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Small-town hoops and Olympic competition have a lot in common

RICHFIELD — Tanner Anderson tried to hide his pain.

So did Faye Gulini.

Nathan Chen and Austyn Brinkerhoff couldn't disguise their disappointment.

Panguitch forward Abbey Belvins’ tears came from the same place three-time Olympic bobsledder Chris Fogt’s tears did — affection for a teammate who helped each succeed.

And as the Panguitch girls basketball team hoisted their championship trophy above their heads, they understood the gratitude for dedicated teammates the U.S. women’s hockey team felt as they accepted the first gold medals earned by American women in the sport in 20 years.

It may seem that small-town basketball has nothing to do with Olympic competition, but in all the ways that matter, they are almost identical.

Take, for instance, Manila sophomore Tanner Anderson, who fouled out in Manila’s semifinal loss to Bryce Valley.

The sophomore, from the town of about 350 people in Daggett County, couldn’t hold back the tears as he made his way to the end of the bench, rising to shake hands with some of Bryce Valley’s players who wanted to congratulate him on an impressive effort, and then trying to find the ability to cheer on his teammates still fighting for their fading championship dream.

“It was our seniors’ last game,” he explained. “I wanted to go out with them on a good one. We’ll miss them for sure, so we wanted to have a good game.”

And after beating himself up for “dumb mistakes,” he had to find a way to help his team fight for third place.

It was not exactly the dream they’d worked for since he was in grade school.

“You lose for second and fourth,” he reasoned, even as he admitted regrouping in one night was a challenge. “You win for first and third. So you might as well go for a win, if you can’t win the state championship. … This was good experience for next time.”

Both Olympic bobsledder Chris Fogt and Olympic figure skater Nathan Chen faced similar situations.

Mistakes in their second of four runs dashed Fogt’s four-man medal hopes. Chen skated disastrous short programs twice — the first time putting his team’s medal hopes in jeopardy.

“I’m not going to show that I’m happy and try to fake it if I’m genuinely not,” he said after falling in his first short program. “So that’s definitely how I felt. But … this is a good experience, and I’m definitely going to learn from it for the next competition.”

Both found comfort in friends and family, who reminded them they represent people who are proud of their best effort — even if that’s not good enough for a medal.

Anderson found inspiration in the seniors who’d been his mentors and friends since he was in grade school.

“I’ve played basketball with them ever since I could play,” he said, as they celebrated their consolation victory. “Going out on a W (win) with them is everything. What could mean more?”

After Bryce Valley guard Austyn Brinkerhoff’s team lost the state championship to region rival Panguitch, he laid on the ground and sobbed. After snowboarder Faye Gulini fell right out of the start gate in the quarterfinals of snowboard cross, she cried.

“I didn’t even get the chance to race,” said three-time Olympian Gulini, who’d earned one of the fastest qualifying times.

Brinkerhoff’s heartbreak is the realization that many athletes have, and something Gulini put into words.

“There are a lot of athletes whose results don’t measure up to who they are,” she said.

That whole line we always hear about the victors’ wanting it more, it’s not true.

Desire doesn’t determine who wins. It simply makes sacrificing so much for a few moments of glory worth it. It is simply what those who compete hold onto when fear, doubt or monotony make a goal seem out of reach.

Blevins didn’t cry until she talked about what it meant to have a senior leader like Jordan Bennett line up alongside her. Fogt had to stop himself and choke back emotion every time he talked about the late Steve Holcomb, and what he’d learned from the bobsled pilot who helped him win bronze in 2014.

The specific sacrifices may be different. The length of time they work toward a goal may not be the same.

The stage on which they risk it all is definitely unique to their sport and circumstance. But the trust in teammates, the affection for coaches and the support of families and fans isn’t any less impressive because it comes in front of hundreds instead of millions.

The commitment to a goal, the focus necessary to achieve anything significant, and the ability to give their best effort day after day is evident whether you’re sitting in a gymnasium in Richfield or at a hockey rink in South Korea.