Torino Journal #9: Epilogue

I mustered up the courage to send Al my Torino newsletter and a few days later he wrote me this letter:  From: Al Izykowski To: John Coyle Sent: Wed, 22 Mar 2006 00:19:34 -0500 Subject: The Circle of Life

John-- 

I am deeply touched and moved by your words and reaction.  I am having a difficult time processing it all and I apologize for the delay in responding.  After I read you e-mail I went up to Alex's bedroom and looked at his bulletin board that holds only the most meaningful awards and memories of his childhood and skating career. 

Pinned near the right border in a ziploc baggy is a drink napkin from Steamer's Pub with your signature on it dated 1994, along with the picture of You with Alex and you Silver Medal.  I then went to our Italy photos and found the picture of You with Alex and his Bronze Medal at the Budweiser House.  I printed it off and returned to the bulletin board and carefully opened the bag, gently slid the new photo in, re-sealed the bag and pinned it back in the exact same hole. 

I stepped back and contemplated the many things that had to have taken place in so many people's lives in order for those two photos to be in that bag together, hanging on a bulletin board in a boy's bedroom where he only dreamed of such success.  As I stood and stared I was overwhelmed by emotion as I again attempted to comprehend the awesome unifying power of the Olympic Games and values.  Thank you for sharing your success with us 12 years ago and thank you for including Alex (and me) in this circle of success 12 years later.   

My mom died when I was just 14, and my dad died on the same day 4 years later when I was 18.  Alex was born 2 years later when I was just 20 and still playing college football.  Many thought it was a bad thing.  I  of course never did.  I have always looked at that boy with the same sparkle in my eye as the one I see in your eye when you look at your little girl.  Alex's mom and I have beaten the odds and stayed together since we were 15 years old without screwing up our kids lives.  He has taken us to places we imagined existed only for others, and has lead us to quality people like yourself whom we can now call a friend.  You bet I feel proud, but then again I have felt proud every step of the way knowing that we were all doing the best we could.  It is very difficult for me to get my head around the idea that something I said somehow had a profound impact on you, but I am very flattered that you felt compelled to write us into your Torino Journal.  Just remember that it all started from you, I was just the lucky messenger who reminded you of your actions and what they meant to a little boy with stars in his eyes. 

I guess you never know what role you may play in someone's life or just how important the things you choose to do or say or choose not to do or say may turn out to be.  I contemplated quite a bit over whether or not to have those words with you at the Huntsmen fearing I might be dismissed as a typical over zealous parent.  Well, needless to say I am glad I took what felt like a risk at the time and approached you.   

I didn't intend to write this much at this sitting so I guess I will stop here.  I apologize if I am rambling on incoherently...I am really struggling with all the emotions of the past few months.  Then, reading your words was so unexpected you really caught me off gaurd and got me to thinking about all kinds of things...good things of course, but it kind of drains you emotionally.  

 "All the best" (that is how you signed the napkin) to you and your girls until we meet again.  Thanks for your indulgence. Sincerely,Al Izykowski                                               

 1994                                                         2006

izzy1.jpg         izzy2.jpg

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),

 

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

(Picture: Ice dance flowers ceremony)

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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

 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

 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)

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 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)

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 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)

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 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)

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 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

  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

 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

 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

Torino #6: Famous People

Newsletter #6, February 21, 2006: Famous People  Travels and Travails: So my friend Bill was to be arriving on the 18th - the same day my wife was leaving. He had sent me a hardcopy of his itinerary before I left, which I had in a folder along with my own, my wife's and some translation printouts to help with the language. Well, a couple of days into the trip, that folder disappeared.  

I received an email from Bill on the 16th saying, "just meet me at the airport" and that he had finally found a hotel 20 miles out of town (housing is just so impossible here).  Well, he didn't include the details of the intinerary that I had lost, so I didn't know when to meet him (as it turned out, we just missed each other - he was probably pulling away in his rental car when Shannon, Kat and co. arrived). He waited an hour or two then rented a car.

 Of course directions in Italy tend to be quite meaningless, so he couldn't find his hotel and found himself in a very bad area with a lot of homeless etc. He then made his way to long track - which normally I would have been at, but I was at a short track production meeting for the evening. He then tried to find his hotel again, and then gave up, went back to the airport, and then flew home. I think it must be one of the shortest olympic trips in history. 

(Jim Ochowicz "Och" my former team lead, and Sheila Young Ochowicz - 3 time Olympic medalist)

Run ins and rendezvous:  Now that I know about the "houses" for the VIPS, sponsors, and Olympians, I've been spending time there - mostly here, where I am now in the USA house. Athletes come in and out and the RSC has made several important photos.

(Derek Parra)

 Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen, Rusty Smith, Casey Fitzrandolf, Joey Cheek, Chad Hedrick, Darrek Parra, Chris Witty and more have come through and I've had a chance to talk to them all except Chad. 

(Carrie Walsh)

However, last night I was sitting a hotel bar with my old Olympic coach - Jeroen Otter, British world and olympic champion Wilf O'Reilly, and Chad Hedrick's dad. Chad's dad is a big old Texas boy and overwhelmingly confident in his boy, "my boy is the best on the planet and you are gonna see somethin' special tomorrow - that Shani - if he looks at his last lap of the 1000 vs. Chad - he knows where that's headed!"  Shani's last lap was considerably slower than Chads, but Chad's first lap and a half were even slower.

(Picture: (friend of Paul), Paul Hedrick, myself)

paul-hedrick.jpg

The 1500 meter - starting about now - adds another lap and a quarter to the 1000 - and Chad and Shani are likely to be 1 and 2. The question is the order.  Shani and Chad have been having a somewhat public dispute about the fact that Shani did not skate the pursuit, and more importantly dismissed the whole team upon announcing his decision - something like, "they've never helped me - i'm not going to help them."

