Rooting for the underdogs


As previously noted, this columnist will always cheer for the underdog. The past week has given notice to several of these unlikely heroes who allowed us an opportunity to celebrate.

Despite my affection for animals, the human heroes will receive first mention. Saturday, May 30, was a day of notable achievement for 92-year-old Harriette Thompson, a Charlotte, North Carolina, native. This two-time cancer survivor became the oldest woman to complete a marathon.

Thompson’s impressive time for the “Suja Rock N Roll San Diego Marathon” was seven hours, 24 minutes and 36 seconds. This was her 16th finish of the grueling 26.2-mile San Diego challenge, to raise funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, an organization which holds special meaning to the former Carnegie Hall concert pianist.

To say Thompson’s life challenges have been numerous would be an understatement. Her husband of 67 years, Sydnor, died of cancer in January, and her son, Sydnor III, was diagnosed with the disease recently. Thompson has entered this same San Diego-based marathon since 1999, after she started training at age 76. It is estimated that she has raised more than $100,000 from her pledges by supporters, with $8,000 added to that total from Sunday’s effort.

Thompson’s attitude is even more endearing than her incredible accomplishment. “It’s amazing to me that I feel as well as I do,” she told CNN the day after the race. “I’m a little stiff but limbering up as the day goes on. My mother asked her mother when she was 89 how it felt to be 89, and my grandmother said, ‘Oh, I feel just like I did when I was 16, but I just can’t move as fast,’ and that’s the way I feel now.”

“I was really tired at one point, around mile 21. I was going up a hill and it was like a mountain,” she said, “and I was thinking, ‘This is sort of crazy at my age.’”

She also credits her concert piano training for giving her the discipline to become an accomplished marathoner. Thompson said she still enjoys tickling the ivories at the Charlotte retirement home where she resides. Thompson said she “plays piano compositions in her head to help her through the grueling races.”

Thompson upended the 2010 record of Gladys Burrill, a 92-year-old who completed the Honolulu Marathon who was about 50 days younger than Thompson at the time. Burrill finished the Honolulu Marathon in nine hours and 53 minutes.

Jockey Victor Espinoza is another hero from this past week — for riding American Pharoah to Triple Crown glory Saturday. He also shares a connection to Harriett Thompson for his support of cancer research and generosity towards achieving a cure.

One of 12 children, Espinoza was raised on a dairy farm in Hildago, Mexico. At age 15, he traveled to Cancun to assist an older brother train quarter horses. By age 17, Espinoza was driving a bus to fund his training as a thoroughbred jockey. He started riding professionally in 1992.

Espinoza arrived in the United States in 1997 to ride at northern California race tracks. He became the oldest jockey to win the Belmont Saturday, at age 43. Espinoza also is the first jockey to win both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness twice, but falter both times at the Belmont.

As his winning rides have increased, Espinoza has pledged 10 percent of his earnings to the City of Hope National Medical Center, a pediatric cancer research facility in Duarte, California. After his Triple Crown success aboard American Pharoah, he gifted his entire share of that victory to City of Hope research efforts.

Considering his support to that pediatric cancer facility, Espinoza ironically has no children and never married. When interviewed Tuesday on “Live With Kelly & Michael,” he admitted to thinking of “silly things” as American Pharoah exited the Belmont starting gate. When questioned further, Espinoza stated that he “had forgotten to eat,” and realized at that pinnacle moment, he was “starving.”

The city of Cleveland is my last “unsung hero” for this entry. Ranked as the top “Most Cursed Sports Cities” by the New York Times and promoted as such by sports commentator Amy Lawrence on CBS This Morning last Friday, the beleaguered municipality, once dubbed “The Mistake by the Lake,” has not seen a professional sports team championship since the Cleveland Browns’ season of 1964.

Sunday’s second overtime game — in the Cavaliers versus Golden State second game of the NBA finals — was a thriller. Thankfully, the second OT game was a victory for the Cavaliers as they return to Cleveland with the series tied 1-1. (This column had a deadline prior to Tuesday evening’s third game.)

Thank you, LeBron James, for returning to Ohio, to potentially end Cleveland’s cellar woes of being “the most losing sports city in America.”