The Worst Breakup: The Mourning After Sports

The Worst Breakup: The Mourning After Sports heartbreak_444561633

You fell in love. She was elusive, distant, exciting. She taught you things about yourself no one else could or did. She took you to new places all over the world.  Months, years were spent chasing her, growing closer, winning and wooing. But, even after entering her warm embrace there was something missing, held back, a slightly stiffened spine, the latent question always lingering, “are you good enough for me?” This whispered hint kept you running, producing fervent efforts to prove yourself, to earn her affections.

Over time the relationship matured, settling into an uneasy balance: occasional punctuations of dizzy delight when things went perfectly and then the opposite, an arbitrary and tempestuous falling out when they didn’t. These episodes created a delicate tension keeping you in her thrall, ever subservient to her whims, always chasing, always pursing. Ageless, her remote beauty and charms only grew and as time passed you grew aware of an expanding list of suitors who began to surround her, muscles flexing, until one day it all ended as she loudly and publicly chose another. The moment was sickening: even as she welcomed a new young, fresh lover to her embrace she continued to call out her undying love to you. You, however, were jaded now: you had been through it all before and had made your choice. Too tired, too old, too weak, too lame, too hobbled from injury you decided to walk away from her fickle charms forever.

Her name was “Sport.”

All breakups are difficult, but the worst breakups are those where attraction still exists even as one party moves on and when there is no clean break, the cuckholded husband forced to watch his replacement woo his wife. The separation from elite sport is this sort of breakup. Even as her insatiable demand for perfection forces you from her embrace, her demeanor never changes, she is still there beckoning even as she entertains the latest crop of suitors. And, unlike real romances, the entire charade, parade and transition is done publicly under flashing lights without any sense of guile or gall. No one apologizes and averted gazes are only directed to you: the flawed, aging or weakened suitor.

What preparation are young, passionate, competitive, perfectionist men and women given to guard against this inevitable moment? Little to none as it turns out. Not once in my 15 years competing on various national teams did anyone ever provide guidance about “retirement” from sport.  For the romantic fallen, the discarded companions, the color of life disappears and is replaced by grasping black pits of hopelessness that yawn for long periods, occasional white sparks of manic optimism intruding and then fading into stretches of grey. She is gone. I will never again measure up. There is no replacement for the feeling she brought me. She took my livelihood, my funding, my sense of self. I am nothing now.

At some point in most normal breakups the color returns and a true separation from the “Ex” is made. Old healthy relationships re-assume their former stature, new ones form, and in the blue distance of time and perspective the warm colors of hope return. Eventually for most, new and better relationships are formed and the brilliant red drumbeat of life resumes.

But, what if after the breakup no separation ever occurred? What if the two divorced parties were still forcibly joined in an endless anti-matrimony with an arbitrary set of rules that look something like this:

1)     The exact set of qualities that earned your lover’s attention are replicated and improved by the new suitors that have taken your place. They look exactly like you, act exactly like you, but simply put, they are better than you.

2)     Your former lover still legitimately needs and wants you, but just as a “friend” since you know so much about her and she and her friends constantly draw you in to the same social circle.

3)     Sometimes the only way to make any kind of living is working directly for your former lover and her new suitors in an odd soup of fading admiration and mild contempt.

If this sounds like a recipe for a bout of depression then you are right. I am not aware of any studies that exist on the exit of elite athletes from sport, but anecdotally the story is much the same.

You've met them: the high school football star who didn’t get to play in college, the college track star who never made the Olympics. The Olympian who never won a medal. The silver medalist who never won gold. The gold medalist who failed to win again... and all of those who, at some point were forced to retire and in so doing put to bed the one singular intense focus of their entire lives in order to move on.

The desires and requirements of elite sport are insatiable: at some point everyone fails to measure up. Nothing and no-one can satisfy this lover, the ungrateful achievement whore who demands perfection every time and rallies the voices of the world to judge. Michael Phelps? A failure for only, ONLY winning 19 Olympic medals. Bode Miller – failure. Lindsay Vonn- fail. USA basketball – fail. USA Hockey - fail.  Only a few seem to escape the trap by breaking up first - exiting on top and declaring their undying love to some new lover (even if no one believes it). Perhaps Apolo Ohno falls into this camp, or perhaps he’s still riding the coattails of his mistress and doesn’t yet know what awaits.

