Very happy to get this packet today - NBC renewed my contract to support the broadcast team for the next Winter Olympics to be held next February in Sochi, Russia. I'll be joined by Apolo Ohno who will be doing color commentary. The main announcer (formerly Ted Robinson) is still to be determined (Ted will be joining Dan Jansen to do long track speedskating.)
“So, I heard that short track on Friday is ‘the best event at the Olympics’ – in particular the relay.” Those words were spoken to me while on-set by NBC morning show anchor Terry Gannon just prior to the show yesterday. Short track, and it signature event the relay are all the buzz throughout town. Wednesday night’s women’s gold medal relay race was just another example of why. In the final laps, the Korean team made a slightly awkward pass on the leading Chinese team, and a bobble from clicked skates resulted in a disqualification to Korea, notching up China, Canada, and a very lucky out-of-contention USA team into the medals. But the drama didn’t stop on-ice. Subsequent to the decision, the organizers have received over 22,000 angry emails from Korean supporters. Furthermore, Jim Hewisch, the Australian referee who made the questionable call has received multiple death threats both here and at home and security at the rink has been beefed up.
Cap all this off with new press airing regarding a bomb threat to the Australian embassy tied again to that race, and the circus continues. Earlier this week I was in the elevator at the USA house with Michael Phelps (who was at the Saturday event) and that was all he and his friends were still talking about – which made a quick introduction and photo op an easy ask:
I turned to Terry Gannon, nodded and confirmed – “yes, it really is the best event.” His response was, “I have to find a way to be there – sounds fantastic.”
Tonight Apolo Ohno and Simon Cho will attempt to qualify for the 500m gold medal race against a tough field of Canadians including World Champion Charles Hamelin of Canada, and the Korean contingent including world record holder Sung Si-Bak. The ladies will conclude their 1000m with the gold medal race – hopefully Katherine Reutter will earn a well-deserved medal. Finally, the last race of these Olympics, the men’s 5000 meter relay, with 5 teams and 20 skaters all circling the ice at the same time. Confusing? Hopefully my diagrams airing tonight will help.
Want to know more about the sport? Follow this link: http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2010/02/13/vancouver-journal-7-an-introduction-to-short-track-speedskating
We will be live tonight for the men’s 500’s, and “Elvised” for the womens races and relay (very slight delay). If you watch any events from this Olympics – I highly encourage you not to miss tonight. I’m pretty excited that more of my powerpoint handiwork has been made into on-air animatics – attached are two of the powerpoint animations that you will likely see aired tonight. Ted gave me a shout-out on Wed. night for the relay diagram (see snapshot)
The buzz is in the air here, and the energy tonight will be amazing - I should probably get earplugs, as in Torino the final night had my ears ringing for almost 24 hours. Here’s our full schedule – racing starts at 6pm Pacific – 8pm Central:
Friday, February 26th – 5th day of competition
9:00am – Talent Editorial Meeting – Gaudelli, Moossa, Robinson, Gabel, Joyce & Coyle
10:00am – Edit – Vanacore/Schwarz –
12:00pm – Production Meeting @ Pacific Coliseum – all Production personnel
1:30pm – Fax
2:30pm – Lunch
3:30pm – Camera Meeting
4:00pm – all talent arrive
4:45pm – all cams on
4:50pm – Skaters Warm – up (ends at 5:40pm)
5:30pm – rehearse talent
6:00pm – Men’s 500 M – Quarterfinals
6:14pm – Women’s 1000M – Quarterfinals
6:43pm – Men’s 500 M – Semifinals
6:52pm – Women’s 1000 M – Semifinals
7:13pm – Men’s 500 M – B Final (places 5 – 8)
7:17pm – Men’s 500 M – A Final (Medal event)
7:23pm – Women’s 1000 M – B Final (places 5 – 8)
7:28pm – Women’s 1000 M – A Final (Medal event)
7:50pm – Men’s 5000 M Relay B Final (places 5 – 8)
8:03pm – Men’s 5000 M Relay A Final (Medals)
Vancouver Journal #4: Meet the Short Track Team Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Last Wednesday I received a call from the producer for short track. His name is Fred Gaudelli and he knows football pretty well per the snippet I pulled from a sports journal below:
Fred Gaudelli has been presenting football on television since the early ’80s, when he produced USFL games on ESPN. In ’01, he moved from ESPN’s Sunday night telecasts to ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” and with the shifting of the NFL’s TV arrangement this season, he was recruited by Dick Ebersol to oversee production for NBC’s new Sunday night package. As Al Michaels considered overtures from Ebersol to join the new Sunday night team, he said Gaudelli, in addition to booth partner John Madden, was key to his decision to do so. “When Fred Gaudelli was hired ... that was huge,” Michaels said at the time.