(Bonnie Blair Cruikshank and David Cruikshank)

Bonnie Blair Cruikshank and David Cruikshank

What most don't know is that Shani is merely a facade for the driving force behind these actions - his mother. As a member of the arbitration panel for U.S. speedskating for the last couple of years, I've had several hearings and long conference calls managing disputes brought forward by Shani's mother. She views it as a "world vs. Shani" perspective and Shani has lost a lot of sponsorship opportunities due to the radical views and opinions expressed by his mother.   (Connie Paraskevin-Young, Ellie Ochowicz, (Chris Witty in the background))

I'm predicting Shani first, Chad second, and the Italian Fabrice for third. The Today Show I've been down in the central plaza where the today show is filmed every day and have seen Al Roker and Katie Couric and the other guy (his name?) each day. The first time I went down, I went with Shannon and Katelina and we took a couple pictures from a distance when someone yelled, "hey, Coyle!". I turned and it was Derek Parra and Catherine Raney - two long track speedskaters - just about to go on the show. We chatted and then watched as they were interviewed by Katie Couric. I put Katelina on my shoulders, so she should have been on TV.  

(Picture: Katie Couric and the Today Show in the medals plaza)

Yesterday when I was down there, my friend Tommy and I went up and chatted with Katie - Tommy gave her a couple pins, and then the 3 of us took a photo together.  Today I was walking by and ran into none other than Nancy Kerrigan. We chatted for about 10 minutes - she's there working for E! TV and talked about our first trip together to Sofia Bulgaria - she lost 8 pounds, I lost 17 (we both got really sick). 

(Picture: Nancy Kerrigan)

nancy.jpg

Dinner with Visa and friends So I was sitting at the Visa reunion center, talking with one of the Visa guys - a pentathelete named Rob Stulle, when he asked if I wouldn't mind making an appearance at a Visa dinner party. He mentioned that several other olympians would be there - so I said - sure. A swimmer from 1976 from Canada and I went over, and joined the two other special guests - Bjorne Dhale - the most decorated olympic athlete EVER with 8 gold and 4 silver medals in cross country skiing, and none other than Franz Klammer - the 1976 downhill skiing gold medalist that went down the mountain in kamikaze fashion to win a brilliant victory for Austria. Franz and I ended up at a table together and spent the next 3 hours sipping some wine and watching ice dance on the big screen TV.  

(Picture: Franz Klammer - still a stud)

franz.jpg

The bar in the hotel had been totally redone as a bobsled track, - complete with white concave "ice" walls, and a full scale bobsled replica. The martini bar in the center was something to behold as well. 

(Picture: The Visa "Bobsled Martini Bar")

visa-bobsled-bar.jpg

So Franz and I were watching ice dance, when the Italian pair fell - the guy basically fell right onto the girl. After they finished she gave him one of the longest, most evil, most public stare downs in history. Franz turned to me and said, "Right now, I think she consider to kill him - right on international TV - maybe back in the locker room - either way he don't live until morning I don't think..." 

They kept replaying it and we were laughing and laughing. I asked "I wonder what it must be like to be married to her..." Then it got even funnier when a friend Willie O’Reilly called and said - " dude - that's Diego's wife!"  Diego was on the gold medal winning short track Olympic team that beat us in 1994 and is the rink manager over at Palavela. I see him every day and we are friends. Poor Diego... 

(Picture: Dinner and watching Ice Dancing with Franz Klammer)

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I also had the opportunity to have a nice conversation with the Senior VP of marketing for Visa Scot Smythe. We talked about sponsorships and how to evaluate them...  

Preview - Newsletter #7:  Tonight is the first round of women's figure skating singles. I'm going to head over and watch from the booth after I finish watching the mens long track 1500m - which is already going on - I'll take the tram over to the Oval and watch the last half.  Last night I only got 2 hours of sleep as for whatever reason the Italian army had helicopters circling the media village in the wee hours.  

-John   

 

 

 

 

 

 

Torino #3 1/2: A Short Track Speed skating Primer

A short track primer: 

Attached is a summary of the sport of short track that I wrote up for the broadcast team. It, I think, is one of the first detailed descriptions of the sport from the insider’s view…

SHORT TRACK SPEEDSKATING – an introduction 

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 - 7 of them per corner, with one center, or apex block. The total course distance is 111.12 meters in length. 9 laps = 1000 meters.  Add a few speedskaters in their skin tight multi-colored suits racing not for time, but for the finish line – like track and field or horse racing – and the simple format is complete.  

Short track rink layout The fundamental metrics 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 representing 4.5, 9, 13.5, and 27 laps respectively), with the first skater across the line being first.  Time on the stopwatch, while an interesting anecdote, does not factor into the results for the Olympic games. 

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, 18 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 disqualifications in the 1000 meter heats to qualify for 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 a disasterous crash that took out all four leading skaters and come across the line first – again not through his own merits – rather through the misfortune of the otherskaters. The gold medal was his – even though his efforts in all the preceding rounds in that race 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?

·         Who's fit? Who's strong? Who's going to take risks?

·         What combination of skaters are are racing? How will it play out?

·         What unforeseen events will occur?  

 What does it feel like? Remember those times of walking on slick, wet ice – to your car across frozen puddles, or down the sidewalk after a freezing rain?  Conversely, remember that moment when your shoes first touched dry asphalt after sliding across the puddle, or the instant when you regained traction after passing back underneath the porch roof?

To a speedskater, that is exactly it feels like to be on ice with our long blades – it is feeling of traction and grip, stability and power. 

A 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 of the skater's powerful quadriceps are released to the ice in a tangential motion and converted to forward speed smoothly yet powerfully. Each stroke on the ice is a combination brute force (sheer power) and ballet (no wasted motion, fluid extension to the very tips of the range).  

Now imagine that ultimate grip – on good ice no amount of effort will result in a slip – with a slow concentrated push from 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 an supreme feeling of power.

