How to Make Short Track Speedskating Popular...in 8 Steps:

I spent the weekend watching some of the world's great athletes participate in one of the most exciting, dangerous, unpredictable and absolutely unknown Olympic sports on the planet. I scratched my head wondering, "How is it that car racing, baseball, figure skating, volleyball, even curling - are so much more popular than short track speedskating?!"

 So, as the action oriented, evil marketing genius that I am I decided I would go ahead and do something about it... Here's my plan:

 How to make Short Track Speedskating Popular... in 8 Steps:

October 22, 2008 - For Immediate Release: I have decided to nominate myself as International Speedskating’s marketing & PR guru, and furthermore have appointed myself as Apolo Anton Ohno’s sole agent and handler.

As these positions are both unpaid and voluntary, my plans to use Apolo’s fame for my own devices cannot be construed as exploitation…

 Following the golden rule of PR (“the only thing worse than bad publicity, is no publicity”), and leveraging the genius of the forerunners like Michael Phelps, David Beckham, John McEnroe & in particular Tonia Harding, who have changed the landscape of their sports, I’m taking the liberty of carving out a marketing and PR strategy for speedskating and its face-man Apolo that I'm certain will be quite successful. That is, assuming Apolo does the decent thing and follows my advice.

 Using the case studies of other athletes and sports as a rule (Examples in parenthesis) we can map out a strategy for making short track speedskating the next NASCAR, the next women’s soccer, the next beach volleyball…

 Apolo, if you could just initial our contract below, here's what I'll need you to do:

 Rule #1: (Example: David Beckham- Posh Spice/Soccer, Lance Armstrong-Sheryl Crow/Cycling.) Apolo, I’m going to need you to please date a major celebrity.

  • It would be best if it were an “on again, off again” affair in order to generate headlines
  • Romantic spats are best played out, resolved, and photographed during major competitions in order to bring more notoriety to the sport – but don’t let it affect your skating.
  • I’ve selected some options: Julianne Hough, Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Salma Hayek, Scarlett Johansson. My personal affinities had something nothing to do with this list.

Rule #2: (Example: Selleck/Volleyball, Kobe Bryant/Swimming) I’m going to need you to help us recruit a major celebrity as a recurring and visible fan.

  • Paul Neuman and Rudy Guliani were both fans – too bad they are both dead…
  • This contractual element may combined with rule #1…

Rule #3: (Example: May-Treanor/Beach Volleyball) Apolo, I’m going to need you to wear a skin-tight outfit for competitions, and then appear on Dancing with the Stars.

  1. Check – good job. Finally following directions…
  2. Getting injured might have helped, though I think winning was even better…

Rule #4: (Corollary to rule #3) Apolo, I’m going to need you to become a girl…

  1. Baver or Reutter have to consistently win more races in order to take your place…so for the good of the team...
  2. There is precedence for this in the sport… a short trip to Thailand and… 

Rule #5: (Example: Armstrong/Cycling, Everyone in Baseball/Baseball) Apolo, I’m going to need you to become involved in a doping scandal without a clear resolution 

  1. It all starts with an unfounded accusation. Let me start, “Apolo Anton Ohno uses steroids”. There – its out there – all the search engines should pick this up. We are on our way…Google, do your magic.
  2. It would be best (and this contract will be null and void otherwise) that no truly viable evidence is found to convict – but just enough circumstantial evidence and out-of-context quotes need to be provided at appropriate intervals to keep the conspiracy theories alive.

Rule #6: (Example: John McEnroe/Tennis, Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan/figure skating) Apolo, I’m going to need you to plan an attack on Hyun-soo Ahn's knee (and maybe date Tania Harding and get her to do it? I love combining steps) and also start having tantrums after every referee call. Done properly we could potentially rope North Korea into this somehow for an "international event." 