Like the 2006 short track producer, Steve Lawrence, it became quickly clear that Fred is a very direct, no nonsense kind of guy. “I want to know everything, to go to every practice, to get behind every story.” Whatever my day job, the pecking order in this business is clear: unapologetic directives, curse words, and thick skins are the rule.
I still remember 4 years ago when I received my employment offer to join the NBC broadcast team for the 2006 Olympics. My hiring manager, who previously had been quite short and direct, suddenly took on a slightly more conciliatory tone, “look, there’s going to be tempers flaring, and odds are high you’ll get ignored, sworn at, chewed out, cut off – even fired - possibly multiple times. Just keep at it and don’t let it phase you.” In our first production meeting in Torino, the producer looked around at us and said, “Listen, I’ll cut the crap: lets get this sh*% f*@!ng right the first time so we can all go home, no excuses.”
Torino was taped though due to the time change, and apparently everyone is “twice as nice” when taped compared to how things are when they are live, so we’ll see for 2010. I wonder how many times I’ll have to be fired before I get fired?
So, who’s on the short track team and who might you see on TV?
Short Track: Men
Apolo Anton Ohno (27): There was a Time article a while back with a thesis of “what’s in a name?” comparing the results of an Apolo Ohno with, say, someone with a name like “Amy Peterson,” and questioning whether Apolo would have had the same notoriety with a different name. As it turns out Amy Peterson is a five time short track Olympian with 3 Olympic medals – all long before Apolo but I bet you never heard of her. (Amy and I trained, traveled and raced together for more than a decade and she’s amazing.) But… what makes fame? If it could be designed, if there were easily identified ingredients, then it would be more accessible and less fleeting. “Pants on the ground?” The reality is that Apolo is the face of short track speedskating – between the stories, the drama, the medals, and the “style” elements, Apolo managed to help a cipher-of-a-sport go mainstream.
Sample text last winter to Apolo when I was in Vegas and someone asked me if, as an Olympic athlete I’d been to the Playboy Mansion (No, I have not.)
“Apolo – you ever been to the Playboy mansion?”
Response? “Yes! 3 times!”
I wrote a funny little piece for Apolo a while back as his self nominated agent that I’m sure he’s been dutifully following (isn’t Jessica Alba single again?)
The reality behind the name is that the little guy with the soul patch on his chin who put short track on the map in 2002 is one of the most naturally gifted speedskaters the world has seen. His balance and timing are impeccable, and he wins not through gargantuan "take the lead early" efforts, but through clever movements through the pack, using the draft of the skaters in front and saving his energy for the final bolt to the line.
My experience: Apolo's first national team trials were in 1995 when I was at the top of my form - he was an unknown punk kid of 13. A year later in 1996, he won the trials - at age 14 shocking all of us. In 1997 and 1998 he didn't make the teams despite having all the ability and talent in the world. I joined him on the sidelines in 1998 when I didn't make the Olympic team. In 1999 he got his act together and has been at the top of the sport since. In the 2002 Olympics he won several medals including a gold in the 1000 meters after a Korean skater was disqualified after finishing first, and another gold in Torino in the 500m, 5 medals to-date. He's pretty quiet and shy, but at the same time carries himself with confidence. We know each other reasonably well, and his father and I talk at the races.