When I broke up with sport it was heart breaking. It was February of 1998 and weak, slow and tired I failed to qualify for the last final at the Olympic trials despite having a fantastic pre-season winning the first American cup. I did not have enough points to make a second Olympic team and at 29 years old I also knew I could not possibly go another 4 years of income-less training to try again. So, I declared my retirement and Chris Needham, the competition’s announcer, shared it on the loudspeaker of the Lake Placid Olympic Rink. Immediately after in the echoing hallways of the arena I sobbed like a child, terribly embarrassed when my teammates saw me. That night I sat on the steps of the Lake Placid OTC with Apolo Ohno (who had also failed to make the team) and commiserated.

I cried on and off for days. Skating was the rhythm of my life, my reason for being. Despite all my passion and sacrifice I had failed to make a second Olympic team despite putting every sinew and synapse towards that love affair the sense of loss was overwhelming. My friend and teammate Stefan Spielman was a rising star in cycling when at age 20 injuries forced him to retire despite 8 surgeries attempting to fix the problem. The loss stayed with him, weighed him down for a decade or more, in fact he's still not sure he's entirely over it. "I would have paid any price just to be back competing, trying.  I was so depressed for 5-10 years, even up to today I do not think I am over that loss."

I was fortunate. I had a new love and one that could actually compete with my former affair – I was in love with a real woman. I also found separation – immediately: the next morning I moved all my meager possessions into a car and drove 45 hours straight west to get as far away from ice as I could, landing in Phoenix, Arizona with my fiancé and starting a new life. I was also fortunate enough to have a fallback in the form of a pair of college degrees from good schools. I hoped that someone would hire me despite my failure and had to be convinced to even put my sports achievements on my resume.

It may sound odd, but the overwhelming feeling I had for a long time regarding my time in sports was one of embarrassment. In those early years I lived with an ambient backdrop of humiliation. I had professed to be something I was not, and I had failed. My romance with sport had become a source of disgrace. Fellow speedskater and Olympic bronze medalist Alex Izykowski shared similar feelings, "I shared the same 'disgrace'. I had a very similar reaction for about a 2 year period…which came after a year-long denial period."

I refused to watch the 1998 Olympics and for nearly a decade I didn't talk about the sport, didn’t enter an ice rink and severed most of my connections with my friends from that world.  I gladly gave my Olympic medal to my parents who kept it for a decade and lived enshrouded in the bubble a new world of work, marriage and, eventually, parenthood.

It was many years later before I finally began to recognize the gift that sport had given me: of discipline, agility, tenaciousness, self confidence and perseverance. It was nearly a decade later when the rewards of that original relationship were made plain to me.

It started simply. A sign in a grocery store in Madison, Wisconsin read, "Short Track World championships coming to Madison Wisconsin – Volunteers needed." And I thought to myself, "well I could help out - prepare the track, chase blocks - whatever." So I called the number.

"Hello?” I said and continued, “Yes, I saw the ad for the world championships and ... I'm a former speedskater and thought I could help out if you still need volunteers.." An odd pause on the end of the phone.

"Coyle?!!"

"Is that you?"

Welcomed back. It was Tom Riley one of my former competitors and a coach and organizer for the event. Quickly I was re-enrolled in the sport in a new role and recognized not for my failure, but for the part I had played. I began coaching, I began announcing and then was invited to join the Olympic broadcast crew for the Olympics with NBC the following year in Torino, again in Vancouver, and soon in Sochi Russia.

I have been very lucky - my first love has requited her love to me in unforeseen ways. No, perhaps they will never trump the one desire that I aimed to achieve - a gold medal - but with perspective I can see that even such an accomplishment would not have been enough. Perhaps had I reached my goal, my pain would have been lessened, or, perhaps it would have been that much worse. At some point the chase must be replaced by the lessons and narrative of the pursuit.

I do wonder and worry for the coaches of sport. I see so many of my peers during those years still traveling, still on ice, still chasing a revised version of that dream. How many of them are still pursuing the same unrelenting mistress and translating their energies into vicarious living through their athletes, trying to become what, in hindsight is impossible – a marriage to sport until “death do us part.” It does put into perspective some of the incredible passions displayed by some of my coaches through the years. It was almost as though they wanted it more than us…

---------

PS: There is an even more uncomfortable wrinkle to this tale. What if someone’s breakup with sport occurred during the transition to an era of cheating and performance enhancing drugs. What if an early retirement from, say, cycling, occurred right as the elite of sport took to illegal substances to improve their performance? What might have this crop of legitimate athletes have accomplished? Scott McKinley, Mike McCarthy, Marty Jemison and others on the cusp of greatness, winning the world’s toughest events and then suddenly marginalized – only to learn a decade and a half later that maybe, just maybe it wasn’t their limbs that failed them. It is hard to imagine what was stolen from these incredible athletes and and hundreds of others by the cheating scandals in cycling and other sports. Cheating is the perfect word – the heartbreak resulting from the betrayal of true love is perhaps the saddest outcome and these athletes can only wonder what “might have been.”

