“Perseverance is awesome… until it is stupid”
Is quitting ever good? If so, how can you know when it is the right thing to do?
IDEA IN BRIEF: There may be a natural window of time in which it is appropriate to quit which is longer than most people are willing to invest, but shorter than most highly motivated people take. Specifically if you put your best efforts toward something, such as a sport, activity, talent, job, career or relationship, and fail to see growth and returns from your investment of time within about 2 years, then it is probably time to quit – or at least re-frame your approach.
Ample empirical evidence demonstrates the importance of the “don’t quit” advice. Anecdotal evidence is provided simply by watching typical children grow up around you. Many of them are excellent quitters. My own daughter wanted to quit basketball, soccer, speedskating, the cello, choir, art and drama camp, all after the first day. Half of these she ultimately quit for the right reason – she did not have a natural talent for the activity. Per my last post, she did not have enough “myelinated circuits” to build from to demonstrate speed or skill in those areas. Conversely, with basketball, art and drama – after some diligent practice, she has exploded with talent in these areas, capabilities she would never have known had she followed her early instincts to quit.
For scientific support and quantitative evidence, the Stanford Marshmallow experiment, conducted since 1972, is perhaps the most famous behavioral research corroborating the idea that to be successful, one must be able to delay gratification and persevere through challenging circumstances: in other words, “not quit.” In this longitudinal study (still going on) children who were able to delay eating a marshmallow in order to earn two marshmallows a few minutes later were shown repeatedly to have greater success in life – higher SAT’s, greater incomes, great levels of educational achievement and happiness.
It works. I suspect most of the readers of this blog have mastered the capacity to delay gratification and struggle through a tough present for the promise of a more rewarding future. Yet, for some of us, perhaps many of us, I think this childhood guidance has had unintentional consequences and has subsequently become a collective adult neurosis unintentionally designed to rob us of success and happiness.
Yes, I said it, “a collective adult neurosis. “Wait,” you might say, “That’s crazy!” Exactly. To paraphrase Scott Adams, the author of Dilbert who has wrestled with some of these same questions, “Perseverance is great… until it is stupid.”
The problem emerges slowly. As we master the ability to “tough it out”, we tackle ever larger obstacles and delay gratification ever farther. At some point a mindset and momentum takes over such that overcoming obstacles becomes the defining drive, and gratification is delayed indefinitely. This is the “graying” of man, a transition away from a life of color and sound and passion into a life like that of Sysiphus – a routinized passionless pursuit pushing a rock up a hill with no promise of joy or completion.
Hearkening back to our marshmallow experiment, it appears that some of us have traded not one marshmallow for two but an infinite number of future marshmallows for an undefined future date.
When discipline completely replaces inspiration, a kind of desperation sets in – a “quiet” sort as famously described by Thoreau. It is not exactly failure, but what is it then?
“Most men live lives of quiet desperation” - Thoreau
Interestingly, two bits of conventional advice put this quandary directly into perspective. The first is some commonly used childhood guidance, and the second is some cliched adult wisdom.
1) “If at first you don’t succeed… try, try, try again.”
Now, contrast this with
2) “The definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and over again, and… expecting different results.”
The inherent conflict between these statements is striking. I suspect much of the population needs more focus on the first rule. But there’s another huge cohort of people stuck in the second, banging against the wall.
Maybe it is you? It certainly was me. I spent years trying to develop endurance as an athlete to no avail. I spent years in consulting as a program manager, not realizing that I’m not wired to be high on follow through. We see these people all around us, middle managers that never quite make it, mid level competitors that can’t seem to reach the podium, artists with no sales, musicians that never gather a following, and would-be lovers pursuing relationships that never blossom.
Introducing the “Two Year Rule.” Through my own experience and observations of others, it seems to me that when you pursue something fully and completely for up to two years and do not reach a “break-through” level where you feel momentum and have experienced significant improvement and real success, then it is time to quit. Quit that job, quit that sport, change instruments or start composing, write magazine articles rather than novels, and break up with that not-so-romantic partner. Sometimes you even have to break it off with a platonic friend.
One exception – only parents can’t really quit. If you don’t have a talent for parenting, make sure you surround yourselves with family and friends that can help provide guidance and model the way.
I once read a “success story” of a woman who tried writing a book for 35 years. She struggled, did odd jobs and eventually published a manuscript that received some critical acclaim and sold reasonably well. I don’t look at this as a success. This seems like an abject failure – someone who missed her true calling and whiled away a life trying to perfect and overcome her weaknesses.
Here’s the final thought. We all know people who have quit for the right reasons – and they always say the same thing, “That was the best decision I ever made.” This is almost always true because they latch onto something better, something closer to their strengths, something that resonates within their spirit. Maybe it is time for you to quit, to escape the gray chrysalis of weakness and find that place of passion, strength, light and color. Time to fly!
Next post – when quitting is bad… and why the most talented often quit early and often.
Friendship (Love) = Talent (Strengths) = Electricity (Speed)
Every once in a great while, that magical rare occurrence happens when you sit down with someone and instantly connect, the conversation lights up with electricity and time flies. You look at your watch a half hour later, and realize it has been three hours… Conversely we often sit down with acquaintances or business partners and an hour or two later into a plodding forced conversation realize it has only been 20 minutes.
What’s the difference? As it turns out sometimes you have a natural talent for people: and that talent is predicated on speed: the speed of the neural connections being triggered in your interactions. The good news is you can develop a “talent” for just about anyone. The bad news is it can take a lot of time and effort and you still might not get good at it. And, ALL of it all has to do with the science of myelin.
The field of neuroscience is filled daily with new discoveries. One of the most important in recent years is that of myelin – a mysterious substance in the brain that with practice or focus actively wraps itself around select neural circuits with multiple layers. The more practice and the greater the focus, the greater the number of layers of myelin wrapping the circuits. Myelin then acts as an electrical insulator, causing those neural pathways to accelerate their ability to send signals to other parts of the brain by up to 1000 times faster. Myelin is the gray matter of the brain and was previously thought to be “inert” and in many ways it is, but through this act of wrapping axons it is now known to play a major role.
Here’s where the brain science gets interesting. Myelin exists in the brain in two forms – 1) Naturally accumulated and insulated circuits formed from an early age which are quickly labeled “natural talent” (which may in itself be a combination of genetics and exposure to certain stimuli during childhood) and 2) Myelinated circuits developed and accumulated through “diligent practice” – any repeated activity where the brain’s attention is focused.
Here’s the thing – a myelinated circuit is a myelinated circuit – it doesn’t matter how it is formed, it shows up the same way: as a strength or “talent” – the ability to process and understand a complicated set of inputs at incredibly high speeds. In particular, one common factor of highly myelinated circuits is that they operate at speeds significantly faster than the functioning of the neo cortex or “rational brain” which is where some of the mystique comes from. When we are able to do something without “thinking” we consider it talent, a strength.
Myelin explains many things: it explains how professional baseball players who have watched 1000’s of fastballs can know exactly where a fastball will land by looking at the stitching of the baseball before it ever leaves the pitcher’s hand. It explains how athletes or musicians who practice 10,000 hours or more have the opportunity to hone high-speed circuits that allow them to be predictive of the next move on the field or play notes with such synchronicity that only milliseconds separate them from the average skilled player.
