Vahe Gregorian

After sickness and inauspicious start, Blue Valley North’s Jack Sock rewarded with Olympic gold medal

Blue Valley North grad Jack Sock (right) and Bethanie Mattek-Sands posed with their gold medals after they won the mixed doubles Sunday at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Blue Valley North grad Jack Sock (right) and Bethanie Mattek-Sands posed with their gold medals after they won the mixed doubles Sunday at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The Associated Press

When Jack Sock was diagnosed with walking pneumonia the day before he was to leave for the Rio Olympics, it portended an at-best token appearance in the tennis competition here.

Then, when the Blue Valley North graduate ranked 23rd in the world abruptly lost his opening singles match in straight sets to 118th-ranked Taro Daniel of Japan, Sock’s so-called Olympic moment figured to be simply walking in the opening ceremony.

Not that there would have been anything wrong with that, actually.

The setting he’d later call “surreal” provided one of the great thrills he’ll ever know. In itself, it made it worth the misery of traveling while sick and coughing and worn down.

But Sock still resolved to absorb everything he could in an experience he appreciated deeply: the chance to represent his country at the greatest sporting event on the planet, an opportunity he knew not to take for granted even at age 23.

He was rewarded richly for having that attitude, which stood out as so many in tennis found reasons not to be here.

Eight days after some wondered if the drained Sock might withdraw from the competition, he stood beaming on Sunday with an Olympic gold medal around his neck as he stood alongside mixed-doubles partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

It was the second medal of the Games for Sock, who won bronze with doubles partner Steve Johnson on Friday.

And suddenly the guy who felt like he’d been in a movie or a video game during the opening ceremonies was in another sort of alternate reality.

“It honestly doesn’t even feel like it maybe happened,” he said at a news conference afterward.

But so much did happen here after such an inauspicious start, so much he never had lived before and may never again.

“Definitely a moment we’ll never forget,” he said, “and something we’ll always share together.”

And not just in the sense that Mattek-Sands had worn knee-high stars-and-stripes socks that she joked are suited to be framed now because of both the event and the surname of her partner.

“It’s too perfect to actually not do that,” she said.

Part of the exhilaration of the moment, and that also will endure, is that their victory was achieved in a 10-7 tiebreaker against Rajeev Ram and Venus Williams, who in winning silver tied the Olympic record for tennis medals with five.

“I grew up watching Venus and Serena; they’re legends of the game (and have) done so much for tennis,” Sock said. “ … They’ve won everything under the sun. To be across the net from her … was definitely an incredible experience.”

Humbling, too.

“Some guys usually get intimidated by my forehand,” Sock said. “She was stepping up and smashing it with a backhand. So I might need to get back to the practice court and work on some things.”

Time enough for all that later, though.

Now was a time for Sock to relish this all the more, a pause in the journey that began as an 8-year-old back in Lincoln, Neb.

One day, he discovered some old tennis rackets of his mother, Pam, and he and older brother Eric started smacking balls off the garage door.

Next thing you know, they’re headed to Overland Park to train at the Mike Wolf Tennis Academy.

Sock went 80-0 at Blue Valley North — losing just one set in four years (to his brother) — on the way to winning four Kansas 6A championships.

For someone long known for his brashness, it’s interesting that his career highlights so far have been in team play:

Sock won mixed doubles with Melanie Oudin at the 2011 U.S. Open and doubles with Vasek Pospisil at Wimbledon in 2014 before earning his medals here with others.

“Any chance I get, I feel like I kind of thrive in that (format) … a little bit,” Sock said. “You know, when you get a bounce of energy off each other, the positivity, keep each other up.”

Maybe especially at a time he didn’t have much energy to begin with – and will leave with more than he could have imagined.

“If you would have told me that before I came here after I found out I had pneumonia that I will walk away with two medals in my first Olympics,” he said, “I would have said you’re crazy.”

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian