- Associated Press - Thursday, June 2, 2011

To say JR Hildebrand and Rory McIlroy are two of the biggest losers is totally missing the point.

Sure, they had unfathomable meltdowns on two of the world’s biggest sporting stages _ McIlroy at Augusta National, Hildebrand at the Indianapolis 500.

But they’ve come off looking like winners, teaching us all a valuable lesson in how to cope with the realities of a sporting life. Heck, life in general. Someone has to win. Everyone else gets to lose _ sometimes in the most excruciating way imaginable.

That doesn’t mean you have to look at yourself as a loser.

Funny how it took a couple of kids to show us that.

Winding down after wrecking on the very last turn at Indy, Hildebrand went to dinner with his consoling family. They ended up at a sports bar where, naturally, the TVs were tuned to a replay of the race.

With just a few laps to go, Hildebrand’s No. 4 car surged into the lead.

No one cheered. They knew it wouldn’t last. But Hildebrand didn’t turn away.

“We were all just kind of sitting there,” he said Thursday, even managing a bit of a chuckle, “and everybody got a little quiet.”

The 23-year-old Californian may spend a lifetime dealing with questions about how he let a win in his very first Indy 500 slip away within sight of the checkered flag. But no one can question the poise and backbone he’s shown in the face of such a bitter disappointment.

Over the last five days, Hildebrand has answered every question, looked at every replay and managed to put a thoughtful, rationale spin on his crash _ which shouldn’t be a surprise, considering he’s smart enough to have been accepted by MIT.

“I’ve always been a math and science guy,” said Hildebrand, who turned down a chance to attend one of the nation’s most prestigious universities because he wanted to be a racer. “I take a pretty logical look at how things go down.”

Yes, he made a big mistake, one he wouldn’t make again. But he’s pretty sure he understands why he did what he did in that split-second before he slammed into the wall.

“I don’t feel like this is going to define me,” Hildebrand said, chatting by phone before heading off to a Friday testing session in Milwaukee, “unless I let it.”

Back in April, McIlroy took a four-stroke lead to the final round of the Masters. The then-21-year-old was still ahead as he made the turn, just nine holes away from donning the most hideous-yet-stylish garment in golf: a green jacket.

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