John F. Russell: Spillane's legacy about more than Olympic medals

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John Russell

John Russell's sports column appears Sundays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by John here.

— Thanks, Johnny.

Thank you for a career filled with highlight-reel moments, thank you for returning my phone calls when I was facing a deadline and thank you for making my career as a sports reporter in Steamboat Springs just a little more exciting.

You were always a trooper through the good and the bad. I can’t say that about all the athletes I’ve covered.

I’ll never forget the vision of you lying on the ground, exhausted after your leg in the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Utah. I’ll never forget the raw emotion of that moment or the disappointment that you, and the rest of the team, felt following that race.

I will never forget talking to you in Pragelato, Italy, after you struggled to make it around the cross-country course with a bum shoulder. There was no question you were in pain during the race, but once again, you answered my questions honestly and graciously when you were finished.

It was those moments that put a smile on my face as you stepped onto the stage at the Whistler Olympic Celebration Plaza to accept the silver medal at the 2010 Games. It was the moments of defeat and the grace with which you handled them that made me cheer for you.

The smile continued to grow the next few days when you collected another silver medal in the team event and one more in the final individual event of the Winter Olympic Games. By the time you were done, the smile, and the number of people smiling for you, was so large it consumed an entire city in the mountains of northern Colorado.

Sure, Steamboat was happy when you won the gold at the 2003 World Championships, and we all cheered when your team won the gold at the Junior World Championships in 1999. But this was the Olympics, and you always have been a favorite in your hometown. Looking back, it was the injuries, the struggles and how you handled the frustration that made that Olympic moment in 2010 even more special.

Most Americans, and most of the people who witnessed that moment, had no idea what you had faced. But in Steamboat, your friends and your fans knew that success had come at a price. We just couldn’t help but smile with you.

I’ve always felt that winners are measured by results, but the true value of a champion is woven from the fibers of their character. Sure, champions are built on winning, but it’s how they handle disappointment, what they are willing to sacrifice and how hard they are willing to work that pulls at our hearts. These things, the things that champions are made of, defined your career.

Now we understand why your career didn’t end on the snow-covered finish area of the cross-country course in Soldier Hollow, and we are happy that it wasn’t lost in the lackluster finishes in the mountains of northern Italy. The timing just wasn’t right, and the journey continued.

But this time it’s different.

This time, your reasons are valid and nobody, especially not me, will argue that your family is not the most important thing in your life. Plus, you’ve proven that you are a champion, both in competition and as a person.

I thank you for sharing the highs and not shutting us out during the lows. I thank you for making us realize that there is more to sports than just winning.

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com

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