Vancouver Journal #13: Beginnings and Endings

Vancouver Journal #13: Beginnings and Endings

 What spark might cause a little girl to aspire to something great? What magic mixture of activities, encouragement, talent and belief combine to ignite the passion and perseverance required to become an “outlier” like an Olympic athlete?

Endings Part 1:  We knew it was over before we saw it onscreen by the thunderous roar coming from the stadium. I am a speedskater, but,  sitting outside of the closing ceremonies venue (BC Place), watching the Canada – USA gold medal hockey match on TV in the NBC commissary I couldn’t help be enthralled by the drama. The game, which had entered sudden death overtime, was being played in a venue a few hundred feet away, but was on a brief tape delay. Moments after the thunder from the stadium began, USA goalie Ryan Miller slumped face first onto the ice,  puck in the net behind him and a whole city – a whole nation – celebrated. I was happy for Canada I guess. For the U.S. it was just another medal, for Canada, it was a matter of national pride. Besides, I wanted to enjoy my final night in Vancouver.

It was the last evening of the Olympics, one last night, one last hurrah for the world’s biggest party. A few hours later I entered the stadium hosting the closing ceremonies where I would fulfill my final duties for NBC as a “spotter.” I stayed busy finding athletes for interviews and the ceremonies were of a blur until the lights dimmed and Neil Young came onstage. His voice quavered as the torch flickered and went out, and I felt a sudden rush of coldness wash over me – it really was over – tomorrow, reality would resume…

This feeling, however, was nothing in comparison to another ending exactly 12 years earlier, when friend, competitor and part time announcer Chris Needham announced my retirement from the sport of speedskating. During my time in Vancouver, I was acutely aware that many of the athletes I was spending time with were about to undergo this same transition – Ian had declared his retirement from speedskating a few months prior, and Nick Pearson announced his the day of his 7th place finish in the 1000m.

Chris Needham was here as well, having made his own declaration of retirement from the sport just a few months ago after his own failed Olympic bid, and then there was Alex. Alex Izykowski was a boy of 11 when I was lucky enough to put my medal around his neck at Steamer’s pub in Bay City Michigan. He was 23 when we reconnected after his bronze medal in Torino, and now at 27 we have become great friends. Alex was training for this – what was to be his second Olympic games – when a series of misfortunes struck; back problems emerged interrupting his training, and then, last February Alex was struck by a car while biking through an intersection on a training ride and a few torturous months later he too announced his retirement from the sport.

Like me, each one of these athletes had spent more than a decade pursuing a dream, and like me, none of them quite reached their ultimate goal. As athletes aspiring to become Olympians, the mindset is ever one of “never give up, never give in,” and the Olympic dream becomes the North Star that directs and sustains through the suffering over the years. To suddenly extinguish that light is to give up on a belief, and for a great number of serious athletes, the transition to “reality” can be cold, empty, and directionless.

To say I was devastated when I failed at my second Olympic bid and decided to retire would be an understatement.It took me 8 years, and the inspiring words of a concerned parent – Alex’s father – before I truly transitioned from athlete to Olympian. I hoped I could return the favor for Alex in much shorter order.

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Beginnings: Shannon and Katelina arrived the night before the opening ceremonies, or rather early the morning of. They were supposed to arrive at 1am, but flight delays and customs meant that they walked out of the terminal at 3:30am PST (5:30CST) and were exhausted.

Katelina is a sweet and senstitive nine year old girl. She reminds me of myself at that age: slight of build, innocent of the world, and mostly quiet and shy with periods of intensity that speak to untapped inner drives and motivations. At that age I was one year away from hating speedskating. Kat already hates it – or at least she hates the racing part… I was hoping that being at the Olympics might provide a spark of interest in sports for her.

The good news was I had managed to locate opening ceremonies tickets. In order to purchase tickets, weeks ago I had completed my taxes the very same day I received my tax documents, and I received my refund the same morning of opening ceremonies. I now had the money and had found available tickets – timing was serendipitous. Still, spending serious dollars just to watch a torch being lit?

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Talent: I have read a host of books on psychology, training, rational vs. irrational thought, happiness, strengths, and talent over the past couple of years. I’m probably somewhat of an expert on the data available in this field, but that doesn’t mean I’m an apt practitioner. To date my daughter holds speedskating races with only slightly less contempt than math classes at school. Speaking with the other parents in the USA house made it easy to confirm: more often then not, the offspring of Olympians prefer NOT to follow the same dream as their parents. Conversely, most of these parents were just like me growing up – clueless and normal… until one day…

Daniel Coyle, author, talent expert and no relation, dug deep on talent development in his highly recommended book “The Talent Code.” He expertly uses the latest neuroscience along with anecdotal and statistical data to show what most “outliers” have in common when it comes to excellence. Specifically he finds that it is the passion to pursue “deep practice” of an activity over a period of years despite the suffering it involves. This deep practice causes “myelination” – the wrapping of electric circuits in the brain that then surface as “talent.”

Daniel clearly shows how hotbeds of talent around the globe have arisen where the suffering required for “deep practice” is overcome and fueled by a concept he calls “ignition.”

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We filed into the stadium and I had no idea what to expect except that it “will be great.” It was a significant investment and I was nervous. Then it started. The lights dimmed, the crowd of 60,000 in white fell into a hush, and then a snowboarder shot down a ramp from the top of the stadium, off of a jump through the Olympic rings, and with an explosion of sound and fireworks, the opening ceremonies began.

The anthems, the singers, the lights and colors were an amazing spectacle, but through it all I was watching other eyes – I was watching Katelina. Despite an earlier pronouncement of “It sounds boring, I don’t want to go papa,” she was enthralled – eyes wide open, transfixed by the pageantry of the ceremonies – here she was, watching one of the world’s great shows preceding one of the world’s great competitive dramas. She swung her flashlights of different colors, banged on her blue cardboard drum (which became important for other reasons), watched skiers and snowboarders drop from the sky, ballet dancers pirouette onstage, a gigantic glowing polar bear rise from the floor, and a massive torch being lit. Our excellent seats were also right next to the athlete section, so I was able to point out a few Olympians I knew as well. The three hours flew by in minutes and she sat up, leaning forward throughout the entire show.

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Ignition: Why would anyone begin this irrational behavior of training for the Olympics? I say irrational because any rational analysis of the situation must include odds and outcomes. The odds for anyone to become one of the few hundred athletes at the Olympic Games are very, very low, and the odds of earning a Olympic medal are even slimmer. The silver medal we earned in 1994? In the nearly 100 years of the modern Olympic games and thousands upon thousands of athletes and competitions it was only the 52nd Winter Olympics medal ever awarded to an athlete from the United States.

Then there is the barrier of outcomes. The expected outcome for newcomer in any sport with a skill element tends to start as “poor”. In my very first speed skating race of three laps, I got lapped – meaning the leaders passed me on their third lap as I was finishing my second. I was embarrassed, horrified and 10 years old. I cried… and cried some more. I demanded to never go again to that rink (Farwell field) I demanded to never skate again, I demanded all kinds of things, but parental relationships were different then: my dad consoled me – I’m sure of that – but he also had the power to decide for me. We returned again and again and it wasn’t an option – thus incredible importance of parents. And then someone who didn’t need to helped me (Jeanne Omelenchuk) http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2008/02/08/jeanne-omelenchuk  and I got better at it, but I wasn’t yet “lit” for skating – that came later at the hands of Marc Affholter http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2008/12/24/marc-affholter/

Ignition. Even more than the breakthroughs of myelin and “outliers” and deep practice, to me the concept of “ignition” is the real magic. Yes of course: if you suffer through 10 years of dedicated focus on a specific skill and have a reasonable level of genetic talent, odds are you can become great. Fine – but we have just described almost nobody.

What is the primary difference between the talented kid who plays ball, runs, or skates for a couple of years and then moves on, distracted by “life” and all its fruits vs. the kid who focuses and abandons many of the easy joys of day-top-day living, embraces the suffering, and hence, in many cases, becomes “great.”? What makes a Bonnie Blair? A Katherine Reutter?

We know from science that repeated contact with a subject matter, a sport, instrument, or topic causes myelination – even if it is somewhat “accidental.” Over the years, circuits are developed that may lie somewhat dormant, and then, one day, through the right words, images, or circumstances, they are called upon. When this miracle of timing, confidence, and latent skill presents itself, the audience perceives “talent” and accolades suddenly form to support the activity and then “ignition” might occur.