JR Celski (19): another shy kid, and impossibly nice, JR’s story is pretty amazing. Within the span of a year, JR went from a promising Junior (2008) to World champion in 2009 (in the 3000m) and winning second overall in the 2009 world championships. Andy Gabel, the color commentator for short track in Vancouver, my former roommate, and fellow silver medalist from the 1994 Olympics commentated on his decisive victory in the 3000m at the 2009 world championships this way: “he took off early in the race, then he lapped the field. Then he took off again and dropped everyone like they were standing still.” JR may very well have won the Olympic trials and was skating a cut above Apolo until disaster – he fell in the 1000m and slashed himself – very badly – a deep wound through muscle that kept him off the ice for 2 ½ months.
Given that he’s only resumed training for a month or so now, it seems quite unlikely JR will be able to have any significant results. However, it was also unlikely for an 18 year old to win medals in 4 out of 5 events in his first world championships (last March in Vienna, 2009). If he does, he will be a media darling.
Jordan Malone (25): like Derek Parra and Chad Hedrick, Jordan is a crossover from inline roller skating having one national and world titles in that sport. Jordan narrowly missed the 2006 team while skating on a broken ankle. I’ve met him only briefly.
Travis Jayner (27): Only met him once or twice – very tall and thin, but wicked fast. Outside shot at the individual events. Very unassuming – hard not to like.
Simon Cho (17): Simon won the 5th spot on the team after a series of mishaps hurt other favorites. That said, he’s fast and proving himself.
Not making the team were Jeff Simon, who skates some of the fastest laps in the world in a slightly off kilter way, and Anthony Lobello – who was on the Torino team and had been skating well.
Katherine Reutter (21): Her second year at the helm of the U.S. short track team, Catherine has become a powerhouse in the middle distance events, charging hard and leading from in front, medaling again and again in the world cups. She has possibly the best left leg follow through I’ve ever seen. I’ve talked with Catherine a couple of times and she’s personable, but quite focused – she’ll be skipping the opening ceremonies to ensure she’s ready for the relay semi finals the day after. I know more from her dad, who connected with me via my blog and we’ve been corresponding back and forth for a while. Catherine will likely medal once or twice in the games, though a gold will take a special effort.
Catherine was a guest on the Colbert show a few weeks back and it was a really funny episode. “Let’s trash talk the summer games for a second – Michael Phelps? How easy is it to swim through water – when you run on top of water with samurai swords strapped to your feet.” Even though Stephen knew it was coming, the request to sign a “cute, but too-young-to-professionally-flirt-with” speedskater’s thigh, suddenly had him in a rare flustered moment – he tried to do it from the desk to keep his distance, couldn’t, so circled around and then realized he was now potentially in a worse position considering the very short skirt… his dodging and apologies to his wife were priceless “honey, I had to do this for the Olympic team!” – check it out here:
Alyson Dudek (19): New to the team, Alyson won the short events at the trials and her best hope at the games would be in the 500m. Alyson’s father (who is a lawyer) and I are members of the U.S. Speed skating Committee.
Kimberly Derrick (24): Just a young girl in Torino, Derrick has been around a while now. Notable in Torino was that her grandfather passed away just a few hours before her 1000m qualifier. I can still remember the director/producer in my ear. “I can see it – a tear on her cheek! – zoom in, zoom in dammit! Ted, build the story! Brownie, have the camera on her as she exits all the way to the locker room!”
Allison Baver (29): Another crossover inliner, Baver headed up the women’s team for a number of years, racking up a number of strong results in world cups, but falling short of the medals in her two prior Olympic bids. Allison also dated Apolo on again off again for a half dozen years, and is notable for a number of seeming contradictions: she’s tough – recovering from a series of serious injuries to continue competing at a high level – including a broken leg last season in a world cup in Bulgaria. She’s “high maintenance” – a skater known for wearing makeup to practice, pursuing a side career in modeling, and having a bit of a prima donna reputation, and she’s smart – she finished an undergrad an U Penn and an MBA from NYIT while skating. I’ve had a few conversations with Allison and she chose to show me her studious side.
