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Athletes with hearts of gold

These moments of sporting selflessness make me tear up every time

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Canadian speed skater Gilmore Junio listens to Denny Morrison answer a question during a news conference at the Sochi Winter Olympics Sunday February 16, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

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Canadian speed skater Gilmore Junio listens to Denny Morrison answer a question during a news conference at the Sochi Winter Olympics Sunday February 16, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

It was an astonishing act of selflessness that became one of the most inspiring highlights of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Canadian speedskater Gilmore Junio, 23, made headlines and captured hearts around the world when he gave up his spot in the men's 1,000-metre event so his teammate and buddy Denny Morrison, who had fallen during the qualifying trials, could race.

A stronger competitor in the 1,000 metres, Morrison famously went on to capture a silver medal in the event after taking Junio's place. Last Wednesday at a public school in Kitchener, Ont., Junio was presented with a custom-made commemorative medal to honour his sacrifice.

In our own tribute to Junio's sacrifice, here's a look at five of the most memorable and selfless acts of sportsmanship of all time:


THE SPORTSMAN: Italian bobsledder Eugenio Monti

THE SACRIFICE: Dubbed "The Flying Redhead," this onetime skier, who died in 2003 at age 75, remains one of Italy's most revered athletes. He won 10 World Championship medals and six Olympic medals, but arguably his greatest moment came during the 1964 Winter Games when, after learning British rivals Tony Nash and Robin Dixon had broken a bolt on their sled, he lent them a bolt off his own sled. Thanks to Monti, the Brits won the gold in the two-man event, while Monti and his teammate took the bronze. "Nash didn't win because I gave him the bolt," Monti famously told critics at the time. "He won because he had the fastest run." As if that weren't enough, Monti and his mechanics also came to the rescue of the Canadians, helping repair a damaged axle, an act that allowed the Canucks to avoid being disqualified and claim gold in the four-man event. In recognition of his selflessness, the Italian star became the first recipient of the Pierre de Coubertin World Trophy from the International Committee for Fair Play. Bravo, Eugenio!


THE SPORTSMAN: Mallory Holtman

THE SACRIFICE: On Saturday, April 26, 2008, Sara Tucholsky, a diminutive outfielder for Western Oregon University stepped to the plate and uncorked the swing of her life. It was the second inning of a game against Central Washington University, in Ellensburg, Wash., and Tucholsky, who had never hit a home run in her career, smoked a three-run shot over the centre-field fence. Caught up in the excitement of the moment, she missed first base on her home-run trot and had to turn around to tag the bag -- which is when her knee collapsed, leaving her crumpled in the dirt a few feet from first base and a long way from home plate. The umpires warned she'd be called out if she received any help from teammates or coaches in rounding the bases. Enter Mallory Holtman, the star first baseman for the opposing team, Central Washington, who asked the umps if it would be OK for her and a teammate to carry Tucholsky around the bases. Which is exactly what they did, gently lowering the injured player's legs at each base they passed, receiving a standing ovation from the fans as they arrived at home plate and handed Tucholsky into the arms of her teammates. Western Oregon won 4-2, and Holtman's team was eliminated.


THE SPORTSMAN: Cross-country ski coaches Justin Wadsworth and Bjoernar Haakensmoen

THE SACRIFICE: OK, these are two separate stories, but they're linked by two men with huge hearts who refused to stand idle when someone needed their help. At the Sochi Games, Canadian cross-country coach Wadsworth didn't hesitate when Russia's Anton Gafarov crashed and broke a ski during a semifinal heat in the men's cross-country sprint. Gafarov was way behind, but desperately wanted to finish in front of his hometown crowd. He was struggling miserably, trying to drag himself to the end of the course, which is when Wadsworth grabbed a spare ski he'd brought for a Canadian racer and ran to the rescue. Kneeling beside the Russian, Wadsworth fastened the spare ski to Gafarov's boot as the crowd cheered. "It's kind of like seeing an animal in a trap," the Canadian coach said at the time. "I just couldn't let him sit there... I wanted him to have dignity as he crossed the finish line." His generous act mirrors the kindness of Norwegian cross-country coach Bjoernar Haakensmoen who, during the Nordic ski sprint relay final at the Turin Games, handed Sara Renner a spare ski pole after the Canadian broke one in her sprint for the finish. Renner went on to win silver, while the Norwegians finished fourth. Grateful Canadians donated 5.2 tons of maple syrup (7,400 cans) and sent them to Haakensmoen as a thank you. Good thing we didn't waffle!


THE SPORTSMAN: Jonathon Montanez

THE SACRIFICE: Every time we watch this on YouTube we get a little misty-eyed. It's the story of eighteen-year-old Mitchell Marcus, who loved basketball more than anything, but was a little short on talent. So the Coronado High School T-birds made the 18-year-old developmentally disabled student their general manager, where his job was to fetch water, chase loose balls and cheer his lungs out from behind the bench. Before the team's final game in 2013 against Franklin High, coach Peter Morales hatched a plan -- regardless of the score, Mitchell was going to suit up and play in the final two minutes, even if it cost his team a victory. And so, with 90 seconds to go and his team up by 10, Mitchell hit the floor for the first time in his life. As the crowd chanted his name, his teammates passed him the ball repeatedly, but each time he either fumbled it or missed the hoop completely. With just seconds to go, the opposing team was preparing to inbound the ball and run out the clock. But Jonathon Montanez, who was inbounding the ball, had other ideas. Montanez called out Mitchell's name and passed him the ball under the hoop. Mitchell turned, shot and scored as time ran out. The crowd went crazy. "I think I'll cry about it for the rest of my life," Mitchell's mom, Amy, gushed. Explained Montanez: "I was raised to treat others how you want to be treated. I just thought that Mitchell deserved his chance."


THE SPORTSMAN: Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux

THE SACRIFICE: Lawrence Lemieux had a choice to make. He was competing in the fifth of his seven faces in the Finn class and was in second position with a medal in his sights. That's when he spotted two Singaporean sailors in the water next to their capsized boat. With the winds blowing at 35 knots, the churning waves were threatening to carry the injured men out to sea. Lemieux had to decide -- finish his race and remain in medal contention, or save two unknown sailors competing in an entirely different class. For the Canadian, it was no choice at all. Lemieux famously abandoned his race, veered off course and pulled the injured sailors from the water. He was later credited with a second-place finish en route to finishing 11th overall. But he became the fifth recipient of the Pierre de Coubertin Medal.

All of which reminds us of one simple fact -- it's nice to make it to the podium, but doing the right thing is a gold medal for humanity. Now someone hand us a tissue.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2014 D2

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