The Sprinter's Margin: 36 years and 18 seconds

The Sprinter’s Margin: 36 years and 18 seconds A recent conversation:

Ray Dybowski: Hey did you hear? Alan Antonuk won that road race by 7 minutes. 

(Me) 7 minutes!? I don’t think the entire margin of victory from every race I’ve won would total to seven minutes!

(Ray) Laughs, thinks I’m kidding. 

As it turns out I completely overestimated my prowess as a bike racer. I truly was disciple of the Walden mantra, “win it at the line.” After this conversation I did a little math, totaling the number of races competed on a bike over the last 36 years and the rough percentage of those that I won and by how much and then estimated the average finish speed to calculate the average total time between my front wheel and second place. Finally I added up those races to calculate the minutes… or seconds that those margins added up to.

So guess… Guess the total margin of victory for a somewhat accomplished cyclist, who won 400* out of about 4000 races over 36 years? Alan Antonuk won one single race by 7 minutes – surely it must add to more than that, right? (*Includes heats, semis, finals etc. in BMX and track racing – perhaps not as impressive a number as it might look.)

Wrong. 18 seconds. Count it out: one one-thousand, two one-thousand… Get to 18 one thousand and you’ve counted the entire impression of my cycling career across multiple formats: road / velodrome / cyclo-cross / criterium / & bmx.

Here’s the math, complements of excel:

Value Metric Description

5280

feet # feet in a mile

3600

seconds # seconds in an hour

37.5

mph average sprint speed

55.00

ft/s average sprint speed  (in ft/s (5280*37.5/3600) )

2.5

feet typical margin of victory: 1/2 bike length = 2.5 feet

0.045

seconds time to travel 1/2 bike length at a sprint speed of 55.0 ft/s

4000

races # of races (including heats, semis & finals) entered over the last 36 years (road, track, crit, cyclocross, bmx)

10%

win ratio percent of races won over the 36 years (used to be much higher…)

400

wins approximate # of career wins over 36 year career at an average span of one-half of a bike length

18.18

seconds total margin of victory for 400 wins with 1/2 bike length lead at 37.5mph (=400*.045)

Really? My entire cycling career boils down to 18 seconds?  ½ second a year?

Yes. This is a fact. So also is the fact that these victories weigh heavier than the chronological time involved in completing them suggests.

I embrace this conundrum – that time is inherently flexible and that, perhaps, “really living” is found at the margins, at the pendulum swings of the hours, days and weeks of suffering condensed to prepare for a race, meeting, or test, and then again in the expansion of that invested time through the seconds those long hours deliver: a dash across the finish line, a flash of insight, or a compelling soundbite at the right moment in a meeting. The math of the mind is logarithmic and paradoxical: investment measured in years often results in outcomes measured in seconds or lesser intervals (sprinters are the “comedians” of the peleton for a reason). Yet, in the timeless continuum of the human psyche they are equals.

What is the value of those 18 seconds? How many hours, days, weeks, even years would I trade for that tiny slice of ever expanding time? Contained within the long yawn this moment comprises is series of unforgettable moments burned into my retinas and into the fibers of my legs and lungs. That first churning, panic-stricken race in the rain at age 8 with Frankie Andreu, Paul Jaqua and Jamie Carney around the Dearborn Towers. Hundreds of perfectly anointed sprints from 5th wheel and 150m to go to win as a junior and then again in the Cat 3’s. My largest margin of victory at Downer’s Grove when a 160+ rider peleton crashed in my wake in the final corner and I coasted across the line alone. The bike throw against Jamie Carney on the track to win a spot to the world championships in North Africa. Flinging across the shiny cobbles in the rain downtown Grand Rapids year before last to finally raise my hands in celebration.