Lana Gehring (19): I don’t know Lana, though I shared a flight with her mother a year ago back from a world cup I was announcing. It was a dream for Lana and her mother to make the games, and here she is – at the world’s biggest party.
Preview – Vancouver Journal #5: A Short Track Primer – what does it feel like to skate 35mph around a track the size of your living room?
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Last week I received my NBC credentials in the mail. More than airplane tickets, the hotel room, the food at the commissary, the salary or per diem, these two laminated plastic cards are the primary perk for being a part of the NBC Olympic team. With these two cards I will be able to enter virtually any event at the Olympics and get down to the “mixed zone” where only athletes and press are allowed. Sadly opening ceremonies are the one even where even these credentials won’t work. .
But being there is different. The Olympics are the single biggest party in the world. For 17 days, a few million people, all in a good mood, all with a love of sport, walk around in a perpetual state of delight – wide eyes taking in the spectacle of a city transformed – many with family or friends, or the friend of a friend taking part in the events. I would expect that downtown Vancouver will be much like Torino was four years ago – throngs of people in hats and scarves pouring in and out of cafes and restaurants, bars and shops, camera crews and temporary broadcast pods, and the occasional brightly colored warmup suit of an athlete strolling casually along with everyone else.
Most people are nervous to speak to the athletes, but for the most part, these fears are unwarranted. 99.99% of these athletes have toiled in anonymity for years, if not decades. To be recognized by strangers for their investment with few interested questions and a request for a snapshot can make an athlete’s day – and indeed in a half hour stroll you will likely see a dozen or more of these spontaneous group shots taking place, brightly suited athletes surrounded by a huddle of smiling strangers blocking pedestrian traffic to complete the picture. The atmosphere is even more enchanting in the evening. Even as the temperatures drop, a new level of interpersonal warmth is created.
In Torino, incredibly colorful and complex lighting displays arched over the streets downtown lighting the vapors of breath and laughter in the cold winter air. The question, “where are you from,” usually with an accent is more than a gesture of politeness – it is an invitation to a true conversation, one that often turns into an invitation – to a reception, an event, or to a party. Some may consider the Olympics a frivolous enterprise – these are “games” after all. World hunger isn’t being solved, no mines or nuclear warheads are being deactivated, and despite efforts to become more “green” there is likely a negative net contribution to global warming. That said, consider world ills – world “weaknesses” as it were. Perhaps as a society, as a world culture, we are guilty of much of the same negative bias and focus as we are as teams and individuals. We spend our time and energies on fixing what is wrong rather than celebrating and adding to what is right.
The Olympics are ultimately a celebration of strengths – a study in what is right vs. a focus on what is wrong. The world needs its cancer seminars, and violence prevention workshops, but in the end perhaps what it needs most is a positive focus for its energies. Perhaps the world needs more of these games, a bigger focus on what is right in the world. For this we thank the Greeks of nearly 3000 years ago who fed the world this amazing enterprise where the celebration of excellence triumphs again and again.
Preview of Vancouver #3: Meet the athletes – short track and long track team members
The last day of the Torino Olympics, the producers and select support crew including myself were gathered in the cafeteria outside the venue for speedskating for an impromptu meeting. There we learned that an "after action review" (AAR) had taken place the prior evening with the bigwigs at NBC and that we were selected as key members for the 2010 team to come in 4 years. Duitifully waiting (with the occasional check-in) in the years in between, I had finally made a call last November to my primary contact at NBC who answered with a less-than-optimistic response. "Everything is up in the air right now with the Canadian crew, so when I know something, I'll call."
Suddenly my strong possibility seemed a distant dream - OF COURSE the Canadian crew would want their own statistician and other crew members vs. an American...
