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 #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.

 

Day 1 1/2 of the Short Track Worldcup, Salt Lake City, Utah

I managed to get a decent amount of rest last night despite being out on the town with all 3 of my teammates from the 1994 Olympic games – the first time in probably 10 years that we had a chance to spend more than a few minutes together.

 The evening was filled with good natured insults, stories from the road and a series of toasts.  Underneath all the verbal horseplay though, was a mostly silent acknowledgment that the bonds of this sport had forged between us. Like all great friendships it was exactly as though no time had passed, and even though the group dynamic had not happened in more than 10 years, it might have been yesterday.

Joining us were Liz & Paul Marquese, Rusty Smith, and Ian Baranski. As the lone female, I suspect Liz learned a lot more about life on the road than she probably every really wanted to know.

 Back at the rink this morning and we announced our way through all of the repechage rounds – basically “second chance” opportunities for skaters eliminated yesterday to gt in some additional races and grasp at the two spots that would lead them back into the official meet this evening.

 An interesting rumour is swirling around at the meet – that they are attempting to bring in Apolo’s “Dancing with the Stars” partner Julianna in to sing the national anthem tomorrow night. No idea of the validity – but it would be good for the sport.

 I’ll post again tonight after the races are over – we are skating the 500 and 1500m finals tonight.

 -John

Eric Flaim

Eric Flaim

My first memories of Eric were at the first national speedskating championships I ever attended – in 1981 – in Butte Montana. I was terrible but managed to get one 4th place in one final.

True to form, Eric wasn’t shy at all and on a touristy trip to visit the local copper mine – an expansive bowl shaped hole in the ground terraced by the digs and service roads for the heavy equipment – Eric’s snap comment was, “Now I know why they they call this Butt Montana – it’s a gigantic toilet.”

This was strong humor for me – a 12 year old raised by conservative parents and I laughed long and hard until my dad reappeared. “Look – it’s a butt!” Eric pointed to a cloud, getting a rise out of all of us.

Eric is a fierce competitor and of all of those I competed with through the years, probably he is the one I was most surprised by – and I mean surprised – when I discovered (and I mean discovered) that we were friends.

Two years older than me, as teens growing up we only competed on rare intervals. Even as I failed to make the team in 1988, Eric skated a world record in the Calgary Olympics in the 1500m in what was one of the most technically perfect race ever skated. Even today you can watch the race and just be in awe of what he put together in that minute and fifty seconds. Ultimately he won a silver medal, having the gold stolen from him in one of the later pairs of skaters.

Cocky? Sure. Brash? Yes. Confident? Yep. Loud? Yes. Bold? Yes.

At first these aspects of Eric’s personality really make you want to dislike him. And for a while I held him at a distance – intrigued by his charm, pissed off by his on ice antics. In the 1994 Olympic trials, Eric and I had several run-ins leading to shouting matches with the referees. It was pretty much accepted that Eric was a favorite amongst the judges and referees – and in hindsight, who can blame them if it were true – Eric’s clearly a gutsy clutch player.

In the 1994 Olympic games, during the great race of the games – the 5000m short track relay where the USA won their 13th and final medal (the most ever in a winter Olympics), it was Eric (with an amazing push from Andy) that put in four straightaway strokes at the end of the race to steal back silver from the Australians and match his own medal from Calgary. Another silver medal – but this time one that I share with him along with Andy Gabel and Randy Bartz…

Ok, so Eric does suck as a roommate. Seriously he’s the worst roommate you can imagine on a trip overseas. In Norway in 1995 Eric was my roommate. Prior to that I had established a great rhythm with Andy or Randy as roommates. Respect for the nap, keeping quiet when the other person was sleeping, keeping the shades closed, keeping the bathroom reasonably clean, no rap music… These had become expectations for me, and Eric proceeded to break every unwritten rule. When Eric is up – everyone’s up. If Eric wakes early with jet lag – on goes the rap music, up goes the shades and when I grumpily stumble into the shower after he was done, he’s managed to use all the towels and still leave a puddle on the floor.

But Eric – he’ll do anything for you. I’m constantly reminded of my own selfishness in the face of his selflessness. If you are traveling through Boston and you have a layover, give him a call and he’ll volunteer to come get you and take you to dinner – and then insist on paying for it. The first to buy drinks, a big tipper, always willing to drive or go out of his way for people Eric seemingly has a horde of close friends – and no wonder – he is just so engaging and one of the most generous people I’ve met.

Thank you Eric – for so many things – your friendship, your lessons in service to others, and not the least for, on February 25th, 1994, slicing an amazing four straightaway strokes deep into your 8th relay exchange of the final event of those Olympic games and guaranteeing all of us the silver medal we share.

 

-John

  

Day One of the Short Track Worldcup, Salt Lake City, Utah

(For those new to short track and the vagaries of this sport – check out my post under Torino Olympic Journal 2006 –  Torino #3 1/2 – its an insider’s view into the sport based in some part on Apolo’s own ups and downs within this turbulent but exciting world.)

Its been a long, but interesting day. I arrived at the Olympic Oval at 8:30 this morning in prep for my gig as in-rink announcer for this 3 day event.

Despite my stint for NBC as statistician for the Olympic games in Torino, I had never done microphone work before and was suitably nervous as I was introduced to my co-announcer Carl Roepke – an accomplished Luger who worked Torino as well doing the commentary for Luge and Bobsled.

 Thank God for Carl – as the first race was called to the line – I froze – I suddenly didn’t know the first thing about the sport and couldn’t even begin to think of something to say. But Carl, the cool professional read the heat card notes and called out the names of the skaters in the echoey rink.

Slowly but surely Carl and I developed a rhythm – along with Paul the DJ. Carl would call out the skaters names coming out for the race. I would do most of the actual race announcing – passes, laps to go, background on some of the skaters. Carl would ask a few questions during the quiet periods of the longer races – “tell me about the skates, John…” or “what should we expect to see in this relay, John?” and I would respond naturally (I hope) “Well, Carl, what you can expect to see is….”

 I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy this – after all, I’m pretty much an introvert – mildly anyway – and I’m a visual, not verbal thinker. But I found, after a time, that there was a pacing to the event – like a waiter knows when their food is ready we knew when it was appropriate to comment or be quiet – when to call the race to the line, when to wait. And in those moments as a good friend Kevin Lowell writes in his book “In the in-between” we, in our support roles, established the rhythm and meter for the event – human metronomes for the music unfolding on ice.

 Apolo looked solid – breezing through his preliminaries and heats in both 500 meter races (they are running the event twice here at this world cup) and his 1000m prelims and heats as well. Team USA qualified in both the men’s and ladies’ relays into the semi-finals as well. No finals were run today – those are saved for the weekend.

In other news I finally met Kori Novak, in the marketing group for U.S. Speedskating and a former pupil of my favorite aunt – Sharon Shaub.