  1. Seriously – after all that happened in the 2002 Olympics, all you can say is “That’s shorttrack?!”
  2. Is waving your blades around menacingly a jail-able offense? It might be worth the jail time and court case as long as you don’t lose too much training time – lets discuss.(See Simone Velzaboer)

Rule #7: (Example: Michael Phelps/Swimming) Apolo, I’m going to need you to win the most medals -ever - in the sport The most ever in the U.S. for speedskating is Bonnie Blair w/ 6. (Next year, man…finally one up Blair - her humility is so annoying)

  1. The most gold in one winter games in speedskating is Eric Heiden (Um… not an option – you only have 4 events per Olympics – maybe you could moonlight on longtrack?)
  2. The most ever in the winter Olympics is Bjorne Dahle with 12 (8 gold, 4 silver… please continue skating until the 2018 Games... OR... see rule #8) 

Rule #8: (Example, the frozen margerita) Apolo, I’m going to need you to change short track to become a summer sport:

  1. Unlike skiing, snowboarding and a myriad of other winter sports, indoor ice rinks don’t tend to be tourist destinations. There are no skating resort-towns. The reality is we are asking spectators to travel to cold climates only to go into artificially cooled environments – more often than not in industrial parks. A recipe for success? No, I don't think so.
  2. Seriously – when was the last time a short track event was held outside? 1970? Its time to move the sport to its rightful place in the summer Olympics and make it the cool respite from all those other outdoor, sunburned summer sports. If you want crowds, move the season to summer and serve margaritas.
  3. The fact that I personally spent 16 years of my life traveling in the winter to cold climates during the shortest days of the year with no sunlight only to freeze under fluorescent lights has nothing to do with this particular recommendation. Nor does the fact that I still follow the sport and would benefit from taking my breaks from announcing or providing stats outside, say, at the surf break on Biondo beach in Sydney, or the Coliseum in Athens…rather than on the frozen banks of the river Po, or the cold damp skies of Vancouver…

APOLO FOR SHORT TRACK IN LONDON 2012! (AND CHICAGO 2016!)

 

2008 Short Track World Cup Day 1 (October 18)

Speedskating is an odd sport. Teams travel half the globe in order to compete in the world cup, and, if their first races don't go well, can find themselves finished after the first day and only 1 or 2 races. Hence the the repechage round - a sort of "wildcard berth" opportunity was invented to provide these skaters with a chance to move back into the main event.

It was announcing these heats and qualifiers that we spent our time in the morning - from 10am until nearly 2pm. The good news was twofold: Charles Ryan Leveille was the only American in the rep round (everyone else qualified) and he was one of the elite few to make it through all the rounds and back into the main event.

After lunch with Kori Novak (who leads US Speedskating marketing efforts) and Nick Gismondi (NBC Universal Sports announcer/producer) there was time for a short break and then back to the main events - the men's and women's 1000m and 1500m semi finals and finals.

Women's Races:

Baver skated solidly and moved into the 1500m final where she finished fourth after a last minute pass where Yang from Korea took away her medal spot. Kimberly Derrick followed up with a bronze medal finish in the 1000m after Liu from China was disqualified. Both ladies look fit and lean and well trained and skated up front and aggressively. Both seem to miss that special kick the Koreans and Chinese seem to save for those last ditch efforts - but wisely try to control the races to serve their strengths.

In the rely semifinals, the Chinese women destroyed the world record by almost 3 seconds and team USA finished not far behind the old record but more than a half lap down on the Chinese. Nonetheless, they are in the finals tomorrow with China, Korea, and Canada.

Men's Races:

In a rare event I can't remember ever seeing in my experience, team USA had 3 skaters in the men's 1500 A final. Charles Ryan Leveille clawed his way back up through round after repechage round to regain a medal shot in the final, Travis Jayner put on the turbos in his semi to blast for 5th to 2nd with a magnificent move in the semi finals, and Jeff Simon skated some of the most interesting and turbulent races of the day yet still making the medal round.

It was with some dismay we watched and called a race where 2 of the 3 Americans - with an opportunity to dominate the race - sat in the far back. Leveille and Jayner sat in 6th and 7th and wasted their medal opportunity. Simon hung tough and scratched out a rough and tumble bronze.

And then it was Ohno time. I had heard he was fit, I had heard he was fast, I had seen he was lean - slimmer than the guy we used to call "chunk" has ever been. And he was hot - moving through the quarters and semis with those bursts of power and coordination that few in the sport have ever been able to master. Then, suddenly, with 3 or 4 laps to go in the final event, while potentially setting up one of those 'Apolo moves' he was down hard into the boards - perhaps stepping on a block, and it was a Korea  with a 1-2-3 finish.

