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Maya DiRado and a night of Olympic surprises

Spirit of humanity

Maya DiRado, an American swimmer at her first Olympics, captured gold by a fingertip in the 100-meter backstroke – and surprised even herself.

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    Maya Dirado is overcome with excitement after catching Katinka Hosszu in the final meters of the Olympic 200-meter backstroke in Rio. She beat the "Iron Lady" from Hungary by six-hundredths of a second, ending her gold-medal streak at these Games.
    Michael Sohn/AP
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It’s hard to train for surprise.

Olympians so methodically prepare for and measure everything else. The ounces of food. The angle of a knee. The hundredths or even thousandths of a second.

And after four years of crunching numbers, they hope there is an Olympic medal on the other side of the equation.

But there was no way to quantify the joy of American swimmer Maya DiRado, who seemed to surprise even herself by winning gold in the 200-meter backstroke Friday night.

Yes, she already had three medals – one of each color – from the Rio Olympics, her best-ever international competition. But the 200-meter backstroke was not her best event. So when she slipped into silver-medal contention behind Katinka Hosszu, the Hungarian “Iron Lady” who had won three straight golds in Rio so far, that seemed like a huge accomplishment.

But then, in the final stride, she lunged for the wall – and won by a fingertip.

DiRado is no stranger to success, achieving a perfect math score on her SATs at age 15 and going on to be a standout swimmer at Stanford University. She is also incredibly poised. But on Friday night, even she was overcome with excitement.

And those are the little moments that keep some magic in the Olympics, no matter how commercialized and heavily scripted they have become.

There were other fun surprises at the pool Friday night, too. Anthony Ervin came back at age 35 to win gold in the 50-meter free, 16 years after tying for first with friend Gary Hall, Jr. in the Sydney Olympics. (That should feel good after he sold his first individual gold on eBay for $17,101, which he reportedly sent to support Indonesia tsunami aid efforts in 2004.)

Michael Phelps, after beating nemesis Chad Le Clos from South Africa earlier this week, stood side by side smiling with him and László Cseh after the three tied for silver in the 100-meter butterfly Friday night.

In the 800-meter freestyle, Katie Ledecky may not have surprised anyone. But her split at the halfway point of her 800m was faster than the time of the bronze medalist in the 400m earlier in the week, and then she went on to break her own world record in the 800-meter. That makes her the first swimmer to sweep the Olympic 200, 400, and 800-meter freestyle races since 1968.

And earlier in the week Simone Manuel, a Stanford athlete competing in the 100-meter freestyle, became the first African-American swimmer to win gold – a feat that reduced not only her but coach Greg Meehan to tears. The best kind.

And that was just the Americans, just in the pool.  

For all the doom and gloom we heard leading up to Rio, it’s turning out to be a surprisingly magical Games.

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