For me it happened when I was eight years old. I was just a normal kid doing normal kid things. Then my dad bought me a bike and I started doing longer and longer bike tours with him. I didn’t know I was wrapping myelin around my circuits, strengthening the electrical impulses twitching the fibers in my mind and legs. If I was a harp, I was being strung and tuned, fiber by fiber, chord by chord. My father, like most parents, was the craftsman and tuner, and the chords were the series of 100 mile “century” rides I participated in before my 9th birthday… But the craftsman and the harpist have different roles, and more often than not, it is the expert touch of an outside hand that pulls those first pure notes from the instrument. For me, the hand whose resonant touch first activated those circuits belonged to a passing cyclist named Clair Young. http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2008/10/16/clair-young/  Suddenly I had a label. I was a “bike rider.” I said it in my head a dozen times before I said it aloud. For an 11 year old Alex Izykowski, it was the weight of an Olympic silver medal around his neck. For Meryl Davis or at least her mother, it was the realization that “if my neighbors can do this, we can do it too…”

If building experience and skill is the kindling and logs for a fire, the moment of ignition is the match. Without the match, all that preparation goes to waste. But how to light that fire? Dozens of books on psychology, training, strengths focus, neuroscience, and happiness later, and I still haven’t figured it all out, though I do have some hypotheses. What appears to have happened in each of these cases is the neuropsychological phenomena of “irrational belief” overcoming “rational thought.” More specifically it is that those athletes (and musicians and other paragons of achievement) move from “I think I can” to “(I know) I can.” And in the process of removing “I think” they have invoked belief; that irrational process that does not rely on day-to-day facts and data and instead can weather the vagaries of the day-to-day failures inherent in the pursuit of something difficult – and great.

What is belief anyway? Daniel Coyle, Malcolm Gladwell, and others have built a great case for how this mysterious substance of myelin – the gray matter of the brain – wraps neurons and can speed the processing time through the neural substrate by 1000X and hence accelerate well past the time required for “rational thought.” At its best, this myelination results in “automaticity” whereupon rational thought isn’t even required and the action becomes “instinctive” and hence gets labeled as “talent.” Tiger Woods and John McEnroe are great examples of this – trained since they were little kids they developed skill circuits beyond the levels of anyone in their game. But why did they bother to do it? They could have rebelled, could have quit.

I’ll be honest, I have no idea how ignition works. My daughter pretty much hates the idea of racing – but that is likely due to the fact that the few times she has raced, she did not win. I think I have done a decent job of helping her build skill in the areas of skating and cycling without the undue pressure of competition when she’s not yet ready (she can’t win, so for her, she’d just rather not compete – a feeling I understand completely…)

I would love for Katelina to someday have the kinds of opportunities that I have been so blessed with through my pursuit of excellence through sport…  It doesn’t have to be speedskating or cycling – really it doesn’t have to be sport at all. Mostly I want her to feel the positivity, direction and camaraderie shared when a group of people take on big risks for big rewards. But how? How can I as a parent help create the kindling and fuel that might someday be lit? How do I keep it fun and remove the kind of pressure to achieve that causes so many kids to rebel and quit? I worry and worry about this and grasp for answers…

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Endings Part 2: Vancouver City was described as “No Fun-couver” by its residents prior to the Olympics, and they were reticent or anxious in their unique Canadian way about the arrival of the Olympics before the start of the games. The costs, the traffic, logistics and security issues had put the local citizenship on guard… Then the torch arrived and overnight this relatively sleepy large city became party-central for the world. In speaking with tenured NBC staff and support personnel, it seems the unanimous opinion is that Vancouver truly has become the world’s best 17 day party – ever.

Earlier on the day of closing ceremonies, I was walking down Grandview by Robson (the Olympic “main drag) on the way to a meeting when I first saw them – a group of 7 or 8 young male Canadians clad in bright red body paint including their faces and hair, flags as capes, and little else other than shorts despite the 50 degree weather. “CAN-A-DA! CAN-A-DA! CANADA!”. It was only noon, but by their ragged chanting and singing it seemed likely that no small amount of Canadian beer was involved in their festivities.

There was nothing particularly unusual about passing a loud group of brightly painted, underdressed and intoxicated Canadian men – this had been par for the course for two weeks now except that A) in one hour one of the main events of the games was to start – the USA – Canada hockey showdown just few blocks away, and B) I had just overtaken 6 or 7 guys similarly underdressed, but with blue face paint and American flags chanting “USA, USA, USA!” and they were just behind me and heading this direction.

I was already at risk of being late, but I had to slow and watch the inevitable train wreck to follow as both parties had now seen each other. The chants grew more fervent and the pace picked up, and I watched the aggressive acceleration of alcohol fueled nationalism streak towards each other, their roars and chanting reaching a fever pitch. Then, like a scene from Braveheart where the Irish and Scots meet mid-battlefield the two groups suddenly slowed and came abreast. Much like a post-game hockey lineup each “team” passed by with high fives and genuine smiles before continuing their respective marches.

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After closing ceremonies finished I stopped by the USA house, but it was empty – no more medals to be awarded and most of my old and new friends already en-route for home. I left and walked one last time down Grandview and there at least the party was still on. Throngs of Canadians were celebrating the hockey win, and their best Olympics medal count ever.

As I walked back to the hotel, I passed a couple wearing USA gear. They were dodging the craziness just as I was. They smiled ruefully at me and said “I guess we should be glad they won or this walk might be more difficult.” I nodded in agreement and continued on to my hotel to pack. As I folded up my bike and stuffed my clothes into my suitcase I reflected on the previous 20 days while saving the most important items to pack for last.

A few days prior, alone for a few moments at the USA house, I looked over at Alex and asked him whether being at the Olympics as an Olympian vs. and athlete was difficult and how he was feeling about it. He turned to me, paused, and then with real clarity said something along these lines, “To be honest, I feel more blessed and lucky now – by far – than I ever did as an athlete or in Torino.”

I knew exactly how he felt.

My bike and bags were packed and it was time for my 3am pickup to head to the airport. I just had one final item to put in my carry-on where it would be guaranteed to arrive home safely. This blue octagon and “Sharpie” pen had been my companions for the last week, packed safely in my backpack wherever I went. It was the cardboard drum from opening ceremonies – nothing particularly special in and of itself. But inside, I had collected the pins and tickets and keepsakes from the games for Katelina – as a scrapbook and memoir from her trip.

Perhaps more importantly, on the outside I had managed to gather, over the past week, dozens of signatures and inscriptions from Olympians and medalists from all over the world. Specifically I had asked each one to sign their name, and then write one short piece of advice for my nine year old daughter. This, oddly, proved a daunting task for these exceptional people, but everyone obliged in the end, and I carefully packed it, along with “Quatchie” – one of the Olympic mascots – into my bag and headed for the lobby – and for home.

Postscript: Last night, two weeks after my return, we took Katelina and a friend up to the Petit Center in Milwaukee – a U.S. Olympic training site, and one of only two covered Olympic size long track rinks in the country. Normally she has greeted weekly practice with disdain, but last night she couldn’t get her skates on fast enough, and immediately took off in a blaze of speed, blond tresses flying behind her. Flushed with excitement she did lap after lap on her own, wearing her little Polo USA jacket and long bladed speedskates. A half dozen kids stopped her to talk to her about her skates or how fast she was going, and breathlessly she related her excitement on the ride home. Two hours and 27 laps later (almost 8 miles) it was time to go.

“Papa,” she told me, “This man, a boy, and a couple little girls asked me how I could go so fast” she spoke quickly as she often does when she’s excited.

“What did you say?” I asked.

“Papa, I told him – I told him I could go this fast because I’m a speedskater!” she said with emphasis. My smile grew and grew.

Ignition often starts with a label: “I am a ___________”

Vancouver Journal #12: Days, Places and Faces

Vancouver Journal #12: Days, Places and Faces

closingA week ago today and I was entering BC place to “work” closing ceremonies. Donning a white jumpsuit and a radio, I was one of just a handful that were allowed on the field with the athletes. My job? A “spotter” – I was to identify where key athletes were sitting for the cameras during the ceremony, and then, during the concert following, bring them over for interviews. I had three main athletes to find: Apolo Ohno, Alex Bilideau (first Canadian Gold medal winner) and Ryan Miller (the USA Hockey team goalie). Fred Gaudelli, our producer, had been selected to produce the closing ceremonies and penciled me in for this role as a bit of a thank you. Fred is awesome.

Again, I couldn’t believe my good fortune – to be on the actual field with the athletes!? Only 3 non-athletes were allowed and I was one of them. During the preproduction meeting, I surprised the director (who didn’t know me from Adam) by just texting Apolo and asking him to join us during Alanis Morrisette for an interview. He replied quickly, “Yes!” so I checked off one of my three athletes off the list.

The three weeks I spent in Vancouver were over in a blink of an eye, yet they left an indelible impression on my mind, again proving out some theories on time captured here: http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2009/10/13/how-to-live-almost-forever/

I’ve been asked over and over what some of the most significant moments and memories are of the games, and there are a host of associated snapshots in my head, some of which I’ll share below, with the most important to follow in my final journal.