But Friday, following a voicemail I left on Tuesday, I received the following email, and I am very, very happy:
From: Gesue, Joe (NBC Universal) Sent: Friday, March 27, 2009 4:33 PM To: Coyle, John Subject: RE: Support team for Vancouver, 2010
Colorado Springs, July 1990 continued…
Tests #2 & 3: Body Fat & VO2 Max
Over the coming days I eventually recovered from that initial breakdown from the heavy training and started to rejoin the competitive fray in the workouts. Sprints, jumps, reaction drills, low walks, lunges, hamstring curls, hip sleigh, bike rides, inline skating, weights, circuit training, “fartlechs”, stairs, plyometrics – we did it all and after a couple of weeks I was more fit and it was time for testing. Meanwhile, one particular workout we did stood out in my mind: on the infield of the track on the astro-turf we had to lay flat on the ground, facing away from a ‘runner’ positioned the same way 15 feet away and upon a clap were supposed to jump up, turn around, and try and catch our prey. I was quite good at this – at the signal I bounced up rotating in air and was running as soon as my feet hit the ground. I often caught my “prey” before they even started running.
I tried to selectively view this little area of strength as a sign of my athletic prowess (I still didn’t really understand the granular nature of strengths and I wouldn’t for more than a decade.) Instead I used these “crutch moments” to shore up my resolve on the days to come. As it was many, if not most, of the other workouts and tests seemed to go a different direction…
Over the next few days we were to undergo the following ‘tests’: 1) body fat (through calipers,) 2) VO2 Max, 3) Max squats, 4) Vertical leap, and 5) Max power output (watts.)
Body fat testing took 2 minutes. I had always been thin and lean so I didn’t give it much thought. That is until the “hmmm” of the sports doctor and assistants. They told me my body fat composition: 10.2%. It meant nothing to me – until I found out I had the second highest of any male at the camp, and that Bonnie Blair’s body fat (at 9.8%) was less than mine (men typically have considerably lower body fat than women - the general ranges for elite athletes are 2-6% for men, and 10-13% for women.)
Test #1 – Hard Training: Failure
Test #2 – Body Fat: Failure
Earlier that day we had been given our start times for the VO2 test to take place over that afternoon and all the next day. Everyone seemed nervous and stressed, but when I asked someone about the test they said, “don’t worry – it’s a cycling test so it will be easy for you – but it is hard!” Meanwhile a buzz was going around campus that a superstar young cyclist was there by the name of Lance Armstrong and that he would also be testing. As a long time cyclist I had never heard of him and did not give it much thought.
It was late the next morning when it finally came time for my VO2 test. I remember riding my bike across the extended campus of the Colorado Springs Olympic Training center – down the hill from the dorms, past the rubberized track and into the maze of structures in between the track and the cafeteria. This series of low outlying buildings (former barracks) ran in neat rows and were completely nondescript – each one looked like the other. The light outside was crisply brilliant as I locked my bike up and entered the white fluorescent lights of the hallway and plastic tile floors into a small waiting room where I changed into my cycling gear.
Shortly thereafter one of the other skaters came down the hallway into this small room to change back into his street clothes. He was shiny with sweat and looked grey. “Good luck,” he said, “that sucked.”
I had no idea what I was in for.
Dressed and ready, I followed a lab assistant down the white tiled hallway, my cleats clicking and sliding as I navigated a small set of stairs with those wooden handrails and aluminum scuff guards sprinkled with shiny specks of stone on the toe of each stair. I clicked my way safely down and into a room full of equipment – all centered around a stationary bike. There were a half dozen people in the room, most were wearing white medical garb.
One of them approached me and encouraged me to get set up on the bike in the middle of the room and let me know that they would be attaching some monitoring equipment and asked me to remove my shirt.
I climbed onto the contraption and all at once the room became a hive of activity: extended fingers pushing buttons, cords clicking into machines, and the shiny steel mandibles of various instruments gathering my vital signs. One attendant suddenly and unapologetically began to slather a clear cold gel on my chest while another began attaching black backed sensors to the viscous goop. A third attached electrodes to the sensors, while a fourth pried a finger loose from the handlebars, and then, without asking, stabbed me in the finger with a pin she had just swabbed with alcohol, greedily milking the blood out of it into a tiny glass test tube and then disappearing into the hallway behind the machines.
