Role Model

By Phillip Whitten

This is not a story about swimming.

But it is a tale about sportsmanship and what it means to be a role model. So read on.

If you’re a sports fan, you’ve probably heard of Latrell Sprewell. You’ve probably also heard of Rafael Palmeiro. And Terrell Owens. All three are gifted, talented professional athletes. And all three have a major problem with their “’tude.”

Sprewell, of course, is the veteran NBA player – currently unemployed — who was suspended from the league for seven months in 1997-98 for choking his coach, P.J. Carlesimo. The reason? Carlesimo had yelled at him to make crisper passes. A year ago, Spree, then playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves, blew off the team’s annual luncheon for business and civic leaders, asking: “What have they (the Timberwolves) done for me?”

How about paying you $10 million a year, Spree? For playing a game!

Most recently, Spree dismissed a $21 million, three year contract extension offered by the Timberwolves, saying he couldn’t feed his family on such a wee stipend.

Then there’s Rafael Palmeiro. He of the 3,000 hits and 500 home runs – making him one of only four baseball players ever to achieve those dual milestones. You’ll remember Rafi’s finger-shaking performance before a Congressional committee back in March. Sure you do. That’s when the Baltimore Orioles’ slugger looked right into the camera’s eye and stated: “I have never used steroids. Period.”

Six weeks later, he tested positive for, of all things, stanozolol, an Old School steroid from the East German era.

Palmeiro expressed bewilderment as to how the banned substance had made its way into his body, suggesting it may have been mixed with the vitamin B-12 shots a teammate had given him.

Terrell Owens is so good at what he does, he doesn’t even need a name. Just initials. Say “T.O.” to a football fan, and there’s only one man who comes to mind: Terrell Owens, the multi-talented, wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles. Unfortunately, T.O. is as selfish and narcissistic as he is fast and resourceful.

Known as a ‘divider’ in the locker room, T.O. recently took his act outside, publicly criticizing the Eagles management for not giving him the ball after he caught his 100th pass, and dissing the team’s outstanding quarterback, Donovan McNab.

That was too much, even for the Eagles’ fans, and T.O. saw his stock plummet from “hero” to “zero” in just a few days.

Even if you are a rabid sports fan, chances are you haven’t heard of Erin Mirabella. Sure, if you follow Olympic cycling the name will ring a bell. But if you’re that everyday Joe who reads the sports pages…well, every day…you may never have come across her name.

Like the three pro athletes mentioned above, Erin is a superb athlete. But she’s never choked her coach; never dismissed $7 million a year saying it wasn’t enough to feed her family; never tested positive for steroids; and never blamed her coach or teammates for her own shortcomings. So you probably haven’t read about her.

What she has managed to do is make the US Olympic team in cycling. Twice.

In 2004, the 27 year-old finished fourth in the tactical 25-K points race in Athens. Fourth. Just one place out of the medals.

Erin was disappointed, of course, in not finishing third. “I was only three or four points out of a medal,” she said. But she was not disappointed in her performance. Not in the least.

“Yes, I made a few mistakes, but all in all, I was very pleased with my performance,” she said. “I put it all out there and I did my best.”

Then, on the evening of the Closing Ceremonies in Athens, came a fateful phone call. The third place finisher, Colombia’s Maria Luisa Calle-Williams, had tested positive for a banned stimulant, heptaminol, and was disqualified. Erin was the bronze medalist.

Now it wasn’t the IOC or the USOC or USA Cycling that called. No. Erin found out about her bronze medal through a German reporter who asked her for her reaction.

Calle-Williams duly returned the bronze medal and eventually, it made its way to the Mirabella household. While on holiday in Breckenridge, Colorado, Erin’s husband presented it to her in a ceremony attended by all the vacationers at the resort. A week later, USA Cycling performed a more formal ceremony at the cycling national championships.

Erin spent much of the next year giving motivational speeches, especially to groups of young people, always bringing along her medal, which she would pass around among her audience. In her talks, she stressed the Olympic ideal, saying she was happy with her performance before she got the bronze. Giving the race her all was what mattered, and the medal changed nothing.

She thought of herself as a role model, and cherished the feeling.

But Calle-Williams continued to insist she had done nothing wrong. She had taken neo-saldina for a migraine headache, but it contained isometheptene, which was not a banned substance. So she appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). Her appeal was rejected. She appealed again. Rejected again.

Her third appeal was the charm, as she was able to demonstrate that isometheptene breaks down into heptaminol under laboratory conditions.

Last month, the case was bumped to the IOC, which affirmed CAS’s ruling. The bronze would go back to Calle-Williams.

Once again, the IOC was slow in notifying USA Cycling. This time Erin learned of the decision when a friend saw the story on a cycling web site and called her.

“I called USA Cycling and they told me they had just heard the news,” Erin said. “This was on a Wednesday. But when USA Cycling called the USOC, they were told that the USOC had heard nothing from the IOC. Finally, on Friday, the USOC was notified and we had a conference call – the USOC and me.”

She was ordered to return the medal within one week.

Erin recalls; “Initially everything was so confusing. Things seemed to be happening so fast, without warning.

“I went through a whole range of emotions, but ultimately I just wanted to do what was right. And what was right was to return the medal to Maria Luisa. I just needed a few days to absorb everything that had happened.”

These days Erin is happy and at peace. “It was fun to be the bronze medalist for a year,” she says, but having the medal, or not having it doesn’t change a thing.

“People sometimes ask me if this whole affair ruined the Olympics for me. No, not at all. The Olympics was an awesome experience. My performance was awesome – everything I’d hoped it would be. I am so thankful for the support of my family and friends, who helped me get through what was briefly a confusing several days. If I could rewrite the entire script, I wouldn’t change a line.

“As an Olympian, I’m always conscious of the fact that people – especially young people – look on me as a role model. Sometimes I think you can be a better role model in the way you lose – the way you handle adversity — than in the way you win.

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