The controlled release of the piston-like skating strokes brings to mind the action of a hydraulic cylinder – a fluid, consistent, and powerful extension. 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 push 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. Speedskaters regularly push over 1000lbs cleanly on the hip-sleigh in the gym.

Now, add to this powerful 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 compress 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 (double your weight). 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 the preservation of the momentum carried into the corner. Timed right, you’ll see the powerful combination of the full extension of the left leg underneath the right leg (the 'classic' speedskating pose) with both blades carving firmly just prior to the apex of the corner (the center-most block).  

Having two feet down at that precarious moment preserves the integrity of the corner and allows the skater to enter a “pivot” – a one footed completion of the change of direction back toward the far end of the rink, and then begin to 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 this 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 while leaning over far enough to put your elbow on the ground… 

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, gymnastics, or figure skating the number of required motions is drastically reduced. That said though, the real difficulty of the sport lies in the constant 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 imagine lifting the heel of the extended leg up off the ground. Finally 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 double your weight and you have the pivotal moment of the sport.  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 and timing, and an alignment of weight and effort. These subtle refinements require a series of heretofore unused muscles in the abdomen, hip, knee, and ankle to constantly adjust 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 still look like an awkward novice compared to a 10 year old with the same experience. After some point, the synapses required for the exquisite control wither away and cannot be trained. (See an interesting article by Daniel Coyle on this topic: How to Grow a Super Athlete - http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B04E1DC1E3EF937A35750C0A9619C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=10 )  The only exception to this hard and fast rule is the relatively recent crossover of in-line 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. In the first few Olympics where short track took place (1992, 1994) the din centered around two time gold medalist American Kathy Turner in the women’s races. In 2002 the men took on their fair share of the controversies: 

In 1994 the protest and accusations swirled around Turner and her aggressive skating en-route to winning gold in the 500m. First there was controversy in the face of an early collision with Natalie Lambert of Canada in the heats, and then in the final there was contact with the Chinese champion Zhang Yanmei - who claimed that Turner had grabbed her leg en-route to her second consecutive gold medal. 

In 1998 the women’s 500m final provided yet another interesting footnote in the sport, with Isabel Charest of Canada taking out Wang Chunlu of China and drawing a foul in the process. Wang did not finish the requisite number of laps, so with Charest and Wang out, the bronze medal was awkwardly awarded to a skater not even in the race – South Korea’s Chun Lee-Kyung – who had won the B-final. 

Which brings us 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 physically 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 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. In deference to this very real aspect of the sport, there is an oft repeated, little understood phrase repeated consistently by the competitors that ultimately reflects this shared understanding - a phrase that tends to sound awkward without all of the context behind it.

This phrase was aptly quoted by our own Apolo Ohno. Apolo was interviewed on camera just after the 2002 Olympic 1000 meter gold medal race where he had crossed the finish line sprawled across the ice, belly up, in second place after being taken down from behind by a four skater chain reaction 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 had been less than charitable, especially given the stiches he would undergo, and the scrutiny he received for his "lucky" prior finish, and the fact that he was clearly intefered with… Apolo 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.

John K coyle

Torino #5: Racing and Working

Newsletter #5 February 19, 2006: Racing and Working 

Travels and travails and eating: Public transport it ubiquitous over here, but you still end up walking a lot. I probably end up walking at least 2 hours a day just to/from the venue, the media village and dinner etc. and on non-race days I've been putting in more like 6 hours. My second night I did a tour of the downtown and sights and walked solid for 5 1/2 hours. The next day my shins were so sore that my feet were flopping like dead fish. 

My wife Shannon and daughter Katelina and friends Julia, Anya and Lyida made it over unscathed, and we checked into our apartment in a working neighborhood not far from the short track venue. We have enjoyed some of the best meals of our lives in couple local restaurants. The first night, we showed up to our favorite - Andromeda - at 7:30 and they had to unlock the door for us as  we were their first customers. By 10pm it was full inside, with families and their children seated at long tables - extended families of 10-12 people comprised most of those inside.

The food was fantastic - fresh pasta with homemade sauces of olive oil, cheeses and seafood. We finished eating at about 10:30, but stayed until 12:30 having several rounds of local liqueurs on the house as well as other appetizers on the house. When we left it was with hugs and double kisses on the cheeks. The question over and over... "Tutto Bene?" (everything good?)  our response - "Si", "So contento!"   

On Shannon and Katelina's last night, both restaurants presented us with gifts of some fine wine, and actually had tears in their eyes during the extended goodbyes. Andromeda put up a picture of Shannon and Salvatore - the padron - on the wall along with a host of famous people that have visited the restaurant.  

Working: As of yet, we have not done any on-camera work, so Dan and Ted are only “voices” calling the races. So my chances of being seen on TV are marginal at best. We get to the venue at 3pm on race days for racing that starts at 7:30. We meet in the commissary where the producer (Steve Lawrence) and director (David Michaels) walk us through all the "features" that will accompany the live action calls. Features are the little vignettes that accompany or break up the racing (i.e. interviews with Apolo, pre-recorded race footage etc.) 

There is a lot of lingo that I don't understand regarding "tosses" and "lobs" and "resets" and a host of other cryptic words that describe the type of introduction or handoff that Ted is doing with Bob Costas and the other on air personalities.   Ted is an amazing professional. As we sit in the booth and he describes the action live, at the same time Steve is shouting things in his ear the whole time - "what color jersey? Tell her race number! Get it f-ing right this time!" Like the trading floor of my previous work experience at Goldman Sachs and Enron, there is no room for thin skins in the broadcast booth. I have to turn the volume of Steve down on my headset because he is so distracting but somehow Ted can take it all in even while commentating - it is truly amazing. (Picture – the short track broadcast team)  

The production crew

Dan is doing an excellent job of providing skating specific detail and even has used the "telestrator" a couple of times (drawing on-screen.) (Picture – the “Telestrator” in action)   I sit next to them and for a while I was typing notes on my computer, but have switched to paper because it was too hard for them to turn their heads away from the action. I write about 30 notes in the 3 hour session and they probably use less than 1/4 of them. Ted gave me a mention the other night - not sure if anyone heard it or if it made air. During the races I also take calls from the research room - usually answering questions - "who was disqualified - why", but occasionally getting some stats from them as well that I feed to Ted and Dan. 

