30.08.04 – By Matthew Hurley: Andre Ward heard all the whispers from skeptics like me. He knew that pompous writers who sit safely behind their keyboards were predicting nothing but failure for the young Olympian and his teammates. But Ward, thankfully, proved us wrong. It doesn’t matter that the team only garnered one Olympic gold medal. All that matters is that Andre Ward refused to be denied and won gold in the 2004 Olympic games for the United States. No one can ever take that away from him.
Initially Ward seemed a long shot to even place in the medal rounds, as did every fighter on this rather pedestrian team. Amateur boxing in the United States has become a wasteland of either young kids who would rather play football, young kids who would rather turn pro immediately because they think they will make the big bucks, or young kids like beleaguered heavyweight Jason Estrada who just don’t care. How will any serious boxing fan forgive Estrada’s complacent attitude at losing at the Olympics? Perhaps now, with his million dollar signing bonus hanging in the balance, this punk kid who just didn’t care enough will realize the extent of his failure to live up to the honor of representing his country. What was it that he said after he lost and failed to qualify for the medal rounds? “It’s no big deal.” That’s what he said. Sorry pal, it is a big deal and there’s no way you’ll survive in the pro ranks if that’s your attitude.
Andre Ward is different. He went to the Olympics to win. Standing on the dais with a gold medal around his neck, this tough young kid looked up and kissed the air in recognition of his father. He believed that his dad, who died of a heart attack two years ago, was with him – watching and applauding.
“That (kiss) was to my father,” he said. “I believe he’s looking down on me. I wish he could still be here in the stands, smiling but that isn’t what God wanted. If it wasn’t for him, I could be in a whole lot of different places right now.”
That tearful aside is telling, both to Ward’s resolve in the ring and for the love he feels for his father. Ward’s dad simply wouldn’t allow his kid to become a rogue about town. Andre’s humble, religious beliefs also keep him grounded. Boxing became his safe haven when the tragedies of life intruded upon him. Boxing became a world of discipline and camaraderie. And it paid off. With a medal around his neck his future is shining gold. The offers will be coming.
But for right now this young kid is reveling in his moment, because his achievement wasn’t easy going. The gold medal round produced a tight, exciting bout. Ward faced Belarus’ Magomed Aripgadjiev in the final round and found himself trailing in points 9-7. It was then that the young American stepped up and rallied to win 20-13, out pointing his foe in the last four minutes.
“I’m numb right now,” he said after the bout. “I don’t know what it feels like to be a gold medallist. I’m really happy. I’ve been blessed. But I really have no emotions. When you’ve dreamed of something like this all of your life and you finally get it, it takes time to really understand what you did. I’ve been waiting my whole life for this but I couldn’t feel my emotions. I had to be cold and calculating.”
And he was just that when he took over the fight that garnered him a gold medal.
Now, things will get difficult for the young light heavyweight. Promoters will be itching to get a “medal fighter” in their stable, but for the time being he can bask in the glow of gold. Yesterday Andre Ward became the first fighter to win the ultimate prize at the Olympic games since 1996. He achieved that on a team of underachievers and no hopers. But Ward refused to give up. His perseverance paid off, and in a wonderfully unexpected moment of glory, the United States once again has a fighter worthy of gold.