Developing a talent for people: I think Myelin also explains something much more near and dear: the nature of our love affairs and friendships. I believe that the same process of developing a talent for a skill or sport through the accumulation of myelinated circuits exists in the relationships we build with people. Sometimes we have a naturally occurring “talent” for people in the form of pre-myelinated circuits that creates an instant resonance, and sometimes we develop those same circuits over time through “diligent practice,” in this case through repeated exposure to these people in an environment that requires you to learn their ins and outs. Sometimes we light up with electricity when we meet someone new and time flies and we operate at light speed in their presence and sometimes it is the opposite: it starts via a tedious and mind numbing learning process to get to know their ins and outs… BUT eventually, if forced together through circumstance long enough, and intense enough, we reach the very same place – a place of high speed intuitive understanding, friendship, and love. For example:
Diligent Practice –> Friendship. Exhibit A: Steve Shoemaker. Steve is one of my oldest friends and now one of my best friends. Foisted on each other in 9th grade in a carpool arrangement, and finding ourselves attending most of the same classes, we began spending large amounts of time together. Steve and I couldn’t be more different. Steve craves predictability and stability, I’m more of an adventurer and risk taker. Steve’s a bit of a Luddite and likes to tinker and fix old things. I love new technology and when something stops working I sell it or throw it away and buy a new one. Steve is an avid and knowledgeable collector of antiquities and has a house that is like a museum full of dozens if not hundreds of green bank teller lamps, brass portholes, early American oil paintings, and guns amongst other things. I care nothing for things and have collected close to nothing worth keeping except my bikes. Steve travels to the exact same places at the same times of the year and does the exact same routines year over year. I never vacation the same place twice and avoid routine like the plague. Steve’s father was the president and dean of a religious university and Steve is a theology professor at Harvard teaching grad students how to look to the past for universal guidelines about how to live today. I am an innovation consultant and a professor as well, but I teach grad school students how to explore the infinite possibilities of the future based on the innovative capabilities of man.
These days Steve and I get along famously despite our stark differences, but it wasn’t always so: we had to “learn” or “practice” how to get along. Through carpooling, debate, dialogue, arguments and understanding we overcame our differences and found synergy in some of our similarities including a love for speed, love for the outdoors, and intellectual curiosity. We also found a host of complementary benefits from seeing each other’s perspectives. In time we overcame the dissonance of our different approaches to life and now joke about and even admire our “eccentricities.” Said differently: through our brain chemistry, Steve and I have developed a “talent” or strength for each other by wrapping myelinated circuits to weave connections over our years together.
It’s like riding a bike. One of the magical indications of a true strength or talent, is that those talents reside perpetually even when un-activated. Once you know how to ride a bike, you always know how to ride a bike. Myelin sheaths never unwind so as soon as those circuits are reactivated, the skills and speed of the connections resume. I can (and have on occasion) spent nearly a decade without seeing Steve but like all true friendships when we see each other it is as if no time has passed and the conversation picks up without losing a beat. When we are together in the flow of the moment, time does that interesting counter-intuitive thing: it both speeds up and slows down. Immersed in the rich present of the conversation time seems to stop, yet at the same time four hour dinners disappear in a flash. Always, though, afterward I’m left with a rich databank of memories and impressions, visual, verbal and emotional: of real, deep conversations about important things. This property – of time speeding by in the present only to expand in the past is another hallmark of these high speed myelinated neural circuits at work. When leveraging our strengths, when in a state of flow it is like we have a high speed camera recording the light, color, and sound.
My friendship with Steve is the “learned” talent gained through “diligent practice” talked about by Daniel Coyle in the “Talent Code,” Geoff Colvin in “Talent is Overrated” and Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers.” I liken my relationship with Steve to the very successful if unpopular construct of the “arranged marriage.” As it turns out, divorce rates for arranged marriages are lower than traditional marriages. In some sense it makes sense – a matched couple, over time, without high expectations, develops a skill, a talent, a “love” for each other through the development of high speed circuits that allow friendship, partnership, and yes, love to blossom. But..
But… but what about “native talents” – skills from youth as an athlete, musician, singer, dancer, comedian… that seem to exist from childhood. Suddenly one child excels in an area and begins to blossom. Again using construct of myelin what most likely is happening is that certain circuits in the brain were wrapped and accelerated either through genetics or through a form of adjacent practice and suddenly a child finds his or herself with an advantage in some field of life.
These kids, with proper guidance and support go on to become Olympians, play professional sports, become musicians or artists, or become the Bill Gates or Steve Jobs of business. Does a corollary exist with relationships?
You bet – think about that time when you met a great friend or romantic prospect for the first time and talked for hours and hours and “connected” in an electric way – “like you had already known each other.”
I think that we occasionally have a natural “talent” or strength for other human beings and our pre-myelinated circuits begin firing at high speed. These sessions are noted for the following: 1 ) they happen organically and we don’t realize it is happening until, 2) time suddenly simultaneously slows down and accelerates at the same time (flow), and the interaction starts happening at multiple levels and takes over all other stimulus and 3) at the end there is always moment of looking down at a watch or phone and suddenly realizing that 3, 5, or 7 hours have gone by it is hard to understand how so much time has passed so quickly. With the high speed circuits firing it feels like we are unwinding a river of deja-vus as the rational brain tries to catch up with the flow of the neural interactions.
Natural Talent –> Friendship (faster). Exibit B: I met Matt Dula at work one day in my first “real” job at Omni Tech in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. We talked briefly in the hallway one day and hit it off so well he suggested coming over for a glass of wine that evening. I think it was a Wednesday. We sat down on the chairs on the stoop of his porch around 7pm and talked and drank some wine. The conversation gained speed and momentum and quickly we were making patterns and leaps and finishing each other sentences and each thread of the conversation was woven deeply into a tapestry of shared meaning and understanding. We jumped from literature, travel, philosophy, religion, training, discipline, and relationships… A short time later I looked at my watch in the dark and realized it was 5am. We had talked for 10 hours straight and had to wake up for work in less than 2 hours!
This is the miracle of a native “talent” or strength for another person. Once in a great while a pattern match emerges where high speed pre-myelinated circuits are naturally aligned and interactional dynamics – verbal, non verbal, intonation, content and context – are put into warp speed. These magic connections allow you to jump past all the normal “get to know you” artifice and skip right to meaningful conversations about passions, shared experiences, and vulnerabilities.
I would say half my strong friendships are of the “instant friends” variety and the other half were gained through time and practice. In time they feel very similar – no time passes between meetings, they feature high speed verbal and non-verbal exchanges, a deep intuitive understanding of who they are and what drives them. Interestingly though, NONE of my female love interests ever took the “time and practice” route, which is an interesting note I will explore in a future post.
One thing that is notable about cases of “natural” talent for friendship is that these cases present the possibility for a great deal more drama than that of the “learned” friendships. Steve and I had a series of minor conflicts through the years as we got to know each other, but we never had particularly high expectations of being lifelong friends and also never had any serious conflicts because the stakes were low.
Conversely, the instant connection of my friend Matt and my best friend Kevin who I bonded with instantaneously created a whole different set of dynamics and expectations. When so many circuits are firing at once and everything is high speed and synchronous, a different expectation is created. Suddenly there are a couple of factors and expectations at play, 1) We will be “fast friends” and 2) We (think) we truly understand each other.
Well, despite the synchronicities, no person can truly understand the true depths of another, so when the frissons in the relationships emerge, sudden and unexpected conflicts surface that tend to carry far greater meaning than the depth or length of our relationships would suggest. This pattern gets exponentially more difficult when the dynamic emerges in a male / female relationship with the possibility for love.
Matt and I had years of great connectivity until conflict between our spouses intervened, exacerbating some areas of difference. At that point we ended up going several years without talking. But when Matt showed up for my birthday last summer everything was back 100% full speed. We bonded over chili peppers, gardening, cycling, literature, and deep philosophical musings regarding the nature of man and the meaning of life. It was like “riding a bike.”