The wins matter little, but there are synapses built in the process that are separate from pedaling: wires bent toward confidence, towards persistence, and inclined to treat the heat of battle as enjoyable. These connections made in the heat and pressure of the race stay melded together long after…

I’m a terrible bike racer in the grand scheme of things. A non-factor surfing the waves of the strong players forever relegated to the vagaries of the field sprint on easy courses. Yet in 18 seconds over 36 years a great deal of my character has been formed. In the early days a quiet standoffish confidence resulted – when asked to predict my results I would say, “I think I’m going to win, but we’ll see.” In more recent days a willing recognition of all my weakness and failures surrounding a tiny little jet engine of a strength – and hope.  “I hope to finish – and if I do, then I have a shot.” Hope, perhaps is the source of all good, all energy, all tenacity. It is irrational, hope. It specifically is designed NOT to meet the facts. Facts represent the past and carry its inertia. Hope represents the eventualities of the future and provides a trajectory that necessarily includes uncertainty and the possibility of humiliation, or glory.

Bill Strickland, editor of bicycling magazine, wrote a compelling book called “Ten Points” that anchored much of his life and his pursuits, failures, and successes to a Wednesday Worlds local bike race.  Bill Strickland was also abused, severely, as a child and the reverberations of this horrible past had begun to creep into his present. Earning “ten points” in the local series for his daughter was less about beating his significantly challenging rivals, and far more about the magic provided by a “point” earned through suffering for a noble cause.

Bill never did earn his ten points.  But he did end up exorcising some of his demons and becoming a good father and the editor of the nation’s largest cycling publication.

I’ll likely never increase the span of my wins from 18 to even 20 seconds much less 7 minutes. But, on the margin… it doesn’t matter. It was worth it.

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.

----------------

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?

------------------

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.”

 ----------------

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.

 -------------------

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…

 ---------------------

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.

 -----------------

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 ___________”

Vancouver Journal #4: Meet the Short Track Team

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?)

http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2008/10/22/how-to-make-speedskating-popular

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.

Women’s Team:

 

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:

http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/258280/december-14-2009/stephen-challenges-shani-davis---katherine-reutter

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?

Vancouver Journal #3: Meet the (long track) speedskating team

Vancouver Journal #3: Meet the Long Track Team Friday, January 29, 2010

According to Dick Ebersol (head of NBC sports and Olympic coverage) the 2010 Olympics have four “breakout stars” to watch. Their names are as follows: Lindsey Vonn (5 events, skiing), Shawn White (1 event, snowboarding), Apolo Ohno (4 events, short track speed skating) and Shani Davis (4 events, long track speed skating.)

If my math is right, that makes speed skating THE sport of the 2010 Olympics. If you add up the # of breakout events, the numbers skew even more favorably for speed skating – of the 14 key “must watch” performances, 8 of them are speed skating, (and I’ll personally be covering four of them.)

However, lest someone think I’m on air or have an “important” job worthy of “talent” (a broadcasting word for those that are on air) I am neither important nor “talent” though I do get the luxury of being in the broadcast booth. My official role is that of the “statistician” which maps more closely to the “subject matter expert” providing stats, clarifications, and color to the two commentators, and coordinating some of the production activity (rewinds, queuing, zooms etc.)

Ebersol was interviewed on the Jan 20th edition of the Colbert report which also featured a “fire on ice” race with Shani Davis (see link below for some funny stuff)

http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/262387/january-20-2010/skate-expectations---speedskating-race---shani-davis

One of my hopes during the games would be to meet Stephen Colbert: we have much in common - he’s been granted an position with the NBC Vancouver Olympic team due to his speed skating prowess against Shani Davis, he is also an honorary member of the US speed skating team as the “assistant sports psychologist”, and also happens to be on the board of DonorsChoose.org, a company we are partnering with at work.

OK, the long track team:

Long Track: Men

Shani Davis – skating the 500m, 1000m, 1500m, and 5000m. Shani will win the 1000m for sure – he’s dominated that event for 5 years or more and breaks world records seemingly each time he skates. Shani is not a medal contender in the 500m, but certainly is in the 1500m and 5000m. I’ve known Shani since he was a kid and he’s a quiet and kind – nothing like the occasional news report would let on. These aberrations are sometimes a result of the meddling of his mother who has pushed and protected him for all these years and continues to be an influence in how he is perceived.