All my team is here from the 1994 games – from our coach – Jeroen Otter – and Randy Bartz, Andy Gabel, Eric Flaim, and Tony Goskowicz.

 Its 6:30 now and we just finished up the day – 10 hours straight of calling races and learning – me about how to announce and inflect my voice, Carl about the nuances of the sport and complexities of the relays.

 Tonight, now doubt will want to be a late one – and with Bartz and Flaim not needing to work in the morning, will require some discipline on my part to ensure adequate sleep.

 Oh, one other completely self serving note – to be found in the internet tags linked to this blog: Allison Baver and I had a chance to catch up in between races – unfortunately she missed the start of one of her events (1000m) due to a change in race order. She was visibly upset – rightly so. I asked about her an Apolo – whether they were still an item, and the answer was equivocating – “on again, off again”. So considering that a good portion of the traffic to this blog appears to be from women seeking the answer to the question “Does Apolo have a girlfriend?” The answer is “sort of.”

-John

Friday, February 8, 2008 – U.S. Olympic Oval, Kearns, Utah

Torino #8: Racing, Partying & Parting

Newsletter #8 Epilogue: Racing, Partying, and Parting

 

I’ll try to keep this one entertaining without tears, but no guarantees. The last few days of the Olympic games for me have been everything I could hope for – triumphs and upsets, resumption of old friendships, and the beginnings of some new. It has also been a renewal for me personally.

 

Travels and Travails:

On Thursday, I received my travel info under my door. On Sunday morning at 5:20 am, a bus would be leaving from the Riberi media village to Milan Malpensa airport and I needed to be aboard. Given that the last night of short track was on Saturday and with post-production work that would last until at least 1am, and given that the Sports Illustrated party at the Budweiser dome (the “grand-daddy of all Olympic parties”) was also Saturday night, this made for a guaranteed all-nighter. I was OK with that. “sleep on the plane” I thought. Little did I know I was on path for near-all nighters three nights in a row.

 

 

 

More events and more famous people:

 

Tuesday: The same Tuesday that I ran into Chad Hedrick’s dad in the street, earlier in the day I had gone on from the Men’s 1500m long track over to the Palavela rink to watch the Ice dance.

 

Upon arriving, I walked up to the “regular” media area where reporters from all the world sit and grabbed a chair to sit down. Soon after I was kicked out by a guy with long hair who apparently won gold in the ice dance event in 2002. So I went up to the broadcast booth to watch and was invited to stand right at the side of Scott Hamilton, Tom Hammond, Dick Button, and Sandra somebody as they called the figure skating. Tom and Scott did most of the talking and it was actually pretty funny when Dick Button would talk as he spoke so loud that audience members would look up. Dick is getting on in years and has a reputation for being a bit crotchety.

 

 

 

(Picture: Dick Button, Scott Hamilton, Sandra, Tom Hammond),

 

dick-button-scott-hamilton.jpg

 

 

 

The costumes were outrageous, but it was fun to watch nonetheless.

(Picture: Ice dance flowers ceremony)

 figure-skating-pair.jpg

The view from the booth was excellent as you can watch the skaters enter and exit the locker room area and see all the “off camera” things that happen down that aisle. I got to watch my friend Diego’s limited eye contact with Barbara Fusar Poli – his wife (the red haired women famous for “the glare), as she entered the ice and completely ignored her partner until the end of the routine. I also could watch all the dynamics of the women’s singles. In the booth I had still had my headset, so sometimes I would radio down to the camera guys and ask them to do ridiculous things like, “follow Sasha Cohen at an uncomfortably close distance.” Those guys were really cool  – in particular the lead guy who we called “Brownie”complied with just about everything we asked (though in the case of that request – he did that without thinking..”

(Picture: view from broadcast booth: Sasha Cohen prepping for her long program)

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(Picture from the booth: Sasha w/ Brownie & his camera)

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Wednesday was the short track heats and womens relay discussed in the last newsletter.

 

 

Thursday I went to watch men’s 10,000m long track. At first I chose a random spot on the far side of the rink to sit and it wasn’t 5 minutes later that I heard and then saw Paul Hedrick about 5 seats over wearing “Team Hedrick” gear. At this point I’d had my fill of Paul and decided to switch to the other side of the rink. About 5 minutes later the woman in front of me was shouted at for getting in a photographer’s way (his fault, not hers) and we ended up chatting. It turned out to be Dan Jansen’s wife.

 

 

 

The finish of the very long 10K was nonetheless exciting, with Bob De Jong setting a blistering pace, and the final pair of Chad Hedrick and Carl Verheijen going for gold. Chad set out at a pace above De Jong, but 25 laps on the 400meter oval is a long, long way. Slowly his advantage drifted away and then he dropped to #2 on time. Then Verheijen started closing, and the Dutch fans in their royal orange raised the roof urging him on. The noise was astonishing and I was convinced that with their efforts alone, the Dutch fans were going to help Verheijen steal the silver from Chad.

 

However, Hedrick, upon seeing Verheijn on a backstretch cross-over with only a few laps to go dug deep, swinging an arm in a sudden excel, and distanced himself again from the Dutch skater. However the late surge was not enough to overcome DeJong who struck superman poses by the side of the rink as the Dutch fans went crazy with their 1st (gold) and 3rd (bronze) finishes. Chad did actually seem to celebrate as well which was good.

 

Before she left, Dan’s wife showed me a picture from her digital camera that I found very gratifying – “This is a picture of Shani cheering for Chad.”  Good for him.

 

As the crowd filtered out, I heard a familiar voice. 5 rows above me was an old summer coach of mine – Bobby Fenn, and directly in front of him was Shani Davis. My luck of being in the right place at the right time on this trip continued. So I congratulated Shani and then sat and talked with Bob Fenn.

(Picture: Shani and I)

 john-and-shani.jpg

Bob is Shani’s coach – outside the US team. Bob does not work for the skating association, but instead has been hired directly by Shani.

After long track Thurday I went over to the figure skating to watch the women’s singles short program. I stopped by the “talent” trailer to check email, and Dick Button was in there napping. A funny thing happened when one of the zillion young interns running around came in and started harassing him like a sparrow would a crow -

“Dick – get up! get up! You have to get dressed and get to makeup!”  (She was actually poking him)

“5 more minutes,” he said lazily without moving or opening his eyes, but she wouldn’t relent (I began to see this was a nightly occurrence)

“Get up Dick! Get up! Let’s get you to makeup! No time! No time!”

(Picture: Dick Button’s wardrobe)

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 I stumbled out the trailer laughing and headed up to the booth to watch Sasha take the lead the first night.

