Eric He | Daily TrojanThe great thing about sports is that the best moments come when you least expect them. Nowhere is that notion more apparent than the Olympics, where there are thousands of athletes, most of whom are relatively unknown and competing in niche sports. This is where historic moments become legendary — not because of the starpower of the athletes, but because the moment was so powerful that it quite simply cannot be forgotten.The Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea have produced a few of these moments thus far, but two of them will be etched in stone forever: Last Saturday, when a snowboarder won a gold medal in a skiing event, and Wednesday, when the United States women claimed gold in cross-country skiing for the first time in history, pulling off an incredible upset in a stacked field of winter sports giants.These moments were neither scripted nor predicted. The athletes were not hyped up to be gold medal favorites, like household names Shaun White and Mikaela Shiffrin. Nobody outside of people in their respective sports knew who they were before they competed. But by the time they crossed the finish line, Ester Ledecka, Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall would soon become household names themselves.Ledecka is a snowboarder from the Czech Republic, and her story is one straight out of a movie. She entered the super-G, an alpine skiing event, and reportedly borrowed someone else’s skis to compete. Let me reiterate: This was a snowboarder, competing in a skiing event — in the Olympics, no less.Ledecka was the 26th racer to go down the course, so by the time her turn came, the winner had all but been decided. On the world stage, the commentator had essentially declared Austria’s Anna Veith — the defending champion in the event — the winner, “barring something exceptional.” Well, the exceptional happened. At the first speed marker, she was 0.03 seconds back of Veith. But she was cruising, hitting the right speeds, taking the perfect angles. By the time she hit the third marker — between which the camera repeatedly showed Veith hugging her family, celebrating the presumed gold — Ledecka was in the lead by 0.04 seconds. And as she sped down the home stretch and touched the line, her time flashed on the screen: She had won, by a hundredth of a second. Ledecka’s reaction was priceless, because she didn’t have one. She stared straight ahead, speechless, so stunned that the cameraman had to tell her that she had won.“No,” she said. “Must be some mistake.” There was no mistake. She entered the field as a massive underdog and came out of it an Olympic champion skier. We all love these David vs. Goliath stories, which is why Americans will love what Diggins and Randall did at the women’s team sprint freestyle race. Before Wednesday, no American female cross country skier had claimed a medal. No American — period — had ever won gold, and the last medal went to Bill Koch in 1976.The odds were stacked against them to end the 42-year drought. They were up against countries like Norway and Sweden, which pump out gold medalists in the Winter Olympics like clockwork. The United States, historically, has not stood a chance at this event.But Diggins and Randall had the race of their lives in a relay event that is as hard to watch as it is to compete in. The terrain is nasty, the hills are steep and it is freezing cold. Yet, as the competitors reached the home stretch up the final hill, Diggins was in third, close behind Sweden and Norway. Hills are Diggins’ speciality, and she made her move into second before battling Sweden’s Stina Nilsson in an all-out sprint, winning by 0.19 seconds.Diggins, who placed fifth and sixth, respectively, in her first two events, screamed in joy for a brief second before collapsing in the snow out of exhaustion. Randall, a five-time Olympian competing in her final Games, waited at the finish line and dove on top of Diggins in an embrace. Together, they got up, each with “USA” glittered on their faces, grabbed a big American flag and flashed the widest grins you will ever see.These are the moments that make the Olympics great. We love to watch the so-called favorites. We tune in to see Nathan Chen skate or Chloe Kim snowboard. We’ll be watching when the gold medal hockey game takes place on the final day of competition on Sunday. But, in the name of the Olympic spirit, let’s recognize the stories that pop up in between, the stories that bring out what we love most about sports.Eric He is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Thursdays.
