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