A YEAR free of scandals and scoundrels is probably too much to expect. But for every failed drug test or recruiting violation that made us wonder if sportsmanship still existed in 2008, there was a tale of those who did the right thing—the noble thing, even.
The trick, as always, is in knowing where to look, because the most uplifting examples often occur in the most out-of-the-way places—like the state 4A track and field championships on May 23 in Pasco, Wash. That was where Nicole Cochran, a senior at Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, thought she had won the girls' 3,200-meter title by 3.05 seconds until a judge disqualified her, ruling that she had stepped outside her lane on one of the turns. Almost everyone, including Cochran's competitors, agreed that the judge was in error, and a video of the race later showed that one of Cochran's teammates had actually committed the violation. Still, the title was awarded to the runner-up, sophomore Andrea Nelson of Spokane's Shadle Park High.
Nelson was almost as upset by the injustice as Cochran. "That's not how I wanted to win state," she says. "It wasn't fair. She deserved it. She totally crushed everybody." After the eight top finishers each took the podium, Nelson decided to do what she could to make things right. She stepped off the platform, walked over to Cochran and placed the first-place medal around the neck of the rightful winner. "It's your medal," she told Cochran.
"It gave me chills," says Cochran, now a freshman runner at Harvard. "It was just an incredible, surprising thing for Andrea to do, because it wasn't her fault. No one would have blamed her if she kept the medal." Cochran wasn't the only one who was moved. When Sarah Lord saw what Nelson had done, she took off her second-place award and placed it around Nelson's neck. Then third-place finisher Devin McMahon removed her medal and hung it around Lord's. And so it went, with each of the eight girls—Kate Stuart, Sandra Martinez, Annie Dear, Alyssa Andrews and Lyndy Davis were the others—bestowing her medal on the runner who had finished ahead of her. "As adults," says Matt Ellis, Cochran's coach, "we can learn from what those girls did."
Cochran went on to compete in two other events, including the 800 meters. She gave her eighth-place medal from that race to Davis, the runner from Monroe High who had surrendered hers in the 3,200. "After what she had done, I didn't want her to go home from the meet her senior year without a medal," says Cochran, who was reinstated as the champ by the state's Interscholastic Activities Association 10 days after the competition. She didn't make the gesture because it was necessary, or to balance out the kindness she had been shown. Sometimes, an athlete simply does what she knows is right.
UNITED FRONT After Cochran (right) was disqualified, Nelson took matters into her own hands.