Vancouver Journal #13: Beginnings and Endings

Vancouver Journal #13: Beginnings and Endings  What spark might cause a little girl to aspire to something great? What magic mixture of activities, encouragement, talent and belief combine to ignite the passion and perseverance required to become an “outlier” like an Olympic athlete?

Endings Part 1:  We knew it was over before we saw it onscreen by the thunderous roar coming from the stadium. I am a speedskater, but,  sitting outside of the closing ceremonies venue (BC Place), watching the Canada - USA gold medal hockey match on TV in the NBC commissary I couldn’t help be enthralled by the drama. The game, which had entered sudden death overtime, was being played in a venue a few hundred feet away, but was on a brief tape delay. Moments after the thunder from the stadium began, USA goalie Ryan Miller slumped face first onto the ice,  puck in the net behind him and a whole city – a whole nation - celebrated. I was happy for Canada I guess. For the U.S. it was just another medal, for Canada, it was a matter of national pride. Besides, I wanted to enjoy my final night in Vancouver.

It was the last evening of the Olympics, one last night, one last hurrah for the world’s biggest party. A few hours later I entered the stadium hosting the closing ceremonies where I would fulfill my final duties for NBC as a “spotter.” I stayed busy finding athletes for interviews and the ceremonies were of a blur until the lights dimmed and Neil Young came onstage. His voice quavered as the torch flickered and went out, and I felt a sudden rush of coldness wash over me – it really was over - tomorrow, reality would resume…

This feeling, however, was nothing in comparison to another ending exactly 12 years earlier, when friend, competitor and part time announcer Chris Needham announced my retirement from the sport of speedskating. During my time in Vancouver, I was acutely aware that many of the athletes I was spending time with were about to undergo this same transition – Ian had declared his retirement from speedskating a few months prior, and Nick Pearson announced his the day of his 7th place finish in the 1000m.

Chris Needham was here as well, having made his own declaration of retirement from the sport just a few months ago after his own failed Olympic bid, and then there was Alex. Alex Izykowski was a boy of 11 when I was lucky enough to put my medal around his neck at Steamer’s pub in Bay City Michigan. He was 23 when we reconnected after his bronze medal in Torino, and now at 27 we have become great friends. Alex was training for this – what was to be his second Olympic games - when a series of misfortunes struck; back problems emerged interrupting his training, and then, last February Alex was struck by a car while biking through an intersection on a training ride and a few torturous months later he too announced his retirement from the sport.

Like me, each one of these athletes had spent more than a decade pursuing a dream, and like me, none of them quite reached their ultimate goal. As athletes aspiring to become Olympians, the mindset is ever one of “never give up, never give in,” and the Olympic dream becomes the North Star that directs and sustains through the suffering over the years. To suddenly extinguish that light is to give up on a belief, and for a great number of serious athletes, the transition to “reality” can be cold, empty, and directionless.

To say I was devastated when I failed at my second Olympic bid and decided to retire would be an understatement.It took me 8 years, and the inspiring words of a concerned parent – Alex’s father – before I truly transitioned from athlete to Olympian. I hoped I could return the favor for Alex in much shorter order.

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Beginnings: Shannon and Katelina arrived the night before the opening ceremonies, or rather early the morning of. They were supposed to arrive at 1am, but flight delays and customs meant that they walked out of the terminal at 3:30am PST (5:30CST) and were exhausted.

Katelina is a sweet and senstitive nine year old girl. She reminds me of myself at that age: slight of build, innocent of the world, and mostly quiet and shy with periods of intensity that speak to untapped inner drives and motivations. At that age I was one year away from hating speedskating. Kat already hates it – or at least she hates the racing part… I was hoping that being at the Olympics might provide a spark of interest in sports for her.

The good news was I had managed to locate opening ceremonies tickets. In order to purchase tickets, weeks ago I had completed my taxes the very same day I received my tax documents, and I received my refund the same morning of opening ceremonies. I now had the money and had found available tickets - timing was serendipitous. Still, spending serious dollars just to watch a torch being lit?