 Figure skating: Figure skating has a totally different air than short track. Where we are a bare bones crew of the 3 of us plus a couple techs in the booth, Figure skating has probably 2 dozen people in the booth. I’m pretty sure that the sole job of one of the interns was to get Dick Button water. Not surprising considering that the on-air ratings of women’s singles figure skating rate higher than anything on TV – exceeding that of even the Super Bowl. The audience too shares this rarified air – with tickets going for almost $500. Fur coats on the women seemed the norm and when I went to get coffee I was amazed at the couture of the audience.

 I came again Friday night to watch Sasha fall, and Arakawa win with a near perfect performance. Before heading to the booth, I had a nice long conversation with Scott Hamilton – who is a new father – about how fatherhood changes you, and how the passion for this little person can both mellow you and yet create the possibility for violence previously unknown to either of us (if someone were to threaten our children.) It was one of those gratifying conversations where both sides understand each other completely. I later met his wife that evening and she was quite charming and friendly.

 And so Thursday turned into Friday and after some Sushi with Tedd and Dan, I wandered off for the requisite visit to the Shamrock bar to check on Misi’s progress.

 Olympic Mascot – Misi Toth

 There were some weird fuzzy critters that were designated as the “mascots” of the Torino Olympics, but for me and many others, the official mascot was none other than US short track skater Misi Toth. Misi worked as a spotter for NBC in the truck – calling replays and camera angles etc. Whenever I think of someone who enjoyed this Olympics to the max, I will forever think of Misi Toth. Misi missed making this Olympics only by a spot or two and made up for not racing with his nightlife.

 Misi started spending a portion of every evening in a pub called Shamrock’s. The bartender, Sergio, adopted him and it wasn’t but a few days in before the “Misi calendar” was posted on the bar, on which they would track daily whether or not he could make it there every night through the end of the Olympics. From what I heard his quest was successful.

Olympic Mascot Miso Toth at the Shamrock

Olympic Mascot Miso Toth at the Shamrock

 One funny story though. On my the second or third night in town, Tommy had just arrived and went to the Shamrock to find Misi. Tommy and Misi were old friends and with a bit of an expectant air, Tommy (along with Dan Weinstein) went to the Shamrock to find him.Lo and behold as they approached the bar, a fight in progress exited the doors and 3 guys proceded to punch, slap, and kick the defenseless unfortunate soul in the middle of the group for about a minute before the receiver of the abuse made a run back inside the bar.

 

Misi Toght Oympic Mascot & his calendar at Shamrock

Misi Toght Oympic Mascot & his calendar at Shamrock

 Upon arriving inside, Dan and Tommy were confounded to find their friend Misi with a bloody nose, swelling under one of his eyes and a wild look on his face. They tried, unsuccessfully, not to laugh as Misi described how this girl was drawing with a pen on his arm, and then suddenly these guys showed up and “asked him outside.”  Why he went out – he still can’t quite explain.  “They were really little – just tiny little guys.” he says as though that somehow helps to explain.

(Picture: Olympic Mascot Misi Toth and his black eye – in the production room)

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 Misi had a green and blue eye for a week before the color faded. Bode Miller step aside – Misi has you beat in every way – he finished HIS contest.

 Surreal moment #1

 I was just reminded of this weird surreal moment. On the night that Wilf O’Reilly, Jeroen Otter, and I squared off against Paul Hedrick in a 3 hour dialogue, something quite funny and bizarre occurred. Paul is a very large man, and during our conversation he had gotten up to stagger over to the men’s room. Along the way, in the hallway, was a large, heavy, steel barrier which probably weighed 300lbs. It was used to close off the bar at night (if it closed.) Well, Paul knocked into it, and it fell over with a sound like a car wreck – 300 lbs of steel against tile in the hush of the hotel hallway. The racket was unbelievable, and as one side of it was convex, it rattled back and forth for many seconds.

 Like a shot the hotel proprietor was out, and weirdly, out of the blackness, dozens of heads popped up. Seems that the proprietor was letting tourists with no place to stay crash on the couches in the lobby over night – there was probably 20 people packed into the tiny lobby – all, now, awake and frightened.

 Then it got weirder. Paul tried to lift it, but couldn’t by himself, making an incredible noise himself with his grunting, so Wilf and I helped him and finally got it into standing position again.

(Picture: Wilf O’Reilly and Paul Hedrick & the infamous barrier)

Wilf O’Reilly and Paul Hedrick and the infamous metal barrier

  Then, on the stairwell above, a voice. All I could see were naked feet, bare legs, and gathered to either side, the fringe of a fur coat. The upper body was blocked by the staircase. She hissed again and we turned,  “Vat ist going on! Vat ist all de noise?!”. Wilf explained calmly – “just knocked something over – sorry for the trouble.”

 She gave an “ach!” and turned with a huff and marched back up the stairs. “That voice,” I said, with a dawning realization, starting to laugh, “that voice sounded familiar.” “Was that…?” “Was that..?”

 “Yes,” smirked Wilf, and joined me laughing.

 “That,” he said, “Was Katerina Witt – and she’s pissed.” and threw his head back to howl with laughter.

 Surreal Moment #2

 The same night or.. morning – after haranguing Paul Hedrick for hours, Wilf went up to his room and I walked out with Jeroen – my old Olympic coach. We were having a conversation about how we would have prepared differently for the ’94 games and what “might have been” for ’98 if I had stayed in the program. I apologized for abandoning the program and he apologized for not finding a way to convince me to come back in time to prepare properly for 1998. It was some nice closure on an old wound.

 As we left the hotel around 5am, I still had a 45 minute walk ahead of me back to the media village, and Jeroen had his bike which he was going to ride to the athlete village – same direction – just a little farther.

 I still had some left over energy, so I volunteered to jog (in my leather jacket, backpack and dress shoes) and we headed off into the darkness together, laughing about old training regimes where we used to do the exact same thing – me running, him riding and harassing me.

 We had gone a good distance when we passed a shadowy figure under some of the archways covering the sidewalks near downtown. As we passed the unknown voice from the darkness said, plainly in clear English, “Jeroen? – still making Coyle run extra laps? Let the poor guy rest.” We slowed and asked who it was, but whoever it was turned the corner behind us without responding, and we continued forward, laughing that at 5:30 in the morning on a darkened street in the middle of Torino Italy, we should happen upon someone who knew both of us well enough by our voices and our shared past to make this kind of comment.

 Olympic Highlight.

 Many have asked what the highlight of the games was for me. There were so many fantastic moments – from the little things like service and friendliness of the Italians, the long walks and the Marochino coffees, catching up with 15+ ex-competitors and swapping ward stories, to meeting and having dinner with Franz Klamer, or discussing short track with my favorite of all time cycling star Mario Cipollini (to be discussed later).

 However, for me, what was happening all along was deeper – more galvanizing to my soul and to who I am as a person. I was realizing something that I had avoided for years – that I loved this sport – this wholly unpredictable, humbling, challenging and exciting sport of short track speedskating. I was slowly embracing the conclusion that the vagaries of the years of competition had not only left their mark on me, but that somehow, despite my long felt feelings of failure, that I had left my mark on the sport as well.

