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Column by John Lohn, Swimming World senior writer
SHANGHAI, China, July 25. MORE often than not, athletics is about victories and defeats. It's about gold medals. It's about outscoring the opponent. It's about recording that career-best time. Athletes – especially at the world-class level – are not out for fun. They have a job to perform, and their duty is to come out on top.
Still, there are times in sport when winning and losing are more for a country and not an individual, especially in the context of larger life issues. When the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred, athletics in the United States were put on hold. And when the athletes of the NFL and Major League Baseball returned after a brief hiatus, the numbers on either side of the hyphen were of little meaning compared to the normalcy the games brought.
As the second day of the World Championships came to a close Monday night at the Oriental Sports Center, one athlete did something for a grief-stricken country. On the heels of the terrorist attacks that left nearly 100 dead in Norway over the weekend, Alexander Dale Oen provided a quick soothing as he collected the first world title of his career.
Squaring off with Japan's Kosuke Kitajima, the greatest breaststroker in history, Dale Oen blasted the field in the 100-meter breaststroke, recording a winning time of 58.71. For anyone back home watching, it was a moment to smile and to temporarily forget about the hurt that has enveloped the Scandinavian country.
"I try to imagine what is happening back home, but it's quite hard," Dale Oen said. "We need to let everyday life come back because we can't let things be ruined. I am happy to put my head in the water for a minute or two and focus on the game. In a time like this for Norway, we need to be together, to be one. I know everyone back home is paralyzed and I can feel the emotion. While I'm here in Shanghai, I'm going to show my best."
Thousands of miles from his homeland, Dale Oen has been forced to deal with the incomprehensible tragedies that blindsided Norway. First, there was the bombing in downtown Oslo, which killed seven people. That terrorist attack was followed hours later by a mass shooting – which killed at least 86 people – at a youth camp on the island of Utoya. Police arrested 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik for both attacks.
At a moment when his mind should have been focused solely on his profession and another duel with Kitajima, Dale Oen found himself mentally torn. His thoughts, he admitted – and rightfully so – often drifted to those pained back home. He thought of the deceased and their distraught relatives. He thought of the general Norwegian public, which must now wake and wonder, "Why?"
Somehow, though, Dale Oen managed to forge ahead and leave little doubt as to his championship status. After producing the top time in the semifinals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Dale Oen was forced to settle for the silver medal after being beaten by Kitajima in the championship final. This time, Dale Oen was not going to fall back.
Covering the first lap in a scorching 27.20, Dale Oen built a comfortable lead at the halfway point. He added to his margin over the final lap and finished with the fastest time ever in a textile suit, and the fourth-fastest mark of all-time. During the awards ceremony, Dale Oen bit his lower lip on several occasions, fighting back the tears that pooled in his eyes. His victory lap around the deck was as much for his country as it was for him.
"I think of those at home when I look at the flag and hear the national anthem," he said. "What happened is shocking. I hope my results here can bring some confidence. I will go back to help after the championships."
The way Dale Oen looked in the 100 breastsroke, and the way he performed in the months heading into the World Champs, there's reason to believe he can pull off a breaststroke sweep by adding the 50 and 200 titles to his collection. Of course, winning those crowns is secondary to the healing of his fellow Norwegians.
"Life is more than swimming," Dale Oen said. "What's happening back home really puts things in perspective. It's been terrible. Everything has been very emotional."
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