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Talent: I have read a host of books on psychology, training, rational vs. irrational thought, happiness, strengths, and talent over the past couple of years. I’m probably somewhat of an expert on the data available in this field, but that doesn’t mean I’m an apt practitioner. To date my daughter holds speedskating races with only slightly less contempt than math classes at school. Speaking with the other parents in the USA house made it easy to confirm: more often then not, the offspring of Olympians prefer NOT to follow the same dream as their parents. Conversely, most of these parents were just like me growing up – clueless and normal… until one day…

Daniel Coyle, author, talent expert and no relation, dug deep on talent development in his highly recommended book “The Talent Code.” He expertly uses the latest neuroscience along with anecdotal and statistical data to show what most “outliers” have in common when it comes to excellence. Specifically he finds that it is the passion to pursue “deep practice” of an activity over a period of years despite the suffering it involves. This deep practice causes “myelination” – the wrapping of electric circuits in the brain that then surface as “talent.”

Daniel clearly shows how hotbeds of talent around the globe have arisen where the suffering required for “deep practice” is overcome and fueled by a concept he calls “ignition.”

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We filed into the stadium and I had no idea what to expect except that it “will be great.” It was a significant investment and I was nervous. Then it started. The lights dimmed, the crowd of 60,000 in white fell into a hush, and then a snowboarder shot down a ramp from the top of the stadium, off of a jump through the Olympic rings, and with an explosion of sound and fireworks, the opening ceremonies began.

The anthems, the singers, the lights and colors were an amazing spectacle, but through it all I was watching other eyes – I was watching Katelina. Despite an earlier pronouncement of “It sounds boring, I don’t want to go papa,” she was enthralled – eyes wide open, transfixed by the pageantry of the ceremonies - here she was, watching one of the world’s great shows preceding one of the world’s great competitive dramas. She swung her flashlights of different colors, banged on her blue cardboard drum (which became important for other reasons), watched skiers and snowboarders drop from the sky, ballet dancers pirouette onstage, a gigantic glowing polar bear rise from the floor, and a massive torch being lit. Our excellent seats were also right next to the athlete section, so I was able to point out a few Olympians I knew as well. The three hours flew by in minutes and she sat up, leaning forward throughout the entire show.

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Ignition: Why would anyone begin this irrational behavior of training for the Olympics? I say irrational because any rational analysis of the situation must include odds and outcomes. The odds for anyone to become one of the few hundred athletes at the Olympic Games are very, very low, and the odds of earning a Olympic medal are even slimmer. The silver medal we earned in 1994? In the nearly 100 years of the modern Olympic games and thousands upon thousands of athletes and competitions it was only the 52nd Winter Olympics medal ever awarded to an athlete from the United States.

Then there is the barrier of outcomes. The expected outcome for newcomer in any sport with a skill element tends to start as “poor”. In my very first speed skating race of three laps, I got lapped – meaning the leaders passed me on their third lap as I was finishing my second. I was embarrassed, horrified and 10 years old. I cried… and cried some more. I demanded to never go again to that rink (Farwell field) I demanded to never skate again, I demanded all kinds of things, but parental relationships were different then: my dad consoled me – I’m sure of that – but he also had the power to decide for me. We returned again and again and it wasn’t an option - thus incredible importance of parents. And then someone who didn’t need to helped me (Jeanne Omelenchuk) http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2008/02/08/jeanne-omelenchuk  and I got better at it, but I wasn’t yet “lit” for skating – that came later at the hands of Marc Affholter http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2008/12/24/marc-affholter/

Ignition. Even more than the breakthroughs of myelin and “outliers” and deep practice, to me the concept of “ignition” is the real magic. Yes of course: if you suffer through 10 years of dedicated focus on a specific skill and have a reasonable level of genetic talent, odds are you can become great. Fine – but we have just described almost nobody.

What is the primary difference between the talented kid who plays ball, runs, or skates for a couple of years and then moves on, distracted by “life” and all its fruits vs. the kid who focuses and abandons many of the easy joys of day-top-day living, embraces the suffering, and hence, in many cases, becomes “great.”? What makes a Bonnie Blair? A Katherine Reutter?