Kevin and I also had a series of falling outs in college before we established a true baseline of our friendship that usurped all the minor drama. Like my relationship with Matt, Kevin and I fired on all cylinders and every conversation had multiple layers of nuance. As the poet Laureate at Stanford Kevin was exquisitely gifted verbally and our salvos would span ranges of complex creative conversational calligraphy – emergent patterns of alliteration, consonance, puns and poetry flowing and then ebbing into some frenetic filigree. Sadly Kevin went missing a few years ago after battles with his own internal demons.
I miss you Kevin and look forward to our next bout of wordplay, hypknowcriticism, and “nice nights” when you heal and re-emerge.
In the end I believe all these relationships come down to the same simple word: speed. Speed of understanding. Speed of the intuitive response. Speed of the body language, presence, nuance, leaning in, leaning back, eye contact or thoughtful gaze. It is electricity and 1000 things happen simultaneously in an interaction with someone you love and most of it is captured by the high speed lens of your emotional camera and then reflected through the rational brain for explanation. With the lens of trust gained through longer term exposure, the assumption of positive intent guides intentions and interpretations and the relationships deepen and accelerate further.
LOVE = SPEED (of connections)
Leveraging the base of understanding that myelin gives us of neural circuits, In the next two posts I’ll examine the notion of quitting: specifically when quitting is good, and when it is bad: jobs, activities, sports and relationships:
PT 1: KNOWING WHEN TO QUIT: THE TWO YEAR RULE
PT 2: KNOWING WHEN NOT TO QUIT: THE PROBLEM OF NATURAL TALENT
“I don’t believe in chronological time, I don’t believe in chronological time.”
I have written over and over about the expansion and compression of experiential time: that time, as experienced, does not follow the rhythm of the chronological ticking of the clock and instead has its own counter-intuitive yet predictable set of rules. I’ve dedicated my energy to studying these patterns and trying to understand the laws that govern the experience of time in order to maximize our perception of “experiential time” and “really live” longer.
Recently though, I realized something. That like someone born into a religion, cult, culture, creed or time, I have been an unknowing believer in something exactly contrary to the laws that actually govern our existence. I’ve believed the equivalent of “the sun revolves around the earth.”
Specifically, my counter Galilean “theology” is that I count seconds and minutes and days as though they are equal. Part of this makes sense considering most of my life has been chasing them (seconds). That said, I have spent years gaining a very real understanding that experiential time is not linear and that it ebbs and flows based on its own set of laws. Despite this, I, the priest of this new thinking, continue to let this old school chronological thinking dominate my thoughts and planning. Somehow I continue to predict that my experience with time will be linear and chronological and meter out my expectations based on this flawed logic.
Specifically, when it comes to time intervals between key events, my stress or joy about the proximity of an event continues to arbitrarily be valued by the distance measured by chronological time. I do this despite the ample evidence that I should be using a different scale.
EXAMPLE: “If we sail too far west, we will fall off the edge of the earth.”
EXAMPLE: “I won’t see you for 2 weeks: I love you so much so I’m falling apart.”
I have time with my daughter every Wed, and every other weekend. From a chronological point of view, this means there is the possibility that I’ll go 8 days without seeing her on my off weekends. Chronologically, 8 days is a long time and after each of my long-interval Wednesdays I have this terrible moment where I get sad and anxious about our parting.
The reality is, just like any “real” friend, those eight days speed by and in the actual experience of it very little time passes between visits w/ my daughter and we pick up right where we left off. Its just like that best friend you see every few years – “its like no time has passed…” Well that’s right – no “experiential time” has passed. Life is really about the set of experiences that create impacts on your mind and heart, the rest is just noise and should be discounted and compressed.
EXAMPLE: Remember when you had a girlfriend (or boyfriend) that you were crazy about? And maybe he or she was away at college or traveling for work. In chronological time you don’t get see her that often – one, maybe two evenings a week due to travel or even less if colleges are far apart. Using the “the earth is flat” belief system, these gaps in time tend to create intense stress, sadness, “missing her” feelings. But using the logic of experiential time, the massive gravity of the experiences created when you are together are like the event horizons in a black hole – time both accelerates in the present, yet slows, even stops at the same time when you are together creating significant experiences and a sense of expansive time in memory. After you bounce out of orbit time enters a fast forward when you are apart until the next gravitationally intense meeting.
The next time I have to say goodbye to someone I love, I’m going to try and unwind my beliefs in chronological time and coach myself that no matter the interval, I will see her in “no time” – in a few experiential seconds…which will expand into days, weeks and even months of “experiential time” during our time spent together.
Repetition is the key to coaching: “I don’t believe in chronological time, I don’t believe in chronological time.”
A day of “Really Living”
Time is not chronological. Time, is NOT chronological. Part of my theory of the non-linear nature of experiential time is that pockets of time can be compressed and expanded much like the physics of gases and liquids.
On June 15th of 2014 I had one of the best days of my life, a day compressed full of activity and adventure from dawn to dusk and beyond. In full disclosure it was father’s day and the entire day was spent with my 13 ½ year old daughter – an age, with girls, that seems to strike fear into the hearts of parents the world over. In conversation I’ll often hear, heads shaking, “get ready… (for the insanity)” and then ruefully “don’t worry they snap out of it somewhere around 18.”
I’m no genius about being the father a girl this age and occasionally find some of her behavior byzantine in its complexity, her moods sometimes swinging arbitrary within a wide range but I just roll with it. I can’t out-think it or out-logic it so I’ve taken a simple approach with Katelina – I don’t try real hard to talk, I just try to “do things”.
Katelina has a quiet intensity about her, a hidden spark that sometimes comes out as mischief, sometimes as “pouncing” where she expresses her affection through various forms of mild loving violence for which she has invented her own lexicon. “Grangling” is a form of love that is revealed through aggressive squeezing, “Nuggling” is her rotating her bony fists to dig into soft spots of muscle like just below the shoulder. “Siscilling” is the worst of them all and is hard to describe other than that it is terrifying. On this particular day she had a twinkle in her eye and I didn’t have to pull her into anything – she entered the kitchen that morning with a look of determination. “Papa, whatever you want to do today, let’s do, but first let’s make the best breakfast ever…” I said, “yes, ok, what do you have in mind?” She said, “let’s try poaching eggs – maybe over the ham Chablisienne we made last night?”
And at 9am it began, a 17 hour marathon of “doing” that raced by in the present but left a deep imprint on my psyche. As I’ve written about before, a day of “really living” is day of unique and powerful experiences in which time accelerates in the present but becomes expansive in memory.
We reheated the Chablisienne sauce and the ham, added vinegar to the boiling pot of water and slid in eggs for 2.5 minutes ea. and removed them with a slotted spoon to place them over the ham and sauce. The runny yokes melded with the salty creamy shallot based sauce and it was exquisite. The tone was set for the day.
We cleaned up and then went for a bike ride together, exploring trails near the house on bikes, dodging trees and riding through streams and across bridges. Kat offering up that I should ride another hour so she could shower and I did, returning in time to make lunch.
For lunch we kneaded dough, chopped mushrooms, sliced mozzarella and cooked Italian sausage and pepperoni in order to make upside down pizzas or “pizza pot pies.” These beautiful delicacies bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees are then flipped into their own pie shells, the mozzarella, chewy and slightly browned, the grease from the pepperoni and sausage melding with the bolognese sauce and chewy crust… one of the world’s great foods.
