Week of July 2, 2021

I’m a Surfer* Now, So I Write About Surfing

Big wave surfer Greg Noll died this week. I will be honest – I had not heard of him before. However, you know a piece of writing is good when it makes you really care about someone you had not previously heard of. And that’s what Patrick Redford accomplished with this story on Noll. I mean, just look at this passage from the opening paragraph:

Surfing a big wave is like climbing an imposing mountain, only the mountain disappears in seconds. You cannot point to a killer wave at Mavericks and be like, “I surfed that exact wave there.” All that lasts is the memory.

I mean, holy shit that’s a good line. As Redford relates, Noll is famous for being a big wave pioneer, culminating in his ride at Makaha, Hawaii on December 4, 1969. Noll tells the story in the surf movie classic Riding Giants, linked here. Noll and his ride at Makaha are a precursor to Mavericks. But not long after that ride, which he barely survived, Noll stepped away from big wave surfing. Noll later said:

”For 15 years, my whole thing was to ride a bigger wave than the year before. I was getting so cocky I said, ‘Come on, God, show me a wave I can’t ride.’ Then all of a sudden that day came along, and it kind of blew the cap off the whole thing,”

I particularly like Redford’s closing, though:

In the decades since his legendary ride, aspects of it have come into question. Tomson says he actually captured Noll’s ride on camera, and another surf photographer has three photos of Noll atop the wave. People have questioned the actual height of the wave, and while it’s not altogether possible to come to a definitive measurement, weather historians have shown that the swell that battered Hawaii was genuinely freakish. None of that really matters to me, because the point is the myth. I was not unmoored by Noll’s ride because of the precision of his technique, or the minute details of his fall. The thing that matters is that he did something that nobody had ever done before, that he pushed his defiance of death all the way to the very edge, looked into the void, and was allowed by the monster to rise again.

That is fantastic writing.

*I went surfing twice last month. But I loved it. 


Source: Greg Noll, The Surfer Who Became A Myth, Is Dead At 84,” Patrick Redford, Defector (07/01/2021)

A Concise Explanation of Why Soccer is Great

A year delayed, Euro 2020 (like the World Cup, but just Europe) is going on. I’m doing my best to catch a game or two per week, but it’s difficult to carve out time for my very favorite sports, so I have not been terribly successful. 

Over the last few decades, much ink has been spilled about why soccer is not as popular in the U.S. as it is in most other parts of the world. But instead of thinking about what’s wrong with soccer or what’s wrong with U.S. sports fans, I really enjoyed this article from Defector’s Tom Ley about what makes soccer great, as illustrated by an extra time goal from Italy’s Federico Chiesa, which helped the Italians advance to the quarterfinals with a 2-1 win over Austria. The goal was so good that I had to show my kids the next day.

I think I yelped when he blasted that in. That touch with his right foot to knock it by the oncoming defender and set it up for his left-footed volley? That is *chef’s kiss* beautiful. 

Ley makes a good point about soccer, and it’s one of the reasons I love watching the sport:

Soccer can be pretty aggravating to watch sometimes. The game is so hard, and played at such inhuman speeds, that finding a steady supply of thrills in a single game can feel like an act of compromise. You end up hooting at deft turns in the midfield that lead to fizzled attacks, clapping for masterful dribbles that lead to the ball being kicked harmlessly out of bounds, and gasping at shots that miss the top corner by six inches. These moments don’t ultimately change the final outcome of the match, but once you understand how difficult it is to even participate in a high-level soccer game, you can’t help but appreciate them.

In soccer, fans appreciate skill even if it doesn’t end up in a goal, because goals are scarce and if you didn’t appreciate the skill in between goals, it’d be a very boring game to watch. 

In basketball, there is a phrase: “million dollar move, ten cent finish.”  The phrase implies that a great move that ends in a missed shot is not worth much because it didn’t end in a score. This makes sense in basketball, where teams average over 82 combined baskets per game. By contrast, the most recent English Premier League season averaged a total of 2.69 goals per game. Each made shot in basketball is worth far less (more than 30 times less in fact), relatively speaking, than each goal in soccer. So, soccer fans rightly appreciate a million dollar move, even if it does end in a ten cent finish. For example, this is not a goal but it was still incredible:

So what happens when a million dollar move in soccer ends not in a ten cent finish but in a million dollar finish? Bliss. Here’s Ley:

And then something like Chiesa’s goal happens, and there’s no need for compromise. Chiesa’s goal was the product of three genius-level touches—on the head to bring the ball under control, on the right foot to snatch it away from the recovering defender, and on the left foot to fire it past the keeper at a tight angle—that would have earned a polite applause from the crowd had they occurred on their own and not led to a goal. That Chiesa executed all three in a matter of seconds and got the ball into the net puts his goal somewhere in the realm of the miraculous. Repeat that sequence 1,000 times, and chances are that Chiesa would lose the ball out of bounds, have it taken from him by a defender, or fire it wide of the net in 996 of them. But sometimes everything lines up just right, and you get to see three perfect touches and a goal, and soccer is the best damn sport.

