The balls are allowed to bounce twice and the wheelchairs used by the players are modified. While these differences are impossible to miss, some things remain the same. The mannerisms of the player waiting to return serve are nearly identical. The timing of the serve remains a rhythmic masterpiece. To get a glimpse of how physically intense this sport is here are highlights from the Beijing semifinal between Vergeer and Jiske Griffioen:
At age eight Vergeer developed paraplegia after a successful surgery on her spinal cord. Soon after she began playing volleyball, basketball, and tennis in a wheelchair. In 1998 she won her first U.S Open title.
21 grand slams, 296 titles (singles and doubles) and most impressive of all – 469 consecutive match wins in singles. To put that in perspective, George W. Bush was a relatively popular figure the last time she lost and 50 Cent’s In Da Club topped the charts – dark days.
The great Roger Federer:
“I think what Esther has accomplished is absolutely amazing. She hasn’t lost a match since 2003 and has gone on an incredible streak, which is impossible to imagine me being able to do,” he said. “Obviously there is also an argument that she is one of the greatest athletes in the world at the moment.”
Yesterday the Dutch superstar reached the semifinals after a 6-1, 6-0 win against Thailand’s Sakhorn Khanthasit. Today Vergeer defeated Griffioen in a rematch of the Beijing semi. She’ll face countrywomen Aniek Van Koot in the final.
Athletes in the mold of Phelps, Bolt and Federer come along every so often – for that we are lucky. Esther Vergeer is a once in a lifetime talent. Cherish her while you can, there won’t be another.