Hard at work

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Scene: BC Place stadium – closing ceremonies

At the beginning of the opening ceremonies, I was uncertain where to be – the director had told me to get onto the field ASAP as security was tight and even with my special credential I might still have a difficult time getting on the field, so I lined up with a zillion young snowboarders in white near the east gate in anticipation of blending in and getting onto the field early. What I didn’t know is that a few moments later, these 300 kids were going to sprint onto the field, and their intertia would carry me with them until I was finally able to dodge off to the side and, embarrassingly, walk all by myself back to the edge of the field as they began their dance routine. Here’s a link to video I started taking before I realized the trouble I was in (I almost went down and would have been trampled pretty severely!)

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Scene: The P & G (Proctor and Gamble) house. Johnny Wier is just ahead of me in line to check in and take a photo for his credential. He is wearing what looks to be a full fox around his neck and a great deal of makeup. I try not to stare, but I have to glance over when I see him “tsking” leaning over the computer monitor shaking his head while looking at his credential mugshot saying, “no, no, that won’t do, take another one, take another one.”

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Granville St.

Scene: Grandville Avenue amidst the crowds. I’m hurrying down Granville to make a pre-production meeting and I see a group of Canadian hockey fans wearing jerseys surrounding a fallen comrade bent over vomiting into the gutter. His buddies were all chiding him “Its just a few beers, what kind of Canadian are you anyway?” Time check? 10:30…. in the morning…

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Scene: Pan Pacific Hotel lobby: I’m heading into the elevator bank of the Pan Pacific Hotel where all the “talent” stay (on air personalities and bigshots) but I can’t get past the attendant and into the elevator bank because I don’t have a room key card to show him. I try calling Fred and Andy, but no one picks up. Suddenly Picabo Street materializes beside me. She’s on her cell phone, but doesn’t break stride, jerking a thumb towards me and saying to the attendant, “he’s with me” while she continues talking and walking. I follow her into an open elevator and push 14 to go to our producer Fred’s room, and I start to listen to her conversation. She’s smiling and animated.

“No, no, I can confirm…” “No, listen to me, I CAN confirm what you are saying but its not…”

She rolls her eyes and looks at me, a gleeful smile playing out on her face. “Yes, let me speak. Yes, I can absolutely confirm Lindsay Vonn is sleeping with her coach.

“Yes, yes it is true she went to HIS room last night after the awards ceremony. Yes, yes!”

Her eyes crinkled, and she paused, waiting for the dramatic punchline.

“He’s her HUSBAND!” Picabo cackled and could barely talk. “Seriously there’s no story there…” She winked at me and said, “Tabloids!”. As I was getting off the elevator she was still laughing.

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Scene: The Pan Pacific Hotel Lobby Restaurant. “This relay – it’s a f-ing nightmare – no one understands it.” Fred Gaudelli, our producer, was lamenting one morning before competition about the upcoming relays. As a grunt I wasn’t usually much of a participant in the dialog and was happy to be at the table, but I spoke up “What if I could draw some diagrams that showed the specific roles of each skater, and how it all works?” 10 hours of powerpoint animations later, and I was the proud father of a series of little animatics that made broadcast television after the skilled hand of Charlie Vanacor and others made them TV worthy.

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Teammates - Gabel and FlaimScene: The USA House. Most of my available hours – those not spent at the venue, watching practice, building powerpoint diagrams, doing morning TV, sleeping or riding my bike – were spent at the “USA House.” The USA House is Zeus’s gift to current and former US Olympic Athletes. Open only to current Olympic athletes and “Olympians” (once an Olympian, always an Olympian – you are never a “former Olympian”), it is a refuge for those lucky enough to pass through its doors. Every Olympics has one, but in Vancouver it was a large square building right downtown with three floors. The first floor was the USA Olympic store, the second was the bar, restaurant and big screen TV’s and the third floor, well I never made it up, but I heard it was meeting rooms. With the limited invitees, the excellent catered food and the open bar, conversations in the USA House come easy.

Seth Wescott

Each night, somewhere around midnight after the official awards ceremonies, many of the newly minted U.S. medalists for the day would make their way to the USA house for a relatively new and important ceremony – the order of Ikkos, where the medal winner would provide a medal symbolizing  the order to the supporter/coach who had helped them the most. Some gave it to a coach, some to a parent. Regardless of recipient, most nights it was an emotional ceremony, and everyone at the USA house would gather around the far end of the vast room to watch the athlete(s) provide the medal and give short speeches to the cheers of the crowd. I loved how it helped focus the athlete’s attention back away from themselves and begin the process of realization that their presence on the world stage was due to the support of many outside themselves.

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My favorite part...

Scene: The USA House most evenings. Perhaps my fondest memories of the games are the time spent lounging in the low white leather chairs of the USA house, whiling away the evening hours with old friends, new friends and new aquaintances. Serious conversations about training, philosophy, and sport were balanced by the easy camaraderie and joking banter common to athletes around the globe. Alex, Chris, Ian, Tucker, Nick, and I were a core group and just so happened to all also be on the Colbert show http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/265287/february-24-2010/freud-rage—the-iceman-counseleth/  . Others would join the circle watching the big screen TV’s while telling stories of “the old days” or recent events. It was a safe and special place and the energy in the room, despite everyone being low on sleep, made it all the more memorable. As the elder statesman of the group, I would switch circles back and forth with the “older group” of Gabel, Blair, Wanek, Jansen, Plant and others. The cast of characters:

Chris Needham: skated on the national teams – both long track and short track for a decade, had to suffer through being my roommate in Lake Placid back in the day, but never quite made the Olympic team. Chris is very smart and has a quick wit.

Ian Baranski: like Chris, Ian skated competitively for a decade on various long track and short track teams, but never quite made the games. Ian managed to get a law degree while still skating on the national team, and we have always had a great relationship. Ian is Apolo’s roommate in Salt Lake.

Dan Jansen and Dan Hicks

Tucker Fredericks: I just got to know Tucker, but this kid is crazy funny. Apparently during the Colbert show taping, Tucker had Stephen cracking up more than once. As a long track sprinter, Tucker is very unusual being neither tall nor massive. Wicked fast though, he is.

Nick Pearson: I remember Nick as this tiny blond headed kid running around the rink with his cute little red-headed sister. Now he’s this Thor of an Olympian (yes, I’m mixing my pantheons) – 6’3”, legs like oak trees, zero percent body fat. Nick had a phenomenal finish in two Olympics that no one ever saw – 6th in Salt Lake City in both the 1500m and 1000m , and a 7th in the 1000m in Vancouver. None of his races were ever aired…

Alex Izykowski: the boy who wore my silver medal, who became the Olympic competitior with the bronze medal in Torino, who became the injured and retired Olympian who has become a very close friend. Alex has a very kind disposition and a generous soul. I spent much of my free time hanging with him.

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Order of Ikkos award - Ryan Shimabakuro

Scene: The USA house: I’m not a huge hockey fan, but the guy in front of me talking in an animated way clearly was. It was the night after I had had dinner with Paul Wylie, Peter Caruthers and Kristie Yamaguchi, and Bret Hedican, the man I was speaking with, was a recently retired NHL player, but those significant credentials did not gain him entrance to the USA house. Fortunately, he was also a former Olympian in 1992, and then again in 2006 for the U.S. Hockey team, and we were discussing training and talent development and we found ourselves in strong agreement in our positions on the topic and talked for the better part of an hour. At one point in the conversation, Mike Eruzione, the captain of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” hockey team wandered over and joined the discussion, seamlessly joining in as we had all already met. At one point, Mike looked around and said, “isn’t great to be here?” Bret and I nodded, and then Bret said, “you know, nobody cares how many playoff games or Stanley cups I’ve won, but when they find out I played in the Olympics!, that’s what people remember and care about. It is sort of a magic moment locked in the four year box of time.”

The next night I was talking with Bret again, and when Kristie Yamaguchi came by to say hi, I was just about to introduce her when she gave Bret a kiss. “You’ve met my husband Bret?” They had no reason to know I felt like an idiot.

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Scene: The Pacific Coloseum entrance. On Wednesday, before the fourth day of short track, I finally met Cheryl Davis, my neighbor back in West Bloomfield, Michigan and the mother of Olympian Meryl Davis. She was waiting in the rink after figure skating practice (“figs in the nomenclature of the media crew”) and that part of me that was a child years ago still recognized her. She was tiny, but still steely, with bright blue eyes that belied her size. I remembered, suddenly, being afraid of her as a kid (a feeling her son Clay, corroborated as legitimate). Perhaps I trespassed in her yard a few decades ago and was chastised, but she was all smiles and hugs now. “Meryl and Charlie are in third!” she said, “they can probably move up to silver, maybe even Gold!”