Unlike Ley, soccer is not my favorite sport. But…in moments like those, it sure feels great. -TOB

Source: Federico Chiesa Showed Us Soccer In All Its Glory,” Tom Ley, Defector (06/27/2021)

SImone Biles: The GOAT of GOATS

Now, I cannot by any stretch of the imagination call myself a gymnastics “fan.” Sure, like many kids of the 90s, I watched the 1992 and 1996 Olympic teams alongside my parents – Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes, Kerri Strugg, Dominique Moceanu. Big names! They rocked. And in the early 2010s, I loved McKalya Maroney’s Not Impressed memes and Aly Raisman leading her team to gold – that was a fun group! But none of them, or any other gymnast that ever lived, compares to Simone Biles.

The lead up to the 2016 Olympics was the first I (remember, not a gymnastics “fan”) had heard of her – and by that point she had already won three straight World Championships – 2013, 2014, and 2015 (which begs the question: why did the 2013 World Champion did not make the 2012 Olympic team). She was also being called perhaps the greatest gymnast of all time. The media narrative seemed set up for her to fail.

Lol, nah bro. She killed it. Team? Gold. Individual all around? Gold. Vault? Gold. Floor? Gold. Beam? Bronze. Hey, look, no one is perfect. But Simone is close. Since 2013 she has competed in every World Championship, besides 2017, when she took a year off. In those 5 tournaments, she has won all five individual all-around golds, all five floor golds, three golds and two bronze on beam, and two golds, two silvers, and one bronze on vault. That is pretty god dang dominant. 

In fact, this is how dominant Biles has been since stepping onto the international scene: at the Olympic trials last week, Biles had an off-day – she had a mistake on uneven bars, a fall on balance beam and stepped out of bounds twice on floor. She won the two-day event, but her Olympic teammate Suni Lee bested her on day two – and it was the first time Biles had been beaten in a single day since March 2013. 

So as we head into the Olympics this summer, you bet your ass I will be tuning into see if Biles can put herself in Phelps-territory. No, she’ll never win as many medals as Phelps. If you ask me, swimmers have an unfair advantage in terms of medal count – multiple relays and distances and strokes allow for numerous medal opportunities – 18 gold medals will be awarded in swimming at this Olympics, in fact; three times as many as the six a gymnast can get. Plus, they have a shorter peak due to the beating their body takes, compared to the low impact of swimming.

Which brings me to the story title: I think what Biles has done over the last eight years is the single most dominant, extended performance by an athlete in history. She is the GOAT of GOATs, and I’m really excited to see what she does at the Olympics.

All that is prelude to this: I read quite a few articles about Biles this week, coming off those Olympic trials where she (sorta) looked human. But my favorite was this one, from Defector’s Kalyn Kahler. The article reads a smidge like my U.S. Open story from 2019 – Kalyn is a big Biles fan, but has never been to a big gymnastics tournament. So when she heard the Olympic Trials were within driving distance, she bought front row seats and got in her car. Her article is a fun look at what it’s like to attend a major gymnastics meet. A very fun read.

Source: The Draw Of Simone Biles,” Kalyn Kahler, Defector (06/28/2021)

Subtopic: Can Simone Biles Dunk a Basketball?

Yes, more on Biles. In a moment, I am going to show you a clip that made me tweet this question: Can Simone Biles dunk a basketball?

Now, I must say here that Biles is listed at 4’8”. I don’t know what her standing reach is. The average standing reach is about 135% of a person’s height, which would put her standing reach at 6’2. That means she would need to get 46” off the ground just to touch the rim. To get the basketball over the rim, she’d need another 10” or so, which would mean a 50” clearance. I am gulping hard right now, because 56” is very high. HOWEVER, I have some evidence.

First, Spud Webb. Spud was 5’7 and had a reported standing vertical leap of 46”, which allowed him to win a Slam Dunk contest. But Spud was not a trained gymnast – he just played basketball. His 46” standing vertical came naturally. So can Simone Biles jump 10” higher, with a running start? This leads me to my second piece of evidence, which is the clip referenced above:

YO WHAT THE HELL. That’s INSANE. Yes, Kevin, it’s a spring floor. I do not care. If she is 4’8, she looks at LEAST 7 feet high there. Give her a running start and I think she can dunk a basketball. Prove me wrong! -TOB

Video of the Week

Tweet of the Week

Song of the Week

Blackilicious – Make You Feel That Way

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