We know from science that repeated contact with a subject matter, a sport, instrument, or topic causes myelination – even if it is somewhat “accidental.” Over the years, circuits are developed that may lie somewhat dormant, and then, one day, through the right words, images, or circumstances, they are called upon. When this miracle of timing, confidence, and latent skill presents itself, the audience perceives “talent” and accolades suddenly form to support the activity and then “ignition” might occur.

For me it happened when I was eight years old. I was just a normal kid doing normal kid things. Then my dad bought me a bike and I started doing longer and longer bike tours with him. I didn’t know I was wrapping myelin around my circuits, strengthening the electrical impulses twitching the fibers in my mind and legs. If I was a harp, I was being strung and tuned, fiber by fiber, chord by chord. My father, like most parents, was the craftsman and tuner, and the chords were the series of 100 mile “century” rides I participated in before my 9th birthday… But the craftsman and the harpist have different roles, and more often than not, it is the expert touch of an outside hand that pulls those first pure notes from the instrument. For me, the hand whose resonant touch first activated those circuits belonged to a passing cyclist named Clair Young. http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2008/10/16/clair-young/  Suddenly I had a label. I was a “bike rider.” I said it in my head a dozen times before I said it aloud. For an 11 year old Alex Izykowski, it was the weight of an Olympic silver medal around his neck. For Meryl Davis or at least her mother, it was the realization that “if my neighbors can do this, we can do it too…”

If building experience and skill is the kindling and logs for a fire, the moment of ignition is the match. Without the match, all that preparation goes to waste. But how to light that fire? Dozens of books on psychology, training, strengths focus, neuroscience, and happiness later, and I still haven’t figured it all out, though I do have some hypotheses. What appears to have happened in each of these cases is the neuropsychological phenomena of “irrational belief” overcoming “rational thought.” More specifically it is that those athletes (and musicians and other paragons of achievement) move from “I think I can” to “(I know) I can.” And in the process of removing “I think” they have invoked belief; that irrational process that does not rely on day-to-day facts and data and instead can weather the vagaries of the day-to-day failures inherent in the pursuit of something difficult – and great.

What is belief anyway? Daniel Coyle, Malcolm Gladwell, and others have built a great case for how this mysterious substance of myelin – the gray matter of the brain – wraps neurons and can speed the processing time through the neural substrate by 1000X and hence accelerate well past the time required for “rational thought.” At its best, this myelination results in “automaticity” whereupon rational thought isn’t even required and the action becomes “instinctive” and hence gets labeled as “talent.” Tiger Woods and John McEnroe are great examples of this – trained since they were little kids they developed skill circuits beyond the levels of anyone in their game. But why did they bother to do it? They could have rebelled, could have quit.

I’ll be honest, I have no idea how ignition works. My daughter pretty much hates the idea of racing – but that is likely due to the fact that the few times she has raced, she did not win. I think I have done a decent job of helping her build skill in the areas of skating and cycling without the undue pressure of competition when she’s not yet ready (she can’t win, so for her, she’d just rather not compete - a feeling I understand completely…)

I would love for Katelina to someday have the kinds of opportunities that I have been so blessed with through my pursuit of excellence through sport…  It doesn't have to be speedskating or cycling - really it doesn't have to be sport at all. Mostly I want her to feel the positivity, direction and camaraderie shared when a group of people take on big risks for big rewards. But how? How can I as a parent help create the kindling and fuel that might someday be lit? How do I keep it fun and remove the kind of pressure to achieve that causes so many kids to rebel and quit? I worry and worry about this and grasp for answers…

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Endings Part 2: Vancouver City was described as “No Fun-couver” by its residents prior to the Olympics, and they were reticent or anxious in their unique Canadian way about the arrival of the Olympics before the start of the games. The costs, the traffic, logistics and security issues had put the local citizenship on guard… Then the torch arrived and overnight this relatively sleepy large city became party-central for the world. In speaking with tenured NBC staff and support personnel, it seems the unanimous opinion is that Vancouver truly has become the world’s best 17 day party - ever.