The evening ended with the men's 5000 meter relay semi finals -my favorite event in sport - and drama abounded in both semis - but team USA put together a solid relay and finished just behind the Korean team. Apolo looked tentative on his right, Lobello and Jayner were solid if uninspired, and Simon continued to be a lightning rod (similar to the individual competition) for danger. Still, he matched Apolo for big moves in putting team USA into qualifying position and, joining Korea, Canada, and a surprise Russia, will be in the finals tomorrow night.

Its now 2:30am and time to get some sleep - up early to announce the heats and repechage for tomorrows events.

2008 Short Track World Cup #1, Salt Lake City: What are the 'rules' of short track?

Flying out this afternoon to announce the first short track world cup competition of the year in Salt Lake City, along with my compatriots from last year Carl Roepke and DJ Paul Helms. Should be a blast. So, you might ask, what is this short track thing all about - seems a very dangerous and unpredictable sport..

Here's a summary of the sport from an insider's perspective:

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: 111.12 meters in length.

 

Add a few speedskaters in their skin tight multi-colored suits racing for the finish line – like track and field or horse racing – and the simple format is complete.  The 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), 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 disqualification in the 1000 meter heats to the semi finals. Self admittedly the slowest skater in those semi-finals, he proceeded to win that race - after all the other skaters crashed, placing him in the finals and into the medal round. Then again in the finals, while pacing off the back of a pack of top ranked USA, Korean, and Canadian skaters, Bradbury managed to avoid disaster and come across the line first – again not through his own merits – rather through the misfortune of the leading skaters. The gold medal was his – even though his efforts in all the preceding rounds suggested those of a non-contender.

 

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

 

Analogies

 

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

 

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

 

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

  

What does it feel like?

 

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 icy puddle, or the instant when you regained traction after passing back underneath the porch roof? To a speedskater, that is exactly what it feels like to be on ice with our long blades – it is feeling of traction and grip, stability and power.

 

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

 

Granted, the motion is sideways – like tacking in the wind with a sailboat - but the 17 inch blade is like yards of canvas gathering wind: the lateral forces are released in a tangential motion and converted to forward speed smoothly yet powerfully. Each stroke on the ice is a combination 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 blocks.

 

The powerful motion of the crossover (corner strokes) then take over and compel 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 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 change of direction back toward the far end of the rink, and then relax the arc of the corner a bit through the latter half – reducing the G forces and allowing multiple crossover strokes of acceleration into the straightaway. The apex block is also the focal point of most crashes and many disqualifications. At the point of the turn the muscles of the body are stressed to the max – imagine squatting down to a 90 degree bend on one leg… holding it, and then putting on a 150lb backpack (the additional pressure provided by the 2G acceleration of the turn). Then balance all of that on a 1mm blade…

 

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

 

Is it hard?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

2) Imagine squatting down – all the way down, sitting on your heels. Then extend one leg straight out – kind of a Russian dancer stance. Now imagine lifting the heel of the extended leg up off the ground, and then 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, timing, alignment of weight and effort, and subtle coordination of a series of heretofore unused muscles in the abdomen, hip, knee, and ankle to ensure that the powerful compressed stroke passes evenly sideways without interruption or slippage.

 

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

 

The only exception to this hard and fast rule is the relatively recent crossover of in-line 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, the din centered around American Kathy Turner and the women’s races. In 2002 the men took on their fare share of the controversies.

 

In 1994 the protest and accusations swirled around American Kathy Turner and her skating en-route to winning gold in the 500m in the face of an early collision with Natalie Lambert of Canada in the heats, and then Zhang Yanmei in the final – claiming 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 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 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.

 

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

 

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

 

It sure is.

 

 

2008 Short Track Nationals: apparently I don't suck THAT much as an announcer...

I was invited to announce the national short track championships over the weekend at the Petit Center in Milwaukee, WI. My co-announcer, Jeff Brand, let it slip shortly before I headed up that he has announced over 100 meets and I was forced to confess I've announced only 1 - granted it was a biggie. The days were long and the rink was cold. Something about the Petit Center I can't figure out. Now matter how you dress, the longer you are inside, the more the chill creeps into your bones. Then, even when you leave, it oozes outward - leaving you shivering despite the hot shower, or heat on high in the car. This and it is probably 50 degrees in there - perhaps it is the humidity?