A web of wires from the machines around the room were then clipped to the electrodes as though I were ready to be lit up like a wedding gazebo. Like a maggot writhing in a spider’s web, I was turned, prodded, and poked. Finally the doctor approached, consulting his shiny black metallic wristwatch and asking, “are you ready?” It was clear that he wasn’t waiting for the answer and he nodded to yet another assistant.
“This may feel a bit awkward” she said as they fitted an ugly contraption from an orthodontic patient’s nightmare to my head – crisscrossing straps pressed into place over the top of my scalp supporting a mechanism that that contained a length of a thick plastic tubing.
I didn’t mind it so much until they rotated the large tube into place in front of my lips and then said “open” and then jammed it backward into my mouth. My jaws were ratcheted open like in a dental X-ray and then left that way. Another intern brought over what looked exactly like a long, stretchable, clear hose from a vacuum cleaner and attached it to the other end of the tube in my mouth. The far end of the 15 foot tube draped to the floor and then rose again to where it was connected to one of the many large machines in the room.
Even as my jaw began to ache from being pried so wide, the doctor said again, “ready?” and turned away before I could answer. He wasn’t talking to me. I swear I heard his mandibles click as he walked away - or perhaps it was just the clamp of his clipboard. Actually, it was the positioning of an ordinary clothespin on my nostrils to keep me from breathing through my nose. My claustrophobia reached its max and I had to fight the gag reflex. It got worse when I considered that others had had this tube in their mouth, and others had had the gag reflex, and perhaps that taste and smell….
Fortunately I was distracted by the start of the test and all the assistants and lab coats disappeared into far corners except for one of the younger girls in the room who advised me, “Just maintain 90 rpms – we have set the resistance at 175 watts.” “In two minutes, we’ll increase the watts and rpms, and continue to do so until we get a reading at your max.”
Translation to the maggot, “we are going to roast your fat white body on this spit until you die or explode.”
Still, 90 rpms at 175 watts wasn’t too bad and the 2 minutes passed with only a small level of effort and the warming of my limbs and lungs. If it hadn’t been for the jaw pain and consciousness of all the dangling cords swaying with my body I would have been comfortable.
At two minutes the intern was back, turning the dial of resistance and informing me, “You are now at 200 watts of resistance – please increase your rpms to 95.” At the same moment the vampire with the pin suddenly stabbed a second appendage and began sinuously squeezing that finger to extract more blood. I would have said something – except for the tree trunk in my mouth.
I pedaled and entered that middle realm of work on the bike that is satisfying. I monitored my rpms and my heartrate and watched it climb from the 140’s to the 150’s into the 160’s. I began to sweat a little which didn’t bother me. I began to drool a little, and that bothered me immensely. I followed the spit as it stairstepped down the accordion layers of the tube and then followed the hose back to the machine, then the machine to the heavy black cord, and the heavy black cord to the outlet in the wall. I began to consider the physics of electricity – voltage and amperage – and the conductive properties of water. This was all rational cover for my building claustrophobia. I pedaled and tried not to panic.
2 minutes later and 4 minutes into the test, my little intern reappeared and I cast about for the vampire as well. Sure enough she materialized at the same time, and even as the soothing voice began to announce the next level of torture (225 watts, 100 rpms), my middle finger was extended, stabbed, and milked for blood in one swift and fluid effort by her sidekick.
225 watts is hard. It is not killer by itself, but what begins to make it hard is the idea of what was to come – a never ending ladder to hell – more watts, more rpms, and more pedaling. As the effort increased, I was starting to be able to move beyond staring at the wires and machines and even the gigantic snorkel in my mouth. I finished the 6 minutes, working hard, and was beginning to breathe quite heavily. My pulse was in the mid-170’s.
The intern began her dulcet announcement, “250 watts, 105 rpms” and in complete synch I held out my still immaculate index finger for the pin and the blood and the test tube. The vampire scooted away with a flap of her gown.
Head down, I began to work in earnest and watched the gleaming sweat on the hair of my forearms as I swayed in the saddle and worked through the 2 minute interval. I was beginning to labor now, my breath coming faster and faster, pulse climbing to the mid 180’s.