Earlier on the day of closing ceremonies, I was walking down Grandview by Robson (the Olympic “main drag) on the way to a meeting when I first saw them – a group of 7 or 8 young male Canadians clad in bright red body paint including their faces and hair, flags as capes, and little else other than shorts despite the 50 degree weather. “CAN-A-DA! CAN-A-DA! CANADA!”. It was only noon, but by their ragged chanting and singing it seemed likely that no small amount of Canadian beer was involved in their festivities.

There was nothing particularly unusual about passing a loud group of brightly painted, underdressed and intoxicated Canadian men - this had been par for the course for two weeks now except that A) in one hour one of the main events of the games was to start – the USA – Canada hockey showdown just few blocks away, and B) I had just overtaken 6 or 7 guys similarly underdressed, but with blue face paint and American flags chanting “USA, USA, USA!” and they were just behind me and heading this direction.

I was already at risk of being late, but I had to slow and watch the inevitable train wreck to follow as both parties had now seen each other. The chants grew more fervent and the pace picked up, and I watched the aggressive acceleration of alcohol fueled nationalism streak towards each other, their roars and chanting reaching a fever pitch. Then, like a scene from Braveheart where the Irish and Scots meet mid-battlefield the two groups suddenly slowed and came abreast. Much like a post-game hockey lineup each “team” passed by with high fives and genuine smiles before continuing their respective marches.

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After closing ceremonies finished I stopped by the USA house, but it was empty - no more medals to be awarded and most of my old and new friends already en-route for home. I left and walked one last time down Grandview and there at least the party was still on. Throngs of Canadians were celebrating the hockey win, and their best Olympics medal count ever.

As I walked back to the hotel, I passed a couple wearing USA gear. They were dodging the craziness just as I was. They smiled ruefully at me and said “I guess we should be glad they won or this walk might be more difficult.” I nodded in agreement and continued on to my hotel to pack. As I folded up my bike and stuffed my clothes into my suitcase I reflected on the previous 20 days while saving the most important items to pack for last.

A few days prior, alone for a few moments at the USA house, I looked over at Alex and asked him whether being at the Olympics as an Olympian vs. and athlete was difficult and how he was feeling about it. He turned to me, paused, and then with real clarity said something along these lines, "To be honest, I feel more blessed and lucky now - by far - than I ever did as an athlete or in Torino."

I knew exactly how he felt.

My bike and bags were packed and it was time for my 3am pickup to head to the airport. I just had one final item to put in my carry-on where it would be guaranteed to arrive home safely. This blue octagon and “Sharpie” pen had been my companions for the last week, packed safely in my backpack wherever I went. It was the cardboard drum from opening ceremonies – nothing particularly special in and of itself. But inside, I had collected the pins and tickets and keepsakes from the games for Katelina – as a scrapbook and memoir from her trip.

Perhaps more importantly, on the outside I had managed to gather, over the past week, dozens of signatures and inscriptions from Olympians and medalists from all over the world. Specifically I had asked each one to sign their name, and then write one short piece of advice for my nine year old daughter. This, oddly, proved a daunting task for these exceptional people, but everyone obliged in the end, and I carefully packed it, along with “Quatchie” – one of the Olympic mascots – into my bag and headed for the lobby – and for home.

Postscript: Last night, two weeks after my return, we took Katelina and a friend up to the Petit Center in Milwaukee – a U.S. Olympic training site, and one of only two covered Olympic size long track rinks in the country. Normally she has greeted weekly practice with disdain, but last night she couldn’t get her skates on fast enough, and immediately took off in a blaze of speed, blond tresses flying behind her. Flushed with excitement she did lap after lap on her own, wearing her little Polo USA jacket and long bladed speedskates. A half dozen kids stopped her to talk to her about her skates or how fast she was going, and breathlessly she related her excitement on the ride home. Two hours and 27 laps later (almost 8 miles) it was time to go.

“Papa,” she told me, “This man, a boy, and a couple little girls asked me how I could go so fast” she spoke quickly as she often does when she’s excited.

“What did you say?” I asked.

“Papa, I told him - I told him I could go this fast because I’m a speedskater!” she said with emphasis. My smile grew and grew.

