After cross-country crash in Sochi, a lesson in crying

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OCHI — Here’s a tricky one: Why do people cry when they are happy? This comes up a lot at the Olympics, as my wife Margo will break into tears at pretty much any point, including during the commercials. A couple of weeks ago, after watching figure skater Jason Brown pull off a near-flawless program at the trials, she broke down in tears. The best part was that when telling us about it later, she broke down in tears again.

This column will lead, by the way, to a story that definitely will make Margo cry again.

Why do we cry when we are happy? It turns out this is actually quite an involved question. I have an emigo — an email friend — named Indre Viskontas, who is both a neuroscientist and an opera singer, which makes her, more or less, the most amazing person on Earth. She is also a new mother, so she was up in the middle of the night to offer a pretty involved answer to this question.

The neurological reason we cry when happy, she says, relates to the “parasympathetic nervous system — the part of the autonomic nervous system that calms us down.” Which is exactly what I was thinking? One theory is that the system cannot really differentiate between different emotions; it only knows when it is emotionally overloaded. So the emotion could be fear, sadness, anger, pain or joy and if that emotion is intense enough it can trigger tears as a release.

“Usually, crying from joy comes after a stressful event – and signals the switch from fight or flight to relief and relaxation,” Viskontas says. “The more stressful the event, the greater the opposite response when the stress is relieved.”

That explains why everyone cried at the end of “Toy Story 3.” You know (spoiler alert), the toys were almost incinerated and then they were destined for the attic and instead they ended up at that little girls house, and Woody was going to go with Andy to college but instead … Okay, I have to stop now.

VIDEO: Broken ski doesn’t stop Gafarov from finishing

The more fascinating question is the psychological one. Why do we cry at all? There are disagreements. Viskontas says one theory is that crying is our body’s response to a perception of helplessness. You have to stretch a bit, though, to connect that with happy crying. A second theory is that crying is tied to other variable personality traits. This makes a lot of sense, since different people are more or less likely to cry.

But I think the most interesting theory is that crying connects us with each other. In this theory, we cry as a way to bond, a way to link our sadness or anger or fear or joy with the world. This idea speaks to me. Happy crying seems to me to come from a deep connection with someone or something, whether it’s Woody and Buzz getting a new child to play with at the end of “Toy Story 3,” or Dan Jansen winning that speed skating gold medal after a career of heartbreak, or that “Thank You Mom” commercial that shows mothers raising children who become Olympians. It’s as if simple happiness is not big enough to express the connection with something graceful or kind or plainly decent. So people cry.

That connection is particularly powerful for many at the Olympics. Everyone knows that the Olympic Games overflow with all sorts of negative things — corruption, waste, greed, on and on — but there is a strain of innocence and wonder, too. This is why so many people around the world care. The athletes, mostly, are not millionaires. They are regular people you know, people who have real jobs, people who sacrifice because they truly love their sports and deeply believe in an Olympic ideal they formed when they were children.

Russia’s Anton Gafarov is this kind of athlete. He’s a 27-year-old cross-country skier, and this is his first Olympics. He was not really a medal contender, but being able to compete here was incredibly important to him. “I couldn’t imagine my life without skiing,” he told reporters. “For me, skiing is like breathing.”

VIDEO: Cross country sprint has crazy finish

But Gafarov wanted to finish the race. So he pulled himself along. The sprint lasts about three and a half minutes. And so when the others had finished, he was still in the middle of the course, fighting his way step by step. It just didn’t seem like he would get there.

And then someone raced up to him. He was carrying a ski. That was Justin Wadsworth, the Canadian head coach. Wadsworth is actually an American — he’s a three-time U.S. Olympian — and he has a reputation as an open and warm person. He had taken the job to help build Canada’s fledgling cross-country team (no Canadian man has ever won an Olympic cross-country medal). Wadsworth’s team didn’t do too well on Tuesday — not one Canadian reaching the semifinal — and he wasn’t in the best mood.

But then, while rushing out to catch the end of the semifinal, he saw Gafarov trying to move forward. “It was like watching an animal stuck in a trap,” Wadsworth told the Toronto Star. Instinctively, he found a spare ski, and he rushed down to Gafarov.

Neither man said a word. There wasn’t anything to say. Gafarov stopped. Wadsworth kneeled down and removed the old ski. He put the new one on. And Gafarov took off toward the end.

Gafarov finished the race long after everyone else. But he finished.

“I wanted him to have dignity as he crossed the finish line,” Wadsworth said. He did not really understand why this was a story. Anyone would do it, he said.

But this is the thing, isn’t it? Anyone might wish they did it. But only one man actually did.

And right now, back in America, Margo is crying because – well, because maybe it is a way to connect with people and with something beautiful. Or maybe it’s just a parasympathetic nervous system response to a sweet story. Either way, it’s only a matter of time before the Olympics make her cry again.

 

Aly Raisman announces book details

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Aly Raisman will become the fourth member of the Final Five to publish a book. It’s titled “Fierce” and is out Nov. 14.