Clayton Kershaw has not found a way to turn back time. But he has found a way to recover some of what it took away.Through his first four starts this season, the Dodgers ace has reversed a four-year slide in his fastball velocity, regaining two miles per hour on the pitch. He averaged over 91.5 mph in each of his first three starts — the first time he has held that much velocity for three consecutive starts since his first three outings in the 2018 season — before falling just short with an average velocity of 91.425 mph against the Seattle Mariners Thursday.Against the Angels last week (when he allowed just one hit in seven innings), Kershaw’s fastball averaged 92.5 mph — the highest it has been in a single start since the 2017 World Series.“(Velocity) is not everything. But I knew it was in there. So I think that’s what’s frustrating,” Kershaw said after the start in Anaheim. Newsroom GuidelinesNews TipsContact UsReport an Error The added velocity gives Kershaw more “margin for error,” Prior said and also makes his slider more effective.“Obviously the slider for him … when it’s good, it’s hard and it’s short and it basically just misses barrels,” Prior said. “I think that’s the other component. Now is the velocity the same on the slider even when his velocity is down? Sometimes it is. But I don’t think the movement and the sharpness of the bite is the same. That’s kind of the added benefit. Yes, it gives him some room on his fastball. But I think the arm speed also helps him lock in his really good slider.”BUEHLER STARTRight-hander Walker Buehler will take a 5.21 ERA into his fourth start of the season Friday — a slow start that recalls the 2019 season. Buehler had a 5.22 ERA after his first six starts last year, coming off a “slow-played” spring training prompted by some lingering fatigue from the 2018 postseason run.This year, Buehler was once again handled with care during the preseason after admittedly throttling back on his throwing program during quarantine.Prior said there has been “progress” over Buehler’s three starts.“First, we started to see the velocity start to tick up a couple starts ago. I think the last start his command started to tick up,” Prior said. “The slider, curveball haven’t been there for him yet. So that’s kind of handcuffed him in some situations where he wanted to throw it and it hasn’t had quite the bite that we needed and he’s paid the price for it. Or it’s just been balls which leads right back to more of a hard pitch.“But I think now we’re starting to see things slowly piece by piece being put together. Walker’s a guy who has some moving parts. I don’t necessarily mean from a delivery standpoint. But there’s a lot of things to get him to where he feels confident in everything. With a guy who’s featuring five plus-pitches sometimes, to lock all of them in at one time — those are the games when you see the 15-, 16-strikeout game. I do think we’re seeing progress. The goal with Walker is obviously to get him right but obviously get him right for the stretch run. As long as we see steps in the right direction we’re encouraged.”After that slow start in 2019, Buehler had a 2.88 ERA and held opposing batters to a .220 average over his next 24 starts.BAEZ OUTDodgers reliever Pedro Baez was placed on the 10-day Injured List before Thursday’s game with a strained right groin muscle.Baez has a 3.97 ERA in 11 appearances this season including giving up a solo home run in one inning of work Wednesday night. Baez allowed runs in each of his past three appearances and his velocity has been down this season. His fastball has averaged a career-low 94.4 mph. “These last couple years, it’s been hard to figure out why it hasn’t been coming out the way I want it to. Obviously you grind and try to make good starts and stuff like that. We threw a lot of different things at it — our strength and conditioning guys, training staff, offseason stuff. Everybody did a great job with me, trying to figure out what works, what doesn’t work. I can’t pinpoint one specific thing. But all the things we’ve tried, there’s a lot of things that have stuck. It is gratifying, for sure.”Kershaw has been reluctant to talk about his visit to Driveline Academy last fall. The facility relies on sophisticated analytics to bring out more velocity in pitchers — Kenley Jansen and Alex Wood have also recovered velocity after visits to Driveline last offseason — and its devotees use a variety of weighted-ball exercises to improve arm strength. Kershaw could be seen doing the exercises during spring training in Arizona.Pitching coach Mark Prior gives the 32-year old Kershaw credit for being open-minded enough to look for answers.“Over time as we get older and he puts more miles on his body pitching, the body starts changing. Things start tightening. Things start loosening,” Prior said, aware of the history of back problems that has characterized Kershaw’s aging. “I think he was able to do some different things and attack it from a 360-degree approach to unlock some of the body to allow his arm to deliver the velocity that he was accustomed to.“I don’t think that’s anything that’s unusual for veteran pitchers especially guys that have been around for a decade to have to go out and … figure out where their body is in their 30s than it is in their young 20s. He spent a lot of time trying to figure out the right steps and the right things to do and now he’s seeing the dividends — in the velocity and in the command too.”