Using the telestrater

My job is actually quite easy and so far Steve has not yelled at me yet - only 2 race days left so we'll see. After the races are over, the waiting game starts. There a huge # of trucks and trailers with all sorts of video equipment where they mix and master the final videos that air on NBC. (Picture – one of the just many rooms of monitors – for what reason? I don’t know)   A huge staff works feverishly after the races end to assemble all the bits and pieces for prime time airing. Ted and Danny have to sit around and wait for hours and hours to provide snippets of voice over commentary and/or corrections. The first night I hung around for a couple hours but it was quite clear that I was not needed and they sent me on my way.

Wires and more wires

They sit for 6 hours until 4am to do 30 seconds of voice over work.  Again I have an easier job. Apolo's bronze last night was a great race - he played his cards just right and frankly just got beat. I think he is 3rd best in the world right now in that distance. The 500's will be unpredictable. I look for Canada and USA, as well as Korea to have a good shot at the medals. Slow starts by the Koreans may limit their chances to repeat their medals haul. Korean women went 1, 2, 3 in the 1500m final last night, but #3 was disqualified. Jin - the gold medalist is said to be #3 on their mens team if she were male. She is so much better than the other women - I've never seen someone win so easily. Their coach is a guy named Park - we traded team jackets back in the 1993 world championships and I occasionally still wear it.  

Stephen Bradbury: Some of you may remember Stephen from the 2002 games - I wrote about him in my sport summary. Well, he is quite the famous man back in Australia - he just finished a book which he gave me that I finished in one sitting - an excellent story. We've been hanging out together on off nights along with his girlfriend Amanda. Last night, oddly enough, we ended up eating Chinese food at about midnight after the races. Stephen is calling the races for Australian TV. It is crazy how well known he is in Australia (he was the first gold medalist ever from that country).  

Stephen Bradbury & I

Shannon and Katelina, Julia, Anya, Lydia: Shannon, Kat, her friend Julia, and her 2 daughters Any and Lydia arrived last week, and I met them at the airport and then we made our way to the apartment. The apartment was large, but ultimately really a large studio - which meant not a lot of privacy and no alone time. This made things a little stressful as there was not way to "get away" from all the close physical proximity - especially in an echoey apartment with two  5 year old girls and an 8 month old.  But we enjoyed a week of coffee and Panini's in the morning (OK around noon), fantastic dinners in the late evening, and some long walks and shopping on non-race days. Katelina was an absolute gem - with no time outs or tantrums the whole week nor on the plane over.

Our coffee bar - run by a Romanian girl named Irina - found us receiving free treats for the little girls daily (hot chocolate, or a sucker, or a chocolate egg), as well as another free treat for one of us - a "Bicerine" - espresso, coffee liqueur, chocolate, and sweet cream, or a host of other unique regional tastes.  She also provided gifts when the girls left - 2 bottles of Romanian wine.     

Outside of the downtown, every visit to a restaurant, bar, or coffee house has resulted in some of the most personable, friendly, and generous service we have ever received. I am in love with Italy.

Houses and Parties: I never had any idea of the "other" infrastructure behind the Olympics. On one side you have all the media trucks, equipment, crews, wires, towers, and temporary buildings. NBC must have 5000 people here working for them. Then you have catering, housing, and transportation for all these people. (Picture – wires, and more wires – in the rain)  On the other side, and even more interesting, is the series of "houses" and associated hospitality and parties associated with them. Each country has a "house" - usually a large old house or "palazzo" that they have rented and have food, drinks, TV's and internet for "VIP's". (Picture – Casa Italiana)   Also many of the sponsors have them as well.

Italian House

As an athlete I never even knew these existed. The USA house is a big old house on the river Po  and right next door to it, with a secret back entrance is the "Budweiser Pyramid" - a plexiglass dome that houses the biggest party in town every night. (Picture – the “bud dome”)  Apparently Bud has teams to go out and select the "beautiful people" to enter the club and they serve, well, Budweiser and thats it. Pounding music, lights, dancing - no longer my scene - but fun to go to.

Bud Dome on the River Po

I went last night with Stephen and Amanda, and a pair of Swedish skaters I used to race with. It was kind of fun being a "VIP" as we shouldered our way through about 100 people outside and I went and asked if we could get in. They looked me up in their computer and said, "silver medalist - how many passes do you need?" We got right in - even without pulling the Bradbury trump card. (Picture – inside the “Bud Dome”)   

The USA house has excellent food and great wines from Italy as well as the states. The Visa house - where I am right now, is a rowing club right on the river Po and has the same. I'm sitting typing with a nice glass of Barolo, and some excellent Italian cheeses.  The Bank of America house is more of the same, but closer to downtown. The Dutch have the Heineken house, which all of of "old" retired speedskaters are going to go to after the races on Wed. night. They have an ice rink inside, and someone has thrown out the idea of an on ice race between all of us (on foot though). We'll see what happens.. 

Preview - Newsletter #6:  Two more days of racing - the 22nd, and the 25th. The night of the 25th will see the mens' 500 meter final and 5000 meter relay final. It is the hottest ticket in town and it will be so so loud.  Our boys made the final in great form and look to win a medal - even gold, though Canada's team is probably better. The Italians were inserted based on a disqualification of the Japanese team in the heats, so there will be five teams in the final - with 20 skaters on the ice. I've skated a couple 5 team relays and it will absolutely result in some crashes. In the 2002 relay final, every team fell once, so it is a crapshoot. Our boys are experienced and solid - but so is Canada. I expect Korea to go down - their #3 and #4 are very young and inexperienced.  