At 8 minutes I was sweating and breathing hard and convinced I was almost done.
“Halfway” said the white coated intern smooth but emotionless, “shoot for 16 minutes.”
16 minutes?! NO FREAKIN’ WAY! I thought as she changed the resistance to 275 watts and asked me to increase my rpms to 110. I decided to shoot for finishing this 2 minute interval.
It got hard – really hard. My lungs worked like bellows, and my thighs began that burn from lack of oxygen. Head down I had lost all contact with the tube and the vampire and the lab coats except for a sudden realization that they were all drifting back into the place. My suffering was a magnet pulling them in, and the harder I worked, and the more my heart rate climbed, the closer they got, and the more they talked.
My pulse entered the 190’s and then the low 200’s. I was pulverizing the pedals and the air in my lungs began to burn. Somewhere around this time, the vampire began slashing my fingers at 30 second intervals and I stopped caring which finger had holes in it already. Sweat coursing off my body, and rivers of saliva draining into the tube I finished off the 10 minutes and it was time, again for an increase.
This time it was the doc himself: “300 watts, 115 rpms – from here on, the rpms will stay the same – continue” and I felt the resistance increase yet again. The resistance was less of a factor than the increase in rpms. 115 rpms felt like a hurricane for my tired legs and I was certain I would last less then 30 seconds.
The group that had gathered sensed this internal negotiating and one said, “make it 60 more seconds – you can definitely make that.” I looked up and noticed my heartrate – 210 beats per minute. I determined to make it the full 60 seconds and did – but they were ready, “Make it 30 more seconds! You can do it!” They pressed closer and in hindsight I wonder what kind of mindset revels in such suffering. I made eleven minutes and 30 seconds and they said “30 more seconds – make the 12 minute mark!”
By now my legs were gigantic burning red balloons and my lungs were embers. Still I struggled on and when my rpms dropped below 115 they poked and prodded and I returned to 115 on the monitor.
Twelve minutes arrived and I was intending to quit, but suddenly there were 5 faces in front of mine and none were relenting. “You can do more than this! You must continue!” and the doctor’s voice droned on, “325 watts, 115 rpms.” The vampire continued to collect her blood from my bloody fingertips without the pin as we’d given up trying to close up the holes in between. A drop fell from my fingertip.
So I gave it my all and focused on making 30 seconds as the room pinwheeled around me and my pulse climbed to 215. I made it and still they pushed “30 more!” They were screaming now, “Go! Go! Go!” Knees flailing, lungs flapping like bellows I continued and the wheezing and rasping sounds of my death rattle began. But still I made thirteen minutes and they convinced me to shoot for 13:30.
At thirteen minutes, thirty seconds my body began to implode. My heart rate had reached 217 beats per minute, and by the excited squeals of the vampire I determined that the lactic acid levels in my blood had also reached significant levels. I tried to follow directions from the room to make the fourteen minute milestone, but 9 seconds later my legs stopped turning. 13:39.
They all congratulated me in a seemingly sincere way, so I assumed I had done well, and that 16:00 was the “holy grail” and that I had gotten close. One mentioned that I had one of the highest lactic acid levels they had measured as well. I asked what that meant, and she said, "You are good at suffering." Great.
I could barely crawl down from the bike after they removed the tube and all the wires and with considerable effort grabbed my shirt and walked back down the hallway to the dressing room. I was gray. Along the way I passed a fresh faced cyclist I didn’t know by the name of Lance Armstrong on the way to his test.
I dressed and headed back to the dorms. After a convivial dinner with my roommates and other skaters I received a manila envelope under the door with my test results.
I tore it open eagerly. I had been congratulated. The ants and spiders had been genuinely interested. I had worked harder than most humans are capable of conceiving and suffered to the point where I nearly passed out. I had been 10th in the world the prior year at age 21 with minimal training. I expected results that matched my talent, my effort and my prior performance.
Instead I received a chart that showed my result compared to the average team member.