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Scene: The USA house the next night. The following evening I watched the ice dance finale sitting right next to Cheryl Davis and Mrs. White, Charlie’s mom as Meryl and Charlie skated a fantastic program to win silver. It was so exciting to share that moment with her. Then, a few hours later after a call from Cheryl, I met them at the USA house to meet Meryl and watch Meryl and Charlie provide their Ikkos award to their coach (shared by the gold medal team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. A few moments after Meryl came out of the elevator of the USA house, I finally met the little girl who had held the Olympic torch so long ago. I was full of emotions and didn’t quite know what to do or say – I was torn between a desire to be a part of it all (as Cheryl pulled me into photos) and filled with embarrassment for knowing I was just lucky to be there.

 

Two silver medals on one block - Meryl Davis

Preview, Journal #13: Final Reflections – final thoughts and memories from this amazing 3 weeks.

Peggy Fleming

Ross and Vera Wang

Meryl and Apolo

Yes, palm trees in canada

Floating rings, with Mt. Baker in the backdrop

Charlie and Meryl's victory lap

Andrea Joyce, Andy Gabel, Ted Robinson

The kids that almost killed me

Allison Baver - Bronze Medalist

A bit of a strange closing ceremony...

Lucky to be on the floor with the athletes

Vancouver Journal #11: Tonight, “The Best Event at the Olympics”

“So, I heard that short track on Friday is ‘the best event at the Olympics’ – in particular the relay.”

 Those words were spoken to me while on-set by NBC morning show anchor Terry Gannon just prior to the show yesterday. Short track, and it signature event the relay are all the buzz throughout town. Wednesday night’s women’s gold medal relay race was just another example of why. In the final laps, the Korean team made a slightly awkward pass on the leading Chinese team, and a bobble from clicked skates resulted in a disqualification to Korea, notching up China, Canada, and a very lucky out-of-contention USA team into the medals. But the drama didn’t stop on-ice. Subsequent to the decision, the organizers have received over 22,000 angry emails from Korean supporters. Furthermore, Jim Hewisch, the Australian referee who made the questionable call has received multiple death threats both here and at home and security at the rink has been beefed up.

A short track fan

Cap all this off with new press airing regarding a bomb threat to the Australian embassy tied again to that race, and the circus continues. Earlier this week I was in the elevator at the USA house with Michael Phelps (who was at the Saturday event) and that was all he and his friends were still talking about – which made a quick introduction and photo op an easy ask:

 I turned to Terry Gannon, nodded and confirmed – “yes, it really is the best event.” His response was, “I have to find a way to be there – sounds fantastic.”

 Tonight Apolo Ohno and Simon Cho will attempt to qualify for the 500m gold medal race against a tough field of Canadians including World Champion Charles Hamelin of Canada, and the Korean contingent including world record holder Sung Si-Bak. The ladies will conclude their 1000m with the gold medal race – hopefully Katherine Reutter will earn a well-deserved medal. Finally, the last race of these Olympics, the men’s 5000 meter relay, with 5 teams and 20 skaters all circling the ice at the same time. Confusing? Hopefully my diagrams airing tonight will help.

Want to know more about the sport? Follow this link: http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2010/02/13/vancouver-journal-7-an-introduction-to-short-track-speedskating

We will be live tonight for the men’s 500’s, and “Elvised” for the womens races and relay (very slight delay). If you watch any events from this Olympics – I highly encourage you not to miss tonight. I’m pretty excited that more of my powerpoint handiwork has been made into on-air animatics – attached are two of the powerpoint animations that you will likely see aired tonight. Ted gave me a shout-out on Wed. night for the relay diagram (see snapshot)

The buzz is in the air here, and the energy tonight will be amazing – I should probably get earplugs, as in Torino the final night had my ears ringing for almost 24 hours. Here’s our full schedule – racing starts at 6pm Pacific – 8pm Central:

 Friday, February 26th   – 5th day of competition

9:00am – Talent Editorial Meeting – Gaudelli, Moossa, Robinson, Gabel, Joyce & Coyle

10:00am – Edit – Vanacore/Schwarz –

12:00pm – Production Meeting @ Pacific Coliseum – all Production personnel

1:30pm – Fax

2:30pm – Lunch

3:30pm – Camera Meeting

4:00pm – all talent arrive

4:45pm – all cams on

4:50pm – Skaters Warm – up (ends at 5:40pm)

5:30pm – rehearse talent

6:00pm – Men’s 500 M – Quarterfinals 

6:14pm – Women’s 1000M – Quarterfinals

6:43pm – Men’s 500 M – Semifinals

6:52pm – Women’s 1000 M – Semifinals

7:13pm – Men’s 500 M  – B Final (places 5 – 8)

7:17pm – Men’s 500 M  – A Final (Medal event)

7:23pm – Women’s 1000 M – B Final (places 5 – 8)

7:28pm – Women’s 1000 M – A Final (Medal event)

7:50pm – Men’s 5000 M Relay B Final (places 5 – 8)

8:03pm – Men’s 5000 M Relay A Final (Medals)

Vancouver Journal #10 – TV debut and racing

I haven’t had much time to write but it has been a crazy and fun week. Katelina and Shannon came in for three action packed days taking in opening ceremonies, the first day of short track, the award ceremonies with Nellie Furtado. Opening ceremonies was a rather significant investment – but worth it. I hope it is something Katelina will remember her whole life and that it lights a little spark for her – more on that to come.
On Thursday I made my broadcast TV debut (with the exception of a very confusing interview in Albania last May:
 
NBC Universal Sports does a morning show live by the waterfront with previews and recaps for the action taking place. Somehow they got my name to help them out on short track and of course I accepted, despite the early wake up (6am).
 
So Thursday morning at 6:45am I showed up to a white tent on the plaza next to the torch and proceeded to “get makeup” which consisted of some airbrushing and powder, and then on to the set with Terry Gannon and Lindsay Soto. We reviewed a video of the night’s races and I provided commentary and answered questions. My face was only on screen for a minute or less and the whole thing was only 5 minutes or so, but if was fun.

Apparently I did OK – they invited me back and Saturday morning and Lindsay and I previewed tonight’s races and I was on air about 15 minutes or so (w/ commercial break). It was fun and I was only a little nervous. After that show the producer sent me an email that said “they loved you and we want you back,” so that’s good. It is truly amazing that the little sport that consumed much of my life and saw maybe 2 minutes of airtime in Lillehammer is now dominating the airwaves during primetime. It is the dream we all had hoped the sport would realize.

Saturday night, at 6pm local, and 8pm CST, we went live again with short track. Actually, all of it wasn’t live we “Elvised-in” the men’s 1000 preliminaries before going truly live some time after 7pm (9pm CST). “Elvising” is basically running things on a short delay so that various segments can be better coordinated – apparently an EVS machine does this process. the women’s 1500m heats aired on late-night.

I’ve been doing some diagrams for the producer as well and the first one I did aired the other night – just a simple figure of a tight track vs. a wide track. Here’s some snapshots of diagrams you may see coming up in the broadcast.

Passing patterns for short track
Simple stuff, but they like it. I’ve spent about 10 hours building another one for the relays – coming soon.
Saturday’s races were phenomenal and Apolo now is the most decorated Winter Olympian in U.S. history. Were it not for 3 slips – one for each American, I think J.R. Celski, Katherine Reutter, and Apolo would have had different placings – Apolo gold, Reutter probably silver and Celski would have been in the final – possibly with a medal.
Reutter was truly amazing in the final, skating near the front, reacting quickly to every move and then sliding a little too far forward and clicking, dropping from 2nd to 8th in the blink of an eye. Fighting fiercely, she staged a furious comeback passing her way back into 4th place, just one spot shy of a medal. No slip and she’s for sure silver, possibly gold.

Next up, the men’s final. The atmosphere in the arena was charged with energy. I don’t know how to describe it – it is different, I think, than a hockey game or other events. Hockey lasts a long time with lots of action. Short track is sort of an extended set of pendulum swings that crescendo into a peak into the final seconds of the medal round.

First, the preliminaries with hometown favorites and the associated nail biting passes and false starts generating nervous excitement and spontaneous celebrations. These were followed by the lull of the ice resurface, and then the semi finals where everything is laid on the line and in split seconds the medal race is decided. Another lull for another resurface, and then this weird hush and then a building energy, a low vibration building into a thrumming and then roaring and chanting as the skaters took their marks for the gold medal round, where in just over one minute fortunes would be made, and lost.