 -John K Coyle

john coyle

Torino #4: Arrival and first days

Newsletter #4 February 14, 2006: Arrival and first days  Travels and travails: The flight was uneventful and I even had my own row on the plane to lay down. I got about 2 hours of sleep before arriving in Milan. There were a number of NBC people on my plane (showing their credentials) and I began speaking to one of them as we walked out of customs toward the lady holding the “NBC” sign. He looked familiar as did a couple others – I recognized one of the lugers from 1994 – so I figured he was someone just like me – a retired athlete returning to work for NBC in some function or another.

I told him I was with short track and a little about what to expect – what with the Apolo/Korea battle returning from 2002 etc. I then asked him what he was in for and he said he was with the Tonight Show. I paused, realizing his familiarity was not from a previous acquaintance, and he saved the awkward moment by extending his hand and saying, “Tom Green – and your name?”  He was so “normal” I didn’t put it all together.  

We rode the bus over to outfitting together and collected our standard issue NBC/Nike apparel – a light and heavy coat, a couple of backpacks, hats, gloves etc. and then said goodbye as he headed up the mountain to Sestriere, and I headed to the Riberi media village. (Picture – former military barracks, now the media village) 

 Riberi media village

The village is a converted military compound – but nice enough, with tiny single rooms with tiny shower/bathrooms. After unpacking, I put on a couple of jackets and headed out. The short track venue – “Palavela” was about 2 miles as the crow flies, so I figured I’d walk rather than take the bus. As it turned out, it was more like 4 – 5 miles due to the Athlete Village creating an obstruction en-route and it took me about 90 minutes to get there. On the way, I stopped for my first European coffee and Panini – it was everything I expected.   

my room at Riberi

 I had last been to Torino in 1991 – 15 years earlier – and it remains the same – beautiful downtown of old buildings, surrounded by working class apartment neighborhoods with Café’s, Wine Bars, and family run restaurants every block.  

FIRST DAY OF WORK: I arrived at the ice rink just in time for short track practices and immediately found Ted Robinson (the NBC announcer), Dan Weinstein (ex-skater and color commentary) and Lesley Visser – a woman who I did not know who was our reporter.  (Picture below – Danny and Lesley)  

Lesley Visser: Lesley was very chatty and engaging, and as we walked and talked, we discussed our history snapshots. She mentioned 30 years in the NFL as a reporter (odd as she only looks 40) and I mentioned my skating history and growing up in Michigan, and that I went to college in California. She paused, looked at me slyly and said, “Is that like Dan saying that he went to school “in Cambridge?”. Without pause I blandly said “yes” and starting walking again, with another sly smile - (Dan went to Harvard.) 

She thought this was great fun and has told the story over and over since. As we started watching the practice, Lesley starting getting very… scattered. She was clearly upset over how little she knew about the sport, and how much there was to learn. She kept starting sentences and then stopping, and then proclaiming how overwhelmed she was. I was ready to write her off, and headed off to the food tent to have another coffee. Dan joined me, and we looked at each other with knowing smiles. “Good luck with her” I said to Dan. 

A couple hours later I changed my opinion. Lesley hunted me down and we huddled over coffee for about 2 hours and I described everything I could about the sport – the basics, the rules, what it felt like, and why all the DQ’s – a lot of the stuff in the attached summary. She was very focused and took probably 20 pages of handwritten notes. I started drawing a couple of times, and at one point, she grabbed the pen she had loaned me and put it quickly in her purse, saying, “I work with words John, not pictures – no cheating.”

She was really able to draw it out of me and I was suitably impressed with her questions. Lesley has a unique way of making you feel important, and it wasn’t until the next day, when walking through NBC and finding out that EVERYONE knew her, and that she knew people like Michael Jordan, John Madden, Brett Favre and Mick Jagger that I realized that she was quite famous – being married to someone else I had never heard of named Dick Stockton. 

Leslie Visser and Dan Wienstein

After spending time with Ted, Danny, Lesley, and Steve Lawrence, our producer, I headed into the rink for the U.S. practice. It was a weird de ja vu to be back in that environment – the big rink, the lights, the pressure evident on all the skaters faces. I felt some of the old tension return, even finding myself starting to stretch over the rail like the old days until I caught myself… 

Eric Heiden: Eric was at the rink and we starting reliving my visit with him back in 1986. We talked about his work at University of California in Sacremento (Eric is a doctor and specializes in sports medicine, and in particular, in testing.) I asked him about advances in testing and in particular about the V02 and max power test I had to undergo back in my days. He, predictably, stated that testing was now possible without bringing the athlete to the black edge of maximal effort. 

He then chided me about my hill climbing ability when I visited him, and I shared a bit of my story about strengths and weaknesses. We ended up having a fairly intense discussion about training and optimizing preparation for athletics. I talked about “race your strengths, train your weaknesses” and he talked about how they are trying to use testing to develop programs based on testing to do exactly that. It was really rewarding to be able to bring my work life back to skating, as I’ve been doing so much of the reverse of late. 

Race #1: Apolo and Ahn…  What a disappointment. Day one was supposed to be a big one for NBC with Bode Miller, Apolo, and Shawn White (snowboarding) all going for, and hopefully winning gold. Unfortunately Bode finished 6th or so, and then Apolo was eliminated after a slip in the semi final.  Only Shawn pulled through the first day.  

My job is pretty low key – I sit in the booth next to Danny and Ted and type notes on my laptop that they almost never read – they are too busy and in the moment. (Picture – Notes)   

Working the booth - myself, Dan Wienstein, Ted Robinson

  I also note any activity for replays, but again, the camera crew usually has that ready to roll. Probably in the 3 hours the first night, maybe 5 or 6 things that I noted made air.    