Ignition often starts with a label: “I am a ___________”

Race Your Strengths! Vol. 3

Next up, Tests #4, 5, 6: Max Squats, Vertical Leap & Max Power (Wingate Test)

 

Flashforward - 1 year to 1991. Back at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for another camp. The Junior World Cycling Championships are taking place at the same time, and I catch up with cycling friends Jessica Grieco and George Hincapie. Jessica and I spend a good deal of time together and another cyclist I only know by name, Lance Armstrong, notices.

After the Junior World Cycling Championships were over, I  attended a house party near the Olympic Training Center (OTC) with skater and Olympic silver medalist Eric Flaim and some of the other skaters and hooked up with George and Jessica and met many of the other cyclists. At one point mid-way through the evening, after a long discussion with Jessica, I was motioned outside by a “minion” of Lance’s. Lance was only 19 but already had assumed command of the junior ranks. He was waiting for me out front of the house and asked me if I would walk and talk with him. It was very movie-like. I said, “sure.”

 We walked to the curb, and then sat down. He then proceeded to ask a series of targeted questions about Jessica (who was not without her charms) with that same, now famous, hawk-like stare. He started with, “How did you get her?” I explained that we were just friends and that we were not romantically involved. He immediately followed up with “Well, how can I get her?” and then asked a series of very specific questions. “What kind of music does she like? What does she read? Does she wear perfume? What are her hobbies outside cycling? Is she smart? What’s her favorite subject in school?” and then again, “How can I get her?”

 I can imagine Lance and Chris Carmichael planning his comeback in much a similar fashion, “how can I get tour #8?”

 I tried to be helpful, but found it all a little bit like a science project and wanted to ask, “what does, ‘get’ mean, exactly?” but I didn’t. Later I saw him talking to Jessica with some of the same intensity – though he did bother to smile and laugh.

Back in Colorado Springs, July 1990.

 

Just two days later and the testing continued. The next test was Max Squats: the ability to lift heavy objects dangling from a metal bar resting on your shoulders from a compressed position. I was happily not dead last. In the intervening weeks I had gotten better at the exercise and had moved up to being able to lift three 45lb plates on each side of the bar – for a total of 315 lbs – my one repetition max.

 

DJ (Dan Jansen’s preferred nickname) maxed out near 600 lbs.

 

Next we tested vertical leap. Honestly I was expecting to do really well. But the rules were strict. Bend slowly as deep as you wish, and then jump as high as possible swinging your arms and hands up over your head, and then using the tips of your fingers to swat at rotating height markers. I found my jumps lackluster, empty – as though I was missing something – like I almost wanted more weight on my shoulders. What I figured out now, writing this 18 years later is that what I really was missing was resistance or compression. With no real load (like skating a short track corner, or the gearing on a bike) my legs and synapses were just average. My results put me squarely in the middle of the pack. Conversely, over the years whenever we did a typical set of hurdle plyometrics - 10 hurdles set back to back at their highest setting (around 4ft), completed by doing knee to chest jumps, one to each hurdle - I was able to fly high. But I needed that compression of my weight returning from the prior hurdle – I needed that tension.

This came into stark contrast with another jump workout one summer in Calgary where my very specific, granular strengths came into play. The track team at U of C had built a series of tall steps – almost leaps – 2 feet between each block, 6 steps total, taking you up 12 ft vertical by the final step, and ending with a foam lined landing pit beneath the steps. The challenge was to run down a short lane, bound up each large step and then launch into the air over the pit, landing safely in the foam – sort of a combo between a “hop-skip-and-jump” and the high jump.

 

Most everyone else accelerated to the steps, and then decelerated up them, thumping up each step and then sailing sideways into the pit. But this setup really was perfect for me - - I was like an astronaut on the moon - each terrace had my feet on springs and my speed and vertical speed increased with each bounding step – by the last few stairs my feet were hammering the wood like jackhammers and I would launch into orbit, legs and arms wind-milling in slow motion during the extended hang time as I would finally drop back to earth. I was so good at this random exercise that at one point, that the University of Calgary track team coach asked me to return and demonstrate my prowess to the track team: what it looked like at its best.