The skaters were introduced, one by one, helmets off, and then the scoreboard suddenly flashed, “Silence!” forcing the 11,000 on their feet in the sold out stadium into a momentary quiet before the gun cracked open the explosion of sound. After that I could no longer hear Ted or Andy – only an overwhelming wave of white noise crushing my eardrums.

With 2 ½ laps to go Apolo was in 3rd behind the Hamelin brothers – both from Canada – and the hometown crowd was screaming. But the crowd didn’t know what we knew – that the train was just about to leave the station with Apolo setting up wide and two Koreans in tow. A sudden stumble and Apolo went backwards as the Koreans streamed by and into the lead. Then with only a half lap Apolo rallied, swinging around the Canadian brothers, and the rest, as they say, is history: 7 Olympic medals in one of the most unpredictable sports in the world.

 

 

  
 
 

 

Vancouver Journal #9: To walk or not to walk?

Vancouver Journal #9: Opening Ceremonies – to walk or not to walk?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Years, even decades of training go into an Olympic bid, and most of the millions that attempt this feat fail to join the few thousand that do. Morning, afternoon and evening they suffer, sweating and straining in pursuit of a distant dream – a few remembered snapshots from childhood serving as the glowing grail for this quest.

JR Celski wins bronze

For most, those images can be distilled down to two mental pictures that have kept them motivated all these years. First and foremost is the vision of climbing the podium, bending down to receive an Olympic medal to the roar of the crown and the tears of joy and relief from friends and family.

There is another dream though, one that is far more realistic for the thousands of Olympians here chasing dozens of medals, and that dream is to march in the opening ceremonies and witness the pageantry surrounding the lighting of the Olympic cauldron.

But this dream is fading: more and more athletes are skipping the opening ceremonies and the parade of nations has become a gentrified walk of coaches and staff.

Why? You might ask.

In pursuit of the primary dream, everything becomes secondary – the vision of that ephemeral medal becomes ever more singular and the lesser, more realistic dreams fall away. To walk in opening ceremonies is to be on your feet for 2 – 3 hours – certainly not on anyone’s list of “best preparation” techniques for an athletic competion. Many simply choose not to attend – which is certainly their right.

However, some are just banned from participating by coaches and staff. At least one team I’m aware of was banned by their NGB (national governing body) to walk in the opening ceremonies – probably dozens.

Then there is the middle ground, some are “guilted” out of going. For the U.S. Short Track team, they were told it would be “selfish” to walk.

Wait, you say, that’s terrible!

Well, perhaps it is not so simple. As a skater in the relay, three other people who have dedicated their life to this sport are relying on YOU to put in the performance of a lifetime – just to make it to the medal round. If a skater were to walk in the opening ceremony and fail to pull his or her weight during the race – and the team were to lose as a result, then yes, perhaps that would be selfish.

Further, there is the mental aspect – everyone is always trying to find that edge, a refrain in the brain saying “I’ll bet the Koreans are not walking,” starts to further frame the issue.

I’m very happy to have the memories of walking in the Lillehammer opening ceremonies and witnessing the spectacle of a ski jumper flying 100 meters through the air while carrying a flaming torch in his grasp…

But, I have to admit I would trade that memory in a second for the silver medal those games also provided.

Is there a solution to this quandary? One solution would be to require every competing athlete to walk in the opening ceremonies in order to even the playing field. This seems unlikely, but the second solution is potentially more realistic – what if they planned the opening ceremonies two days before the first event?

I’m reminded that the Olympic motto is “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle.”

Still, has something gone missing?

Vancouver Journal #8: Prime Time! The Short Track Competition Viewing Schedule

Stephen Colbert is here – somewhere – he’ll be at the races on Wednesday. 

Who would have believed it – my little sport, little old short track, was broadcast live and in Prime Time on Saturday night to ratings well above the last Olympics where skiing was the headliner. And it did not disappoint – from Apolo’s sweeping pass in the heats showing that he’s here to race and “send a message,” to JR Celski’s miraculous return after a major injury, and then the rough and tumble final where at first it looked like Apolo would win, then a near certain 4th, and then around the final corner a crash leading to a silver and bronze for USA – that’s short track.

In the broadcast booth with Andy Gabel and Ted Robinson

In case you were ever wondering what kind of intense training is involved for these skaters to race like this, here’s a great piece done by Time:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdKiY92WE40&feature=player_embedded

I HATED the turn belt, though I rather enjoyed the stair jump workouts – jumps were one of the few workouts I was good at.

I’m a bit behind on posting pictures – haven’t figured out how to download from my older camera (can’t find the right driver), but opening ceremonies were amazing, as was last night’s first medals ceremony. I’m off right now to watch the Long Track 500m races, followed by US short track practice. Here’s the current schedule – only the finals are guaranteed to be shown, but it seems likely we will broadcast most of the races:

February 17     5:00 p.m. – 5:12 p.m. Women’s 500m Quarterfinals Pacific Coliseum

Wednesday      5:25 p.m. – 5:57 p.m. Men’s 1000m Heats Pacific Coliseum

                                 6:10 p.m. – 6:17 p,m. Women’s 500m Semifinals Pacific Coliseum

                                 6:32 p.m. – 6:53 p.m. Men’s 5000m Relay Semifinals Pacific Coliseum

                                7:06 p.m. – 7:10 p.m. Women’s 500m B Final Pacific Coliseum

                                7:11 p.m. – 7:15 p.m. Women’s 500m A Final Pacific Coliseum

February 20     5:45 p.m. – 6:15 p.m. Women’s 1500m Heats Pacific Coliseum

Saturday             6:28 p.m. – 6:44 p.m. Men’s 1000m Quarterfinals Pacific Coliseum

                                   6:58 p.m. – 7:15 p.m. Women’s 1500m Semifinals Pacific Coliseum

                                   7:28 p.m. – 7:37 p.m. Men’s 1000m Semifinals Pacific Coliseum

                                   7:50 p.m. – 7:56 p.m. Women’s 1500m B Final Pacific Coliseum

                                   7:56 p.m. – 8:03 p.m. Women’s 1500m A Final Pacific Coliseum

                                   8:05 p.m. – 8:09 p.m. Men’s 1000m B Final Pacific Coliseum

                                   8:10 p.m. – 8:15 p.m. Men’s 1000m A Final Pacific Coliseum

February 24     5:00 p.m. – 5:32 p.m. Women’s 1000m Heats Pacific Coliseum

Wednesday      5:46 p.m. – 6:11 p.m. Men’s 500m Heats Pacific Coliseum

                                 6:25 p.m. – 6:35 p.m. Women’s 3000m Relay B Final Pacific Coliseum

                                 6:35 p.m. – 6:45 p.m. Women’s 3000m Relay A Final Pacific Coliseum

February 26     6:00 p.m. – 6:12 p.m. Men’s 500m Quarterfinals Pacific Coliseum

Friday                  6:14 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. Women’s 1000m Quarterfinals Pacific Coliseum

                                  6:43 p.m. – 6:50 p.m. Men’s 500m Semifinals Pacific Coliseum

                                  6:52 p.m. – 7:01 p.m. Women’s 1000m Semifinals Pacific Coliseum

                                  7:13 p.m. – 7;17 p.m. Men’s 500m B Final Pacific Coliseum

                                  7:17 p.m. – 7:22 p.m. Men’s 500m A Final Pacific Coliseum

                                  7:23 p.m. – 7:28 p.m. Women’s 1000m B Final Pacific Coliseum

                                  7:28 p.m. – 7:34 p.m. Women’s 1000m A Final Pacific Coliseum

                                  7:50 p.m. – 8:02 p.m. Men’s 5000m Relay B Final Pacific Coliseum

                                  8:03 p.m. – 8:15 p.m. Men’s 5000m Relay A Final Pacific Coliseum

Vancouver Journal #7: An Introduction to Short Track Speedskating

 Tonight, short track will be LIVE and in prime time! The men’s downhill was cancelled due to snow conditions, so we are now the lead story and the pressure is on. The men’s 1500m Gold medal race is tonight as well as the women’s 500m heats and relay heats.

I’m just back from the pre-production meeting with Ted Robinson (announcer), Andy Gabel (color commentary), Fred Gaudelli (producer) and Andrea Joyce (field interviews).  Sitting one table over was Bob Costas, and two tables over were Al Roker and his family. We walked through all the various stories and builds and order of events, the commentators practiced all the names, and then we wrapped – we head to the rink at 2pm to get ready.

So, what can you expect tonight? Here’s a summary I wrote for the crew back in Torino:

SHORT TRACK SPEEDSKATING – a primer

 Basics:

 The logistics of the sport of short track speedskating are easy to comprehend. A simple visual will suffice: inside the nicked and gauged plastic walls surrounding hockey rinks the world over an oval track is laid out using black plastic lane markers: 111.12 meters in length.