According to this test, I had the worst VO2 of the entire team – and this was a test the coaches had suggested was the single greatest predictor of success in our sport. Later, I learned that Lance Armstrong had survived 26 1/2 minutes and maxed out at 500 watts. When I was done, he was only halfway – and it only got harder…
Test #1 – Hard Training: Failure
Test #2 – Body Fat: Failure
Test #3: - VO2 Max: Failure
If I knew then what I know now, I would have realized that this was a true weakness for me – that I lacked the kind of “steady, building” aerobic capacity that the test was measuring for. In fact it wasn’t until the last few years that I realized how specific strengths are and how even tests like the above really can’t accurately capture reality. Let me put it another way – according to the test above, my aerobic threshold at my prime was around 275 watts. Yet I constantly finish races that require an AVERAGE watts of 330 or so just to finish – for a 2 ½ hour period and can sustain watts of 600+ for 4 - 5 minutes, and. How is this possible.?
It is possible because I can produce multiple 2-5 second pulses of 800 watts with 5-10 second “rests” of 150 watts over and over again.
But this test failed to measure these kinds of variations – it only measured steadily increasing watts – like the kind required to climb a mountain or timetrial against a headwind. For the record, I cannot climb, nor fight a headwind - though I spent many years trying.
The test was right. But I disavowed it from the beginning. “Can’t be right,” I thought and began a series of denials that stayed with me for the next decade. This despite the fact that the other 2 times I took the test I also scored exactly a “52”.
These results really should not have been a surprise. That said, I think many athletes, myself included at the time, try not to think about their failures, or if they do, do so in an emotional, rather than a clinical way. With any understanding of my capabilities at all, these tests would have been a mere reflection of my reality. Here’s an example.
Flashback: in the summer of 1985, while riding for the 7-11 Junior Development Team, I was required to ride in the Red Zinger Mini Classic/Junior National Tour – a 10 day stage race through the mountains of Colorado.
I quickly proved I was incapable of climbing and proceeded to get dropped on every mountain stage race at the bottom of the first hill. I was completely confused – I had won 11 races in a row prior to heading out to Colorado – against many of the same riders – how could this be?
I started to understand when, on the same day, I placed last in the Vail Mountain uphill time trial, right after winning the field sprint and 4th place in the Vail Criterium. Someone else had to tell me though: “Dude, you just can’t go UP!”
The next day was a long road race – from Copper Mountain to Leadville, with a series of climbs after a flat start. By then the entire peleton realized I couldn’t climb, so my teammates and the field conspired to let me breakaway on the first 7 mile flat section. By the time we hit the first climb, I had a 5 minute advantage on the field – one of the only breakaways of my life. Rather than attesting to my abilities, this was a testament to my well known inability to climb – the entire field was so confident I couldn’t climb, that they rode about 15mph for the first 7 miles to let me get away and then chase me down on the ascent.
Sure enough, a few miles into the long, heartwrenching climb, they caught me. I sped backward through the 100+ member field, and then fell out the back a half a minute later.
Then, the girls caught me. Sadly, they had started 5 minutes after the boys, so I had squandered not only my 5 minute lead on the boys field, but had lost the difference to the women’s field.
I managed to stay with the leaders of the girl’s race, and finally entered the high altitude flats of Leadville and the finish stretch. I’d like to say that I coasted in with the girls with my head down, but I CAME TO RACE and blasted out of 15th position with 200m to go to destroy the women’s peleton in the sprint.
In his great book "Now, Discover Your Strengths" written 15 years later, Marcus Buckingham summarizes natural strengths as follows:
Each person’s talents are unique and enduring: “The definition of strength is quite specific: consistent near perfect performance in an activity.”
For the last 32 years of my life, I have never been able to climb, or time trial, or break away, or win long sprints. What I have been able to do nearly perfectly is to win short sprints on technical courses in crowded conditions. Add a small hill prior to the finish and my results almost always include a spot on the podium.
Damn, this would have been nice to know back in, say, 1985….
Next up, Tests #4 & 5: Vertical Leap, and Max Power Output
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.