By Richard J. Cunningham
(Animated Spaceship by RC)

I was perusing a bookstore in Old Town Pasadena, California, when I came across a compilation of Olympic photographs by Annie Leibowitz. I had some time to kill, so I plucked the hardcover book off the shelf, leaned against a nearby wall and began flipping through the black-and-white plates. The images were stunning. The famous portrait photographer captured the athletes during their final weeks of preparation for the 1996 Atlanta games.

Leibowitz’s camera documented candid pictures like: calloused hands ready to hurl the iron shot put; the pure arrogance of pro track and field sprinters; eight muscular backs rowing in perfect precision; hope in the eyes of the boxer; and indifference in those of the precision swimmers, who were locked into their routine and oblivious to outside stimulus. A younger Tinker Juarez appeared invincible, streaking shirtless through the woods on his Cannondale.

Each page gives access to the psyche of an athlete who is coping with the pressure of performing when all the chips are on the table and all eyes are focused upon his or her every move. Most of Annie’s portraits were taken before the commencement ceremony. With the pomp and ceremony stripped away, she captures the human, more vulnerable side of the competitors. There are no captions on her photos–Leibowitz leaves it up to the viewer to extract the story from her images.

On page 168 is a shot of Juli Furtado posing in a shady glen in front of her titanium GT. On the facing page is a close-up of Juli’s legs bearing the scars of multiple knee surgeries. Juli is wearing black cycling shorts without a logo and a T-shirt over a Spandex sport bra. Her posture makes her body look boxy and angular. Juli’s power and experience is quietly contained–she is far beyond the maturity of the others in this book. There is no lust for fortune or glory in her expression.

I searched Juli’s eyes for the 19-year-old girl John Parker introduced to me at the Ascot Park dirt track races; for the indomitable cross-country racer who would drop back on her way to winning a World Cup to cheer her friends along; for the female cyclist-of-the-year in the formal black dress who had too many glasses of wine and giggled her way onto the stage at the Korbel Night of Champions; for the World Champion downhiller; for the queen of American mountain bike racing. I searched, but I could not find them on page 168.

On page 168, Juli’s eyes are those of a seasoned warrior who has been called upon to fight one last battle for her country. In place of her elusive glances and flashy smile is a calm, unwavering, honest expression. It says she will fight her best fight, that she will withhold nothing–and it tells us that she will not emerge victorious this time.

I carefully closed the book and slid it back into its place. I could no longer bear its weight.


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