Some of the top skaters not at the world championships were present - Ryan Bedford, Travis Jayner, Alex Izychowski to name a few, and the races were impressive - 16 national records set on not the world's fastest ice. I did my best to try and spice of the announcing and get some audience participation with only mixed results. Its easier with a few thousand spectators than a couple hundred parents involved in getting their skaters ready. My favorite intros were the midget and pony categories as they tended to showboat a bit on the "big stage" of the nationals.

Meanwhile, Apolo Ohno and Shani Davis continued their winning ways - with Apolo winning the overall world title, and Shani winning yet another 1000 meter individual distance world championship. Jeff Simon - still healing from his broken collar bone - managed a 4th place finish in the 500m as well.

One of the highlights of the weekend for me was also one that at least one of the officials found upsetting. I had gotten wind 'whispers' in the locker room from the American Cup men's finalists - and sure enough on one of the last finals of the meet, the American Cup 1500 A super final, the 6 boys on the line decided to pull a little stunt.

Fred Benjamin called them to the start, and as J.R. Celski, Kyle Carr, Kyle Uyehara, Chris Creveling, Kyle Carr, and Travis Jayner crouched over, poised in perfect racing stance, he shot the gun and... nothing happened. No one moved a muscle.

 It was dead silent for a good 3 or 4 seconds before everyone got the joke. They stood for a good 10 seconds before skating forward and thats when an angry Benjamin shot the gun again and called them back, chastizing them and giving them all a false start. It was surprising though - for 25 years of racing - the gun goes off, and the skaters skate - to not see them go - it was, well... I think everyone was just confused for a moment - "did my ears deceive me?"  It was hilarious...

 Chastened - only a few of them put on a superhero pose at the line for the second start - clearly there were more plans in the works... but they eventually began racing.

 Other highlights were catching up with old friends Jen Butterfield (and husband Tim), Olu and Brenda, Paul Marchese and Pieter Dykstra, Goskowicz, Kooreman, Wilma Boomstra, Amy Peterson, John Diemont, Haj Sano and many others. It just goes to prove - the best way to get a group of diverse people to bond is through mutual suffering - between the long days and chilly temperatures, travel, and noise there was a sense of belonging in the group of officials, judges, parents, and athletes. As usual, sleep was in short supply as several of us decided to go watch Olu Sijuwade play his father's 45 year old sax in a stirring performance of soul, jazz and poetry along with other artists and poets.

The fact that we would lose an hour that night to daylight savings, and that the races started early was not lost on any of us - yet we went anyway, settling for a couple hours of sleep in return for a night of great music in an intimate venue.

 During the long weekend I also announced the masters national championships. Was it just coincidence that just days earlier I had skated (in my work clothes) some fast laps with Denton Frederick "to help him train?" I haven't sharpened my skates since the 1998 Olympic trials 10 years ago - but putting in a 10.1 second lap wasn't that hard... I'm reasonably certain I could still skate a couple low 9's....

Having read Andrew Love's blog... and met world masters's champion Marty Ohaire - is there at least one more speedskating competition in my future? Only time will tell...

 -John

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

Men's results: Apolo fans got and eyefull and earful on this final day of racing here at the Utah Olympic Oval. Wearing the usual red bandana under his helmet, Apolo led the team in overall results by winning the men's 1000m final in a finish that can only be described as "typically bizarre" - with 2 of the four skaters going down with 4 laps to go, and then a cat-and-mouse between Apolo and Lee from Korea.  Apolo led as the "mouse" in the final few laps, zigging outside the lane markers and slowing up - luring his prey to take the lead, and then when Lee failed to take the bait, he put on the afterburners and easily made it home to the line in first. Despite the fact that Ahn - Apolo's main nemesis from Korea - was not here, I don't think I've ever seen Apolo skating better - and today he didn't mess around in the back like yesterday - leading out his quarter and passing earlier in his semi to easily qualify.

Rumours of the supposed visit of his dancing with the stars partner Julianne swirled right up until the moment when the national anthem was played by my partner in the booth, Paul "Gain Master" Helms.  Oh, a funny aside - starting day 2, I demanded that every single time Paul Stanley from Great Britain stepped on the ice, that Paul queue up "I Want to Rock and Roll All Night" by Kiss. I'm not sure he ever noticed, but we got a good laugh out of it. Paul was a lot of fun and we got to a point where when I would announce the race results we would have a seemless transition back to the music by using the key word, "Unofficially" - e.g. "...finishing in second, unofficially" - (queue music.)

