Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

When Olympic glory passes by

A crash in his semifinal was the end of the Olympics for BMX champion Marc Willers. Photo / Brett Phibbs
A crash in his semifinal was the end of the Olympics for BMX champion Marc Willers. Photo / Brett Phibbs

No one remembers who came fourth at the London Games, but they have stories worth hearing


"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same
... you'll be a man, my son!"

from Rudyard Kipling's 1895 poem If.


Fine sentiment; big ask. Especially in the rich despair of dashed Olympic dreams. Four more years, as Australian rugby player George Gregan once gloated after bundling the All Blacks out of the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

Victory came out of such disappointment for Olympic champions Murray Halberg and Hamish Carter, who contemplated quitting after a miserable experience at their first games.

But they are exceptions. Most who aspire fall short, pick themselves up and fall short of the podium again.

That's sport, that's life ... and it's maths. Take the javelin in which Hamilton's Stuart Farquhar did battle 54 athletes, 12 spots in the final, three steps on the dais.

Success can't simply be about winning, it must be about striving for your best. Not that you'd notice, hungry as we punters are for the games' feel-good stories - Lisa Carrington's commanding kayak victory, Valerie Adams' stolen shot put gold, the silver lining for Sarah Walker in the BMX after the hollowness of fourth place last time, the domination of the conquering rowers.

Beyond the glory are the (usually) untold stories of the Olympics.

Marc Willers owned the early rounds of the BMX. First, first, second. He nailed the all-important start in the first run of his semifinal and chased world champion Sam Willoughby through the first turn. Ten seconds later he was sprawled on the track, his Olympics over.

Losing is lonesome work. No way could Willers watch the medal ceremony. He returned to the athletes' village, changed his plan to fly to New Zealand with the team and left the next day.

"I was out of there," says Willers from Murrieta, California, his home away from home.

"The last thing you want is to be on a plane home with every person from your country who won a medal, and then walk out to the waiting media and no one ever wants to talk to you."

By the time the New Zealand team landed in Auckland, Willers had gone to ground in Murrieta.

"I haven't watched the racing, haven't watched the medal ceremony, haven't even seen Sarah (Walker) since."

It's not self-pity but a kind of grief. Even close friends didn't hear from him until he emailed on September 12.

"Hey guys, first off I want to apologise for falling off the face of the Earth this past month," he wrote. "I'm still trying to pinpoint where I went wrong, other than the obvious part of crashing and getting hurt."

Willers, from Cambridge, was 4 when he first rode a BMX. He grew up on those little bikes, mashing the pedals as fast as he could, thrilling at the weightlessness when boy and bike leave terra firma, revelling in the fretful delight of ever-present danger.

Horsepower, technique, balls, quick reactions and nous took him to the top. At 27, Willers earns a six-figure income as a professional racer. He is the reigning United States champion. He was third in the 2011 world championship and this year crashed on the last bend when he rolled the dice for silver. "I just didn't want to settle for another third place."

He arrived at the London Olympics ranked four in the world and with the knowledge that there was no one there he need fear, no one he hadn't beaten many times.

That included Maris Strombergs, the Latvian who went on to defend the Olympic title he won in Beijing.

Strombergs was only satisfactory in the early rounds but rose for the sudden-death final.

Willers: "On the gate, Maris was basically the only guy who didn't choke. He got out and got done what needed to be done. Everybody else was sitting up there shaking."

Nerves gnawed Willers too before the fateful semifinal. "You know, chewing a steak and you get the tough piece you just can't swallow," he says. "I was doing that with my scrambled eggs for breakfast."

But nerves don't usually play a part at the point of the race where he fell. The start was behind him and so were all but one competitor.

"I did make a bad decision down that third straight as my legs were tiring and I wheelied a jump instead of jumping it," he wrote in the email.

"But even that shouldn't have ended as it did. Had I pulled it off and not crashed, then who knows how the day could have gone."

He wonders whether adrenalin, nerves, stress sapped his energy and his mistake came of that. Though it is an explosive sport, stamina is needed to cope with several races in a few hours. A BMX race takes 30 to 40 seconds compared to 10 seconds for a 100m sprinter, who might be required to race only once a day.

And, of course, there are no lanes in a BMX race. "It's not just the pedalling motion that you need," he says. "You've got to be able to handle the jumps and people knocking into your side and cutting in front of you."

The crash left Willers too beat up to be a factor in the second race of his semifinal, though he tried. He was last of the eight to come to the start gate.

"I was out the back trying to keep my legs moving because my quads were cramping. I figured I'd be able to push through it but the second the gate dropped it was too much pain, everything cramped up."

"It was gut-wrenching ... As I was rolling around that lap [in last place] I was thinking it's all over for another four years'."

"I was honestly expecting (to make) the podium. I was capable of getting the win. In fact the guys who got first and second were my other picks. They got there and I didn't."

It hasn't changed his love for the sport, in which he's been New Zealand's top male performer for eight years.

"Leading up to the games it gets very businesslike ... and you can lose sight of the fun in what you are doing and lose sight of the fact that you are living your dream."

"I'm going to keep going until the body physically can't. If I'm still going fast come next Olympics (which would be his third) then I'll be going for it for sure."

He can't imagine a better life. A typical day? "Up at 7.30am. I have my six eggs, my avocado, my four sausages, then I do a pre-training warm-up of stretching, then have a bowl of cereal, gym for two hours, a post-workout protein shake and lunch of nuts, berries and steak, another supplement shake later before two hours of training at the track.

"Dinner is chicken and rice, and then bed. Then I do it all over again, except for Sundays which I have off."

Falls are part of BMX. Remarkably, Willers has only once broken bones his shoulder in 2009 which kept him away from racing for six months. A gym programme is designed to develop all-round muscle to better handle the impacts.

Ask if he has a message for fans back home and, inexplicably, he apologises. "I'm just sorry," he says. "I literally felt like I had two broken femurs. To find out I didn't was even more gut-wrenching."

Willers has another shot at becoming world champ next year, and if there is such a thing, he will have home advantage. The 2013 World Championships will be at Auckland's Vector Arena.

Stuart Farquhar didn't watch the medals presented in his event either but that was more logistics than disappointment - he was stuck under the grandstand. He came away from his third Olympics with mixed feelings.

Farquhar made the final for the first time, placing ninth, but missed a good chance of a medal.

He was being mentioned in the media as a favourite after a personal best in Japan (86.31m) in April became the world's best throw for the season to that point. The gold was won with the shortest throw (84.58m) for several Olympics by a 19-year-old from Trinidad and Tobago.

Farquhar is a stay-at-home dad (at least until 3pm when his solicitor wife, Leone, returns from work and he begins his daily two to four-hour training sessions), and family brings him balance and perspective.

He was at his peak at the Olympics, threw well to qualify but not in the final.

"That's just javelin."

All the intangibles must line up. Like a golfer whose scores fluctuate round to round, when rhythm or timing is slightly off it can steal metres from a throw.

"It's a very fine line and a lot of people don't know that. That's why there may be more inconsistency in javelin, which is the longest throwing event, (compared) to discus or shot put."

A personal-best throw and his best result at an Olympics represent his best season and mean he's still improving, and that's more than enough to motivate him for next year's world championship in Moscow.

"I was very disappointed with the final where I struggled but overall I improved when some went backwards; although I didn't get what I was after, I proved myself to myself."

- NZ Herald

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