You know who might be the biggest choker in sports history? Michelle Kwan.
Michelle Kwan is widely considered to be one of the best figure skaters of all time. She won the World Championships in figure skating five times, was a U.S. champion nine times (an all-time record) and was inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame last year. Six years after she retired, she is still one of the more beloved female athletes in sports. Everybody loves Michelle Kwan.
She also is, by almost every possible standard with which we typically judge such matters, an enormous choker. For all her titles, the only medal that really counts in figure skating is the Olympic Gold Medal, and Kwan, despite having terrific opportunities twice (including judges who seemed to be begging to give her the gold), choked them both away. In 1998 in Nagano, she played it so safe -- assuming she had the gold as long as she made no major mistakes -- that she allowed Tara Lipinski's energetic routine to pass her for the victory. "It seemed like I was in my own little world. I didn't open up; I didn't really let go," she says. Four years later, in Salt Lake City, the role of Lipinski was played by Sarah Hughes; Kwan even fell during her routine, costing her any chance at the career-capping gold.
The sport's greatest competitor, with every opportunity to win her sport's greatest honor, falling short both times because of mental mistakes and tensing up at the worst possible moment. This is choking on its grandest scale. This is Scott Norwood times Jean Van De Velde times Bill Buckner. If LeBron James had done what Michelle Kwan did -- say, turning the ball over 10 times and shooting 4-for-19 in every NBA Finals game -- he'd be the most mocked athlete in the history of sport. Michelle Kwan: CHOKER.
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All right, let me be clear, here: I don't actually think Michelle Kwan is a choker. She's a wonderful athlete who changed her sport and inspired a whole generation of young competitors. She is one of the all-timers, someone whose name we'll always remember, longer than we'll remember Tara Lipinski's or Sarah Hughes'. Michelle Kwan, we're cool, OK? Just trying to make a point here: The way we toss around the term "choker" is stupid.
Today's target of the secret word is Sergio Garcia, who, as everyone watching it sorta knew was gonna happen, lost to Tiger Woods on the final holes of the Players Championship yesterday. The two men were tied coming down the stretch, but Tiger held on while Sergio hit balls in the water and generally melted down in the fashion to which we have become accustomed, when it comes to Sergio. (Bad sign: When a website can put together a gaggle of videos showcasing your "more memorable meltdowns." Not only have you had a ton of meltdowns, there have been so many that some of them aren't even memorable.)
This leads into the consistent narrative for Garcia, that he's a hothead who can't handle the big moments. Million dollar arm (or swing, whichever), 10-cent head, as the saying goes.
We love this narrative in sports, because it allows us to feel, in one brief moment, superior to the athletes we watch and obsess over. Sure, we can't hit a tee shot down the middle of the fairway -- let along break par at Shinnecock -- we can't hit a curveball and we can't dunk on an eight-foot hoop. That's OK, though: That's just our misfortune that the athletic gods didn't bless us with the abilities they bestowed on the Garcias and the LeBrons. What we have is the will. If we were in that position, tied with Tiger on the last two holes, we'd summon up a steely reserve, step up at the right moment, rise to the occasion. We can't know what it's like to hit a tee shot 300 yards. We can't know what it's like to play in front of 100,000 people. We can't know what it's like to be one of the top half of 1 percent of the planet at one specific, marketable skill that makes everyone idolize you. But we can know -- or we can think we know -- what it's like to face pressure and overcome it. We can't imagine ourselves hitting a ball out of Yankee Stadium. But we can imagine ourselves not choking.
Which is why we love it when guys like Garcia fail. It gives us the illusion of being one-up on superstars, that the genetic lottery they hit didn't give them "heart" or "fortitude," not the way it did us. (Who were only blessed by the genetic lottery with the ability to eat Doritos really fast.) This is a fallacy, of course. Garcia has earned more than $28 million in his career and won nearly a dozen tournaments, all of which came from hard work, intense dedication and laser focus. I'd argue that Sergio Garcia has toiled harder at his craft -- and is tougher about pursuing its top levels -- than just about 99.9999 percent of the people I know in the world have at their own. When my job gets too hard, I take a break, step away from the computer, stretch and watch TV for a few minutes to clear my mind. When Garcia's does, he has tens of millions of people breathing down his neck, ready to call him names. And still he wins more often than just about everybody else.
Listen, I enjoy cheering against certain athletes -- it is one of sports' basest pleasures -- and generally speaking, Garcia is one of them. (He's really quite whiny.) And I'll probably keep cheering against him to win a major: He's one of those guys who is more interesting if he hasn't won one, the way Phil Mickelson used to be. But he is not a "choker." You don't get to the level of the top tier of athletes by "choking." It's hard to win. That's why it matters so much. This is why it's fun to watch. If you were the type of person who collapses when the pressure was on, you wouldn't have made it to the highest level of competition in the first place.
Except for that Michelle Kwan. Choker.
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