It hasn’t been a good last couple weeks in the world of Arkansas sports. The Hogs baseball team lost two of three against LSU, then badly stubbed its toe on Nebraska. Broadcasting legend and UA alum Pat Summerall died. And Hunter Mickelson added to the seemingly never-ending instability of the basketball team when he announced he will transfer.
Everybody knows Arkansas didn’t qualify for the NCAA Tournament, but – to make matters worse – it turns out that the “Natural State” didn’t even make it into “Big Tree Madness.” The state, well known for its trees, didn’t qualify as one of the 16 contestants in an annual national tournament pitting the biggest trees of each state against each other in a Facebook fan vote-based contest.
Making matters worst, Missouri won it all.
Arkansans should taken some solace, though, in the fact that their state is home to two national “champion trees” as determined by a register kept by American Forests, the self-declared oldest national nonprofit conservation organization in the country. Arkansas has two species representatives which are bigger (in terms of width, height and trunk circumference) than any other state’s:
1. Common PERSIMMON, measured by Lynn Warren in Yell County. Ninety-four feet high!
2. Shortleaf PINE, measured by Don Bragg in Ashley County. This 136-footer is located three miles south of Hamburg, the birthplace of Hall of Fame basketball player Scottie Pippen. Two other NBA players – Jeremy Evans and Myron Jackson – also hail from Ashley County, which seems to do “tall” pretty well.
So there you have ‘em, Arkansas. The trees that make ya proud on a national scale (even if you do want to consider that more than 780 such national champions exist and there are nearly 50 different kinds of registered Pine trees).
For more information, keep an eye out for AETN’s upcoming documentary on the largest trees of each type within Arkansas itself. Mark Wilcken is producing the film.
Stay at home dad/freelance writer I am, I have my morning ritual.
Scoop 5-month old baby Eden from her crib around 7:30, shuffle into the living room, descend into Lazy Boy and dutifully insert bottle in mouth. Most days, I browse the paper’s sports section as I rouse from my pre-coffee sleepiness.
This morning, though, I flipped through the most recent issue of SYNC, a central Arkansas weekly.
Good call, me.
At the bottom of page nine, I found one of the finest pieces of cross-cultural absurdist sports writing by an Arkansan I’ve ever read . In guest columnist Will Hehemann’s vignette on his experience weightlifting in Poland, I believe I have found the love child of a Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad and the screenplay of Freak and Geeks.
It is not the cutest baby you have ever seen. But you should try cuddling it anyway:
Tension in the workout room
By Will Hehemann
It’s difficult to execute a proper preacher curl while I’m sitting next to a marble-cut behemoth who moans every time he completes a repetition on the tricep machine. And though male moaning is likely an egotistical trait expressed by male gym members worldwide, I wonder where the regular people work out in Poland.
The bulk of the clientele at the gyms I have visited while living in Gdansk is composed of hard-bodied beasts with tan skin. Most of the men boast shaved heads, strong upper bodies and proud Polish beer guts — they look like tough gorillas. The women wear sports bras that reveal their toned tummies and the gorillas can’t keep their eyes off them. It’s crowded in this stuffy little gym, and I’m pretty sure they have the heat on.
My soft body and idiotic gym style (yellow Converse and Millennium Falcon shirt) didn’t stick out too much at 10 Fitness back in Conway. There, people of every possible chassis and dimension came as they were to work out and feel proud they made the effort, with little care as to which shirt they were wearing — Tasmanian Devil or Tweety Bird. But here, it’s a full-on Spandex show and I look like an idiot for not showcasing my butt in tight gym pants like everyone else.
There are only 559 days left until the start of the next World Cup, but it’s never too late to thinking about soccer.
Actually, it’s almost always too late, or early, for me anyhow. While I adore this game, and every summer try to watch it during major international competitions, I just can’t seem to find much attention to it during college football season. Once November hits, along with my favorite sport basketball, soccer ends up pushed even further into the recesses of my mind.
To the point where I just had to Google “winner MLS 2012″ to confirm that the LA Galaxy won a few weeks ago or whenever that game was.
Honestly, I feel guilty. Here I am, caring about soccer and realizing that it’s the second-most popular sport among American 12-24 year olds (only behind the NFL), and yet I can’t manage to cut down my football or basketball watching time during the non-summer.
And so, in an effort to absolve myself, I offer unto you something from the reliquary:
The following was originally published in Sync magazine on June 16, 2010:
Pop quiz, sports fans: Who’s the best soccer player ever? Sure, Pele’s as good an answer as any. Okay, try this one, World Cup watchers: Who’s the finest soccer player the United States has ever produced?