 I had talked before about these over-competitive parents, and how their offspring might be uniquely suited to excel in this single minded focus of athletics. I think there is no question that “it works” when it comes to the singular goal set in their lives, and the fear of failure that helps to push them beyond pain, beyond endurance. Chad showed that Thursday night when he pushed beyond all pain to skate away from Carl Verheijen and win the silver.

 Then my own path – I had always felt embarrassed by my lack of success given what some called my “clear talent,” and lack of successes in part driven by my self training and in part due to my “lack of focus” taking on grad school and near full time work while preparing for the 1998 Olympic games (between the 1994 and 1998 Olympics, I started and finished my MBA at Kellogg, and worked 35 hours a week as an engineer). In the 1998 pre-season, I returned to full time training, but it was too late and not enough – or too late and too much – still not certain.

 After not making the ’98 Olympic team team I made a clean break from the sport, literally leaving the 1998 Olympic trials in Lake Placid, New York and driving 2600 miles straight over 45 hours to Phoenix, Arizona where I started anew and put it all behind me.

 So, it was quite a great surprise to feel and witness the open arms of the sport welcoming me back after 8 years. The first indication of success in spite of failure came from Apolo Anton Ohno himself. Last year there was a World Cup Short Track meet in Milwaukee and between races I re-introduced myself to the former teenage prodigy that had crushed me easily at the 1997 world team trials, and who finished a few spots behind me – but disappointed like me – in the 1998 Olympic team trials.

 His eyes opened wide, and he turned to a friend and said, “this guy: cycling, skating, silver medal, Stanford, businessman – he’s done it all – and all at once.” He and his friend then vigorously shook my hand. I was embarrassed but pleased that he even remembered me.

 Now it was a year later, and I’m in Italy watching him win 3 more medals to complement his gold and silver from 2002. And slowly, I found myself oddly included in this pantheon of stars of the sport – from Yan Li the coach, to Derek Campbell the team lead, to the host of parallel figures from my years in the other broadcast booths – Kawasaki, Lee, O’Reilly, Gagnon, Kuwai, Bradbury. Gone were the artificial barriers created by the competitions, and what was left was the respect for a battle well fought and mutual suffering and more suffering through the travels and travails inherent in the sport.

 A few nights into the games, on the night he won gold in the 500m, I was re-introduced to Joey Cheek. We had met long ago, and in the intervening years, I have been a mentor to a competitor of his, Chris Callis, who as I mentioned barely missed making the team.

 As we shook hands, Joey said, “So you are the guy Callis talks so highly of…”For Callis to talk highly of you, you must be a very special person.” I was taken aback yet again. We then huddled for a few minutes and discussed his aspirations to get into Stanford and whether I could put in a good word. (Joey recently had his application for Harvard rejected.)

 We chatted for few minutes I left with a nod and a handshake and I felt strongly that this was not just a single minded skater, but a great person.

 Later, I discovered that he donated all his winnings ($35,000) to charity – what a gesture from a guy who has been living out of a duffle bag for years.

 However, my personal highlight came on Friday night, February 24th – the night before the 500m final (where Apolo won gold) and the night before the best event of the Olympics: the 5000m relay final (where our boys won bronze).

 The setting was the Huntsmen bar downtown Torino, where, suddenly a familiar face appeared in front of me. What transpired next literally changed my life.

 “John!”

 It was Alan Izykowski – the father of Alex Izykowski – a member of the short track team who had already skated the 1500m – eliminated (just like me 12 years ago) in the semi finals, and who was now prepping for the 5000m relay the next day.

 Alan had had a few drinks and was gregarious, but I’ll never forget what he said next. He came in close, put his hand on the back of my head and pulled my forehead to his and said, “John, I want to thank you for something.”

 His eyes focused unwaveringly, intensely on mine.”For what?” I said, honestly, not knowing. And as he spoke, the noise and sounds of the bar faded as the words registered.

 “12 years ago, you came to Steamers bar in Bay City, Michigan for a little skating party after the ’94 Olympics. You probably don’t remember this, but that night you put your medal around Alex’s shoulders – he was 11 at the time – and it changed his life, and our lives forever.”

 He continued, “We would not be here, right now, if you had not come there that night.” “Alex kept that picture for years.”

 “Tomorrow Alex is skating for gold, silver, bronze – doesn’t matter. No matter what happens, we’ll be happy just to have been here and experiencing all this – thank you - thank you John.”

 His eyes had tears in them, and I looked around in bewilderment and for a moment tried to think of a humorous deflective answer, but his eyes and hands would not let me go, and I was forced to face – and accept – this heartfelt thank you for something I didn’t even remember doing.

 But then I did. I remembered going to that small gathering and being proud at that moment of what we had done, and proud to share that unique talisman of the Olympics – the ever sought after weight of the Olympic medal. And the weight of the metal, and the medal, began, finally, to register.

 And I decided, finally, to accept it for what it was.

 I straightened, pressed back, and meeting his eyes solidly, I said clearly,  “Al – if I tell you one thing tonight to remember, remember this – take lots of pictures tomorrow – you’ll never regret it. This is a time to live in the moment and to be proud of just being here – no matter what happens tomorrow. I have almost no pictures of the Olympics – don’t make the same mistake.”

 “Document it for him Al – do it for Alex. Just remember your camera.” And we took a picture together that I’ll keep for a long, long time. 

(Picture: Al Izychowski & I)

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 Short Track, Saturday February 25th

 The lights were different that night – the greatest of all nights at the Olympics.

 It being the last night before closing ceremonies, everyone has focus and care. Lots of hugging everywhere you walk as new and old friends prepare for the pending parting.  Inside the Palavela, instead of the bright lights putting the rink into a monotone glare, the colored lights of figure skating welcomed guests to the rink for the final night of short track at the 2006 Olympics.

 All the athletes from the mountains were down, bobsled, skiing, ski-jumping, aerials,  and snowboarding – prepping for closing ceremonies the next day. And tonight, this night, there is only one event in town this night – the Short Track finals for the Mens 500m, the women’s 1000m, and the best of them all, the men’s 5000m relay finals..

 The excitement was palpable, actually, from the silence in the crowd. Rather than the usual medium level conversations, the spectators filtered in early but used hushed tones.

 With 3 gold medals on the line – to be awarded that night rather than the next day in the medals plaza (there WAS to be no next day – the next day the games were over) the finality of the Olympics, and the importance of this 16 days to the athletes was plain to see.

 I arrived early for our pre-production meeting with the crew – Danny, Ted, Steve, Misi and I, and now Andrea Joyce who replaced Lesley Visser. Steve explained that “el Hefe” was counting on tonight to be a big night (Bob Costas). Ted and Danny were to do an “on camera” pre-race discussion on Apolo’s chances, and if things went right, we’d bring his father, Yuki, up to the booth.