Jeff Simon continued to wow in the men's 500m - that is until hitting the boards hard in the 500m quarters after taking over the lead, and proceeding to break his collarbone. Talking with team doctor Eric Heiden after, Heiden suggested it would only be a few weeks before Jeff could start skating again - unsure of whether he'll be able to skate at the world championships in March.

Simon Cho and J.P. Kepka skated well, ultimately ending up 3rd and 4th in the B final. Kepka's blades continue to be a problem.

Ladies Results:  Reutter - the young prodigy on the women's team continued to impress, skating probably the single best 1000m race I've ever witnessed on our ladies team in the semis. As things heated up, Katherine displayed a precocious sense of presence, decisively moving into 2nd and qualifying position with several laps to go and then "sensing" movements up the inside and outside, heading them off, while spurring the Chinese lead skater to pick up the pace. To an outsider it was probably a fairly straightforward race,  but as an insider, I can tell you that few have that 'gift' of being able to read a race like she displayed. The fact that they both broke the old world record (unofficially) was another indication of her rising talent.

Again in the final Katherine was tenacious, again following world cup leader Meng to a second place finish - her second silver medal of the competition.

Relays: In the relay finals, our boys went down early (again) and Kepka seemed super tentative. Apolo was working it really hard but they were unable to catch back up to the other teams.

Our ladies team fought well and finished physically in 4th, but earned a podium spot after Canada was disqualified.

 Afterparty:

A large number of the teams, skaters, and ex-skaters met downtown at "Squatter's Pub" before moving on to "The Cove". My teamates from '94 and I had dinner at Macaroni grille and then moved on to Squatters. There we hooked up with the second best U.S. relay team of all time - Rusty Smith, J.P. Kepka, & Alex Izychowski (a no-show on Apolo) and started down the usual path of ever-devolving story telling.

I love that a by-product of the vagaries of the sport of short track speedskating inevitably leads to a balancing act of off-ice pranks and general mischief that continues to this day - despite the increasing professionalism of the events, the training and the athletic regime.  At one point we captured a photo of the 14 years ago silver medal team, with the 2 years ago bronze medal relay team - with a little Scott Koons mixed in the middle (member of the 1998 team)

(picture (left to right) me, J.P., Bartz, Izychowski, Flaim, Koons, Gabel, Smith)

old-and-new-relay-teams.jpg

For me personally, the evening had several "golden moments" - perfect moments of time where time stopped and where the rhythm of the conversation bypassed the usual niceties and turned deeper - first with my teammates at dinner as we discussed our respective contributions to the team, and then later in conversations with Mike Koorman about retiring.

It was 3am by the time I closed my eyes, and 4:30am when the phone rang for my wake up call and my return to the airport for the flight back to Chicago and a full day of work.

Suffering? Yes - of the 'chosen' variety.

Worth it? Absolutely.

 -John

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

The racing last evening was fantastic. To the tune of a sold out crowd, every American qualified in their first rounds (500 quarterfinals and 1500 semis) - Jeff Simon, Apolo Ohno, Katherine Ruetter and Allison Baver - and moved on to the next round. Quarters & Semis: The first heat of quarterfinals of the evening set the tone as the women set a new world record time, taking 2 tenths of a second off of Evegenia Radinova's long standing (since 2001) record in that event.

Jeff Simon looked fantastic, winning his quarter with a blisteringly fast time not far from the world record - only a few hundredths off. JP Kepka cranked out a fast one as well and both guys moved into the semis where Kepka moved through to the final, but Simon was disqualifed after a risky move up the inside with one lap to go despite winning his semi.

Same great story in the women's 1500m semis where in a race that when from the gun - a Japanese skater setting a blistering pace as USA (Baver) and a Chinese skater followed at a careful pace closing the gap only with 4 laps to go. By the time they finished, they had surpassed the old world record by over 2 seconds, with 4 of the 6 skaters beating the old record. Allison Baver set a new U.S. record and displayed some significant fitness boding well for the finals.

Katherine Reutter - a young, fresh face from Champaign, Illinois also skated very well in her 1500m semi taking the lead multiple times to secure her spot in the finals.