Old heads go with goalkeepers Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel, or midfielder Claudio Reyna, while new school candidates include Tim Howard and Landon Donovan. Yet Saturday in the Americans’ opener against England, it seemed God was tipping his hat to Clint Dempsey. In the first half, the Texan saw his easily catchable 25-meter shot inexplicably roll out of the English goalie’s arms and into the goal, notching the match at what would become the final 1-1 score.
Okay, my soccer-savvy reader, I’ve got one last question: Who’s Arkansas’ best all-time soccer player?
Wow. I had forgotten how horrendous a vinyl record screeching to a halt sounds.
Unfurrow that brow — you’re in the same boat as approximately 99.998% other Arkansans who have no clue what kind of elite soccer talent has played in their own backyard.
So, as this week’s conversation inevitably drifts to South Africa, stun your friends, shock your parents, and blow the minds of your office mates by bringing up some of Arkansas’ more obscure sports legends — who merely play the world’s most popular game.
Caveat: Go ahead and get your teeth grit on. Yes, the two best male players to have played in our state left to complete their high school careers in the Dallas area. But that place is a soccer hotbed, and you can’t blame a brother for wanting to raise his game.
1. Domenic Mediate, 5’9’’ midfielder/forward — Mediate grew up in Southlake, Texas, but as a young teenager moved to Northwest Arkansas, where he played for the Arkansas Comets club team from 1995 to 1998, according to a website of a soccer camp he runs in Springdale. In 1999, before his junior year of high school, Mediate returned to Texas, where he dominated at Southlake Carroll High School before playing at the University of Maryland.
I recently talked to a former Razorback about pioneering Olympian Christophe Lemaitre and how elite white sprinters are viewed in the track world at large. Cedric Vaughn, now the track coach at Arkansas Baptist College, knows his sport very well. When he was in Fayetteville,he ran the 200 meter and the 4X400m and 4X100m relays while teaming with the likes of Tyson Gay and Wallace Spearmon. To this day, Vaughn keeps in touch with both Olympians and sometimes stays at their Fayetteville homes when he visits his alma mater.
Vaughn, also a trainer at D1 Sports Training, first emphasized training plays a large part in a sprinter’s success. Still, the genetic component is undeniable. And, on the whole, people with West African ancestry tend to have more body features better suited for sprinting, he added. “I really believe African-Americans are built more athletically” for running, citing studies which confirmed blacks tend to have more efficient fast-twitch muscles. Moreover, the French journalist Phillippe Leclaire recently released a book on the subject bringing up another factor – ACTN3, the so-called ‘sprint gene.”
The ACTN3 was discovered for the first time by a team of Australian researchers in 2003. It is a gene present in all humans in two forms, either the RR form which helps speed, or the RX form which aids endurance.
“Since its discovery, a lot of research has shown that the RR form of the gene gives those who hold it explosive muscle power when the body is put under a certain amount of physical stress, so it’s a natural predisposition for sprinters,” Leclaire explained.
“If you had a weak form of ACTN 3, it would be impossible to match the great sprinters,” he said.
Leclaire concluded that the genes favourable for sprinting are more commonly found in those of West African origin.
There are exceptions, of course, which explains how French sprinter Lemaitre has been able to compete in the same class as the likes of Bolt and fellow Jamaican sprinter Yohan Blake.
“The blacks, physically, are made better.” – Carl Lewis, nine-time Olympic gold medal winner in track and field.
In most sports, they form the foundation of victory. Nowhere is this more cut and dry than in sprinting, where legacies often boil down to a matter of milliseconds.
Few athletes in history have developed more efficient fast-twitch muscles than four top track stars in this year’s Olympics: Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Asafa Powell and Razorback Tyson Gay. In 100 meter races, they have produced the top 21 performances ever. In the 200m, they had notched nine of the top 11 times.
In London, though, Europe’s fastest man is expected to loosen this quartet’s vice grip on the world’s biggest stage. Twenty-two-year-old Christophe Lemaitre entered the Olympic 200m and 4X100m relay with one of the event’s most intriguing stories. Lemaitre didn’t even start sprinting until age 15. In the next five years, he demolished one record after another in his native France while growing to 6-feet-3.
At a 2010 meet, Lemaitre became the first white European or American to run 100 meters under 10 seconds. His 9.98 time was good, but far off Bolt’s 9.58 world record. Still, Lemaitre had proven himself as a clear exception to a rule that had become more and more ironclad since south Arkansas native Jim Hines first broke the 10-second barrier in the 1968 Olympics: black sprinters dominate.