(Picture: Apolo’s dad Yuki Ohno & I)

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(Picture:Ted Robinson, myself, Tom O’hare & Dan Weinstein)

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After the meeting, Danny and I wandered into the still-empty arena and took one of my favorite pictures of the games – just he and I – two lucky guys rejoined to their sport – in the colors of the re-born ice stage.

(Picture: Dan Weinstein, myself, and the final night lights)

john-danny-last-night.jpg

 We took our places and watched the hushed masses filter in, and then waited for the action to begin. Ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani showed up, as did a huge contingent of athletes from around the world. And began it did, with a bang – the first men’s heat having one of the most aggressive first laps in history with Li Ye from China being disqualified for physically latching onto the other 3 competitors prior to 2 man crash and the 3rd skater going inside the blocks.

rudi-guiliani.jpg

 Play by play at this point is unnecessary, but suffice it to say that Apolo was lucky to make it through the semi finals with the second failed outside pass of the games on Li Jiajun. Nonetheless he looked strong, and with the DQ of Jiajun he was in the final.

 Men’s 500m final:

 Then, with long overdue serendipity – Apolo drew lane # 1.

 In the 500m final, lane 1 is everything. If you can get the start, and if your competitors fight amongst themselves (common) the race can be yours. With Ahn in lane 4, it would mean that Ahn would likely have to come around #3 and #2 to even have a chance at Apolo.

 Yes, Apolo jumped. Or, to use short track lingo, he “timed it right” and got away clean. It didn’t matter – he would have won the start anyway, and then. well then he coasted for two laps, and the two Canadians in #2 and #3 spot didn’t challenge – hoping for a slip later in the race. And then with 2 to go, Apolo put the after-burners on, and there was no chance. Sure, Ahn had more speed, and he slipped, stealthily from #5, to #4, to #3 at the line, but he was not a contender.

 It was, the “perfect race.” Clean, fast, and with a clear winner, and Apolo screamed when he crossed the line.  In the booth Ted and Danny were saying, “And Apolo wins it! he’s done it!” and in the background, embarrassingly, I found my voice screaming and my arms up in the air “Yeahhhh!!!!” until I regained myself, looking around furtively to see if my lack of professionalism was noticed. But all eyes were on the drama unfolding on the ice.

 

Quickly I subdued myself. Thank God for close range microphones.

(Picture: Apolo heads out, casual style, for his medal ceremony)

apolo-walking-to-medals-stand.jpg

 But still, this was just the warm-up for the main event. The one that Picabo, and Shani, and Chad, and Mario Cipollini, and Arakawa, and Bode, and former NY mayor Rudy Giuliani and Bradbury, and Dan and Ted and the Izykowski’s had come to watch, along with as many athletes as could find standing room up in the athlete section – the 5000m mens relay gold medal match.

 By the time the 5 teams of 4 men took the ice (20 skaters) the crowd was chanting – the Italians their song, the USA chanting USA, and the Koreans, Canadians, and Chinese contingents each with their own battle cry. The rafters were booming with voices. I don’t know how Ted and Danny could talk or even concentrate over the noise.

 As they announced each team, a roar shattered the ice, and the 20 skaters filtered forward only to disperse to their relative stations. And then this weird sound started. As the started readied, the crowd began this thrumming sound, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” that built to certain level and stayed – much like the kickoff at a football game, but with no crescendo – merely the reflection of the restless energy in the arena.

 And so each team was introduced, and the gun finally went off with team USA taking the lead.

 I won’t describe the race, but over the next 6 ½ minutes 20 men suffered like there was no tomorrow, and near the end two races emerged – South Korea vs. Canada, and USA vs. Italy. The noise was unbearable, and I watched as our boys lost the lead to Italy at the same time Canada took the lead from Korea.

 And in that weird parallel time warp, Ahn and Apolo stole back the gold and bronze medals from their worthy competitors of Canada and Italy, and the place erupted into absolute mayhem.

 I can still hear Ted’s voice at the end. “and if you think the short track relay isn’t the most exciting event of the Olympics, tell this to the crowd of 8000 screaming on their feet!”

 Which indeed they all were.

 And I watched our boys grab a flag and hug Korea, and Canada, and China, and Italy, and then each other, and then pose for silly multinational pictures, laying on the ice, going on shoulders, carrying coaches – all the things we did back 12 years ago in 1994 that I remember so well.

(Picture: Korean team on-ice medal winning hijinks)

koreans-celebrating.jpg

 And the medals were handed out, and we headed to production where Ted and Danny would have to stay til the wee hours of the morning. And at 1am, they set me free. One more party, and a few more stories..

(Picture: Rusty Smith, Alex Izychowski & JP Kepka w/ their medals)

izy-rusty-jp.jpg

 The Sports Illustrated / Budweiser Party

 Hyped from the earliest days, the Budweiser dome – a million dollar temporary structure on the Po River – was slated to be the end all destination for the who’s-who of the last night of the Olympic games. On February 25th, Sports Illustrated was hosting a party that was broadly proclaimed to be THE place to be at this Olympic games

 My scene or not, I had to try to get in. After all, I knew from conversations with Rusty and Alex, J.P., and Apolo, Bradbury, and the Australians, Parra and the longtrackers that that is where they were going to be.

 The question was how to get in?

 I arrived with my partner in crime Tommy O’Hare and we cleared the first hurdle – passing security into the USA House – right next to the Bud dome, and sharing a driveway (fenced and guarded) with the “celebrity entrance” to the Bud dome.

 There were literally thousands of people filling the streets trying to either get in to the Bud Dome, or just waiting to watch the A list of celebrities entering the dome.

 The driveway to our right was lined with 100m of red carpet and the brightest of all white lights, and every few minutes an announcement would be made and the crowd would roar, and someone famous would stalk down the aisle. 6 foot models in scanty clothing, athlete after athlete wearing their medals, and the entire Italian short track team – these arrived as we huddled in the driveway trying to figure out our next steps.

 Tommy and I were not alone – a few nights earlier we were talking to some of the staff of the Visa Olympic Reunion Center whether we could get into the S.I. party at the Bud dome. They had overheard Tommy and I talking about the preceding week’s party. I had no idea if we could get them in, though I had done it once before with my limited, dated Olympic credentials. However, I thought it might actually help, in this case, because, unlike the other houses, which were staffed by male and female American interns of all ages, the Visa house had decided to staff its house with young, female, black eyed Italian beauties.

 Remembering what we’d been told about the Bud dome and the “scouting parties” for the young and beautiful, we agreed to meet them there that night to see if we could help them get in – and there they were – just outside the USA House gate. We got them into the courtyard paralleling the red carpet walk, just as they announced, “Fabio Carta from the Italian Short Track Team” to a massive roar.