After lunch we jumped into the convertible and headed up to Crystal Lake to go paddle boarding in an old quarry in the clear blue green water – Kat picked it up immediately – and in a far corner of the lake we jumped off our boards and went for a swim before paddling back.
Returning home we changed and climbed aboard the Yamaha VStar went on a motorcycle ride to Ribfest in Elgin and watched a bit of a concert in the park, Kat holding on to me and balancing easily on the back of the motorcycle as we zoomed around corners and sped by the river. The sun warmed our faces and we would turn and just smile without saying a word.
The sun was beginning its decline when we returned home. A quick change again and we grabbed the backpack with slacklines coiled neatly inside and walked to a nearby park with two of our favorite nicely spaced trees and ratcheted up the lines. We became obsessed with counting steps and trying to get all the way across without any help, practicing for hours well past sunset, listening to our favorite music (Paramour, Foster the People, Alexander Desplat, Sia) on my portable Jambox, the chiaroscuro of the setting sun creating useful contrasts to walk the line.
It was after 9pm when we returned from slacklining, but we were both high energy and hungry enough to make an amazing dinner of cilantro jalapeño crème sauce to go over sherry flambéed shrimp and pasta. We were both physically exhausted having been paddling /cooking / cycling / motorcycling / slack lining for 13 hours, but at 11pm on a Sunday night Kat said simply, “what do you want to do now.”
I replied, that it was finally time for you to watch my favorite movie: Braveheart. And so we sat down and watched it end to end for 2.5 hours and at the end she teared up pretty good and asked me, “why did you make me watch it???” and I asked, “was it a bad movie?” and she said, “no, the best…. But its so sad, I’m so sad!!!”
At 2am in the morning I tucked her into bed, kissed her forehead and repeated the silly secret meaningless yet meaningful refrains I’ve said to her since she was age two, a silly poem meant only for her. When I finished, her not-so-little arms reached up around my neck and she hugged me fiercely before rolling on to her side, her face in the dark resuming its child-like features as she closed her eyes. As I started to stand up from the bed, her little hand latched onto mine and squeezed, saying in a still-little-girl voice, “I love you papa – I hope you had a great day.”
Thank you Katelina for the best papa’s day ever. I love you.
A few days later I continued to ruminate on what an amazing day it was so I decided to hand make a thank you card for Kat with pictures from the day. It was a fun little project and was a great way to commemorate the best father’s day ever:
Memories and Impressions: (This will be the final post from the 2014 Olympic Games – hopefully I’ll get to do this again in 4 years.)
Mornings on the Black Sea, the Boardwalk, Sun and Friendships: Each morning for 22 days I woke up after somewhere between 3 – 5 hours of sleep, drapes closed, darkness in the room, but the infrared heat from sun on the dark shades radiating energy into the room like embers from a firepit, beckoning. I could sense that just outside the window, the sunlight was dancing on the Black Sea, and that my bike was calling and that there were events to watch, people to meet and conversations to be had. Despite being groggy I could never resist so I’d pop out of bed to go ride the boardwalk on the folding bike.
I can remember just being filled with energy and happiness each day. I had a repeated refrain in my head for these days, “Sleep when you’re dead.” In the early days, before the opening ceremonies, I’d find myself riding alone under the bemused scrutiny of strolling Russian couples, grandfathers and fisherman. However after the games started, there was not a single ride where I didn’t run into, stop, and ride with someone I knew with a shared past. One morning it was a 30 minute discussion with Dan Jansen, the next and several times over, it was Apolo – including one run where he was surrounded by John and Billy Bush. Another day it was Bonnie and then Bonnie and Apolo, the next day Summer Sanders and Ariana Kukors. One grey slightly rainy morning the only two people I saw in the first two hours of the day after covering nearly 20 miles on the bike were Apolo Ohno and Terry Gannon. 5000 miles from home and the only two people I see are the two I sit by and work with every day: so weird. I found Apolo to be at his most talkative while running and we had some eye opening discussions about business and the notion of “scaleability”.
Black Sea Boardwalk
Black Sea Boardwalk
Bonnie and Apolo
Apolo and Veronika
Summer and Ariana
Summer and Ariana
Permission to Speak to Anyone, Anytime: Over the last few Olympics I’ve noticed that there is this “permission” to speak to anyone at anytime about anything, so I vowed to do just that for the full 17 days of the games: no filter. As a slight introvert (yes this is true) this is a bit out of character for me, but the Olympic environment makes all things possible. At one point my great friend Chris Needham gave me a label as I repeatedly spoke to everyone passing by, “Coyle, you’re an ‘Olympics Socialite.’” I also made a point of granting this “permission” to others in a matter of paying it forward.
The one and only person to ignore my communication salvos was (of course) Katarina Witt, who I haven’t seen in 8 years since Torino and who failed to recognize me without hair. I knew this because she smiled at me once in the lobby. So one day I asked her for a picture with her but of course she said, “I’m really in a hurry right now – we need to make it quick.” I expected this and played my card, “No no – its fine, maybe some other time.” and tried to walk away. “No its important so we do it, just have to be fast.” Again I tried to walk away, but she grabs my shoulder. “Hans – hold my bag, Ok – so here we go.” I was so amused that she managed to simultaneously establish that she was too busy for a picture yet demand we take it. ‘Diva at Work!”
Adler/Sochi/Russia: The people of Sochi, of Russia, by and large seemed just like you and I. Some rich, some poor, mostly middle class. I saw a few “babushkas” around – classically shrunken grandmothers with wizened faces, but mostly everyone was in western dress. Perhaps it is too many Russian novels, but I did sense a bit of pretense, of playing the role of the modern westerner, while a subtle tragedy played on behind the camera. Men drinking beer at 10am, workers drinking vodka at 1am, strident voices and urgent strides, frowns more often than smiles at the Baikal. Some seemed to be racing away from the past or pretending into the future. My first night, after a long walk around the area, I came across some unhappy looking men who were working slowly under bright lights, landscaping the sidewalks near the hotel – pulling out large rocks by hand and laying in soil and gravel. I decided to follow my rule and pitch in without saying anything and after moving a few rocks, one offered vodka from a flask with a smile. Moments later I was toiling side by side with the group of them for a good half hour. I got very dirty, but the grins from the crew made it worth it. They talked incessantly to me despite the fact I had no clue about which that they were speaking. I had invoked rule #1 of the games: Talk to anyone at anytime about anything- even if you don’t speak the language.
- Traditional shared storage building
- The Olympic Park: What a cataclysmic upheaval of human engineering and sheer will. These edifices, crowned by the greatest Olympic cauldron in history created a stunning backdrop for all the shows, actors, mimes, acting and singing troupes wandering the plaza. The heat of the torch in contrast with the humid wash of the fountain shows set to Tchaikovsky and other famous Russian composers was particularly romantic and compelling after dark with the colored lights. I made a loop around the cauldron almost every day – easily a 20 minute walk, most often alone, marveling at the luck of being at this time and place. Every single time I ended up taking pictures for at least a half dozen people wanting to have a photo with Olympic torch in the background.
- Watching opening ceremonies and the lighting of the torch inside the USA house and then running outside to the fireworks felt just like being a little kid on the fourth of July. The same was true on Feb 23 when the tear left the big teddy bear’s eye and we ran outside to watch flame go out and the sky light up. I could feel the warmth leave the Olympic park. It was hard to see and was very sad, but I did get this amazing photo of Emery and new friend Jonathan Garcia.
