Mountaineer athlete Dani Arnold explores the deepest lake on earth.  His legs are fully extended in a "spread eagle" position as he makes a perilous climb up a very steep and treacherous ice-covered mountain.
Copyright: Thomas Monsorno |

By Marc Philip Agar

July 21, 2021

As we start the games in Tokyo, I am reflecting on some of the best big event experiences I have been fortunate to witness in my career. I choose to focus on two such global events because of the unique athletes who participated in those events. Both demonstrated the type of fortitude, conviction, and outright grit to allow them to touch the highest pinnacles in their respective sports. One is a well-known figure skater and the other is a much lesser known tennis player. The skater was seeking her ultimate glory in the Salt Lake Olympics and the tennis player had visions of reaching the main draw of the US Open.

If one was visualizing a life-long endeavor of reaching one’s own promised land, one could continue to consider what it would be like facing a series of setbacks to reaching one’s desired goal(s). The response to these difficulties is the essence of this article. The two special athletes I will highlight not only responded to setbacks, they slayed the bad luck and marched straight forward with the utmost resolve and vigor.

US Open Tennis Opportunity

The first athlete, Ingrid Kurta, was a rising tennis star. Born in a repressive regime, her parents fled to the United States. Ingrid was destined to be a downhill ski racer, but Southern California changed that vision. Tennis was her new passion and she had lots of catching up to do as she began to compete on the circuit against her more experienced young adversaries.

By her late teens, she had climbed the rankings and was living her dream, competing globally against some of the best players. Ingrid’s target events were the US Open and Wimbledon. She was playing qualifying professional events and progressing nicely; that is, until the ‘injury bug’ struck her.

A Devastating Injury Besets Kurta

I met up with Ingrid in Flushing, NY before the start of the US Open qualifying play-in. We decided to seek medical care, but with such short notice and in new surroundings, where were we going to find an expert clinician on such short notice to help keep her dream alive? This was the US Open, after all!

We decided to travel a few hours and get the proper medical care. Unfortunately NY City is not a place to mess with on a busy weekday. We left in the early morning to allow enough time to return to the tennis complex and permit her time to get prepared for her match. The traffic was unbearable, bumper to bumper, often not even moving. What should have taken a few hours took upwards of five to six just to reach the doctor’s office. Fortunately, Ingrid was assured she would not do any further damage to her foot by playing on it. The only issue was whether she’d be able to withstand the immense pain.

Undaunted, we returned to Flushing minutes before her match time. She changed her clothes and got right to work. You would have never known how badly injured Ingrid was nor how stressed-out she was at the start of play. Surely, her relentlessness and resilience smothered any signs of her injury and tension. She would not be stopped. She would never withdraw. She was close to her dream and she would not be denied this opportunity.

Ingrid Kurta’s Courage Tackles Adversity

Ingrid ended up winning that match, her foot heavily bandaged and somehow tucked tightly into her tennis sneaker. In fact, I recall her cutting up her sneaker to allow her bandaged foot to fit more securely into that sneaker.

To me, Ingrid was a warrior. In all due respect to the valiant men and women of our Armed Services (thank you for your service!), Navy Seals and Army Rangers would have stood in awe had they witnessed her handle that ordeal. No moping, no “why me,” no indications of trouble. Ingrid had that intangible, nonstop desire to be on the big stage. Nobody and no problem would dare deter or deny what she came to achieve. Besides, she was unfazed.

Sasha, like no other Figure Skater

The other elite athlete is Sasha Cohen. She, too, went from one sport to another, shifting her career choice from gymnastics to figure skating. Her long-time coach, John Nicks (“Mr. Nicks” as he was reverently known), was charged with bringing her to stardom. Gradually, as she progressed, John delegated marketing opportunities and other assorted special pre-Olympic assignments to me.

I first met Sasha as a youngster. She lagged behind the other girls and had to work doubly hard to have a chance to catch up. It was frightening to me at first. It hurts badly crashing on the ice and I witnessed (in those early days) many frightening falls.

Sasha, too, had a dream. Her dream was to compete on the world stage. She had to climb the ranks of her age group and advance, each year making a greater leap forward. Injuries, though, beset her and slowed her progress. Her back was the most pressing issue during those early years. Anyone who had viewed Sasha’s performances knew how crucial a healthy back was to her ability to fully perform her routines. She was an incredibly gifted and talented athlete, contorting her body in ways only few could manage to do. John often glowingly shared his amazement at her abilities.

Nothing Will Keep Sasha Away

Notwithstanding all of the therapy and all of the treatments, Sasha managed to prevail. To me, just getting to the rink in Salt Lake was deserving of a gold medal. She had a tenacity, persistence, and mindset few could match. She, too, would not be denied. Sasha called her shots, having the drive and determination to reach her dream. No injury would stop her. She was relentless!

With now just short hours until athletes compete in Tokyo, I am thinking about how many of them had to confront their own trials and tribulations. If injuries aren’t enough of a roadblock, couple that with current Covid-related issues such as training, travel, masking, and the like. Mix in the media attention and suddenly one realizes how incredibly resilient and determined these elite athletes are in reaching their life-long dreams.

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