Apolo hung all the way in the back of his 1500m semi, slotting up one spot with 5 laps to go and then taking the rest of the field an an easy burst of acceleration to win his semi and move into the finals.  He looked smooth, confident, powerful - but I couldn't help but wonder why Apolo doesn't play it a bit safer - perhaps he's practicing for the traffic that will likely always be a part of the finals where the skater's abilities are more even? It certainly creates suspense and is exciting but...

Finals:

In the men's 500 Kepka appeared to be having skate trouble and finished 4th.  The women's 500m had Chinese skaters in lanes 1, 2 & 3, which is also the order in which they finished and also their respective placing in the world cup overall - incredible dominance.

In the women's 1500 m final, when all was said and done both Baver and Reutter skated an amazing race - at one point leading the race 1 and 2 - something I can't remember seeing in all of my years of skating - American women in a distance event leading in a world cup. Things mixed up with about 5 laps to go and Baver got caught up on some traffic that led to a disqualification but put her out of contention for the win.

Ultimately I called to the podium Yang Zhou from China for the gold, Katherine Reutter for the silver and Allison Baver for the Bronze - two Americans on the podium.

 The crowd was very very loud and I think our announcing was lost much of the time - which is fine by me. But it only got louder as Apolo took to the line for the 1500m final. There was a lot of movement throughout the race, with Apolo playing his following act while the Korean skaters Lee and Lee (Seung-Hoon & Ho Suk) moved up earlier and ended up on the front of the race. Apolo was undaunted and waited until less than 2 laps to go, sweeping into 3rd position easily. As the bell rang Apolo set up wide for a double pass on Lee-squared and at the last minute he shut down, drifting back into 3rd and finishing there at the line. On the replays it actually looked like he had the speed to complete the pass - and either way, he was clearly the fastest man in the race and again it calls into question his tactics. Something for Jae-Su - U.S. team coach - to sort out.

Awards Ceremony: Announcing has become easier and more natural - except for the awards ceremonies. Hardly ever paying attention to the ceremony - even when I was in them - I was only given a brief outline of the order of events and was unsure of exactly what to say, or how it was orchestrated - was I calling the shots? Or were there cues I was supposed to be picking up on? I was flying solo on this one as Carl was wrapping up a puck-throw contest sponsored by Samsung.  I didn't want to screw things up and undermine the recognition and rewards for all the hard work of the skaters.

 I seemed to sort it mostly out - only getting one name wrong for the ISU representative (miscued on my cards) and establishing a rhythm to the awards - announcing the award giver, then the winner first, wait, then second, wait, third, then the flowers given by the sponsor and then, "here are your champions!"

I was nerve wracking though and I looked forward to the end of the evening and a chance to hang out - yet again - with my teammates and friends in downtown Salt Lake.

-John

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

I managed to get a decent amount of rest last night despite being out on the town with all 3 of my teammates from the 1994 Olympic games - the first time in probably 10 years that we had a chance to spend more than a few minutes together.  The evening was filled with good natured insults, stories from the road and a series of toasts.  Underneath all the verbal horseplay though, was a mostly silent acknowledgment that the bonds of this sport had forged between us. Like all great friendships it was exactly as though no time had passed, and even though the group dynamic had not happened in more than 10 years, it might have been yesterday.

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

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

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

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

 -John

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

(For those new to short track and the vagaries of this sport - check out my post under Torino Olympic Journal 2006 -  Torino #3 1/2 - its an insider's view into the sport based in some part on Apolo's own ups and downs within this turbulent but exciting world.) Its been a long, but interesting day. I arrived at the Olympic Oval at 8:30 this morning in prep for my gig as in-rink announcer for this 3 day event.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-John

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

Heading to Salt Lake City to announce the World Cup

I fly out Feb 7 and return Feb 11. My cronies from the 1994 Games will all be there: Gabel, Bartz & Flaim. Should be a good time. TV info below: (note I'm not doing TV - I'm doing the on site announcing - Andy Gabel is doing the TV)

NBC Universal will broadcast the Essent ISU World Cup Short Track event, being held in Salt Lake City at the Utah Olympic Oval February 8-10, on a tape delay basis.  The event will be made into two broadcast shows.  The first television air date is February 20 at 8:00pm for the first show and 10:00pm for the second show. There will be a repeat of the first show on February 21 at 2:30 pm. There will also be an airing on February 24 at 12:00pm and 2:00pm.

All times are EST.