The title conjures the name of Raisman’s first Olympic team — the Fierce Five in 2012 — and will be about her path to Olympic titles in 2012 and 2016.

She follows teammates Gabby DouglasSimone Biles and Laurie Hernandez in putting out books.

None of the Final Five (or the Fierce Five) are expected to compete at the P&G Championships in August or the world championships in October.

Raisman said last September that she planned to take a year off and then return to training with an eye on the 2020 Tokyo Games at age 26. The last woman to make three U.S. Olympic gymnastics teams was Dominique Dawes in 2000.

A synopsis of “Fierce” from bookselling websites:

Discover Aly Raisman’s inspiring story of dedication, perseverance, and learning to think positive even in the toughest times on her path to gold medal success in two Olympic Games–and beyond.

Aly Raisman first stepped onto a gymnastics mat as a toddler in a “mommy & me” gymnastics class. No one could have predicted then that sixteen years later, she’d be standing on an Olympic podium, having achieved her dreams.

But it wasn’t an easy road to success. Aly faced obstacle after obstacle, including naysayers who claimed that she didn’t have the talent to compete at an elite level and classmates who shamed Aly for her athletic body. Through it all, Aly surrounded herself with supportive family, friends, and teammates and found the inner strength to believe in herself and prove her doubters wrong. In her own words, Aly shows what it takes to be a champion on and off the floor, and takes readers on a behind-the-scenes journey before, during, and after her remarkable achievements in two Olympic Games–through her highest highs, lowest lows, and all the moments in between.

Honest and heartfelt, frank and funny, Aly’s story is enhanced with never-before-published photos, excerpts from the personal journals she’s kept since childhood that chronicle memorable moments with her teammates, and hard-won advice for readers striving to rise above challenges, learn to love themselves, and make their own dreams come true.

MORE: Hernandez sets return to gymnastics training

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Katie Ledecky reacts to Olympics adding 1500m freestyle

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Katie Ledecky is focused on qualifying for the world championships this week, but the sport’s biggest recent story, regarding the 2020 Olympic program, greatly impacts the five-time Olympic champion.

The IOC added three swimming events for the Tokyo Games — a mixed-gender 4x100m freestyle relay, the men’s 800m freestyle and the women’s 1500m freestyle — on June 9.

Ledecky holds the world record in the 1500m free — no other woman has swum within 13 seconds of it — and captured the last two world titles.

Many believed the women’s 1500m free should have been on the Olympic program years ago, since the men have been contesting the event at the Games since 1908.

The women have swum the 800m freestyle at the Olympics (which the men do not) since 1968. Of course, Ledecky won the last two Olympic golds in that event.

Last year, Ledecky advocated for adding the men’s 800m free and women’s 1500m free to the Olympics. She also stressed not wanting to drop the women’s 800m free for the women’s 1500m free.

Now, she can swim both in Tokyo, granted she wants to and finishes top two in those events at the Olympic Trials. Both are to be determined.

“Adding the 1500m was a long time coming,” Ledecky said Monday in Indianapolis, ahead of the USA Swimming National Championships, part of the TeamUSA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast. “It’s good that there’s parity in the men’s and women’s distance events now.”

MORE: USA Swimming Nationals broadcast schedule

In a press conference, Ledecky spoke for nearly two minutes on the subject.

She hasn’t set any goals for the 2020 Olympics yet. Nor did she commit to wanting to swim the 1500m in Tokyo, where she could try to sweep the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m frees, like she did at the 2015 Worlds.

“Obviously, the 1500m will have to be in the conversation now,” Ledecky said. “It’s good that the sport isn’t static. I mean, the world isn’t static. If you look at the history of swimming, events have been added over time. Women had a lot fewer races back in the day. I’ve met some female swimmers who swam in the ’60s and didn’t have the opportunities that we had in terms of the events. I think there was only a 100m and 400m free at one point [before 1968]. And then they added the 200m. Then they added the 50m in 1988, I think. So, over time, more events have been added. I think the 1500m fits right in there this year. It’s a good opportunity for swimmers moving forward. Hopefully, it will encourage some young kids to try out some distance swimming.”

Ledecky actually might not swim the 1500m free at nationals this week, where she could qualify for the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m frees at worlds in Budapest next month. And earn a place on the 4x100m free relay.

She will start off with a 100m and 800m free double on Tuesday in Indianapolis.

The 1500m is on the last day of the meet Saturday, but Ledecky will earn a 1500m place on the worlds team if she wins the 800m.

The 100m free is the only event on her program this year that she did not swim at this meet four years ago.

Ledecky ranked No. 5 in the U.S. the last two years in the event, making it possible that she could qualify to swim it individually at worlds by finishing top two on Tuesday.

But she made no mention of that on Monday.

“I’m swimming the 100m because I like to contribute to that relay,” she said. “As long as I’m pushing the other girls, then we can get some good times up there. Hopefully whoever’s on that relay can compete for a top medal.”

MORE: Lilly King to be less vocal on Yuliya Efimova topic this summer

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