 The girls were excitable and speaking in excited hushed tones in Italian to each other.

 At this point I was re-introduced to Graham – the guy who had allowed me to enter the week before. He asked me, “why aren’t you in already?” and I said, “Well, Tommy and I brought 5 friends – we were hoping to get them in….”

 He looked daunted and said, “5? – Not sure I can do five – maybe 2.”

 And I said, “But it is these ladies here..”

 His admiring glance said it all, and 2 seconds later Graham concluded with, “Well, here’s 7 passes then, enjoy!” 

 We began climbing through the barriers one by one when he interrupted me with a question, “Oh by the way John, you were short track right? What year?”

 60 seconds later, as we gathered and then headed awkwardly into the lights and down the red carpeted aisle, the loudspeaker crackled something in Italian. Not exactly sure what it said, but I definitely heard, “Patinaggio de Velocia – USA – short track” as Tommy and I and 5 smartly dressed young Italian women marched down the red carpet to the roar of the unknowing throng. I doubt Fabio himself had a better escort. The ludicrousness of the situation was not lost on Tommy or I and we eyed each other embarrassed for a few seconds. Then Tommy straightened his spine, turned, raised his arm and confidently gave his best, formal parade wave to the crowd, who roared their approval. I began laughing beside him and could not keep a straight face. The ladies, no doubt, enjoyed their grand entrance.

(Picure: Grand entrance through security to bud dome)

 

Entering the Bud Dome with the Visa Girls

Entering the Bud Dome with the Visa Girls

  And then we were through the metal detectors and security, and we entered the Bud dome – artificially introduced, but alive with the electricity of the party.

 Inside was a special world – a world where all the stresses of 16 days had been put aside – where smiles were on every face, and where flashes were going off at a rate of 10 per second. Everything was possible in this world of young talent and fresh rewards. Tommy and I looked at each other, smiled, shrugged, and marched on in.

(Picture: Bode Miller with Tom and I – apparently in his ‘usual spot’)

 

Bode Miller

Bode Miller

 And it was weird. Our positions supporting the sport had put us in contact with many of the athletes, and with even more of the select few non-athletes allowed inside the dome. So as we entered, we both had the distinct feeling – as we discovered later – that we knew, well, not “everyone” but a lot of people. Me I felt like the belle of the ball in a masculine sense. After parking the Visa girls in back, I made a few rounds and would only walk a few feet before meeting someone from the preceding weeks.

I brought my camera and took snapshots with many of these new and old faces.

 About an hour after I entered, I saw an unmistakably famous face. Tall, craggy, lean, and . well, handsome I guess, the face of Mario Cipollini was as famous to me as that of Katie Couric might be to someone else. If Franz Klamer was my one skiing hero, and Heiden my one skating hero, then, other than Lance Armstrong himself, Mario Cipollini was very clearly my cycling hero. Known as “the Lion King”, Mario won 42 Giro d’Italia stages, and 12 Tour de France Stages, and the 2003 World championships in his long and storied career. Incredibly flamboyant, he was famous for wearing zebra striped skinsuits and he once appeared at the start of the Tour de France wearing a toga and riding in a chariot pulled by his teammates.

I asked one of the Visa girls to introduce me and pulled the only card I knew – I said, “Mario – I’m an old friend of Frankie Andreu.” (Frankie and I grew up racing together in Detroit – Frankie went on to be Lance Armstrong’s lieutenant for several tour de Frances before retiring to commentary for OLN).

 “Ah yes, Frankie – good man.” said the Lion King.

(Picture: Mario Cipollini & I at the S.I. party)

mari-cipo.jpg

 “I’m here with NBC for short track – me, I competed in short track at the Olympics myself.” I said, numbly.

 “Ahhhh!” He brightened. “Short Track is best! I watch myself! Let me see.” and he bent down and imitated the skating strokes. “Me – I’m too tall no?” he asked and then stood up, towering over me. He then patted the top of my head and said – “You – too big too?” He then reached down and grabbed my leg.. “Still strong!  Good!”

 I asked him what he was doing now (he retired last year at the age of 38) and he replied, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” and smiled.

 I took a picture with him and then watched him make his way into the crowd with a harem of onlookers following. The Lion King in his new jungle.

  At one point I was making my way to Amanda Barker and Steven Bradbury. Steven had just secretly told me that he and Amanda had gotten engaged a couple days earlier, but to swear to secrecy (it is now public knowledge). As I migrated toward them, I first ran into Gabrielle – an Italian Olympic rower from the 2004 games who provided me her card for helping her get in tonight.

 Moving forward, I happened upon Catherine Raney and her boyfriend Mark Norman (who I had grown up with in Detroit) and we exchanged hugs and business cards. Two steps later, and Carrie Walsh  - giantess and Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist grabbed my hand and swung herself into a pirouette underneath my arm as I swung free.

 (Carrie Walsh – Giantess)

Carrie Walsh - Giantess

Carrie Walsh - Giantess

 Finally, I reached the safe haven of Steven and Amanda, who had been perhaps my closest companions other than Tommy and Dan for the preceding weeks. “My, you are popular tonight” said Amanda as I gave her a hug and turned to Steven. “Yes – very odd” I said and whispered in her ear “Congratulations – take care of Steven – you are his strength.”  She said, “I know, and I will.”

(Picture: newly engaged to Stephen Bradbury: Amanda Barker)

 

amanda-barker.jpg

I then turned to Steve and we hugged as well. “Mate,” he said, “I’m coming to the good ole’ USA and counting on you to find me some good speaking work so I can tell my story.”

 “I’ll do my best” I said, and with that and a handshake, I turned my head and made my way toward the exit.

 Afterword

 One of the many nights near the end where I was surrounded by athletes, one of them, Kip Carpenter, asked me suspiciously, “So, why is it you are here? Why you?”  And I was embarrassed because he was right. What luck, what serendipity had brought me to this pass? I had to turn back to him with some thought, and I said simply, “Kip, I don’t know – do I deserve to be here? Probably not. Am I ecstatic to be a part of this once again? You bet.” (Picture: Kip Carpenter)

kip-carpenter.jpg

 Now it was 4:00am and time for me to head for the media village and the bus. On my way out of the Bud Dome, I had to stop and grab my jacket, and the backpack that had made its ubiquitous presence known for the last 3 weeks. And people – lots of hands to shake, and hugs to make. But finally, I felt the cooler air toward the exit signs, and I sighed and turned to take it all in one last time.

 I thought of all of the goodbyes that night -  to all my old and new friends. Stephen Bradbury, Ted Robinson, Casey Fitzrandolf, Catherine Raney, Tommy O’Hare, Misi Toth, Danny Weinstein, Dave Cruikshank, Stephen Lee, Jeroen Otter, Wilf O’Reilly and the USA speedskating team.

  Near the door I saw, again, an important face.