Chad Hedrick – In Torino I spent a decent amount of time with Chad’s dad Paul and had some pretty strong feelings about the pressure both Chad’s dad and Shani’s mom put on these two incredible athletes. Subsequent to Torino I was able to find closure with Paul (in the form of yet another bear hug) and in a different form from Shani’s mom (who demanded that I remove her name and her picture from my blog, while concurrently filing suit against Google for the blog posts another (dead) blogger - I quickly deleted her picture and name). Chad had some middling years between Torino and now (getting married and having a child as well), but has recently come on strong in world cups. I put him as an underdog favorite in any event he skates.

Nick Pearson – I know his parents better than Nick (he was a little tow head running around the Petit Center when I was still skating) but Nick’s got some sprinting chops and will be racing the 500m and 100m

Tucker Fredericks - I met Tucker in Torino - he's a nice guy and small for a sprinter - but wicked fast. He's got a decent shot at the podium in the 500m

Brian Hansen – still a junior category racer (18), Brian was on of the “kids” I coached at Park Ridge club the last couple of years. Since then he’s gone on to set national records in most distances and now has made the Olympic team in the 1500m and the pursuit.

Ryan Bedford, Mitchell Whitmore, Jonathan Kuck & Trevor Marsciano - round out the team (I've not met them)

Long Track: Women;

Elli Ochowicz: Elli is an amazing sprinter, and comes from a proven gene pool, and a heritage that links closely with my own past. Her parents are Sheila Young (gold, silver, bronze in 1976 Olympics for speedskating and world cycling champion) and Jim Ochowicz (cycling champion and team lead for Lance Armstrong’s various teams – Motorola, U.S. Postal, and Discovery). Elli’s grandparents were my initiates and coaches that led me to join the sport – see post below:

http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2008/10/16/clair-young/

Nancy Swider Pelz Jr.: Nancy’s mom, Nancy, (yes that’s right) was a mentor to me on and off throughout my years of skating and I’m so happy to see her daughter taking the stage in Vancouver. Like Brian Hansen I worked with Nancy Jr. during the Park Ridge practices I coached over the last couple of years. Nancy will race the 5000m

Catherine Raney Norman: I’ve known Catherine since she was a little girl, and her mom Peggy as well. Her husband, Mark Norman, and I grew up racing bikes and skating together in Detroit Michigan – it is a small world.

Jen Rodriguez: at 34, the elder stateswoman of the long track team, Jen is the Darra Torres of the sport – super fit, super fast and a threat for a medal if things come together.

Jilleane Rookard, Heather Richardson, Lauren Cholewinski, Rebekah Bradford, Maria Lamb - round out the womens team.

 Vancouver Journal #4 Preview: Meet the (short track) speedskating team

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.

------------------

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

 

Race Your Strengths! Vol. 1

Race Your Strengths! Vol. 1

 

THE core principle of the Walden school of thought: more than just a ‘race rule’, this is the essential philosophy of my coach Mike Walden’s approach to training – and to life.

 

What I didn’t know is that this refrain would serve as a protective layer from the good intentions and unintended negative outcomes of almost all the coaches to succeed Mike over the years.

 

What I learned much later is that this concept has become the core principal behind one of the great new movements in modern psychology, better known as “positive psychology,” this concept of “Discovering your Strengths” has become part of the corporate ideology for success – and rightly so.

 

 

In the summer of 1990 I moved to Colorado Springs to train with the national team along with Dan Jansen, Bonnie Blair and about 20 other top U.S. Speed skaters. The summer program had at its heart a series of tests to determine athletic potential and I was excited to prove my mettle with the best of the best.

 

I flew into the bright dry air of Colorado Springs flush with confidence: despite spending the prior four years mastering the curriculum of one of the toughest academic programs in the country and living in California, of all places, I had managed to make the world speed skating team both of my last two years, and mustered a 10th place finish at the world speed skating championships in the 500m.

 

Up until this point I was one of those lucky ones – despite the usual setbacks and failures along the way (I got lapped in my first speed skating race – and that was a long track event in Farwell field, Detroit,) I had made steady progress almost every year.