The short track rink

 Add a half dozen speedskaters in their skin tight multi-colored suits racing for the finish line – like track and field or horse racing – and the simple format is complete.

The logistics of short track speedskating are also straightforward – a fixed number of laps (or half laps) comprising an even distance in meters (500, 1000, 1500, 3000 or 5000 meters), with the first skater across the line being first.

Time on the stopwatch, while an interesting anecdote, does not factor into the results except for the honor of holding a record.

Racing

Yet, like many things in life that seem straightforward, the actual play by play of the sport tends to defy the simplicity of its rules. Crashes, interference, and disqualifications factor into the results at levels unprecedented in any other sport, and even in “clean” races, the dynamics involved with multiple competitors lined up on a tight, short, narrow track of ice going 35 mph on 1mm wide, 17 1/2 inch blades means that the “fastest” skater quite often does not win.

One need only to remember watching the Australian Stephen Bradbury in the 2002 Olympics, who advanced by luck of disqualification in the 1000 meter heats to the semi finals. Self admittedly the slowest skater in those semi-finals, he proceeded to win that race – after all the other skaters crashed, placing him in the finals and into the medal round. Then again in the finals, while pacing off the back of a pack of top ranked USA, Korean, and Canadian skaters, Bradbury managed to avoid disaster and come across the line first – again not through his own merits – rather through the misfortune of the leading skaters. The gold medal was his – even though his efforts in all the preceding rounds suggested those of a non-contender.

Given the seeming randomness of the results, one might be inclined to shake ones head and put the whole thing down as a bit of a lottery. One thing is for sure, in any given race, luck will play a part. It is this unpredictability that makes it the crowd favorite for all the other athletes at the Olympics

Analogies

Short track tends to draw two analogies in sports – first, Nascar – due to the importance of drafting and the critical path skaters must follow to maximize their speed, and second, horseracing, for the relative importance of the track conditions and race length in the final result.

Who will win on any given day? It depends….

  • Is the ice soft or hard?
  • How long is the race?
  • What combination of skaters are are racing? How will it play out?
  • What unforeseen events will occur?

What does it feel like?

Think back to certain winter moments – those times of walking on slick, wet ice – to your car across frozen puddles, or down the sidewalk after a freezing rain.

Then remember that moment when your shoes first touched dry asphalt after sliding across the icy puddle, or the instant when you regained traction after passing back underneath the porch roof. To a speedskater, that is exactly what it feels like to be on ice with our long blades – it is feeling of traction and grip, stability and power.

An 17” speedskating blade on perfectly smooth ice is grippier than rubber on asphalt and more stable than a ski on snow. The blade, its sharp edge, and its tracking ability while in motion, are able to smoothly receive every ounce of energy provided by powerful leg muscles to propel the skater forward.

Granted, the motion is sideways – like tacking in the wind with a sailboat – but the 17 inch blade is like yards of canvas gathering wind: the lateral forces are released in a tangential motion and converted to forward speed smoothly yet powerfully. Each stroke on the ice is a combination squat thrust (sheer power) and ballet (no wasted motion, fluid extension to the very tips of the range).

Now imagine that ultimate grip – no amount of effort will result in a slip – and a slow concentrated thrust  through with the legs: massive force passing in liquid slow motion through the blade to the ice.  The strength of the contracted leg is absolute, and the hold of the blade provides a supreme feeling of power. The controlled release of the piston-like skating stroke brings to mind the action of a hydraulic cylinder – a fluid, consistent, and powerful.

If you have ever had the ill-fortune to push a stalled car, and were lucky enough to have a curb or wall as a backstop for your feet, then that incredible slow thrust you were able to deliver to the car to get it moving is the closest thing in life to the feeling of a speedskating stroke.

Now, add to this motion the g-force dynamics of a jet fighter and you have the right combination.

As a skater moves towards the corner, there is a momentary feeling of weightlessness as the body lifts with the final skate stroke, and then falls as the body and center of gravity compresses downward and sideways to enter the corner.

As the direction of the skater changes, centripetal forces cause a 2G acceleration to crush the body lower. In order to stay aligned over the center of the 1mm blades, the skater rolls inward, and the upper body leans way out over the blocks.

The powerful motion of the crossovers (corner strokes) then take over and compel the preservation of the momentum carried into the corner. Timed right, you’ll see the powerful transition of the full extension of the left leg underneath the right leg, both blades carving firmly just prior to the apex of the corner (the center most block).

A smooth transition of the force between the two legs at that precarious moment preserves the integrity of the corner and allows the skater to enter a “pivot” – a one footed change of direction back toward the far end of the rink, and then relax the arc of the corner a bit through the latter half – reducing the G forces and allowing multiple crossover strokes of acceleration into the straightaway. The apex block is also the focal point of most crashes and many disqualifications. At the point of the turn the muscles of the body are stressed to the max – imagine squatting down to a 90 degree bend on one leg… holding it, and then putting on a 150lb backpack (the additional pressure provided by the 2G acceleration of the turn). Then balance all of that on a 1mm blade…

As the skater exits the corner, the body decompresses and lifts with the center of gravity returning to vertical. A pair of straightway strokes later, and it starts again.

Is it hard?

This extremely controlled and concise motion is difficult. However – the motions are repetitive – unlike ballet the number of required motions is drastically reduced. The real difficulty of the sport lies in the compression of the body required to form the aerodynamic shape. Wind resistance, ultimately, is the primary obstacle to speed.

If speedskating races were held a vacuum, a skater could stand nearly upright and kick out a series of highly powerful shallow strides in rapid sequence to attain maximum speed. However, with the friction of wind the comes with speeds approaching 40 mph, the skater is required to try and form a teardrop shape, with arms and legs bent in a greater than 90 degree angle. The loss of muscular leverage at these compressed angles is severe – I won’t try to describe the physics, but just imagine these two examples:

1) Imagine if you had someone sitting on your shoulders. Now, in a fully upright standing position, imagine bending your knees slightly and then straightening them again. If you can imagine that situation, you probably can imagine that performing that minor knee bend and subsequent straightening would be very easy. The human body’s power output from near-full extension of the muscles involved is tremendous. Most of us could imagine even jumping a little with that weight on our back. However, this position is ineffective due to the constraints of wind resistance. Instead…

2) Imagine squatting down – all the way down, sitting on your heels. Then extend one leg straight out – kind of a Russian dancer stance. Now, balanced on that one foot try to stand up using only the completely bent leg’s power: nearly impossible for anyone other than an acrobat, Russian dancer, or speedskater. Do that with the weight of another person resting on your shoulders (from the centrifugal force) while traveling 30mph, tilting sideways at a crazy angle balanced on a 1m blade and you have the essence of the sport. (Here’s a rough diagram I put together for NBC with estimates of the forces:)

The compressed body position required by the aerodynamics of the sport demands high power from the legs in a full range of motion, with an extreme amount of coordination of balance, timing, alignment of weight and effort, and subtle coordination of a series of heretofore unused muscles in the abdomen, hip, knee, and ankle to ensure that the powerful compressed stroke passes evenly sideways without interruption or slippage.

This is why few that have started the sport after age 13 succeed, and how a 25 year old skater with 5 years of experience will look like an awkward novice compared to a 10 year old with the same experience. After some point, the synapses required for this kind of exquisite control wither away and cannot be trained.

The only exception to this hard and fast rule is the relatively recent crossover of in-line speedskating athletes. Not surprising considering the similarities of the two sports.

Why all the disqualifications?

In the relatively recent years since short track speedskating has entered the mainstream consciousness, it has brought along with it the expected perceptions of speed and danger and unpredictability. In addition, there also exists an ongoing element of controversy with regards to the judging system and the calls for disqualification (or lack thereof) that have occurred in many of Olympic races.

As an example we can remember back to 2002, where in the1500m mens final, a disqualification of Korean skater Kim Dong Song led to a gold medal – a first for American men – being awarded to Apolo Ohno who crossed the line second. However, the controversial nature of the call, and the dearth of medals for the strong team of Korean men led to highly publicized death threats from the Korean public. When Apolo returned to Korea for the first time since the 2002 Olympics for the 2005 world championships, he was met at the airport by 100 policemen in full riot regalia – just in case.

Then, of course there was the 1000 meter incident with Bradbury…

One unexpected outcome of all the uncertainty in the sport of short track is cultural in nature. One might expect that with all of the clashes and crashes, disqualifications and controversy that the tensions between rival teams and competitors might be very high: that the close proximity in the races might result in a natural distancing factor between athletes off ice and outside the venue.

Surprisingly, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A look at the sister sport of long track speedskating, a sport with no physical contact, few to no disqualifications, and racers competing almost clinically against the clock (in separate lanes and only two at a time) finds a culture where competitive tensions are at their highest. Long Track speedskaters are, more often than not, solitary, taciturn creatures, with serious countenances betraying the competitive tension embodied in every activity.

