By John Kuhn | Special to the Index
Now that the Olympics are wrapping up, it’s an opportune time for us to pause and honor our nation’s team.
But you’ve heard plenty about Michael Phelps and Gabby what’s-her-name. You know all about that one guy who broke that one record, with the running and stuff. So today we will focus on less-heralded American athletes by celebrating Three Olympians You’ve Probably Never Heard Of. It’s time we give these amazing athletes their due.
1. Mary Whipple – If, like me, you’re surprised to learn that rowing is an Olympic sport and not just something you do when the trolling motor runs out of gas, you’ll be even more shocked that Olympic rowing comes in a variety of flavors. There’s single sculls (which isn’t nearly as menacing as it sounds), double sculls, quadruple sculls, lightweight sweep and the pedal-powered paddle boat. (I made that last one up.)
One of the marquee Olympic rowing events is known as the “eights.” It comes in men’s and women’s versions, and it’s called “eights” because there are exactly nine people on the boat. Seriously.
Eight of the nine people row. From what I can tell, the ninth person sits at the front of the boat and screams at the eight rowers. This person has few friends on the team. (In all seriousness, barking orders isn’t the only thing this particular Olympic athlete does. In the first round of competition, I’m pretty sure I saw the ninth man on the Australian team eating Crunch N Munch while his teammates rowed, though I can’t definitively confirm it.)
The ninth member of the eights is known as the coxswain, a word so useful that no one knows how to pronounce it. (It’s COX-en.) Mary Whipple is the long-serving coxswain of the U.S. women’s eights team. Described as “a sapling among redwoods,” Whipple is much smaller and lighter than her teammates. This brings to mind the old adage that “the only thing worse than getting yelled at for not working harder by someone who isn’t working at all is getting yelled at for not working harder by someone who isn’t working at all and who is also much smaller and weaker than you.”
As a smallish-American, Whipple admits to having a “pitchy” and “annoying” voice. This is a great asset for a coxswain. In addition, the boat (which I’m pretty sure is called something way fancier than “boat,” like “sloop” or “regatta” or “el conquistador”) is equipped with a series of speakers at each rower’s seat. Said speakers are wired directly to little Mary Whipple’s headset microphone, giving her maximum annoyance capabilities. With the volume set at a modest six, the rowers hurry toward the finish line. Turn it up to 10 and the women’s eights team wants nothing more in life than to get to the finish line as quickly as possible in order to get away from the persistent Steve Urkle-esque voice worming into their brains like an earwig and threatening to drive them insane.
Mary Whipple and the U.S. women’s eights team took gold in London 2012. In response, Canada has launched a nationwide search for a more annoying coxswain.
2. Jan Ebeling – Though you may not be familiar with Jan Ebeling, you’ve probably heard of Rafalca, the dressage horse co-owned by Mitt Romney’s wife. If you’ve never seen her, she is a sturdy female with powerful hips and a luxurious coat. (I am referring here to the horse.)
Ebeling, Rafalca’s rider, trainer, and co-owner, is a 53-year-old Olympic athlete known less for his strength, speed, and endurance and more for his “dapper navy jacket with tails.”
Dressage has been described as ballet for horses, though sadly no one attempts to dress the horses in tutus. Instead, horse and rider must successfully complete complex maneuvers such as pirouettes and piaffes. (A piaffe is not what it sounds like, though I have heard a horse do that. Instead, a piaffe is a “diagonalized, elevated, rounded, suspended, and majestic trot.”)
Though Jan Ebeling finished out of medal contention, he was able to accomplish the number one goal of every rider in this year’s individual dressage contest by not losing to Hoketsu Hiroshi. Hiroshi is a 71-year-old rider from Japan who was this year’s oldest Olympian.
3. Ariel Hsing – Ariel Hsing is on the road to becoming the best American ping pong player since Forrest Gump. The 16-year-old from California went into this year’s Olympics with high hopes and a cheering section that included Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. (The two richest men in America presumably lent their support to Hsing mainly because ping pong paddles are cheap. “Look,” said an imaginary advisor to Gates, “when you’re a billionaire and you say you support something, everyone assumes you’re going to start shelling out dough. Mr. Gates wasn’t going to support water polo – those guys eat like 10,000 calories a day. You know they’ll be asking for handouts.” An equally imaginary advisor to Buffett said, “My boss didn’t get rich by being stupid. The minute he says, ‘I support American basketball,’ he’ll get a phone call from Lebron James asking for a Maserati to drive to practice. With Hsing, worst-case scenario, Warren will have to pony up fifteen bucks for a new paddle and a three-pack of balls.”)
Hsing superseded everyone’s expectations in London 2012. After defeating a player from Mexico in the opening round she faced Ni Xia Lian, a former world champion representing Luxembourg. Hsing won the second round and moved on to face gold medal favorite Li Xiaoxia from perennial ping pong powerhouse China. Sadly, the 16-year-old American lost to the Chinese veteran, who would go on to win gold, but not until after the American gave her a scare by winning two out of five matches. Despite her loss in the third round, Hsing’s performance vaulted her into the upper echelon of table tennis stars; she now has her sights set on the world championships in Rio in four years.
Undoubtedly because of her strong showing Ariel Hsing will soon become a household name alongside American superstar athletes like air hockey champ Billy Stubbs, foosball phenom John Napa, marbles marvel Caleb Isaacson of Gunnison, Colorado, and famed Donkey Kong champion Dr. Hank Chien.