 

Four years earlier, as a high school senior, still training under local coaches Mike Walden, Clair Young and Marc Affholter I managed to be the top junior athlete (under 18) in the country in two sports – cycling and speedskating, and traveled to both Morocco and the Netherlands to compete in the world championships for both sports. Four years of progress later, and in the winter of 1990 I was posting some of the fastest lap times in the country for any age group for skating. Indeed, my 10th place finish at the world short track speedskating championships was a result of a fall in the quarter final. I had convinced myself I could win that event…

 

I assumed, at the time, that with the right coaches and training, my performance would accelerate – that once I joined a “real” program and trained harder, and more consistently, that results would come in spades. The training program set by Mike Walden, Clair Young, Marc Affholter, which I still pretty much followed by default on my own in California had been good enough to get me where I was, but…

 

At the time I guess I thought it was decent enough stuff for those ‘local coaches’ – but considered myself ready for ‘the real thing.’ I was fully convinced I would not only make the 1992 Olympic team, but that I had a great shot at standing on the podium. Indeed – I was so full of myself, I actually thought I could possibly compete in 3 different sports in one Olympic year – short track, long track, and cycling. Why not?

 

I had no idea that every one of these assumptions was wrong. I could never have imagined that a mere six months later that I would be a shell of my former self without even a prayer of making even a “B” travel team in any one of those sports, and that after the national team trials in my primary sport I would find myself unfunded, coachless, jobless, hopeless and confused… and that it would only get worse from there as I prepped for the Olympics in 1992 and beyond…

 

Test #1 of 5, Hard Training: (July, 1990:)

 

When I stepped off the plane in Colorado Springs, CO less than a month after college graduation. I was not fit. I had just returned from a weeklong trip to Mexico with four of my best friends for a week of partying in Cancun. My lack of fitness was also due to the 36 credit load I had to finish spring quarter to make up for a full slate of incompletes I took in winter quarter due to traveling in Europe for competitions and the world championships.

 

Still, I wasn’t worried – I had always responded well to hard training and fully expected to quickly assume a spot very high up in the speedskating hierarchy. One thing though, was different this time: I had made the switch to long track speedskating at the end of the season. After getting knocked down in the quarterfinals at the short track world championships in March in an echoing arena largely absent of spectators, I had walked outside of Edens Icehall in Amsterdam to discover nearly 3000 people skating for fun on the long track right outside its doors. I fell in love with the idea that someone (besides my parents) might watch and cheer for the sport that was slated to become my full time occupation.

 

The coaches at the camp – Susan Sandvig, John Teaford, and Mike Crowe wasted no time in clarifying the route to success: hard work, mental toughness (suffering,) and volume. This was the proven program originally defined by Diana Holum and Eric Heiden and it produced the sport’s single greatest champion (Heiden). This would be our model, and if we wanted to have a chance to be like Eric (we all did) then this was the way to do it. (Eric won 5 gold medals – one in every speedskating distance – in the 1980 Olympics. Just to put this in perspective – this would be like Husain Bolt winning not only the 100m and 200m but the 400m, 1500m, and 10,000m events as well. This is astounding even to this day.)

 

I, like everyone else, was a believer. The concept of ‘the harder you work, the more you’ll achieve’ was clear and compelling. I threw myself, as is my mode, into it with all my heart and sinew.

 

This proved to be my undoing rather quickly. After a light jog on the evening of our first day, we entered the 3 – a –day workout regimen that was to dominate the next month, the next year – indeed the next 4 years of my life. The very next morning we did a long bike ride in the morning (at least something I was used to) and then followed it up by a weights ‘test’ in the late morning, and sprints and jumps in the afternoon.

 

In the weight room I was eager to show my strengths. I had never really done squats before but I didn’t let that bother me. I was encouraged to just use the bar and ‘get used to it’ but I was way too gung-ho to listen and soon was stacking on a pair of 45lb plates, and then 4 (still nowhere near the 10 or 12 plates Dan Jansen would regularly put on) but enough to at least walk out of the gym with my pride intact. I also did bench press, hamstring curls, leg extensions, crunches and all the other things everyone else was doing. Ah… the innocence and stupidity of youth.

 

That same afternoon, I’ll never forget – we went up into the foothills near the Broadmoor as the sun began to make the fields golden and we embarked on a sprint & plyometrics (jumps) workout, swapping a dozen “knee to chest” jumps with 100 yard sprints. We did 10 sets of each.

