This year’s top sport story is one that displays athleticism, heart, inspiration, determination–and, perhaps most importantly, sportsmanship.
The story begins at the 2007 NCAA Championship Nordic skiing races. There, three athletes from the NMU women’s team made history, sweeping the podiums in both the 5k-freestyle race and the 15k-classic race.
In the freestyle, senior Lindsay Williams took first, junior Morgan Smyth came in second and senior Lindsey Weir brought home third. In the classic, Weir was first, with Williams in second and Smyth finishing third.
After their respective collegiate careers came to an end, the two seniors, Williams and Weir, went on to train for the U.S. National Ski team and compete at an international level. Smyth, the other medalist, had one year remaining at NMU to continue with an already impressive legacy.
But Smyth’s final season proved to be an emotional one, one that will stand apart from other NMU?all-American skiers.
In July 2007, Smyth tore her meniscus–the cartilage in the knee joint–in a rollerskiing accident. The injury kept Smyth off her feet for two months. During that summer, she extensively trained her upper body in order to be ready for the start of the season.
When the 2008 campaign started for the NMU nordic ski team, Smyth was back to 100 percent, and the top finishes returned as well. She went on to earn six top-three finishes before qualifying to race at the NCAA championships–the third time in her collegiate career she did so.
With this year’s NCAA championships held in Bozeman, Mont., the trails were 6,200 feet above sea level, giving Smyth and the rest of NMU’s qualifiers another obstacle to overcome.
In Smyth’s first race, the 5k-freestyle, she earned a 5th-place finish. The freestyle race isn’t known to be Smyth’s strength, so the top-five finish gave her the confidence to repeat on the podium for a second year in the classic race two days later. But, it wasn’t meant to be.
Before the start of the classic, the coaching staff of NMU’s ski team decided to use a different type of wax due to the warmer conditions. Then, only a few minutes into the race, the clouds covered the sun and the temperature dropped.
Smyth’s skis became extra sticky at that point and snow condensed on them, resulting in her pushing more weight with each stride. Head coach Sten Fjeldheim compared this condition to running a race with mud continually sticking on your shoes.
When Smyth finally crossed the finish line, she earned 16th place-close to ten minutes slower than her finish one year ago.
What makes this story great, though, is that Smyth did not throw her skis down in anger or scream at her coach for making a poor decision. She walked up to her coaches and thanked them for another great year, then walked up to the medalists and congratulated them on their finishes.
Smyth will leave Northern as one of the best athletes to ever come out of the nordic skiing program. She is a two-time all-American and a selection for the 2009 U.S. National Team.
But more important than that, she was, and is, a leader by example and an inspiration for all athletes still at NMU.
The sportsmanship shown by Smyth at the end of the disappointing race is something that is missing in other great sport stories. Too often we witness athletes blaming coaches for poor decisions, or a referee for a questionable call or even the weather for not cooperating. Actions such as these simply diminish great athletic accomplishments.
The NMU ski team has a principle they follow to rise above these variables. Fjeldheim said his team has a saying: “First you form an attitude and then that attitude forms you.” According to Fjeldheim, if the attitude is always positive, then positive results will follow.
In all sports, there are going to be elements that athletes cannot control, but one thing they can always control is their attitude. And Smyth’s attitude after her final race for NMU was just as heroic as her podium finishes.