Keeping stats for shorttrack

Subsequent to day one, I’ve had a lot free time for the family – walking around, eating, drinking coffee, walking more, eating more and so on. 

Preview - Newsletter #5: coming soon! 

 -John     

john k coyle

john coyle

Torino #3: Departure

Torino Newsletter #3, February 5, 2006: Departure  Travels and travails:

I finally received my tickets and credential just a week in advance of my trip. I was beginning to wonder if NBC had changed their mind as I had not received any communications from for a couple of months. Meanwhile, I finally gave in and committed to the egregiously overpriced apartment in downtown Torino for my wife, daughter, and friends. It appears to be just a block or two from the medals ceremony plaza, right across from the hockey rink and only a mile to the short track rink. When they are not there I’ll be staying at the Riberi media village which appears to be close by as well. 

My friend Bill is coming over on the 18th and we have not yet found any housing for him. He didn’t seem all that worried and I figured out why last night when he sent me an email, “I guess I’ll have to sleep on your floor.” I wrote back with the daunting news, “You have to have a credential to get into the media village…” I’m sure I’ll find him something in the two weeks I’ll be there before he arrives.   

LONG TRACK UPDATE:  Men: Derek Parra (Gold, Silver 2002), Kip Carpenter (Bronze 2002), Chad Hedrick, Casey Fitzrandolf (Gold 2002 – from Verona, WI), Joey Cheek, Casey Boutiette, Tucker Fredericks, Shani Davis (not pictured),Women: Chris Witty (Gold 2002), Catherine Raney, 3, 4, 5, Amy Sannes, Jennifer Rodriguez, and Elli Ochowicz 

Torino 2006 Long Track Team

A little detail on some of the athletes – in order – the ones that I know: (Not pictured) Not pictured here is a good friend of mine Chris Callis. Chris was 5th at the Olympic trials for the 1000m race, bested by Casey Fitzrandolf (gold medalist), Shani Davis (last year’s world champion and world record holder, Joey Cheek (this year’s world champion), and Chad Hedrick (world record holder in 1500m, 5000m, and 10,000m). Chris is a medal contender, yet didn’t make the team – that’s how tough the competition is, and how strong this team is. 

Derek Parra: Derek is an anomaly in the sport in many ways: small (5’ 4”) in a sport of giants, old (well, 35), and from Florida. Derek was the golden boy of 2002, with a surprise victory in the 1500, and a silver in the 5000. Derek barely, barely made the team this year. He is in an apparently very painful divorce with his wife. I wouldn’t count him out though – he has a lot of heart, and slower ice probably will favor his stature. Derek and I know each other reasonably well. I remember a party I went to once with him and his then fiance’. He was dressed as a pimp and she, well, she had her role as well. They were hysterical. 

 Kip Carpenter: Kip skates the fastest laps in the world – hands down. And he looks really cool doing it – he has a leaned over, stretched out style that really captures your attention – he just looks fast. If Kip had a faster “opener” – the first 100meters of the 500m race, he’d be winning everything. I’ve known Kip, and older brother Cory forever – they are from Michigan and I used to hang out with him and his brother on occasion starting when Kip was this tiny little fast thing – at age 7 or so.  Kip skated short track for a couple of years, and I actually coached him and his brother (and Casey Fitzrandolf) on the same short track team for a U. S. Olympic festival back in the 90’s. At that meet, Cory crashed, got shook up, and started skating the wrong way on the track and collided full speed, head to head with another skater and was knocked out cold. It was really, really ugly – you could hear the skulls crack together and the whole place (Houston Astrodome) went silent. Their mom went absolutely hysterical, and I had to physically keep her from moving Cory’s limp body while the paramedics took control. It was the worst crash I witnessed in all my years of short track.  After that year, Cory switched to long track and Kip followed the season after that.  

Chad Hedrick: Chad is a convert from inline skating and is just a motor. His technique still is not 100%, so he’s only going to get faster as technique is almost everything in the sport. I don’t know Chad very well – I think he converted from inline my last year skating. Chad is favored in the 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m for gold and has an outside shot in the 1000m. He also qualified in the 500m but does not have a chance for a medal – no Heiden repeat here – no one will ever be able to do that again… 

Eric Heiden: Speaking of Heiden, he is the team doctor for both long track and short track. Apparently, in order for me to use the workout facilities anywhere in Italy, I need a doctor’s note – I’ll be asking Eric for mine. In terms of what Eric did back in 1980 – I feel quite confident in saying that no one will ever do it again. Winning the 500m – an explosive sprint event lasting just over 30 seconds, and winning the 10,000m – a grueling 6 mile endurance event – and everything in between is just, well, impossible. It would be like Carl Lewis winning the 100m, and then going on to win the 800m, the mile, the 5K and the 10K. Can’t be done. Eric and I go way back to 1980 – where I met him for the first time when we both competing at the national cycling championships in San Diego (I was 11), and then on to the mid 80’s, where we both raced for the 7-11 cycling team (which became the U.S. Postal and now Discovery team). In 1986, Eric was at Stanford getting his doctorate, and the University placed me with him in the “pro-fro” (prospective freshman) program for a week visit at the end of my senior year in high school. He had (and still has) a house in the hills above campus, and for 9 days, we rode mountain bikes with his 7-11 cycling team cronies, watched movies, talked Hollywood dirt with his then girlfriend Tracy Kristofferson (daughter of Kris Kristofferson) and even took a 5 mile “jog” into Candlestick Park football stadium at the end of a game for an “errand”, holding a meeting with a solitary Joe Montana out back of the lot where Eric dropped off whatever he had to give him (can’t remember what it was). Of course, this momentous occasion was lost on me because I didn’t know anything about sports – I vaguely knew the name, and it wasn’t until I watched a late night “football highlights” program a couple years ago that I realized that I saw a very, very famous Joe Montana at the height of his game in a darkened gravelly parking lot right after a game. I’m sure I struck a suitably unimpressed posture… 

So my parents called on the last night during my visit with Eric back in 1986 and asked me how I liked campus and they were oddly infuriated when I mentioned we hadn’t quite made it over to the Stanford campus yet. We took a quick drive through on the way to the airport the next morning and it all worked out when I started as a freshman the following fall. 

