YOU UP for achallenge?
I'm going totell you about five young Americans at the peak of their athletic lives. Yourjob is to guess how all five lives came together in the past month.
One. As usual,Elizabeth Loncki is acting very unlady-like, just the way she likes it. It's2001, she's 18 and she's challenging her dad to a push-up contest. He just did50, but now Elizabeth is hitting 51.
He could've done100, and she would've done 101. That's how she is. A 5'5" Energizer Bunny,she's the furnace that heats the volleyball team at Padua Academy inWilmington, Del. She's the darling of the weight room wherever she works out,spotting guys twice her size.
She also readsto shut-ins and runs errands for seniors. And seems like twice a week, she'llget up early so she can get balloons for somebody at school. Just don't trycalling her "sweet."
Two. Brian(Cap'n) Freeman is about to become one of the best in the world at something henever thought he'd even try—bobsledding.
A burly brakemanfrom the virtually snowless town of Temecula, Calif., Freeman digs in, gruntsand pushes the U.S. to a bronze medal at the 2002 America's Cup in Lake Placid,N.Y. But Freeman isn't just the piston for his sled team, he's also the soul ofit—willing to push for drivers other than his own, just to give them a chanceto develop with a few more runs. "A total team guy," says StevenHolcomb, the current World Cup bobsled points leader. "I wouldn't be whereI am today without Brian."
Three. If you'dbeen there when Shawn Falter was a toddler, with those massive braces on bothlegs, you wouldn't believe what you're seeing now, as the senior leads his1998--99 Homer (N.Y.) High basketball team. No longer pigeon-toed, he'sblocking shots, rebounding like a man on a caffeine drip, scoring when it'sneeded and setting up teammates the rest of the time.
That's nothing.You should see him on the football field, scoring TDs at tight end and tryingto decapitate receivers at safety. And all while being skinnier than aone-iron.
"Allheart," marvels Jeff Tabel, who was his hoops coach. "Born tolead."
Four. LuisCastillo isn't just a good wrestler, he's the captain of the 2003--04 team atMattawan (Mich.) High. Wait! He's not just the captain, he's the winner of theteam's leadership award.
And wrestling isonly where it starts. He's a break-dancing, bungee-jumping, joke-tellingmachine in a crew cut. "The all-American kid," the grown-ups call him.And it makes you wonder: How many people know he was born in Mexico?
Five. It's 2000,and 17-year-old Jason Corbett takes his mark at the ancient Panathenaic Stadiumin Athens. The timer is ready and—bang!—Corbett's off. Of course, there's noofficial time for his run because there's nobody in the stands and it's hisbuddy holding the watch.
He's not in atrack meet, he's on a trip with some Casper, Wyo., high school classmates. But,hey, that's not going to stop Corbett from running or having a good time.Nothing stops Corbett. He swallows life whole—track, snowboarding, fly-fishingand hunting. The kid has all the warning signs of a thrillaholic and lovesanything to do with the outdoors. Maybe that's why he ended up in the onlyplace big enough for him: Alaska.
SO WHAT do thesefive athletes have in common? They were all killed in Iraq during a two-weekperiod in January.
Air Force SeniorAirman Loncki, 23, was killed by a car bomb near Al-Mahmudiyah.
Army CaptainFreeman, 31, was killed by insurgents disguised as American soldiers inKarbala.
Army PrivateFirst Class Falter, 25, died as a result of that same ambush.
Marine LanceCorporal Castillo, 20, died from wounds suffered while on patrol in Al Anbarprovince.
Army SpecialistCorbett, 23, died of injuries from small-arms fire suffered while on patrol inKarmah.
Five athletes.Five futures. All gone.
Five of 84Americans killed from New Year's Day through Sunday. Five of 3,084 Americanskilled since the war began.
Athletes loveteams, and when they run out of sports teams they sometimes join bigger teams,ones with Humvees for huddles and tombstones for trophies and coaches they'venever met sending them into a hell they never imagined.
And they throwtheir whole selves into it anyway, because they are brave and disciplined andwill chew through concrete to win the game.
But what if thegame can't be won?
TALK BACK If youhave a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to email@example.com.
Five young Americans at the peak of their athleticlives—brave, disciplined, ready to chew through concrete to win the game. Sowhat do they have in common?
RIFFS of REILLY
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PETER READ MILLER