 

It was moments like this that I used as a mental crutch to shore up my mental resolve during the coming months and years of failure and weakness. Without these occasional moments of brilliance, I would never have had the mental fortitude to survive the mind-numbing months of workouts and inconsistent or declining results.

 

Test #1 – Hard Training:       F - Failure

Test #2 – Body Fat:               F - Failure

Test #3: - VO2 Max:             F - Failure

Test #4: - Max Squats:         C - Average

Test #5: - Vertical Leap        C - Average

 

Back in Colorado, training camp really was not going so well. After coming in with the highest of hopes and expectations, I was mentally and physically exhausted. Sadly, I had continually proved myself to be one of the weakest on the whole team. If it weren’t for these occasional moments where my specific and unique talents came to the fore, I probably would have been a mental basket case, but as it was I tried to stay confident and actually looked forward to the final test of the camp – Max Power Output - also known as the "Wingate Test."

 

Again, everyone seemed nervous about the test, but I think it was Bonnie Blair who said, “don’t worry Coyle – it’s a cycling test – it’ll be easy for you!” (Everyone seemed to think that anything on the bike would be easy for me, notwithstanding my last place finish on the VO2 test.)

 

As with the VO2 test, we received time slot assignments, and like before, I showed up to another low-lying barracks not far from the previous torture chamber on the OTC grounds. Like before there was a hallway to a small room with a stationary bike. Unlike before, the hallway was carpeted as was the room, and there were no big machines and only a few attendants, and no white lab coats. It was comforting at first until that first recoiling of my nostrils to the vague scent in the room – the unmistakable stench of vomit hidden under cleanser. Once again I got nervous – now what?

 

After I entered, one of the attendants asked me to get the seat height set up and make sure everything was comfortable. There was no eye contact. I did so. He then explained the nature of the test, “30 seconds with resistance, all out – as fast as you can go –  got it? “Remember – hit it full out from ‘go’ else the test is wasted.”

 

I said “got it,” and got my feet cinched in good even as another technician began to turn the dial on the front of the flywheel while viewing his clipboard.

 

“All set,” he said, and then the first attendant said, “you might want to test the resistance…” Until this point I still had confidence. 30 seconds on a stationary bike with a flywheel to sending zinging – how hard could that be? Finally, something I’d be good at – a way to race my strengths instead of basting in my weaknesses.

 

A half second later a warm rush of terror caused a flush of sweat to appear on my arms and legs despite the dry air. When I pressed on the pedals, all that happened was that I stood up. I tried again – with my right leg in the two o’clock position I put my weight into the pedal and all that happened was that my body lifted from the seat.

 

“Um, I think the bike locked up,” I said.

 

“No no,” the two assured me in unison, and then one continued “just push real hard, and pull with the other leg – you’ve got 497 watts of resistance on due to the ratio with your weight so it’s a bit hard to get started.”

 

In disbelief I used all my might to push my right leg down while straining with my left hamstring to raise that leg. Immediately the wheel stopped. Suddenly the concept of 30 seconds became an eternity – to pedal THAT for a half minute! NO WAY! It was the approximate equivalent of finding the longest steepest (say, 15% grade) hill you've ever seen, and then sprinting up it from a dead stop in a big gear. This new news brought fear - real fear - out of every pore of my skin.

But they knew better than to let me think it over and suddenly in an official voice one was counting, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Go! GO! GO! GO!” And I drove my left quad (as my left foot was now in the up position) with all my might and convulsed my right hamstring to lift at the same time. Every tendon in my forarms stood out like razor blades, but, sure enough, the shiny chrome 50 lb flywheel began to turn, sluggishly at first, then building – 1, 2, 3 seconds passed by and I began to get inertia and rotational energy going. I moved out of the panic zone and began to really pedal and the two assistants continued, like me, to watch the seconds tick, and the RPM’s rise on the monitor.

 Another second, and I began to enter the tiny realm of my little superpower: energy began crackling out of my legs and as, 4, 5, 6, seconds passed and my feet began to turn circles, spinning, then buzzing with a kind of manic yet fluid energy despite the heavy resistance: the shiny flywheel flew despite the band of resistance, and heat rose off of it releasing a new smell to the room.