- Working: Short Track Broadcasts
Race days grew ever more complex and stressful. In Torino my tasks consisted of a few handwritten notes each race and answering questions from the producer and replay crew. In Vancouver I added to that counting laps and coordinating camera replays as well as creating short summaries of key skaters from the NBC provided research. In Sochi I did all that AND assembled custom spreadsheet views of each heat, quarter, semi and final as well as identifying lap times and relay exchanges, identifying penalties and falls, replays, lap times and doing real time stats about “firsts” and “bests”. There were so many crashes and penalties and the judging was very inconsistent so many times I could not give the producer what he wanted which was who got penalized on what lap and for what. I was working at light speed, talking, typing, scribbling, printing, talking on the radio and occasionally jumping up tossing my headset and using my network of other broadcasters, referees, coaches and skaters to clarify or get insight to what just happened – yet still I wasn’t quite keeping up. At one point on Friday the 21st I was assembling a complex spreadsheet and printing the next round of quarter finals for Terry, shouting down to my Bulgarian co-announcers to clarify a previous penalty call, talking on the radio with Rob who was pissed about not knowing who was going to be penalized in a crash (what’s the call!? What’s the call?!), on a separate channel w/ Kevin Brown who wanted to know what lap a crash had happened for replays and scribbling a new tally of potential firsts for Terry and Apolo regarding Ahn and Fontana’s accomplishments, while writing lap times for Apolo to reference the next round. By the time we finished the races on the 21st I was physically shaking with the adrenaline. Honestly at the end I wondered if I had met or completely failed expectations.
I didn’t have a speaking role during the races so every day I was trying to find other ways a way to add value. In the end what I tried to do was help the camera crew, producer, director and replay crew understand the true but hidden dynamics of the sport. I created diagrams, powerpoints and pencil sketches showing the nature of the relay, the critical moments in passing, how the starts work, and most importantly analyzed the physics of short track speedskating with the help of my friends Tom Stat, Dave Torgerson, and Scott Evans. I did the initial math using the formula for angular velocity and acceleration but got stuck with the integration of normal gravitational pull. Fortunately between Dave Torgerson (one of the smartest people on the planet and great friend) and then a review by Scott Evans, I knew the work was complete. One of my favorite emails EVER was from Scott, who, after reviewing the math shared the following: “I was a physics major at Stanford.If you want any calculations done, I’ll be happy to do them for you. Just ask!” Oh and then he shared, “I do work at the Jet propulsion laboratory for NASA” – making him a rocket scientist. By doing this work I was then able to parlay it into 3 TV “features” – small vignettes with TV personalities to add interest to the regular coverage – 1 with Summer Sanders, 1 with Ariana Kukors and 1 with Jeremy Bloom. These made me feel one step closer to being “talent” but without all the burden of working 24/7.
The “houses” are the secret party places of the Olympics. Each country with a large retinue has a “house” where athletes, Olympians (current and former) and sponsors can go and meet, eat, and have various receptions and meetings. There’s the USA house, Canada House, Holland House, Swiss House, Austria House, Russia house etc, and then there are houses by pure sponsors – Omega house, P&G House, Visa house, Budweiser “Dome” etc. The King of all houses is the IOC house (International Olympic Committee). In previous years I made a point of trying to get to as many as possible and in previous years the Bud “Dome” was the primary place to see and be seen. But in Russia there was no Bud house and word on the street was that the other houses were pretty boring so I only bothered with two houses: the USA house and the Holland House (though I did got to the stuffy IOC house twice).
The passes to the secret houses and parties
The Holland House: I’d be remiss if I failed to mention one of the world’s greatest parties. The Dutch love speedskating. The Dutch love beer. The Dutch are unpretentious, tall, slightly awkward and dance mostly by jumping straight up and down. They are so warm and inviting and happy and goofy. If I’m ever to enter a dance club again, these are my people. After their amazing medals presentations described in previous posts, a famous DJ comes out, a pair latex clad dancers arrive, and then the bass builds and the place gets hopping – literally. 500 Nederlanders jumping straight up and down at the whims of the DJ. This is the hardest ticket in town – but due to writing an article about the experience and then getting 4 tickets for the director of the house to the main event in short track I was able to enter pretty much as I wished more or less. I came 5 times and 3 of those visits stood in back on the press pedestal just watching and enjoying, but the final visits found me down on the floor jumping up and down with my friends like everyone else.
Holland House DJ
Holland House DJ, Dancers and Jumpers
The USA House: This domicile is ever the heart of the Olympic experience. A safe place in a foreign land, with (mostly) American food, open bar and a constant parade of olympians – current and former. Yes, sure, sponsors and others squeeze in around the edges, but the excitement amongst the large throng of retired olympians is to see the newly minted athletes arrive after their competitions and to catch up with people who have a shared an experience unique in the world. Tables, chairs, couches, even phone lockers to charge your phones, this dwelling is the perfect place to be. Large screen TV’s play all the live coverage, and then each evening the Order of Ikkos award is granted to the coaches of the medalists. I went every single day – usually multiple times as it was right in the Olympic park on the way to my venue and just behind the cauldron. For a week the volunteer staff were GWU students that I had spoken to as well. The USA Nike/Polo store was here as well and I eagerly awaited the final days for the fire sale that took place in Torino and Vancouver and, alas, on the final day I entered a store that had NOTHING left. They had let all the Russians in from the park in to shop and they had picked the place clean. I’m glad I had bought my shiny chrome jacket the first week. Most days I took pictures with someone famous:
Remembering a Day of “Really Living” – Full days and Nights:
I guess my whole life has been spent trying to get more done in less time (more strokes, more laps, more miles, more rpms, more work.) I felt the same at the games – trying to compress as much as possible into the limited window of 17 days between opening and closing ceremonies. Almost every day I ended up running several miles, an activity I hate, from one place to another in order to not miss something. Here’s just one sample of one of many, many, full days.
February Something-th: After waking at 8am after 4 hours sleep, I dressed in my cycling clothes and rode to the boardwalk, riding 30mins hard near to the Georgian border and then, seeing Apolo, riding another easy 30 mins beside Apolo who was running. We talked about his business, my work, the races. Returning to my room, I dressed and headed to the USA house for breakfast, seeing a few good friends like Ariana Kukors, Alex Izykowski, Tommy O’Hare or Chris Needham inside. This day I had to do all this early as I had to give a speech at the IBC to a group of 35 or so George Washington University grad school students at about 10am studying sports marketing. The speech went well and immediately after, at 11:30 I reported to the Iceberg Arena for the short track production meeting.
After the production meeting, I assembled the research, approved the graphics icons and language, guided the camera crew on what to watch for and then from 1:30 – 3:00 watched races with Apolo and Terry, Rob and the crew. On the headset I counted laps, clarified penalties, identified passes and skaters, suggested replays and clarified rules. Ahn wins and the crowd goes crazy. Apolo and Terry nail it. It flies by. By 3:30pm we wrap up and I’m off to long track to watch the men’s races. I walk the 600m to Adler Arena where I stand in the booth with my great friend Wilf O’Reilly and watch Emery Lehman, a 17 old from Chicago I coached until a year ago, get 16th place in the world. After his race I walk around the cauldron, taking pictures, the one mile journey to the USA house and sit with Emery and his mom Marcia and dad Dave and have dinner and a glass of wine. They are so very happy – 17yrs old and 16th in the world. We marvel at the journey, the incredible luck and honor to be here. We watch an Ikkos award by a Sage Kotsenburg. Everyone is moved. I meet Patrick Meek, Emery’s main US competition and his beautiful girlfriend Siena. I’m inspired to write them both a note and hand it to them before I leave. They are surprised and grateful.
