Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Tour De France And Princeton Athletics

The Tour de France is an amazing event. You have Lance Armstrong and 100 other guys nobody can name pushing their bodies beyond any reasonable level of endurance, going up and down huge mountains and pedaling more than four, five, six hours a day. The difference between the day's winner and everyone else is often a fraction of a second.

Forgetting a minute the obvious questions about better-cycling-through-chemistry, the ability of these athletes is extraordinary. Factor in the intricacies of the team concept of cycling on that level, and it becomes an even more intriguing proposition.

Then there's the TV coverage of it here on SportsCenter. It's always the same. It starts out with a shot of some poor Belgian or somebody wiping out and then is followed by a few seconds of Armstrong's day. Then it cuts to the the winner of that day's stage, usually with the obligatory look-ma-no-hands shot across the finish line and then the celebration moment.

There can be no doubt that Armstrong is an amazing athlete. The question TigerBlog has is: How did he get into cycling?

Or, more broadly, how does anyone get into the sport they get into?

Princeton has 38 varsity teams who compete in 18 very distinct sports: soccer, baseball, softball, basketball, football, track and field, cross country, wrestling, lacrosse, tennis, golf, rowing, water polo, swimming and diving, field hockey, hockey and volleyball,

Those 38 teams are composed of about 1,000 athletes, most of whom, TigerBlog supposes, began their athletic careers at the age of around four or five when their parents signed them up for youth soccer.

From that point, they began to branch out, eventually reaching the sport they play here at Princeton. How do they get there? It's a fascinating subject, especially since athletes good enough to play a particular sport on the Division I level might have a completely different road had they chosen a different sport.

Is it about opportunity more than anything else? A kid in Brooklyn or Philadelphia is much more likely to be exposed to squash than a kid from somewhere else; had Julia Beaver (now a doctor, as an aside) grown up in Texas instead of Brooklyn, would she ever have realized that she had the talent to be a three-time national squash champ? Maybe she would have been a solid college tennis player instead?

Similarly, had Ryan Boyle grown up in California in the 1990s instead of Baltimore, would have he have been a Division I-AA quarterback instead of one of the greatest lacrosse players of all time?

If opportunity isn't the biggest factor, than maybe being big (or not big) is the biggest. If you grow up to be 6-6, 290 pounds, then soccer probably isn't your game. If you grow up to be 5-8, 175 but are fast and can run forever, then maybe soccer is your game.

Or maybe it's hereditary. If your parents were both swimmers, are you going to be a swimmer too?

Or maybe it's the other kids you grow up with. If your best friend is playing Little League baseball, maybe you will too. Or if you were a good field hockey goalie but there was a better one the same age as you when you were a high school freshman, maybe you gave up field hockey for another sport.

And now interchangeable is athletic ability? Last year, there were five winners of the Roper Trophy for the outstanding male senior athlete: hockey player Lee Jubinville, lacrosse player Mark Kovler, swimmer Doug Lennox, distance runner Michael Maag and squash player Mauricio Sanchez.

Had they grown up in different circumstances, could they have simply changed sport paths? Had Kovler grown up in Mexico City and Sanchez in Washington, D.C., would Kovler have been a college squash player and Sanchez a lacrosse player?

TigerBlog remembers playing lunchtime basketball awhile ago and having women's water polo player Adele McCarthy-Beauvais (a von Kienbusch Award winner) basically dominate the game. Afterwards, TB asked her if she'd ever played basketball, and she said that she had. It turned out she was actually a star high school basketball player, and TB has no doubt she could have played here.

When TB asked why water polo and not basketball, she replied: "It just worked out that way."

Basketball. Water polo.

Either way, it has to be better than riding your bike straight up to the top of the Alps.

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