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Glorious in defeat

For when the One Great Scorer comes
To write against your name,
He marks-not that you won or lost-
But how you played the game.

Grantland Rice 1880--1954

May 2003 was an historic month for all those who played the game, those who won and those who lost. In Canada, Ireland, and the United States it was the losers who won the hearts of their fans. The winners will have their names live in fame, engraved on trophies, and all hail to them. They may wear their laurels with pride.

Why then mention the others, those who lost? It is because they were glorious in their defeats.

In Canada hockey is all, ice hockey to those unfortunates who are destined never to experience the fastest game on earth played at scintillating speed on ice between two teams. Its silver grail is the Stanley Cup, named after an English Governor General who first presented it for competition in 1892. This year, for the first time since 1927, the Ottawa Senators, eleven years since the team was resurrected in 1992 after an absence of 58 years, found itself in contention, and deservedly so.

The Senators had finished the regular season with the most wins in the NHL, the National Hockey League, made up of six Canadian teams and twenty-four American teams. Then the real season began, the play-offs. The Senators won the first round, the second round, and progressed to the third round, the semi-final round, in which they met an American team, the New Jersey Devils.

They were down three games to one in the seven-game series. One more loss meant they were gone. They had never come this far before in their eleven years. There was little possibility of their recovering, but recover they did, winning games five and six. Could they win the seventh game they would face the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, another American team, in the final seven-game series. "Ducks"? "Devils"? This is not fiction. Even the faithful can pray for the Devils to win without committing a sin.

The citizenry of Ottawa were united behind the Senators. Hockey fever swept the capital. The local stadium erupted in pandemonium as the Senators scored the first goal in the first twenty-minute period. In the second period the Devils scored twice. The Senators equalized in the third and were skating rings around their opponents. It was only a matter of time before they would score the winning goal.

Then, with less than three minutes remaining, it was the Devils' own luck to seize on an unexpected Senators' defensive mistake and send the puck into the net. Game over.

It was a good win, and a glorious loss. In defeat they had shown their true mettle, and in defeat their fans applauded them for five full minutes after the game ended.

By coincidence, that same week an Irish team savoured a hard won victory and a glorious loss. This game was played out, not in their homeland, but on the slopes of Mt. Everest in the far away Himalayas, a game in which numerous losers over the years had lost their lives. Mistakes on Everest don't result in five minutes in a hockey arena penalty box, but death and entombment in ice, sometimes for years, sometimes for ever.

Last month was the fiftieth anniversary of the first human victory on Everest, when Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay of Nepal, reached its peak, an achievement that was admired the world over and meant everlasting fame in the records of mountaineering. It was also the month that a native of Derry City attempted to become the first Irish woman to scale the world's highest mountain.

What drives one to attempt such a hazard? That question has often been asked. There is no monetary reward as there is in professional sports. It is an expensive undertaking, more often than not requiring sponsors to spend large amounts of money. Physical training, planning, and preparation may last years. The actual assault on the peak may be reduced to a final three days when fierce winds may dash all hope of making the attempt.

But, and this may be the only but, when one has first stood on top of a mountain, however insignificant compared to Everest, there is a feeling of exhilaration, of wonderment, of an unexplainable feeling that cannot be shared with those who ask why do it.

There were four members in the Irish team, Ger. McDonnell (32) from Kilcornan, Co Limerick; Mick Murphy (43) and Pat Falvey (45), both from Cork , and Hannah Shields (37), a dentist by profession, from Derry.

Sadly the team leader, Pat Falvey, and the lady from Derry, Hannah Shields, succumbed to high altitude sickness and could not overcome the harsh winds on the final leg of the climb to the top.

Again, all hail to Murphy and McDonnell. They played their game and won. Yes, and all hail to the other two, Falvey and Shields. Theirs was a defeat, but what a glorious one! To have come so close, like the Canadian Senators hockey team, they merit applause for their gallant attempts.

Hannah Shields will always be remembered in the annals of Irish mountaineering. Another successful attempt, even if by someone else, will not erase her glory.

The third glorious defeat came on the same week as those of the Senators and Hannah Shields. This time the venue was in the United States when, following in the path first trod by the famed American woman sports legend, Babe Zaharias, Annika Sorenstam became the second woman golfer to compete in an event on the men's professional tour.

"She doesn't belong." "She can't compete." "I will not play if paired with her."

Such were the comments that greeted the news of her daring to take part in a men's tournament. The media were merciless in their hounding of Annika in the weeks leading up to the Bank of America Colonial held in Fort Worth, Texas, and in the week of the actual tournament their focus on the young woman golfer from Sweden was unrelenting.

Some wondered whether she would buckle under the pressure as she arrived on the first tee on Thursday, May 22nd.

All their misgivings were quickly laid to rest. Her first drive was straight down the fairway. A huge, a vast attendance drawn by all the pre-tournament hoopla, applauded.

"Annika, Annika, rah, rah, rah!" The chanted at every hole. When she made her first birdie the cheering sounded around the world. Spectators and television viewers alike were thrilled.

At the end of that first day she had shot one over par. Her detractors were silenced.

That her second round fell short in scoring was of little consequence. No golfer could withstand what she had been subjected to by media pressure. Not making the cut on Friday, May 23rd, the same day the Ottawa Senators lost to New Jersey, was equally as glorious a loss.

To the Senators, to Hannah, and to Annika, you made your city, your country, and your fans proud. Your defeats were indeed glorious. Thank you for a wonderful week. It was all in "how you played the game".


Postscript: Ice hockey, the fastest game in sports, is a variant of hurling, a game played in Ireland on a grass pitch, with a camán, a hurley stick equivalent to a hockey stick, and a sliothar, a ball equivalent to a hockey puck. When he reached the summit of Everest, Irish climber Ger. McDonnell pulled a camán and sliothar from his backpack, and gave the ball a mighty whack, reminiscent of astronaut Alan Shepherd's golf shot on the surface off the moon Neither the golf ball nor the sliothar have yet been recovered.

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