Casey Fitzrandolf: Better know as “Fitz” as all the skaters call him, Casey is just a regular real nice guy. Somewhere inside must be a competitive fire, but he’s all calm and quiet when you talk to him. He actually reminds me of Paul Deutsch in many ways. Casey was a decent short track speedskater, but when he made the switch back to long track in the mid 90’s, he exploded onto the long track scene. Casey won the gold in 2002 for the 500m. He has a medal shot in the 500m and the 1000m but given the fact that the margins between 1st and 10th will be only a few hundredths, it is hard to predict a repeat. He recently placed 4th at the Sprint World Championships. Casey is from Verona, and his dad is a referee. 

Shani Davis: Shani is an incredible athlete – winning the overall “all around” (multi distance) world championships last year and second the year before. Where Kip always looks like he is going fast, Shani manages to look like it is all slow and easy – even as he goes on to win again and again. Shani is not the first black speedskater on the international level – but he certainly is the most famous. Shani is fairly shy and retiring – and is very good friends with Apolo. Most won’t remember it, but Shani, Apolo, and Rusty Smith were involved with a fairly controversial situation with another skater – Tommy O’hare in the Olympic trials for short track in 2002. Basically what happened was that in the final race, Apolo and Rusty chose not to pass Shani in the fading laps of the last race, guaranteeing a spot on the team for Shani, and taking Tommy’s Olympic spot away from him. There were lawsuits and arbitration (I sat on the council) but ultimately the case was “unprovable” and the results stayed the way they were and Tommy did not get to go to the Olympics. 

On a side note, as some of you know, I had two contracts for the Olympics offered to me – one with the camera crew, and one in the broadcast booth. Utimately, I chose the broadcast booth, and immediately called Tommy, who took the camera crew job. Certainly not the same as competing, but at least I could help provide Tommy a route to the Olympics in another function.

Joey Cheek: I know Joey a bit – we trained together a little at the Petit Center my last year skating. Joey won the 500 meters and the overall World Sprint Championships last Sunday in 35.09. He’s going to be a medal threat.

Chris Witty: I’ve known Chris for a long, long time. She was at my first Colorado testing camp in 1990 – I particularly remember one time we climbed a hillside of loose shale together – no one else was willing to “risk” it, and we “skied” down it. I was impressed as she was very young (14?) at the time. Who knew she was going to become the lean mean fighting machine she is today. Chris won the 1000m gold in 2002. Her brother Mike and I are old friends, and the family has been in skating forever – they live in the Milwaukee area.

Elli Ochowicz: I don’t know Elli very well – I’ve talked to her a couple of times. What is most notable to me about Elli is her lineage, and how closely tied her roots are to my skating and cycling history. Elli’s mother is Sheila Young – gold, silver and bronze medal winner in 70’s Olympics. Sheila was also a multiple world champion winner in cycling. Elli’s father is Jim Ochowicz – team manager for the 7-11/U.S. Postal team that I used to race for and that Lance raced for in the tour. Jim is featured prominently in Lance’s book It’s Not About the Bike. Jim was my cycling team manager from 1985 – 1987 when I quit the team to attend Stanford. 

One step back though – Sheila’s parents, and Elli’s grandparents, Dorothy and Clair Young, were riding a tandem bike on a 100 mile tour back in 1976, and saw an 8 year old struggling to finish his 10th or 13th “century” ride of that summer (me). They suggested I race, and helped me register for my first bike race that August of 1977 in Dearborn Michigan. Clair remained a coach and friend of the family – to this day, and Dorothy designed and made all my uniforms until I made my first traveling team in 1985. Clair Young and Mike Walden (of the “race your strengths, train your weaknesses” fame) were great friends, former competitors and contemporaries.

Elli shares Sheila’s fast twitch muscles and will be world and Olympic champion some day I suspect.

Preview - Newsletter #4:I have not quite finished my short treatise of the sport of short track – hopefully I’ll finish that for the next newsletter and before the racing starts. I’ll also try to write about what it is like preparing for my role and some of the personalities. Also if I have any athlete celebrity run-ins I’ll capture that as well (there have been several already : )) 

-John

john coyle

john k coyle

Torino #2: Preparation for the trip

Newsletter #2, Jan 15, 2006: Prep for the Trip - Travels and travails: I finally committed to buying the flight tickets for my family and my wife's friend and daughters. They have a pretty good schedule - Madison - Chicago - Brussels - Torino. About 15 hours each way with 2 short layovers. A 5 year old, 4 year old, and a 7 month old - looks to be challenging : ).  I'm still looking for housing. So far I've found a 3 star motel 32 miles away for $250/night - per person (!), and a one bedroom apartment in the city for $300/day. The USA hockey coach is willing to sublet his apartment for $130/day during the period, but a friend of mine has dibs already. If his girlfriend doesn't go, then we'll take that option - only 4 blocks from the arena. 