I walk to Baikal and navigate the supermodel gauntlet. Inside I find Apolo, Steven, Wilf, Stephen Gough, Alex. My favorite people. We tell stories. One night we have a Callis appreciation night regaling each other with the whims and whimsies of my great friend Chris Callis including stories of the month he spent living out of his car in San Diego at the beach with a welcome mat just outside the rear door of his car.
I leave and head to figure skating which is 2/3’s over, but the best yet to come. I visit the booth and can see Johnny and Tara as well as Scott and Sandra and Tom doing dual coverage and then move up into the stands seeking Paul and Cheryl Davis and Jaqui White. I find them and sit directly in front of them as the few remaining pairs line up for the short program. Cheryl leans forward and rubs my shoulders, “You are our good luck charm.” I haven’t missed an Olympic event with them. Finally Meryl and Charlie come out and KILL IT. I hug the moms, take some pictures and then hoof it to the train station, running the whole 2 miles to make the train, where I head up to the mountains, arriving to moguls just before midnight to see the final few runs and joining Suzie, Summer, Josette, Tim and Joao in the snow environs of Rhosa Khutor. By 2am I’m back down mountain and tired, but as I walk through the lobby of the Azimut hotel, there they are – friends old and new yelling my name, “Coyle! Get over here!”. Wilf, Bradbury, Suzie, Josette, Tim, Ariana and others. I sit. I vow “just 15 minutes and 1/2 glass of wine.” Suzie splits a glass of wine with me.
Good Times at the Azimut w/ Tim, Joao, Shelby, Suzie, Josette, Shannon, Stephen Gough
3 hours and 4 times a 1/2 glass of wine later I stumble up to my room at 5:15am and throw myself at my bed. Still… only a few hours later, the next morning at 9 am I can feel the sun calling through the shades so I pull them aside.
The sun is shining over the dappled waves of the Black Sea and my bike is waiting, so I pull it off the balcony and get dressed…
Departure and Re-entry. Sochi was 22 of the best days of my life, surrounded by old friends of more than 20 years with shared experiences, stories and real empathy and understanding for such an intense existence and all the highs and lows of trying to be an Olympic athlete. We were leaving the “bubble” as we called it – the secure zone, the safe zone, the place where you can talk to anyone, where smiles abound and friends feel free to say, “we love you (John Coyle)” again and again upon sight at arrivals to the USA house, events or meeting spots. Slowly I found myself drawn into the same emotiveness and I found myself saying again and again, “This is why I love (name here) because you see, (Story here of a shared experience).” A lot of love goes around and you learn the greetings for each country. Hugs for the USA, one kiss for the Russians, two kisses for the Europeans and French Canadians. The Dutch – 3 kisses – left, right, left.
Is it all a hypomanic dreamworld fueled by contagious goodwill and proximity to greatness? Yes. Of course it is, but who wouldn’t choose this? Is it short lived, temporary? Yes, naturally.
Do the memories store like a ultra high density camera even as time flies by? Yes they do and that memory bank creates a sense of expanded time like no other. This is “really living” at its best.
Is it shallow, fake? No. No it isn’t because like all “true” friendships these relationships pick up without a beat 4 years later. Time expands and contracts in the gymnastics only found in meaningful relationships. I truly miss my friends, but I rest assured that when I see them next, no time will be lost and everything restarts only with a few more wrinkles.
The challenge is, how to re-enter “real life”? What did I learn this time out, what lessons were imported through this experience? This time its not so clear. I did some things wrong. This was a micro of my macro. I tried to pack too much in, was constantly running, running, running. I had trouble, early on in particular of “being in the moment.” I was a little too much the observer and planner vs. the participant – and only at the end, in the last five days did I just simply sit and talk, dance and walk, swim without much consideration for the “plan.”
Ever sitting in the consciousness is the possibility that I’ll never be invited back, that each day was the last. Perhaps everyone feels this way hence the avoidance of sleep in the final days. “Sleep when you’re dead.”
Sad Moments in the Airport Terminal Leaving Sochi
(This will be the second to last post as I try and recall and wrap up the best moments of the games. This is the first of two, warning part 2 will likely be sappy)
The $120.00 Cappuccino:
On race days the producers, talent and myself would hold our pre-race “production FAX” meeting at the 5 star “talent hotel” – the Radisson Blu about 1/2 mile south of my hotel. After Apolo and Rob and Pierre and Terry had left and on the morning of the last day of racing I stayed behind at the hotel restaurant sipping coffee and assembling the mens 500m semis on my laptop. After an hour or so I asked the waitress for a cappuccino as they had taken away the coffee pot from the table. A short time later I stood up to leave and the hostess told me I would need to pay since I didn’t stay at the hotel. I quickly realized I had no money, but sitting one table over was Ted Morris – Executive Director of USA speedskating. I asked him if he could put the bill for the coffee on his room and I’d pay him back. “Sure – no problem – you don’t need to pay me, how much can a cappuccino be?” I thanked him and walked off.
Boy was he surprised… the next day, I was chagrined to find out that my cappuccino had somehow expanded to include full lunch buffets and other assorted items and that the tab was $120. Ted had tried to fight it, but didn’t really know what I had ordered or maybe it was for the whole crew I had been with – so he paid it. So at the USA house the next day I gave Ted 4000 rubles to purchase the single most expensive cappuccino in the world. Before I arrived, Ted had asked my friends, “Uh, this John – does he do this often?”
Vodka shots and Caviar at… the Grocery Store
Early in the games after realizing that a glass of wine at the hotel was $15, I sought and found a small market near to the hotel. After a bike ride I purchased 3 bottles of wine and put them in my back pockets of my jersey. The silver and gold toothed ladies in the red shirts working found this amusing and the next thing I knew one of them had my hat, gloves, headphones and sunglasses on holding onto my bike for a picture.
Fast forward 2 weeks and I went into the store right at closing to buy another bottle of wine and the sign said “closed.” I knocked anyway and they quickly ushered me in and then around back to where there was a small table, bread, salmon eggs, cucumbers, chicken cutlet, vodka, shot glasses and some sort of orange flavored chaser. They wouldn’t take no for an answer so 20 minutes and several vodka shots later I extricated myself. Similar story happened the night of the short track party – walking outside of the restaurant to the outdoor seating to find my missing friends, a group of Russian hockey fans literally trapped me and would not let me go until I joined them for a shot of vodka. I don’t even like vodka.
Club Baikal – Supermodel Service:
Baikal is a restaurant / bar found within the bubble that we didn’t discover until a week into the games. Apolo was particularly fond of this luxurious place in the early goings. The food was excellent, the staff – gorgeous supermodels, and the service…. absolutely horrendous. Getting served was a gymnastic exercise and sometimes just getting inside was like climbing Everest. We scheduled a short track reunion party there under my name, inviting more than 30 Olympians in in the process I quickly grew to hate the place.
Baikal catered primarily to wealthy Russian men and no amount of other collateral would sway the stilletto heeled women manning the door and hostessing the seats. It all came to a head when the reservation I had made for 25 short track speedskaters was arrogantly ignored. Half the group was inside when the other 10 arrived and were promptly denied entrance. “They cannot come in – it is full,” she says. I looked around and every other table was empty, the place was cavernously hollow with the lack of people. “Full?! This place is empty!” “It is full,” says the supermodel with compete conviction. We move to the door where a host of olympic speedskaters were standing in the cold, annoyed. “Those people right there – they represent 10 countries and probably 20 Olympic medals – they are very important.” Unmoved, her response was infuriating “Everyone here important – athlete, politician, rich – doesn’t matter, we are full.” I switched to a different supermodel to no avail. “You have reservation?” she asks. “Yes! I have a reservation!.” “Doesn’t matter, we are full, they cannot come in.” Finally with the help of one of the nicer girls the manager came over and she was at least attempting to hear me and I let her have it in a 2 minute rant loud enough for everyone to hear.
