Vancouver Journal #12: Days, Places and Faces

Vancouver Journal #12: Days, Places and Faces closingA week ago today and I was entering BC place to “work” closing ceremonies. Donning a white jumpsuit and a radio, I was one of just a handful that were allowed on the field with the athletes. My job? A “spotter” – I was to identify where key athletes were sitting for the cameras during the ceremony, and then, during the concert following, bring them over for interviews. I had three main athletes to find: Apolo Ohno, Alex Bilideau (first Canadian Gold medal winner) and Ryan Miller (the USA Hockey team goalie). Fred Gaudelli, our producer, had been selected to produce the closing ceremonies and penciled me in for this role as a bit of a thank you. Fred is awesome.

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

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

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

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Scene: BC Place stadium – closing ceremonies

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

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cdG5-4nXXo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

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 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