Say "hero" and I think of Muhammad Ali lighting the torch at the opening of the Olympics -- float like a butterfly, sting like a bee -- his poetry -- his dancing in the ring, his quicksilver mind and the illness that slowed him, continues to slow him way, way down. And other stories of who he is and what he did, said, and has meant to our country and the world.
His arrogance, his powerful sense of his race, religion, and what it is to be black in white America hasn't faded. Whenever I see him, I feel again what I've felt about him since Cassius Clay refused to fight in Vietnam. Golly, what a hero he is, to me, a white woman who has never been able to sit through a boxing match, who loves, honors, respects, and is inspired by this man.
Say "heroine -- l immediately picture Nadia Comaneci. I don't know why -- maybe because I was so deeply into pointing my toes, stretching, perfecting ballet technical things that weren't natural to my body. And there she was -- pre-pubescent 13 or 14-year-old Nadia, calmly executing those complicated maneuvers.
She astounded me, (and amazed the world), with her confidence, her supple body, her graceful, seemingly effortless coordination of muscles and brain.
Nadia Comaneci is not a woman whose career I've continued to follow. I don't really want to hear how she and her husband train others and continue to build a business on what the teenager accomplished. The vision of 13, and 14 year old Nadia is so strong, so powerfully in my mind, it's as if it happened yesterday.
Roger Federer is a hero. I sort of squint at tennis -- don't follow the "love" score, and let the sportcasters' words fly over me -- "match point, ace, deuce, baseline, break point, double fault." My husband, John Cullum, is an expert, and what he says while we're watching tennis together --especially when we're watching Roger -- makes it extra-special fun.
Here's what I said in a blog I wrote about Federer, September of 2009:
"I almost didn't want to watch the tennis finals on Monday. I was afraid -- because Roger wanted to win so much -- that he might lose.
"Federer cried when he lost the Australian Open -- cried the first time he won Wimbledon. He didn't cry when he lost the finals Monday and that brought tears to my eyes. Federer's spirit, his ability to win -- I don't want him to lose what inspires me. "Right now I'm picturing him, thinking of how he must feel today and my sense is -- he's not mourning. Or reviewing what he might have handled better in the game that he lost. He's thinking ahead, planning what to work on before the next competition. Federer's direct connection to what's important -- Federer's ability to be on the moment at the moment -- that inspires me. That's what I feel, and learn, and want to emulate when I watch Roger Federer -- with keen coordination, keen focus and grace -- playing his game. He's a dancer."
And that's what I feel today. He's thirty, not number one right now, a husband and father, a winner, a champion. Winning or losing, ascending as he's growing older, Federer is a hero magnificently playing the game.
There are others -- names flood my mind -- Magic Johnson, Billie Jean King, Peggy Fleming and ... well ... while you're thinking of names for your list of heroes ad heroines, peruse these short videos of some of my favorite, most memorable moments.