Eventually we were able to get everyone in, but after that moment I swore I would never go inside Baikal again and I didn’t. Later that evening there was an amusing moment as I was telling the group what had happened and as part of the story I pointed with emphasis to each of the hostesses and said loudly “and I don’t like her. This one I don’t like either. That one I hate!” reserved for the worst of them, a brunette named Ala. Alex turns to me and says, “you realize they all saw you pointing at them” and I said, “that’s exactly the point.”
I did return a few days later and sat outside on the deck with Wilf O’Reilly and Steven Bradbury. Before they arrived the most terrible hostess Ala came up and stood there glowering at me, not saying anything. I looked her straight in the face and said, “yes, I still don’t like you!” She turned and stalked off yelling over her shoulder, “I don’t care!” It was awesome. (see pictures below)
Club BaikalShort Track Party @ Baikal
Club Baikal in the background
The Black Sea Plunge.
From day one I intended to do the Black Sea Plunge and announced it to others repeatedly to gauge interest. “On the last night, I’m going to swim in the Black Sea at midnight – are you in?” The responses varied from “uh, why?….” to “Hell yeah, I’m in!” The first two people to say they were in was Summer Sanders and then Ariana Kukors – so with two Olympic swimmers I figured I wouldn’t drown, and Tony was next (military special forces, probably CIA) so I figured we’d be safe. So Erik, Tim, Tony, Suzie, Josette, Tom, Izzy, Alexis, Shelby, and Jeremy all said they were in as well.
Since Summer was leaving a few days early we tried and failed to schedule a window during the day for her but couldn’t make it work with people’s various social engagements. We were running out of time, but, sure enough at 4am on Jan 24th, our last morning in Sochi, 3 hours before our airport bus pickup, 8 of us headed out and implemented the plan. Wearing bathrobes and slippers we sat in the bar as the group assembled and then made our way out to the rocky shore, passing through the hotel lobby blaring “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC on a Jambox to the bemused smiles of Russian partiers and hotel staff.
Exiting the hotel with a photographer in tow wearing one of my powerful LED headlamps, we then proceeded to the shoreline to a) take shots of chili infused vodka and b) eat slices of Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper – the world’s hottest chili – in order to heat up our insides in prep for the 39 degree water. All went according to plan and shortly thereafter as the “leader” of this escapade I ran across the rocks and into the water first, splashing all the way in until I couldn’t touch bottom screaming with the cold. I turned, excited to see my comrades splashing in besides me and realized that they were still 100yards off, picking their way very, very slowly across the rocks. I was dying. I treaded water for one minute, then two. I lost feeling in my limbs, so I swam forward so that I could at least stand. Finally 3 or 4 minutes later, everyone was in and we got our Black Sea Plunge photo. Tim, Erik, Josette, Tony, Alexis – love you guys – we will always share this moment. (see pictures below)
- The fuel: Trinidad Moruga Scorpion Peppers and chili infused vodka
- notice the lovers
stylin’ through the lobby in russian style
- “thunderstruck” by AC/DC. Why? It was the first loud song I found
(The pain of the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion Pepper!)
- Seriously – this is why I froze – tenderfoots couldn’t walk on the rocks
Every single interaction over the years with Katarina Witt has been a bad one. In Lillehammer I explained figure skating to her not realizing who she was until she whipped off her hat and said, “You’d think I’d know!” A year later and Kristi Yamaguchi gave me a flower under spotlights rink-side at a Stars on Ice show that they both starred in and afterward at the bar, Katarina announced loudly “not with him” when asked to join us and refused to sit with us. Years later in Torino we knocked over a metal barrier in the hotel she was staying at at about 4am and she came down wearing nothing but a fur coat and yelled at me “Vat is all this noise!!? Vat are you doingk?!!! People are sleeping!! Stop!!”.
So it was with some amusement that my first night at the Azimut 4 hotel I see her in the lobby and start chuckling. That night absolutely no joke, I open my computer and right in “Finder” I see that her entire computer and all her files are somehow wirelessly linked right onto my desktop. Never in my life has this happened – and of all people why her?
What are the odds, in all the world that one person at the Olympics who dislikes me, somehow her computer just magically shows up on my desktop? Later Steven Bradbury told me he had access to my computer the same way – weird.
Other Funny Moments:
- Exploring the sleek modern marble hotel spa and finding the “stuff only” rooms. I asked if I could put my bag in there. (see pics below)
- Summer and Suzie turning the USA house into a disco with their reckless enthusiasm
- Summer Sanders photo bomb at Holland House
- Obtaining passes to the USOC house – hottest ticket in town – from Tommy O’Hare and sitting down to a nice meal w/ Stephen Bradbury, only to received this for the salmon and gruyer platter…. thumb sized sandwiches
- Letting Tommy know we missed him through a 4 finger salute after he left
- Riding one morning, joining Apolo and two dudes I didnt’ know. After intros of Billy and Johnny Bush, I started asking Billy if he was in media. Apolo says “he IS media.” I apologized and told him I don’t watch TV. Turns out he is the host for Access Hollywood and cousin to George W. Bush. As I rode off he yells, “go Johnny go!”
- The super high speed train to the mountains, that went 10km/hr for the first 35 minutes and then 120km/hr for the last 15 – why? No one knows
- One day on my bike ride I noticed some men laying the foundation for a platform of some sort. By that evening there was a completely functioning restaurant / bar with tables, and kitchen, and a fully stocked bar. Must have been 30 people working on it all day. Amazing.
- Doing the TV shoots w/ Summer Sanders, Ariana Kukors and Jeremy Bloom. The Summer shot was totally last second – “hey can we put you on camera?” The Jeremy shoot was my idea that I pitched – so cool to see it happen and he was a blast.
- Bonnie Blair. Bonnie is the sweetest, nicest person you could meet. But at the USA house, with a couple glasses of wine and the whole speedskating program getting ground beneath the Dutch skating machine, she didn’t mince words, especially about the “whiny babies” on the team complaining about the suits and the ice. Loved it – go Bonnie Go!
- My Great friend Alex Izykowski and his Wizard of Oz folding bike (dut da-dut da-da da) – zipping circles around the olympic park and one night, the US trainer, riding Jenny Walters standing on the bike rack on the back – stoic like a charioteer.
Sleep, Please?! Tomorrow. No, Wait, I’ll Sleep on the Plane. No, Wait…
In the last few days, everyone was wanting to connect, to make sure they didn’t miss a moment – to “really live” the final moments of the games up to the sad moment of closing ceremonies and the extinguishing of the flame. I got 3 hours of sleep on the night of the 20th, 2 hours on the 21st, 2 hours on the 22nd, and the night of the 23rd, zero hours. That was the night of the Black Sea plunge. After the Black Sea swim I finished gathering my belongings and headed down to get on the bus at 7am. I was hazy and disorganized. I proceeded to leave my phone on the bus, and then other items in the bin at security at the airport and then stood swaying in the terminal and waited with Apolo and Ariana 2.5 hours until we began boarding. As we walked out of the terminal a wave of sadness rolled over me. It was over. No more of the world’s greatest contests surrounded by people whose intense shared experiences with me go back 25 years. No more permission to speak to anyone at anytime about anything. No more USA house, Holland house, late night conversations and morning rides in the sun along the boardwalk.