Short track skaters, in contrast tend to convivial, open and playful, with the occasional prank between and within teams a long standing tradition – a culture where each emotional explosion at the referees for a disqualifaction (or lack thereof) is equally matched by the off ice hijinks, stories and accompanying laughter between the skaters in their locker rooms, in the shared spaces playing hackysack, and back at the hotel over dinner. It as if the vagaries of the sport, the unpredictability of the results, and the shared suffering of uncertainty over the whims of lady luck has created a common culture of tolerance, humility and respect between athletes of different cultures, languages and perspectives.

There is an oft repeated, little understood phrase repeated consistently by the competitors that ultimately reflects this shared understanding. Apolo Ohno was interviewed on camera after the 2002 Olympic 1000 meter gold medal race where he crossed the line sprawled across the ice belly up in second place after being taken down from behind by a chain reaction four skater crash in the final corner. He had just lost certain gold to the unlikely Australian Steven Bradbury who glided in on the wings of lady luck – well out of contention – yet the winner of the coveted gold medal.

Asked for his views on the events that had unfolded, it would have been understandable if  Apolo has been less than charitable: he could have said things such as “it was unfair, I had it in the bag, the Korean skater grabbed my leg, Steven wasn’t even a contender…” but true to the culture of the sport, and out of respect for the dozens, if not hundreds of races that Steven didn’t win under similar circumstances, Apolo merely shrugged, smiled, and uttered those those seemingly innocuous yet significant words repeated over and over in this turbulent and exciting world: “That’s Short Track.”

It sure is.

 

Vancouver Journal #6: Passing the Torch

Vancouver Journal #6: Passing the Torch

Thursday, February 11, 2010

 It was drizzling and chilly and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to do it. But I had agreed to do it so there I was in sketchy neighborhood of Detroit at 8pm on a Friday night. Then they told me, “the torch is a couple of hours late, can you wait?”

 The Olympic torch has been crossing Canada for more than 100 days now, passing in and out of 90% or more of the communities of this huge country along the way. A few days ago, on day 102 it made its way to the west coast, 60 miles north of Vancouver into a community of a few hundred called Mission.

Yesterday in a kickoff meeting for the NBC crew, John Furlong, the architect of this games’ proposal spoke in clear, simple and inspiring terms about the journey of the Olympics to Vancouver, and of the torch itself. “Amazingly,” he said, with a mist of tears forming in his eyes, “at 6am on a weekday, there were more than 10,000 people lining that road for the one single minute it took for the runner to pass through that tiny community.”

Back in the mid-90’s, as a part of the Atlanta summer games, the Olympic torch passed through Detroit. I guess Detroit was short on Olympians at the time because they not only asked me to take a leg of the torch run (and who is “they?” I still don’t know) but they asked me to anchor the main leg into the city on a Friday night.

I remember thinking, “Friday? Really? I guess so…”

I’m sad for my former self. I didn’t realize the import of the moment, the sacrifice and time of the volunteers, or the deeper meaning of the run of the torch across the country and into the Olympic stadium that characterizes each Olympic games. No, I was too busy with my stuff. Did I thank the dozens of volunteers that checked me in, gave me a gift bag, helped me select a t-shirt? Maybe. Maybe, I thanked one or two people and ignored the organizing effort that had delivered this odd and miraculous moment.

After the torch left the tiny community north of Vancouver, it started brushing the outskirts of this large city, and the next town it entered had 50,000 people lining the streets – all to see a butane-lit fire pass through its city limits. The next town had 100,000 people. In just a few days, a billion people will witness its final journey through the stadium just a few blocks from here as part of the opening ceremonies.

Why? Why show up to a guaranteed non-event?

I wondered the same myself 15 years ago in Detroit as I shuddered in the rain wearing the white “torch bearer t-shirt” and shorts. Finally 2 hours later I received the handoff of the flame to my torch, lit it and began to run. In less than 100 yards I exited a forest preserve area and entered the city proper. Rather than a fun evening event for a family at 8pm on a balmy Friday night, it was now 11pm and raining steadily – who would stay out now? I knew I had to run only 1 mile, but no one had conditioned me for the impossible reality that somehow, someway, 100,000 people were still there lined 7 and 8 deep for a mile, screaming and cheering, watching the flame bounce in my unsteady grasp. All that effort just to watch this – this arbitrary passing of the flame. Why? Why did they bother? Who cares? As an Olympian I didn’t quite ask those questions, but I did wonder.

I finished my leg of the run, passed on the flame to the next runner and extinguished my torch and then proceeded to ignore the very adamant advice by the torch bearer team to empty my torch’s butane tank (it still fires up beautifully 14 years later!) and then I went home.

This is where the mystery starts. I ran the leg, got wet, tired out my arm, and went home. Apparently (and I don’t remember this) a few days later I brought the same torch to the beach clubhouse where I had grown up and where I worked on and off with my mom selling candy and flipping burgers. I apparently showed it to a little girl named Meryl and her parents, who lived a couple houses away on the street behind us.

The fact that this happened, and that I don’t remember it, reminds me of a quote worth repeating from someone I care about deeply about:

“I guess you never know what role you may play in someone’s life or just how important the things you choose to do or say or choose not to do or say may turn out to be.”

The father of a good friend said just those words to me four years ago almost to the day when his son won an Olympic medal in Torino and again I was reminded of the effects and outcomes of words and deeds – someone is always watching.

As it turns out, little girl living just a couple houses away was watching and saw something that mattered – or at least her parents did.

The little girl isn’t little anymore – she’s 23, and she’s here in Vancouver on her first Olympic team. Her name is one you may well get to know in the coming days – it is Meryl Davis, and she’s very, very good at her sport of figure skating (ice dance). As Dick Ebersol relayed clearly to the broadcast team yesterday, she and her partner Charlie White are one of the potential breakout stories of this Olympics.

I only learned all this four days ago, and a day later I found myself on the phone with Cheryl Davis, Meryl’s mom. Cheryl was recalling that moment in the beach clubhouse, and how important it had become in their lives.

Last night I was fortunate enough to have dinner with figure skating Olympians Paul Caruthers, Kristi Yamaguchi and Paul Wylie and they all indicated that the “energy” in this subjective sport was warming towards Meryl and Charlie as potential gold medal favorites.

I guess you never know what role you may play in someone’s life…”

I wish this little girl the very best in the coming days.

Meryl Davis - National Champion and now an Olympian

Vancouver Journal #5: Meet Vancouver

Wednesday, February 9, 2010

“Just another big city” I thought to myself during the cab ride from the Vancouver international airport to downtown, a gray mist shrouding the nondescript businesses, offices, and the inevitable glowing string of McDonalds and Starbucks.

 The flight from Chicago was uneventful and I found myself in the terminal with Dan Jansen – who will be doing the color commentary for long track speedskating and our producer Fred Gaudelli. Except for his intensity, Fred was not at all what I expected – tall, broad shouldered and built like a linebacker, with “smart” glasses and shoulder length hair.

  “I like your blog” he said with his east coast accent, and I was a bit taken aback considering my last post had featured assumptions about his working style pulled from my limited experience. “You read about yourself then,” I said carefully, to which he replied with a genuine smile, “I like to know what people are saying about me.” Despite his intensity, he has proven to be very friendly and engaging. In a conversation with Dick Ebersol later that evening, he said, “you are working with one of my favorite people in the world – the best in the business” – referring to Fred.

Dick Ebersol, head of NBC sports

Not everything is at appears and so it is with Vancouver. Rising early the next morning, this little guest on my balcony began to show me how Vancouver is different. Once you get past the high rises and franchises, its charms emerge

 The view from my balcony reminded me that this is a coastal city. Vancouver boasts a very temperate climate (highs in the upper 40’s or low 50’s each day so far) and a very calm sea due to the “wind shadow” of the massive and moutainous islands offshore. Framed by the sea and the beautiful volcanic cone of Mt. Baker to the south, and the “Canadian Alps” just to the north, Vancouver boasts a well planned urban environment with plenty of green-space. 

A room with a view

I didn’t really fall in love with the place until my Monday cycling foray into Stanley Park – just 1 km from my hotel and within walking distance of downtown. Massive trees, bluffs overlooking the sea and a paved 10K bike loop with a separate running trail. I rode until sunset and watched the calm seas absorb the warm winter sun. 

On Wednesday, after a long pre-production meeting with NBC, I found myself sweating and heaving on my bike up several thousand feet of 10% grade on my way up to Cypress mountain – with a view of all of Vancouver and Mt. Baker in the distance.