 I distinctly remember looking around the room at the astonished faces of the attendants as my feet hummed along and my rpms rocketed up 100, 140, 160, 180, 200, the bike vibrating the air and the floor as though I might lift off. Now, at 7 and 8 seconds, for once the faces were interested in something other than my failure. For the next two seconds, as heat continued to rise off the flywheel, I played roulette with my body having no idea what was to happen next.

 

How does that verse go? “Pride goes before….?”

 

9, seconds then 10... and my began feet slowing, just a little at first, but then dramatically as that humming energy faded to emptiness, 11, 12, 13 seconds, laboring, and the massive anaerobic effort suddenly began hitting my lungs and legs and brain all at the same time and a wave of paranoid fear rolled over me as the walls and ceiling of a tunnel of pain closed over my head.

 

I continued thrashing forward under the dark nape of fear, but all air was gone and the horizon continued to close as my lungs caught fire and my legs become molten lead.

Running out of air creates fear in one of its most raw, painful, debilitating forms – a deep inner panic that starts to simmer and boil over – to pervade everything – telling you to find a way to surface, to escape this intentional drowning. But there was no way out and like the VO2 test, the attendants were ready and had moved into a small semi-circle in front of the bars, “Keep it going! 14 seconds! … Halfway!” My legs had gone from 200 rpms down to 100rpms in 2 seconds. I was dying and there was no blood left in my whole body: it had been replaced by battery acid and fire erupted in every synapse. “16 seconds! 100% effort! You are on a good one!” they cried and suddenly their faces zoomed in and grew whiter even as an odd buzzing began.  

Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen seconds and the dark tunnel I was in suddenly began to open and brighten and I began to hear a new sound: a wretched keening and rasping. It was me. I surprised myself with the volume and ugliness of the rattling, wheezing breaths that issued from my lungs. I tasted steel as my heart rate continued its climb; my blood scoured my veins and beat like a gong against my ear drums.

My laboring legs dropped to 80rpms, then 60 rpms. I had never felt pain this excruciating. “Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one seconds!” they screamed, the attendants were leaning in now, faces only inches from mine, shouting – yet sort of in slow motion, with fading sound – just movements and mouths and this ever building buzzing and brightening. I could feel my legs stopping altogether despite my concerted efforts to make them turn – but they no longer belonged to me – they belonged to the fire and the buzz of the fluorescent lights in the room.

I was strangely interested in how overexposed everything had become and even as I felt my legs stop and I looked up the crescendo came, a buzzing rotation up and over my head like a low flying airplane dropping a mesh of nausea. Everything turned white then yellow then black. Then it was quiet.

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When I woke up, I was on a cot, in another room. Someone was touching my arm as I opened my eyes, “you are OK.” Another voice was squealing from another part of the room, in response to some ongoing dialog, “…yeah I know! But no one has ever passed out ON the bike before!”

I was disgusted. I got up, woozy, and hands steadied me. Voices seemed to be indicating success (like last time after the V02) but I couldn’t wait to get away. They continued their monologue with something about peak power and rapid decline but I thought to myself with contempt, “here’s the final test – the one I thought I’d finally get some results worth having. “Instead, I barely finished half the test without passing out. “I suck, I suck, I suck, I suck…” Over and over those were the words my pedals repeated as I rode back for the dorms.

When the manila envelopes were passed out that evening again under the door, I didn’t bother to open mine for a while. Finally, when no one else was around, I lifted the flap to my reality – it looked like this:

Max power output graph

At my peak power, I had produced 23.1 watts/kilo and a peak power 1785 watts – the highest of the team regardless of weight. Unfortunately, as the doctor who reviewed my chart with me noted, “you also have the highest rate of decline of anyone on the team.” Thanks doc, for pointing out the obvious.

Here was the clincher for me – if the shortest event in speedskating lasts about 36 seconds – how is it possible I could ever hope to be good at the sport?