UPDATE: U.S. Olympic short track team selection is final Here's a picture of the team: from left to right - Men: Apolo Ohno, Alex Izykowski, Anthony Lobello, J.P. Kepka, Rusty Smith.  Ladies:  Allison Baver, Kimberly Derrick, Hyo-Jung Kim, Caroline Hallisey, Maria GarciaSide note - Apolo and Allison are an "item" (sorry ladies) 

The Media Crew: NBC recently issued a press release regarding the "talent" supporting the broadcast - unfortunately as a researcher/analyst, I don't officially qualify as "talent". Here's your crew though http://www.usspeedskating.org/Torino%20Schedule%20and%20Talent%20Announcement.pdf 

Short Track - a primer - volume 1: I've been working on a sport summary for Ted Robinson and the short track crew to try and truly describe what it feels like to skate short track. I've attached a snippet from that. I'll send the whole thing in the next newsletter: 

What does it feel like? Remember those times of walking on slick, wet ice - to your car across frozen puddles, or down the sidewalk after a freezing rain?  

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

An 18" 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 18 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 brute force (sheer power) and ballet (no wasted motion, fluid extension to the very tips of your range).  

Now imagine that ultimate grip - no amount of effort will result in a slip - and a slow concentrated push 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 an supreme feeling of power. The controlled release of the piston-like skating strokes brings to mind the action of a hydraulic cylinder - a fluid, consistent, and powerful extension. 

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 push 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 corner blocks. The powerful motion of the crossover (corner strokes) then take over and compel the the preservation of the momentum carried into the corner.

Timed right, you'll see the powerful combination of the full extension of the left leg underneath the right leg, both blades carving firmly inro the apex of the corner.  Having two feet down (left fully extended, right placed firmly down) at that precarious moment prior to the apex block preserves the integrity of the corner and allows the skater to pivot, and then relax the arc of the corner a bit coming out - reducing the G forces and allowing multiple crossover strokes of acceleration into the straightaway.

The apex is also the center of most crashes and 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 200lb backpack. Then balance that on a 1mm wide 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 all over again.  (for a nice video of short track visit this site http://www.worldshorttrack.com/features/special/031201_thisis.asp ) 

Preview - Newletter #3: I'll probably send one more before I leave and then hopefully report some info live from Italy. I'll call out some of the skaters from other countries to watch.

Torino #1: The Road to Torino

Newsletter #1, December 21, 2006: The Road to Turino  Travels and travails:  Making reservations is always stressful: I finally reserved airline flights for my wife and daughter yesterday - they will be traveling in for the middle week of the Olympics and will be in town to attend 2 of the 5 race events for short track speedskating. Shannon and Katelina will be joined by her friend Julia and her two daughters Anya and Lydia. Julia speaks some Italian and will provide the group some comfort when the language barrier presents itself (as I will be traveling in alone a week earlier than them) 

Background on the Skaters: (the women's team is pretty much all new since I retired) Apolo Ohno - the little guy with the soul patch on his chin who put short track on the map in 2002, he is probably one of the most naturally gifted speedskaters in the world. His balance and timing are impeccable, and he wins not through gargantuan "take the lead early" efforts, but through clever movements through the pack, using the draft of the skaters in front and saving his energy for the final bolt to the line. 

My experience: Apolo's first national team trials were in 1995 when I was at the top of my form - and he was an unknown punk kid of 12. In 1997, he won the trials - at age 14 shocking all of us with his natural talents. In 1998 I joined him on the sidelines when I didn't make the olympic team. In 1999 he got his act together and has been at the top of the sport since. In the 2002 Olympics he won several medals including a gold in the 1000 meters after a Korean skater was disqualified after finishing first. He's pretty quiet and shy, but at the same time carries himself with some presence that some dismiss as attitude. We know each other reasonably well, and his father and I talk at the races. 

Rusty Smith - the "old guy" on the team at 27 years old - (like me in my final few years.) Rusty is an able competitor in all distances  - just like Apolo. Rusty won a bronze at the 2002 games in a heartbreaker - he led the entire 500m race until the last few lap where he was caught from behind at the last minute.  

My experience: Rusty and I go way back to my undergraduate years at Stanford in California. I used to go down to Los Angeles for races occasionally, and there was this loud mouthed snot nosed kid from L.A. named Rusty always hanging around, talking and talking. Rusty made his first team in 1996 – one of the the last years I traveled with the team. He's a bit brash and not shy at all, but a fierce competitor with a good heart. I like Rusty a lot. 

Alex Izykowski - I don't know much about Alex's skating - he's young and fairly new to the team My Experience: Alex is pretty new to the team. He's from Michigan - where I grew up, so we have that in common. I think I know his parents. 

JP Kepka - JP is wicked fast in the 500 meters and is fun to watch skate. His endurance is not the best for the longer events, though he skates a good 1000m. My experience: I coached JP when he was an 8 year old kid at a camp at the Petit Center and he had great form even then.  

UPDATE: U.S. Olympic team trials - results: The U.S. Speedskating Short Track Olympic trials have finished day 3 of 4 up in Marquette Michigan. As of today: Apolo Ohno leads the men, and Hyo Jung Kim (she goes by Halie) leads the women - both with commanding leads. In fact, Apolo has it wrapped up after day 3 (157 points vs. 53.5 points for second place Alex Izykowski) Even if he didn't skate today, no one could pass him. Rusty Smith is in third (52.5 points), with Anthony Lobello in 4th (42 points).J.P. Kepka is currently in 5th. His strong 500 should get him back in the 500 over Anthony Lobello - who won the previous 500 due to a crash. This would be preferable for the relay team as JP is more experienced and has faster top speed (when he is on he has incredible lap times).  

If you would like to watch final two races of the Olympic trials, you can sign up for a live webcast starting tonight at 6:30pm. The link can be found at http://www.usspeedskating.org  Based on the results thus far, the the relay team for the men might be: Apolo Ohno, Alex Izykowski,Rusty Smith,J.P. Kepka with an alternate of Anthony Lobello - likely -  or Jordan Malone or Travis Bedford could sneak into the top 5. 

Preview - Newletter #2: I've been working on a description of the sport, tactics, rules, and "what it feels like" that I'll send out with the next update.