 It was Alan Izykowski, standing with his wife, his daughter, and his son Alex who was talking with J.P. Kepka. They both had their medals on.

 Earlier that evening, Mrs. Izychowski had asked for our help and Tommy and I went out to try and help get Al and his daughter into the dome (they were lost in the throng facing the gate.). Tommy and I sat out in the cold monitoring the crowd for a while as Graham (the guy with the passes) searched them out. With Alex and JP’s medals to join us, we eventually got them inside. Weird that they should thank me when I was no help at all.

 As I made my way across the room toward the exit with my jacket and backpack on, Al saw me and stopped mid-conversation, and our eyes met across the sea of heads.

 Al turned, and nodded his head in a slow bow – all the while keeping his eyes, shining with pride, on mine, and I nodded back, my eyes welling up.And proudly, slowly, he raised up his arm over the heads of the throng, and then, eyes still connected to mine, he pivoted slowly, grandly and brought to bear on his son the camera firmly grasped in his fist.

 And Al’s eyes left mine with a broad smile so that he could take what was probably the 100th photo of the evening:  his son, with his Olympic medal, his arm around his friend.

 .at the Olympic Games.

 -John,

March 2, 2006, Wisconsin

 

 

PS: Torino #9 is the letter that Al Izychowski sent to me after the games after reading this newsletter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Torino #7: Races & Revelry, Winning & Parenting

Newsletter #7, February 23, 2006: Races and Revelry, Winning and Parenting 

Travels and Travails: I’ve developed a morning (OK, early afternoon) routine that I’m quite fond of. After waking up around noon, I go to the commissary at the media village where I have a “breakfast” of a cappuchino, and two glasses of fresh squeezed blood orange juice. These oranges from Sicily have deep red pulp and the juice is like blood but quite tasty.  I then take the #10 tram to the outskirts of downtown and start walking.

Picking a new route each day, and having 2 to 3 “Marochino’s” along the way. This is my favorite of the many coffee drinks that they have here – it consists of heated Nutella (chocolate Hazelnut spread) swirled in a glass, then espresso, then steamed milk, then chocolate powder.  It is fantastic. They have an even richer version called “Bicerine” which is all of the above, plus a shot of chocolate liqueur, and trade the steamed milk for very thick and sweet whipped cream. I’ll sometimes grab a pizza somewhere downtown as I walk.

capuchino.jpg

As my hobby is to take lots of photos, thats what I do all along the way – the angled eaves, the ornate balconies, the patterns of the cobbles – whatever catches my eye. The light has been terrible (gloomy and grey) most days though. I’ve been taking about 200 photos a day – most not any good. Its like the blind batter in baseball – terrible batting average, but if he swings 1 million times, he’ll have a few hits. I then will end up at the USA house, the Bank of America House, or the Visa house, where I type these newsletters. I usually do them in about 20 minutes, but today I think it’ll take a bit longer. Been having some “deep thoughts.” 

river-po.jpg

I’m at the Visa Olympic Reunion Center right now. No wine for me today though – or so far I’ve held them off. Just now Picabo Street came over and she says, “I have a million questions on short track – I’m the biggest fan and I’ll be there Saturday with bells on!”

 

How much fun is this?…  OK, I’m back.  

cobbles.jpg

Racing – Wed, Feb 22 Last night, while a “light” evening for the TV crew, was quite a show – with Lee Ho Suk from Korea executing what is probably the most fantastic pass in speedskating history during his 500m heat, setting up an outside pass and taking cross over (corner) strokes all the way down the straightaway and back into the final corner to scream across the line in first. Ahn from Korea skated the fastest lap in history at 8.13 seconds, and Apolo looked great – working easily through the traffic to win his heat. Our ladies also made it through to the next round, with Halie Kim and Kimberly Derrick looking solid.  (Picture below – view of the heat box from the broadcast booth) 

heat-box.jpg

The ladies 3000 meter relay final was the rock concert that short track has become – the crowd was absolutely fanatically screaming Italy on to a medal. But the Italian ladies team fell short and after the race they hugged and sobbed in disappointment on the sidelines as China, Korea and Canada celebrated. 

Meanwhile, in the booth I had written down, “DQ lap 20 China – ?!” (Picture – DQ on the relay…)

china-dq.jpg

 2 Minutes later the crowd erupted as China is disqualified and Italy takes the bronze. Never a more dramatic or emotional bronze medal have I seen with all 4 ladies from Italy crying and the noise- just the noise in the place was deafening. The entire crowd stayed the extra 20 minutes singing in unison Italian songs, and waving flags prior to the the “flowers ceremony” (actual medals are awarded in the Plaza Castillo the next night before the concert – Last night was Avril Lavigne, night before, Ricky Martin – not sure who is down there tonight).  

Meanwhile behind the scenes I was trying to orchestrate a “90’s short track reunion” at the Heinecken House. The plan was to get the 15 retired olympians in the various broadcast booths, meet at the Heinecken house and tell war stories. The additional plan was to maybe have a “fun race” on the tiny ice rink that the speedskating crazed Dutch have in the middle of their house. Yes – they have a speedskating oval in their house – right in front of the rock stage.  Unfortunately, when I arrived, I discovered that there was 800 people in line and an estimated wait of 4 hours (this is at 11pm). Fortunately we had the “Bradbury” card pulled – he was already inside and got them to allow me to use the press entrance.  

Inside, I then met with Nichole – the head of marketing for Heinecken and I provided her a list of the names that were coming. She was awesome- she grabbed her head of security, made 15 copies of the list, and had it immediately distributed to all the security outside – with the goal of finding everyone in line.  They found many of us. After all was said and done, only 8 of the 15 of us made it in – I would guess that the Japanese and Korean guys took one look at the line and went home.

The inside was exactly like a rock concert… or, actually it was a rock concert – with a band playing and about 1000 crazy Dutch fans all wearing orange acting like lunatics. I don’t understand the orange thing… Not even a color on their flag – I’ll have to ask someone. Some of the current short track team was there as well – the two girls that are already done – Maria Gonzales and Caroline Hallisey. We sat in the way back of the house where we could hear each other speak and ate Frites with curry mayonaise, Schwarma (lamb Gyros) and some sort of deep fried meat and potato things – typical Dutch late night fare. The subject of Shani and Chad came up and I ended up having a fairly long, detailed conversation with Amanda Barker (Stephen Bradbury’s girlfriend) and Robert Mitchell – retired English speedskater – about the roles of parents in sports.  More on that later. (Picture – Nicole – marketing for Heineicken, with her nightly mess) 

heinecken-house-and-nicole.jpg

Monday, Tuesday, Feb 20, 21 Working backward in time to Monday night – the night I was in the hotel bar with two ex-skaters Wilf O’Reilly and Jeroen Otter and Chad Hedrick’s dad. There was a part of that conversation that I left out that actually comprised the meat of of it. It was regarding “winning.”   Specifically, Chad’s dad kept referring to other skaters, and even his own son as “first loser” (silver medal), “second loser” (bronze medal) and “5th loser” – referring to his own son’s 6th place finish in the 1000 meters.  

