The Best Holiday Present This Year
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Nine-year-old Arda Cakmak stood proudly with his world championship gold medal around his neck. He presented the gold medal for the photographers, holding it near his face, as his swimming heroes have done before. Standing there, holding his medal before photographers, onlookers, video cameras, and spectators, Arda smiled. This was one of those great moments at the World Championships.
Arda did not win any swim races over the weekend, of course. That honor goes to Ryan Lochte. “The Lochtenator” supplied many of the great World Championship moments in the Istanbul pool. He earned 8 World Championship medals and set two individual world records in the 100 and 200 IMs. But Lochte also supplied one memorable moment outside of the pool when, minutes following his 200 IM victory, he handed his championship medal to a Turkish boy sitting in the stands, Arda.
“To see that smile on that little face means everything to me,” Lochte said after his race, according to the AP.
Lochte is no stranger to pool-deck gift-giving. He frequently tosses flower bouquets or medals into the stands, oftentimes causing a visible ruckus particularly among the female swim fan contingent. (When he throws something into the stands, it’s like a bride throwing a bouquet to a pack of marriage-hungry bridesmaids.) And it’s all in good fun -- a way for fans to connect to swimming superstars.
So close to the holiday season, these are the types of things kids remember for a lifetime. Imagine getting a stocking-stuffer gift in the form of a World Championship medal. When I was a child, I once acquired an old, chewed-on plastic football mouth-guard from one of my favorite collegiate players. Disgusting as it sounds, I kept it for years proudly on my desk – one of my favorite souvenirs.
Kids end up keeping these medals, flowers, pictures, and autographs for years to come. That’s part of the reason many are so adamant about acquiring them. They are better than money, more important than video games, cell phones, and designer clothes. A Missy Franklin picture or a Matt Grevers autograph means more to kids than anything on Amazon.com. Ryan Lochte, never one to refuse a fan interaction or autograph request, deserves credit for understanding this.
"If I took the medal, it would end up in a sock drawer,” Lochte told the AP. “If I give it to a fan, they're going to treasure it. It will make their day or even their life."
A few weeks ago, I was digging through my childhood closets and cupboards. I found an old swim cap signed by Rowdy Gaines. It wasn’t even addressed to me; it was addressed to my older sister. But twenty years later, I had it. (I must have stealthily stolen it from her at some point.) There were more items, too: signed posters from Janet Evans, swim caps penned by the late Eric Namesnik, another poster signed by Tom Dolan. As an age group swimmer, these artifacts were sources of immense happiness. I coveted these objects like sacred swim treasures.
Ryan Lochte didn’t just give away his photograph or autograph. He gave away his world championship medal, following a world-record setting performance. Sure, he has many, many world championship medals, and he will likely have many more in the years to come. But Lochte didn’t have to give it away. Would you give away your world championship medal? I have a hard time parting with 8th-place YMCA state age group medals. (Not that anyone would want them in the first place.) I couldn’t imagine giving away a world championship medal.
This holiday season, swimmers are giving back. In light of the horrific tragedy in Connecticut, we should all make it a mission to do the same this holiday season. You don’t have to be a world champion to make a kid feel special or give a kid a smile. If you’re a coach, conjure a great holiday-themed relay competition, or a cannonball contest, or a way to have some aquatic-themed fun. If you’re a swimmer, help another younger swimmer with a start or tricky turn. If you’re a parent, tell your swimmers how special and important and wonderful they are.
It’s a wonderful thing when the world’s biggest superstar in the sport of swimming stops and makes a difference. A photograph. An autograph. A kind word. They cost nothing, but in the long run, these things mean so much to so many.
"They have done so much with the cheering and the support throughout my years and just the love that they have given me,” Lochte told Reuters. “I wanted to give back."
Ryan Lochte proved that the best presents this holiday season don’t have to be expensive, but can nevertheless be priceless.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeLGustafson.