Somebody needs to be first to the summit — it’s an inspirational place to be

All eyes have been on America in recent weeks – ours too – but behind the politics in the US three sports stories grabbed our attention and have inspired us to power through these tough weeks of lockdown 2.

First it was announced that, for the first time ever a black golfer – 86-year-old Lee Elder – will be part of the honorary starters for the Masters in 2021.  The Masters, one of golf’s great institutions, starts on Thursday and Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player will, as usual, be the  two honorary starters having done it together since Arnold Palmer bowed out in 2016. But next April they will be joined by Elder,  to make it a threeball again.

Augusta says it has reacted to the “events of 2020”, referring to the death of George Floyd and the rapid advance of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Even after Tiger Woods arrived on the scene in the late 1990s, golf has struggled to attract a black audience and participation figures remain low in the US (six percent black, Latino or Native American according to most recent figures) and it could be argued that Elder’s ‘elevation’ to honorary starter is too late already – but nevertheless his appearance on the Thursday morning in April with Nicklaus and Player is a first for the sport and will be celebrated as such.

“This is a special moment for me. It will allow me to be a part of something much more than just hitting a ball off the first tee,” said Elder, who was the first African-American to play in the Masters in 1975 and suffered the slings and arrows of terrible racist abuse for his trouble.

Fred Ridley, chairman of Augusta National, said: “I think like all organisations, we’ve been moved by the events of 2020. There’s been a lot said about racial justice and opportunity, and our question was not so much what can we say but what can we do. So I guess I would say that this announcement is in part a call to action in that regard.

“The courage and commitment of Lee Elder and other trailblazers like him inspired men and women of colour to pursue their rightful opportunity to compete and follow their dreams. But in reality, that opportunity is still elusive for many. We have a long way to go, and we can and we must do more.”

Augusta National has also dedicated a scholarship in Elder’s name at Paine College, a black college close to the golf course which the club has supported for years. “We believe the time to do more is now. And Lee has graciously agreed to join our efforts as the namesake of the Lee Elder Scholarship,” said Ridley.

Meanwhile in the west, another sporting first was happening. Emily Harrington became the first woman to free climb Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan – using the famously challenging Golden Gate route – in a day.

“I never believed I could actually free-climb El Cap in a day when I first set the goal for myself,” the 34-year-old American said of her no-ropes 3,000ft ascent.

“Impossible dreams challenge us to rise above who we are now to see if we can become better versions of ourselves.”

Rock climbers used to take weeks to reach the summit of El Capitan but in recent years, three men have managed to climb it via the Golden Gate route in a day — but no women. 

“I spent a lot of years feeling like I didn’t belong,” said Harrington. “Like maybe I hadn’t earned my place to be a Yosemite climber. But throughout this experience I learned that there is no belonging or not belonging, no formula to achievement up there.”

Back east and Monday brought us the story of Chris Nikic in Florida, the first person with Down’s syndrome to finish an Ironman event.

The 21-year-old swam the 2.4 miles, cycled the 112 mile and ran the 26.2 miles at the Visit Panama City Beach Ironman and took his place in history. 

“You have shattered barriers while proving without a doubt that anything is possible,” the official Ironman account tweeted.

His father Nik was the inspiration for Chris when he encouraged him to become 1 percent fitter every day after noticing his son was not getting enough exercise. 

Training began with a single push-up.

After he finished the Ironman on Monday Nik said: “To Chris, this race was more than just a finish line and celebration of victory. Ironman has served as his platform to become one step closer to his goal of living a life of inclusion, normalcy, and leadership. It’s about being an example to other kids and families that face similar barriers, proving no dream or goal is too high.”

Chris now has over 80,000 followers on Instagram,  with people in the US and across the world amazed by his step-by-step approach to achieving his goal.

All three are incredible sports stories in their own right – but what unites them is that each person is first. This is not to say that first is best or that if you aren’t in first place then it is not worth doing. 

No, it is simply to say that somebody has to be first. Somebody has to break the barrier so others can follow. That’s what being inspired is all about.

And as Sportside prepares to launch its Connect and Play app at the end of this month, we are looking for pioneers too – people prepared to be first, and lead others to a healthier life, both mentally and physically. 

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