Willie O’Reilly, Jeroen and I spent quite a bit of time digging into this aggressive, Texas – toned attitude and remarks. I wanted to be charitable in my writeup as Paul (Hedrick) had had a few cocktails, but an occurence the next night –  Tuesday night – has made me reconsider and return to this conversation. 

Short track, ultimately, is a very humbling sport – the best in the world often do not win, and sometimes don’t even finish. Long track speedskating is much more predictable, and quite often the best will win over and over again for long streaks. Chad has had a long streak of wins as an in-liner, and a very impressive run in his short career on ice. He exudes a brash confidence (predicting 2 golds at the last world championships – and doing it) that is engaging and interesting to the public. I have never met Chad – I think he is the only member of the team that I have not met, so I cannot comment on him in a personal way. However, I’ve spent several hours now with his father….  I now believe that there is a darker side to this single minded focus on winning – one tied to parenting.  

Tonya Harding  –  An aside: shortly before I flew out here for the games, my wife and I saw a short special on Tonya Harding, and in the short segment, they had footage of a 15 year old Tonya winning the junior nationals. Tonya has hardly been a figure for pity – especially based on her Olympic and post-Olympic shenanigans. However, after watching this segment, my wife and I were nearly moved to tears.

Specifically there was a video of her calling her mom from a hotel room after winning nationals in the early 80’s, and Tonya saying into the phone,  “I know mom – it was just a bobble…” “Yes mom – I know, it sucked.” “Mom – I’m NOT a loser, quit saying that – quit saying that.”

 “I AM NOT a loser!” 

An on and on the voice on the other side was calling this recently minted champion a loser – even in her victory. Starts to really explain Tonya’s current sad state of affairs. 

Chad Hedrick: This now brings me to a street conversation held in the middle of Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle at 2am on Tuesday night with Chad’s dad Paul. I was hurrying back to the media village for some long needed sleep after dinner with Ted and Dan (Sushi – very odd in Italy) and I passed Chad’s dad Paul in the street – along with a friend of his. He gave me a big bear hug and I congratulated him on his son’s bronze medal performance earlier that day in the 1500m (Shani won silver, former Italian short tracker Enrico Fabrice had a suprise gold).  I was in the stands in the front row directly opposite of the flowers ceremony and watched Shani smile and hug Enrico. I got a picture of Enrico 3 feet off the top of the stand jumping up to celebrate.  (Picture, Enrico celebrating, s) 

fabrice-jump.jpg

In the same pictures you can see, and I witnessed, the fake smile on Chad’s face, and his immediate departure to the locker rooms after the ceremony. 

 

 

If anyone wonders why the Olympic bronze medalist, in one of the great events in the history of the sport would hurry off the awards stand, this next snippet of conversation with Mr. Paul Hedrick might give an inkling. 

(2am, Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle – middle of the street) 

ME: “Paul, congratulations on the bronze medal today – that was probably one of the most exciting finishes in Olympic history – I hope you are proud of what Chad accomplished.”  

PAUL: “Son, let me tell you something: 2nd loser is nothing to be proud of. The Hedricks lost today – thats what happened – we LOST. Nothing else.” 

Conversation with Amanda and Robert.  So what is it that makes an olympic champion?  Single minded focus. Discipline. Desire. Ability.  These things were provided in spades to Chad, Shani, and Tonya. They are successful, in part, (we decided in our conversations) because of this bizarre family focus.  The difference, we decided, was that the question above, ultimately, is only a piece (albeit a big one) of the more important bigger picture.           

The right question is, and should be for everyone – what makes a great person Those things above are only part of the equation, and can, and in this case, DO, borrow from some of the other required elements in life.  

Wilf O’Reilly was smart in his questions of Paul Hedrick that Monday night. Instead of challenging him on his remarks or phrasing, Wilf paused and said in that “brilliant” english accent, “Yes Paul, but after? – what happens after? After the Olympics, after the career is finished. How well is Chad prepared for life after the Olympics?”  

Paul’s response: “My boy’s gonna be set for life- he’s gonna be a millionaire – he’s set for his whole life after this Olympics.”  

(Post scipt: a year later, and in a bar in Salt Lake City after a world cup Paul and I sat down and hashed through things. I told him how I felt about what he had said during the Olympics and how I thought it had made Chad feel. Paul is an extremely hard guy not to like and he managed to own up just a little, while burying most of it in a bear hug telling me I worry too much and that “Chad’s a competitor – that’s what he does – of course he’s going to be hard on himself.”)

Afterthought: My Olympic career was comprised of only one Olympics and included the less-than-notable finishes of 16th in the 1000m, and 17th in the 500m as well as the momentary glory of winning a silver medal with 3 other fantastic guys in the 5000 meter relay.  

I made exactly $1,500 from my one sponsor – Oakley – for wearing my glasses on the medals stand.  

Friendship, conversation, discipline, love (met my wife while training in Milwaukee), focus, a chance to share in one of the world’s great human dramas – these are things I brought away from my time in the sport.

For the last 8 years I also carried a bitter residue of defeat for not achieving my ultimate goal of an individual gold medal at the Olympics.  Was I not focused enough? Was I too distracted by ‘other things?’ (school, career, hobbies outside skating?)  Did I train too hard or not hard enough?

These were the questions that occasionally surfaced over the years when I was forced to look at my athletic career. Frankly I just tried not to think about it. Moving to Phoenix helped. 

When I was young, my parents pushed me, and they sometimes made me face down some of my poorer decisions. But at one point in my career, they went from “coach and judge” to “unwavering, unconditional loving fans.”

As we talked last night, Amanda, Robert, and “last man standing” Steven Bradbury indicated that their parents had made that same transition.  My relay team – the boys from the 1994 – I know all their parents and what this kind of love has done for each of them.  

  • Randy Bartz – graduated from University of Minnesota, former management consultant and now owns his own business. Married Kim, son Aidan. 
  • Andy Gable – graduated from Marquette in Milwaukee. Successful investment banker. President of US Speedskating. Got me this job.
  • Eric Flaim –  Successful Financial consultant, Married to Marcy who is a current member of the U.S. Skeleton team.

Saturday marks the 12 year anniversary of our medal winning relay from the 1994 games – the 13th and final medal from that games, topping the previous best haul of 12 medals. It also marks the approximate start of a 8 year personal game of second guessing starting when I missed the team in 1998 – “what if I had… X? Y? Z?” 

I have analyzed the elements, reviewed the data and put it all together. My days of second guessing are over and as I sit here typing with tears running down my cheeks I have only one final note to conclude:  

Thanks mom. Thank you dad. 

-John

Torino Italy 2/23/2006

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