Childhood bullies, if never conquered, never shrink, never quite die. Childhood heroes have that same lasting power for the same reasons. It is a benefit of timing really – if someone you grow up with retires from the fray before you are able to beat them, then they are stronger or better than you – forever. When it comes to skating, never mind the lap times or eventual results: if a competitor beat me consistently as a kid and then retired before I could give full measure, then they will always remain fixed in my childhood mind as superior.
I occasionally try to remind myself of these same dynamics as I watch these next generations of speedskaters coast past my own records of the day. My natural tendency is to invert the response, look at their superior times and assume that every one of these skaters is also superior to me for all time. But their reality matches my time machine: for a series of young skaters, despite my failures, my ever receding records, I will always be ‘better than them.’
It is with these thoughts that I write about one of my favorite coaches of my entire career – Marc Affholter. Marc was the jolly green giant of my youth. He ran our practices in Wyandotte, MI on Tuesday nights with a loud voice, green tights, and the bulging quadriceps and calves to match. He was everything I wanted to be: confident, powerful, quick, and in control. He is better than me in every way.
My relationship with Marc was much like my relationship with Walden – at first it seemed to be fraught with conflict… Why was I singled out? Why didn’t he leave me alone? Why did he always follow me and yell at me the most? The more I tried to fade into the woodwork, the more Marc yelled.
It came into stark clarity one practice when I was probably 11 or 12. We were doing starts again and again, and Marc was yelling at me, and then again at ME to move my feet. “What about everyone else?” I thought, but he continued hammering at me.
Finally, in a fit of pique I slashed away from the line and around the corner full of anger and frustration. As we crossed the half lap mark where we could coast to do it again, I could hear Marc yelling, “Yeah! Yeah! That’s what it looks like everyone! That’s how you win a start!” I glanced around and noticed the large gap I had on the group, and then Marc coasted up and put his arm around me and said, “remember this – today you learned how to win nationals,” and then he skated off to yell at some other skaters.
That was probably the moment I became a speedskater. Until that moment it was just a part of the routine – something I did because we scheduled it. Suddenly the green giant with bulging muscles began fighting it out with me for that first block, and suddenly I found that I could occasionally beat him to it – and NO ONE ever had done that before. I thought he’d be mad, or jealous, but instead he was practically giddy with pleasure. I learned to be aggressive, to not shorten my strokes for other skaters, to race my strengths of acceleration and fight for that first corner block. Marc would be pleased to note that in thousands of races after this, I NEVER gave back that first block…
Like Walden, Marc was a man of few words. He was a downriver guy working in the heavy machinery industry with a vocabulary to match. But… he was very emotionally involved with his family, and his skaters as I discovered over the coming years…
A few years later, in a race in Alpena Michigan, where I was skating up several age classes, one of the senior skaters pushed me down, and then took a swing at me. I was a young punk mixing it up with the seniors in the Michigan state championships and probably not playing by the rules. I was being put in my place.
Marc was having none of that. Even as I rose from the boards I saw his nimble bulk of muscle fly over the boards in a bound and head for the aggressive skater, hands at his sides but ready.
When that skater still came at me, Marc’s fist shot out like a cannon and with a weird crack, the skater was back down and not moving even as Marc failed to break stride and came over to me to help me up.
Fast forward a decade, and I returned home after winning a silver medal in the Olympics. Somehow it didn’t occur to me at this time to thank Walden, but it very clearly occurred to me to thank Marc. So one afternoon, I put together a thank you note, and framed it with a picture, and sent it to Marc, not really expecting a reply.
Sure enough, I didn’t get one – at least, not in the way I expected. Marc, the gruff old warrior didn’t respond directly, but via the emerging miracle of email, his daughter Ashley did. What she wrote to me burned into my senses and remains one of my favorite thoughts and memories – it went something like this:
“My dad would be too proud to tell you, but your note meant an incredible amount to him – he cried a lot when he read it, and immediately put it up in a place of honor in our house – I thought you should know.”
Marc Affholter, you are a man – a true man. You taught me the sport of speedskating and gave me that first inkling that I might actually have some talent. You were tough on me because you cared, and I NEVER EVER would have had the privilege of representing our country at the Olympics without your tough love, your unrelenting passion, and your consistent and insistent voice.