Before Lemaitre, 70 of 71 of the sprinters who’d run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds had primarily west African ancestry.
I admit it: A vast slippery slope stretches before us. Many people, Lemaitre included, hesitate to even bring up racial barriers in a Western society which strives for meritocracy. In November, 2011, he told the New York Times he feels it’s possible the black monopoly on track has built “a bit of psychological barrier” for some aspiring white athletes and that his performance could help “advance and make the statement that it has nothing to do with the color of your skin and it’s just a question of work and desire and ambition.”
Lemaitre’s sentiments had already been espoused by the college coach of Olympic gold medalists Michael Johnson (4th all-time in the 200m) and Jeremy Wariner, a white 400m champion. “White kids think that it’s a black kids’ sport, that blacks are superior,” Baylor University’s Clyde Hart (a Hot Springs native) told Sports Illustrated in 2004.”There are plenty of white kids with fast-twitch fibers, but they’ve got to get off their rumps. Too many of them would rather go fast on their computers in a fantasy world. It’s not about genes, although they may play some part in it. It’s about ‘Do you want it badly enough?’”
No matter how badly we as Americans want to believe it, we know there’s more to success than willpower and worth ethic. We know these attributes don’t develop in a vacuum. Nurture has something to do with it. So does nature. Indeed, some scientists believe they have pinned the ratio in regards to foot speed.. According to the director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Institute, an athlete’s “environment” can account for 20 to 25 percent of his speed, but the the rest is determined before birth.
In Southeastern Conference territory, competition is a way of life. Year after year, SEC sports programs spew jetstreams of cash to beat each other on and off the field. Stadia, facilities, coaches’ salaries, TV contracts just keep getting bigger and better. There’s really no choice. Snazzy helicopters, after all, can only do so much to lure the big-time recruits which make college sports’ premier conference go round.
With the Summer Olympics opening ceremony this Friday, though, now is a good time to figure out which SEC state is top dog in terms of all-around athletic talent. For this exercise, we’ll tear down institutional walls which divide states. No Auburn/Alabama or MSU/Ole Miss delineations here. We only care about state borders, and the Olympians who grew up between them.
With this in mind, it turns out the biggest states have produced the most gold medalists at all modern summer Olympic Games since 1896. Not a surprise.
It gets interesting, however, when examining the numbers on a per capita basis:
Breaking Down SEC states’ # of Gold Medalists Per Capita
# of Gold Medalists
# People per Gold Medalist
Most Impressive Olympians?
|1||Mississippi||22||2.97 million||135,000||Calvin Smith, Ralph Boston|
|2||Missouri||31||5.99 million||193,226||Henry Iba, Helen Stephens|
|3||Arkansas||14||2.92 million||208,571||Earl Bell, Scottie Pippen|
|4||Louisiana||21||4.53 million||215,714||Rod Milburn, Karl Malone|
|5||Kentucky||16||4.34 million||271,250||Muhammad Ali, Mary Meagher|
|6||Alabama||17||4.7 million||276,471||Harvey Glance, Jennifer Chandler|
|7||Georgia||35||9.69 million||276,857||Gwen Torrence, Angelo Taylor|
|8||Texas||72||25.15 million||349,306||Babe Zaharias, Michael Johnson|
|9||South Carolina||12||4.63 million||385,833||Joe Frazier, Katrina McClain|
|10||Florida||`43||18.80 million||437,209||Bob Hayes, Rowdy Gaines|
|11||Tennessee||11||6.35 million||577,273||Wilma Rudolph, Tracy Caulkins|
When novelist Joseph Conrad tossed around possible settings for what would become his signature work, Heart of Darkness, it’s a safe bet Mayflower wasn’t a candidate.
Even at the turn of last century, there was far too much civilization in this south Faulkner County area to support Conrad’s harrowing tale of moral disintegration. No true chaos can emerge from the so-called wilderness flanking I-40. Yet in those sparse woods, among rusting husks of old cars and vans and hordes of young men wearing plastic masks evoking chemical warfare, I saw the lights going out.
Laughter filled the few hours we seven adults shared on a recent Saturday afternoon trip to the paintball facility Paintball Arkansas. Two women and five guys, all affiliated with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, with hardly a scrap of paintball experience between us.
Still, after five games between ourselves, we felt ready to take on the outside world.
That came in the form of four boys, 11-to-14-year-olds, who assured us they hadn’t played much organized paintball. We nervously laughed. One of their guns far too closely resembled an AK-47 for us to take them lightly.