I was nostalgic for the recent past and already curious and hopeful for Peongchang 2018. at 11am I filed onto the plane excited to do nothing other than sleep. I settled in in row 44A, closed my eyes and we took off. Thirty minutes later the “bing” of reaching cruising altitude roused me from the beginnings of sleep, and then the announcement, “ladies and gentlemen – your flight attendants have rolled the bar carts into each aisle and galley and cleared out: it is open bar until we reach NYC.” Moments later half the plane was up talking and laughing and try as I might I couldn’t sleep. There was a lot of noise and laughter in the back so I got up to see what all the commotion was all about. In the back I was immediately recruited into some odd dice game with a pair of stewardesses a few producers including Bobby V. from Chicago and a news anchor from Atlanta named Jay Watson. We started w/ Moet champagne but swiftly moved to stronger stuff. 11 hours later we landed in the good old USA and I still had not slept. The whole plane smelled like a bar. The whole plane WAS a bar. I figured I had 7 hours sleep in 5 days. I was vibrating all over with tiredness and some bits of fear and sadness. I arrived home at 8pm Monday night, and 12 hours later was sitting at my desk at work staring down 457 unread emails. I still have not fully recovered four days later… (see pictures below)
Perhaps some of the greatest moments of the games are held behind closed doors and reserved for a select few to witness. These “secret ceremonies” have evolved because Olympic officials are following the golden rule of business: “know thy customer.” If the Olympics are big business (they are, NBC paid $4.4 billion for the next 4 games including Sochi) then it is essential to know just who the “customer” is. As it turns out there are 4 segments of declining size, but increasing impact in Olympic sport: 1) fans – the largest, 2) competitors, 3) coaches, family and support, 4) medal winners. These secret ceremonies have come to be in order to better serve segments 3) and 4). In order to fully understand why and how we must first debunk some conventional wisdom about the medals ceremony.
There’s a traditional notion of the ultimate moment at the Olympics – the athlete finishes the race or competition and chest heaving, brilliantly lit white breath coming from their lips they march down the red carpet and bend their neck to receive the weight of Olympic metal.
The montages we see on TV and read about from the carefully reconstructed narratives in the media suggest that in this singular moment, all the hopes and dreams and fears and joys come to fruition in one scintillating moment of pride and joy. The victor raises his or her arms and the journey is complete.
The reality is that this is narrative fallacy. The first reason it is a false is because it is nearly impossible for an athlete who has had tunnel vision and a relentless focus on an end goal to come to grips with the sheer impact of the moment and the years, even decades of training and sacrifice it took to get there in just a few minutes after the race. The second reason it is a false construct is because there has been innovation in an unexpected place for this important medalist segment – how to give Olympic medals and create an experience – and the simple reality is they no longer receive their medals the same day as their performance. This is for good reason. As a medalist myself, it is common for me to be asked “what was it like to stand on the podium at the olympics” and for a long time I kept the false narrative alive, “it was amazing to finally reach my goal. I was so grateful etc. etc.” Then I finally assented to the truth. Here’s the painfully honest answer, “Actually I wasn’t really present. My mind was so stuck in the future that it immediately wandered, ‘should I keep skating? I’m 25 yrs old and have no income, but… I didn’t achieve my goal.’ ‘I wonder if I’ll get drug tested – I hope not, I don’t have to pee…” I wasn’t present at all and mostly missed the moment. In talking with other athletes, – particularly first timers, this appears to be more the rule than the exception.
Enter customer experience innovation for segment four – the medalists. The medals ceremony is no longer done this way. Yes, the athletes march down the red carpet, chests still heaving from the effort but now it is the “flowers ceremony” where they receive… flowers. The medals, as it turns out, must wait – usually almost exactly 24 hours.
Charlie and Meryl Davis Flowers Ceremony
At the winter Olympics, athletes no longer receive their medals at the venue immediately after their event – Instead, the athletes are given 24 hours to ponder, to let it all sink in, to hear from friends and family, schoolmates and coaches from around the world before they step on stage to stand on the podium. Instead of an echoing half-filled arena, there are now tens of thousands of fans in a central location. It is like a rock concert. It IS a rock concert – immediately on the heels of the awards presentation big name bands begin to play and the party goes on until the wee hours. (pic – the real medals ceremony) Not for the medalists though, for athletes of most countries they still have another ceremony. Holland and USA in particular have created experiences to help segments 3 and 4 (medalists AND family/coaches/support) to breakthrough the tunnel vision that led them to this outcome and help bring perspective on the scale of their accomplishments.
Actual Medals Ceremony – Olympic Park
Hans Erik Tuijt is the Global Activation Director for Heineken and has been instrumental in evolving the post competition awards process for the Dutch athletes. For their (many) Dutch medalists, they have designed and created an experience for the medalists, their families and fans that is truly magical. A few hours or up to a day after the event, Dutch medal winners and their families arrive to the Holland Heinken House – a dwelling constructed just for this event – where they have a private room to relax, have some food or something to drink, talk, watch the games and decompress. (pic Holland house exterior, family area).
Holland Heineken House
Hans Erik shows me the athlete room
Somewhere around 10pm, the magic begins. Out in the main space, hundreds of Dutch fans have assembled in their brilliant royal orange clothes and after listening to a live band for a few hours, the lights change and go dark, the music changes, and the energy begins to build. Inside, a man on a milling machine works furiously to complete a metal plaque with the winner’s name and achievement. (pic band playing, man w/ milling machine)
“We designed it for impact – for the athletes, for their families, for their fans.” With piece of music designed specifically for the moment, a deep beat begins and an escalating instrumental and electronic theme emerges. A popular TV host appears and as each wave of sound and drums and bass rolls over the crowd the host uses the music and energy to whip the crowd into a manic frenzy. Then, just at the crescendo, the moment comes as designed: with a brilliant flash of light, a door at the end of the hall opens and – arms raised – in comes the hero, the medalist. Simultaneously a hidden host of workers in the house forms a human chain and linking together pulls the crowd back allowing a lane to emerge, the “legendary lane,” filled with plaques celebrating each of the previous medalists. In time with a change of music the athlete walks through the parted “orange sea” and on up to the stage in a cataclysmic release of energy and pure emotion from the fans and the family members who have a seat at the front of the stage. (pic – the moment of impact) There the athlete, often in a fit of emotion shares a brief story of their journey and finds words sometimes in tears to thank those that helped them arrive in this moment. Last night Holland swept the mens 10,000meters and so bronze, then silver, then gold made their grand entrances. Here’s the theme music: http://www.tribecompany.com/
A parallel, quieter yet perhaps even more emotional ceremony takes place each night at the USA house. No media, no throngs of fans, only Olympic athletes – current and past, coaches and close family are allowed in the hallowed cloisters of the USA house to witness the presentation of the “Order of Ikkos.” (pic – Ikkos medals)
The athletes arrive late, flushed from all the excitement, medals still around their necks. But their miens are serious. In the past 24 hours they have been given the chance to let their success sink in. They have also been granted that same amount of time to think about all the people that helped them get there – all the sacrifices of others in order for them to have this moment. This elegant transposition takes the form of granting a medal themselves, the “Order of Ikkos” award to the one person that helped them the most. The thundering drumbeat of pride is set against the shattering humility of gratitude creating an emotional crescendo like no other. As they begin to speak, the gravity of the moment hangs thick in the air. Voices husky with emotion the halting inadequate words come and inevitably bring a waterfall of tears – from the athlete, the Ikos recipient, and every eye in the house. This is perhaps the most hallowed moment in all of sport.