Yet, as I reminded myself, I already had been. I had been quite good – even at events lasting 2, 3, even 7 minutes…

In hindsight, this was an absolutely compelling piece of data to use to my advantage – it really merely informed what I should have already known – than in situations that called for short bursts of power, I had a natural advantage. It didn’t occur to me that this strength could be used and repeated with recovery in intervals – instead I merely considered the fact that I was apparently only competitive in events lasting less than 15 seconds, and it immediately came to mind that the shortest event in speedskating, the 500 meters, lasts somewhere around 35-40 seconds. So I decided, once again, to ignore this data.

Final Results, 1990 Training Camp:   

Test #1 – Hard Training:       F - Failure

Test #2 – Body Fat:               F - Failure

Test #3: - VO2 Max:             F - Failure

Test #4: - Max Squats:          C - Average

Test #5: - Vertical Leap        C - Average

Test #6: - Max Power            F - Failure

 

Attached below is a pair of video segments that paints a clear picture of what the test show – and what I should have already known – that my talents are in the realm of accelerations with limited duration.

 

Both videos are from the 1986 North American Short Track Championships – Intermediate division 500m final (the highest level of competition at that time for ages 18 and under).

 

The first video shows my strengths in all their short lived glory – sprinting from lane 5 into the lead and extending it quickly over the next 10 seconds. As Marcus Buckingham or Mike Walden would say – “race your strengths.” Again – here is the definition:

 

“The definition of strength is quite specific: consistent near perfect performance in an activity.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EqcDkeCZCw] 

This would be my strength. In all my years of short track I could usually win the start – no matter the lane.

 

The second video shows my weakness – the remainder of the race – this snippet is the last half of that same race. I did end up winning – but just barely:

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhGfGzeXAQ8]

 

It is obvious now, but really I didn’t see these obvious talents and challenges back then, and frankly, coaches just wanted to train those weaknesses out of me – but that approach never worked - though I certainly tried. Instead, what did work was for me to put my strengths to work in unique and sometimes subtle ways - as Walden always knew... But that is a topic for Vol. 4.

 Marcus Buckingham again, "Each person's greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength. "You will excel only by maximizing your strengths, not by fixing your weaknesses."

Next Up: Vol 4. Ignoring good advice and Racing my Strengths

 

Olympic Athletes: The myth of "bodies in tune"

Conventional wisdom has it that athletic minds and their finely trained bodies are completely in tune: that the discipline of training creates in the cavity of the diaphragm, heart, and sinews the same rich resonance that is produced within the oiled wood of a fine cello when rubbed to resonance by fibrous strands of the horsehair bow. Yes, during those magical moments in training or a competition where forces align and the moving parts become orchestrated with some semblance of harmony, a low hum begins, that understated harmony, that resonant frequency which keeps a metronome on an ever shortening interval – the pace increases, lento becomes andente, andente becomes moderato, moderato becomes allegretto…

However, for a majority of scores the music is freeform dissonant jazz: a "bitches brew" of piercing notes out of key and out of synch with the untrained mind, a raucous cacophony twanging the nerves, jangling the sinews and muscles. Contrary to popular belief, one of the main disciplines involved with being a high caliber athlete is learning to tune out and manage the confusing jumble of noise and pain the body shouts to the brain. The learned response is to ignore many of the most obvious biological responses to trauma – pain, soreness, nausea, swelling etc. and continue to drive the beat, to perform.

In the summer of 1991 I was living with a pair of brothers from Minnesota in a run-down apartment complex in Menominee Falls outside Milwaukee, and training with Peter Mueller – the top coach in the world at the time – and training along side Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen, and a small number of other handpicked speedskaters.  

John Albrecht, my roommate, was a Stradivarius of an athlete: powerful shoulders, a six pack of abdominals, massive thighs tapering gracefully to tuning fork knees, and then a pair of thunderous calves – all muscle and power.

One late morning after a particularly tough session running hills at the Milwaukee lakefront, John quizzically asked me, brow frowning only slightly, “Do you think it’s bad if I have blood in my urine? It’s only been a couple of days now but… what do you think?” 

The halls of pain echo for an experienced athlete. The suffering is nothing and yet is everything. The pain is white. It is black. It lacks color or sibilant sound – just reverberations reflecting off the porcelain tiles of the stony discipline of the psyche. But blood, glittering red-black blood, pulses through hidden rivulets in the gutters of the mind.