In an act of sportsmanship one league official described as “absolutely incredible,” Metuchen High School senior Michael Spark presented his Greater Middlesex Conference Championships first-place medal to the swimmer he believes is “its rightful owner.”
Spark finished second in the 100 backstroke at the Jan. 29 conference championships to Latvian-born Rich Fortels of Monroe, who broke a 14-year-old meet record in the event only to have his 51.30-second time nullified on a technical rules violation that state Sen. Samuel Thompson, 12th legislative district, called “absurd.”
After learning that conference officials last week rejected the appeal of Monroe on behalf of Fortels, who was disqualified for wearing his Peddie Aquatics club team swim cap that did not give him a competitive advantage, Spark, who was awarded first place during the Jan. 29 meet, went to Monroe High School on Monday to present Fortels with his championship medal.
“You beat me fair and square,” Spark said during a meeting with Fortels in Monroe Athletics Director Greg Beyer’s office. “You broke the meet record. You proved to everyone that you are the better athlete and the better swimmer. You were the clear winner. You beat me by three seconds. You deserve all the recognition. I want you to take this.”
Conference president Carl Buffalino, who said the league’s executive committee, which reviewed Monroe’s appeal and had no recourse but to uphold the National Federation of High School Associations rules, called Spark’s act of sportsmanship “absolutely incredible.”
“Winning is great, but one of the core values as educators that we try to teach our student-athletes is sportsmanship and doing what’s right,” Buffalino said. “Today, Michael is my hero, because he did what’s right.”
An ESL student who last year moved to the United States to live with his mother after growing up on his grandfather’s farm in Latvia, Fortels initially did not want to accept Spark’s medal, politely stating: “I want to thank you, but I cannot accept the medal because it is not recognized.”
Fortels was alluding to the fact that possessing Spark’s medal would not alter the conference 100 backstroke meet record of 2002 Bishop Ahr High School graduate Jon Van Assen, which still stands following Fortels’ disqualification, nor would it remove the letters “DQ” that appear next to Fortels’ name on the official 2016 championship meet results.
“You, me and other swimmers in that event, we understand the rule,” Fortels said regarding the spirit of its application, “but the adults and officials, they do not understand it.”