 I returned through the park and again caught the setting sun over the bay. Now I understand why the Economist and a number of other magazines rated Vancouver the #1 most livable city in the world. The torch is now only two days away… will Vancouver be ready?

 

Vancouver Journal #4: Meet the Short Track Team

Vancouver Journal #4: Meet the Short Track Team

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Last Wednesday I received a call from the producer for short track. His name is Fred Gaudelli and he knows football pretty well per the snippet I pulled from a sports journal below:

Fred Gaudelli has been presenting football on television since the early ’80s, when he produced USFL games on ESPN.  In ’01, he moved from ESPN’s Sunday night telecasts to ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” and with the shifting of the NFL’s TV arrangement this season, he was recruited by Dick Ebersol to oversee production for NBC’s new Sunday night package.  As Al Michaels considered overtures from Ebersol to join the new Sunday night team, he said Gaudelli, in addition to booth partner John Madden, was key to his decision to do so.  “When Fred Gaudelli was hired … that was huge,” Michaels said at the time.  

Like the 2006 short track producer, Steve Lawrence, it became quickly clear that Fred is a very direct, no nonsense kind of guy. “I want to know everything, to go to every practice, to get behind every story.” Whatever my day job, the pecking order in this business is clear: unapologetic directives, curse words, and thick skins are the rule.

I still remember 4 years ago when I received my employment offer to join the NBC broadcast team for the 2006 Olympics. My hiring manager, who previously had been quite short and direct, suddenly took on a slightly more conciliatory tone, “look, there’s going to be tempers flaring, and odds are high you’ll get ignored, sworn at, chewed out, cut off – even fired – possibly multiple times. Just keep at it and don’t let it phase you.” In our first production meeting in Torino, the producer looked around at us and said, “Listen, I’ll cut the crap: lets get this sh*% f*@!ng right the first time so we can all go home, no excuses.”

Torino was taped though due to the time change, and apparently everyone is “twice as nice” when taped compared to how things are when they are live, so we’ll see for 2010. I wonder how many times I’ll have to be fired before I get fired?

So, who’s on the short track team and who might you see on TV?

Short Track: Men

Apolo Anton Ohno (27): There was a Time article a while back with a thesis of  “what’s in a name?” comparing the results of an Apolo Ohno with, say, someone with a name like “Amy Peterson,” and questioning whether Apolo would have had the same notoriety with a different name. As it turns out Amy Peterson is a five time short track Olympian with 3 Olympic medals – all long before Apolo but I bet you never heard of her. (Amy and I trained, traveled and raced together for more than a decade and she’s amazing.) But… what makes fame? If it could be designed, if there were easily identified ingredients, then it would be more accessible and less fleeting. “Pants on the ground?” The reality is that Apolo is the face of short track speedskating – between the stories, the drama, the medals, and the “style” elements, Apolo managed to help a cipher-of-a-sport go mainstream.

Sample text last winter to Apolo when I was in Vegas and someone asked me if, as an Olympic athlete I’d been to the Playboy Mansion (No, I have not.)

 “Apolo – you ever been to the Playboy mansion?”

Response? “Yes! 3 times!”

I wrote a funny little piece for Apolo a while back as his self nominated agent that I’m sure he’s been dutifully following (isn’t Jessica Alba single again?)

http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2008/10/22/how-to-make-speedskating-popular

The reality behind the name is that the little guy with the soul patch on his chin who put short track on the map in 2002 is one of the most naturally gifted speedskaters the world has seen. His balance and timing are impeccable, and he wins not through gargantuan “take the lead early” efforts, but through clever movements through the pack, using the draft of the skaters in front and saving his energy for the final bolt to the line.

My experience: Apolo’s first national team trials were in 1995 when I was at the top of my form – he was an unknown punk kid of 13. A year later in 1996, he won the trials – at age 14 shocking all of us. In 1997 and 1998 he didn’t make the teams despite having all the ability and talent in the world. I joined him on the sidelines in 1998 when I didn’t make the Olympic team. In 1999 he got his act together and has been at the top of the sport since. In the 2002 Olympics he won several medals including a gold in the 1000 meters after a Korean skater was disqualified after finishing first, and another gold in Torino in the 500m, 5 medals to-date. He’s pretty quiet and shy, but at the same time carries himself with confidence. We know each other reasonably well, and his father and I talk at the races.

 

JR Celski (19): another shy kid, and impossibly nice, JR’s story is pretty amazing. Within the span of a year, JR went from a promising Junior (2008) to World champion in 2009 (in the 3000m) and winning second overall in the 2009 world championships. Andy Gabel, the color commentator for short track in Vancouver, my former roommate, and fellow silver medalist from the 1994 Olympics commentated on his decisive victory in the 3000m at the 2009 world championships this way: “he took off early in the race, then he lapped the field. Then he took off again and dropped everyone like they were standing still.”  JR may very well have won the Olympic trials and was skating a cut above Apolo until disaster – he fell in the 1000m and slashed himself – very badly – a deep wound through muscle that kept him off the ice for 2 ½ months.

Given that he’s only resumed training for a month or so now, it seems quite unlikely JR will be able to have any significant results. However, it was also unlikely for an 18 year old to win medals in 4 out of 5 events in his first world championships (last March in Vienna, 2009).  If he does, he will be a media darling.

Jordan Malone (25): like Derek Parra and Chad Hedrick, Jordan is a crossover from inline roller skating having one national and world titles in that sport. Jordan narrowly missed the 2006 team while skating on a broken ankle. I’ve met him only briefly.

 

Travis Jayner (27): Only met him once or twice – very tall and thin, but wicked fast. Outside shot at the individual events. Very unassuming – hard not to like.

Simon Cho (17): Simon won the 5th spot on the team after a series of mishaps hurt other favorites. That said, he’s  fast and proving himself.

Not making the team were Jeff Simon, who skates some of the fastest laps in the world in a slightly off kilter way, and Anthony Lobello – who was on the Torino team and had been skating well.

Women’s Team:

 

Katherine Reutter (21): Her second year at the helm of the U.S. short track team, Catherine has become a powerhouse in the middle distance events, charging hard and leading from in front, medaling again and again in the world cups. She has possibly the best left leg follow through I’ve ever seen. I’ve talked with Catherine a couple of times and she’s personable, but quite focused – she’ll be skipping the opening ceremonies to ensure she’s ready for the relay semi finals the day after. I know more from her dad, who connected with me via my blog and we’ve been corresponding back and forth for a while. Catherine will likely medal once or twice in the games, though a gold will take a special effort.

Catherine was a guest on the Colbert show a few weeks back and it was a really funny episode. “Let’s trash talk the summer games for a second – Michael Phelps? How easy is it to swim through water – when you run on top of water with samurai swords strapped to your feet.” Even though Stephen knew it was coming, the request to sign a “cute, but too-young-to-professionally-flirt-with” speedskater’s thigh, suddenly had him in a rare flustered moment – he tried to do it from the desk to keep his distance, couldn’t, so circled around and then realized he was now potentially in a worse position considering the very short skirt… his dodging and apologies to his wife were priceless “honey, I had to do this for the Olympic team!” – check it out here:

http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/258280/december-14-2009/stephen-challenges-shani-davis—katherine-reutter

Alyson Dudek (19): New to the team, Alyson won the short events at the trials and her best hope at the games would be in the 500m. Alyson’s father (who is a lawyer) and I are members of the U.S. Speed skating Committee.

Kimberly Derrick (24): Just a young girl in Torino, Derrick has been around a while now. Notable in Torino was that her grandfather passed away just a few hours before her 1000m qualifier. I can still remember the director/producer in my ear. “I can see it – a tear on her cheek! – zoom in, zoom in dammit! Ted, build the story! Brownie, have the camera on her as she exits all the way to the locker room!”

Allison Baver (29): Another crossover inliner, Baver headed up the women’s team for a number of years, racking up a number of strong results in world cups, but falling short of the medals in her two prior Olympic bids. Allison also dated Apolo on again off again for a half dozen years, and is notable for a number of seeming contradictions: she’s tough – recovering from a series of serious injuries to continue competing at a high level – including a broken leg last season in a world cup in Bulgaria. She’s “high maintenance” – a skater known for wearing makeup to practice, pursuing a side career in modeling, and having a bit of a prima donna reputation, and she’s smart – she finished an undergrad an U Penn and an MBA from NYIT while skating. I’ve had a few conversations with Allison and she chose to show me her studious side.

Lana Gehring (19): I don’t know Lana, though I shared a flight with her mother a year ago back from a world cup I was announcing. It was a dream for Lana and her mother to make the games, and here she is – at the world’s biggest party.

Preview – Vancouver Journal #5: A Short Track Primer – what does it feel like to skate 35mph around a track the size of your living room?

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