 

Climbing down from the bus prior to the workout, I had some new sensations – I felt awkward and my muscles felt, well, tweaked – sending all kinds of startling signals and shocks to my brain, yet not responding to basic requests. They felt like foreign limbs with electrodes implanted in them jerking them into motion. But after some hill runs for a warmup during which I suffered immensely I regained some semblance of control for the main workout. After a sloppy first set of jumps and the follow-on sprint I was fully warmed up. On the second and third sets, I was on my game – floating like a gazelle on the knee-to-chest jumps – rising up above the crowd in almost in slow motion – bouncing quickly up and then during the peak of my jump, banging my knees upward to extend that float before time resumed and I dropped back down. Then the whistle and I found myself breaking quickly into the clean air of the lead during the sprints as I sailed out into the lead of some of the world’s best athletes. I smiled inwardly, just a little smug in my confidence: everything was turning out just as I planned…

 

That is until repetitions #s 4, 5, 6, 7 followed through. Each sprint and jump tore the remaining flaps and threads of my muscles. The coaches shouted encouragement and then resulted to goads, “C’mon Coyle – where’s that sprint? Where’s that height?” I tried to respond and for a while I did. By sprint #9 I was done. I couldn’t actually lift my hamstrings and did sort of standing dead lift jumps and then as I tried to sprint I was kicking myself sloppily after a few steps. I broke off and stood to the side as the coaches prodded me, shouting. I said nothing – I couldn’t even begin to describe what was going on in my body – but it had entered that deep down bone ebb – I knew I was hurt but I didn’t know exactly how or why.

 

I winced and hobbled back to the bus, and then did the same wobbling act to get to dinner with an excruciating effort only exceeded by the walk back to the dorms. After dinner everyone went out to the hot tubs and I desperately wanted to go, but I couldn’t seem to straighten out my legs without incredible pain, so I stayed in bed.

 

Things got worse.

 

The next 24 hours reigns unique in my life. It is the one and only full day that I’ve ever been truly bedridden. For more than 24 hours I never left my bed. I was on the top bunk and I couldn’t bend my legs. I had bleeding wooden joints. Even slight movements had me gasping and sweating in place. My abdominals didn’t fare much better – from the jumps – and I couldn’t sit up. Top it off with an extraordinarily sore chest and biceps (I couldn’t straighten my arms), and the unraveling was complete – I couldn’t move.

 

That day, as everyone packed up in the morning for practice, I asked my roommates Brendan Eppert and Dave Besteman to give me a couple plastic cups of water and then I lay back down – and didn’t move for an entire day.

 

It wasn’t until late the following evening that biological needs drove me from my bed. I had to have Dave and Brendan lift me down, sweating in pain, after I swung my legs over the edge. It took me several days to recover and rejoin the team. In the meantime, my confidence started to waver

 

Results of Test #1, Hard Training:  FAILURE

 

-------------------------------

 

Next up Test #2: VO2 Max w/ Lance Armstrong

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Confidence

The reality of confidence is much more ephemeral and emotional in nature than the logic of time suggests: it comes minutes at a time. A perfect extension, a pair of straightaway strokes, a fast lap, a winning race - these feelings ladder up and can build confidence - particularly when there is a progression. Ultimately though confidence can be a house of cards undone by the faintest breath of weakness.

 

A slip? Getting passed? Dying on the final corner in an important race? Back to back exhausted practices where form seems to disappear? Like water in a drain, the tide of confidence washes away quickly and leaves no reminder of its presence. As each week and hour and second and skate stroke grew consecutively weaker and more anemic, so my confidence atrophied like light from the stub of a dying candle.

 

It seems hard to fathom – that ones’ results and confidence could be so high one year prior, only to fall so low. But in the mirror of hindsight and distance it becomes easy to gloss over the weeks and days and hours and suggest, “Well, you were great the year before – you knew you’d recover…”

 

I DID NOT know. Part of me believed the test results – that I was a poor athlete and that I didn’t belong… Part of me didn’t know what, or who to believe… If someone stopped me and said, “4 years from now you’ll be standing on the podium at the Olympic games with a medal around your neck,” I  would have nodded and smiled - but deep down I had begun to accept the possibility that I really wasn’t very good. Fortunately a small part of me believed what Mike Walden, and Mark Affholter, and Stan Klotkowski had told me – that I could be world and olympic champion. So I chose to try and believe that…

 

…and prepared as if it were true…

Walden Principle #2: Racing is the best Training (Sleeping in a Haystack)

 

 

 

Racing is the Best Training  - or, Sleeping in a Haystack

 

Spring 1990.

 

Life was golden: A senior at a northern California University , I was enjoying the sun and elegant architecture of campus life in California and reveling in my lot as an upperclassman close to graduation. I was in love with my remaining classes in engineering and art design required to complete a degree in mechanical engineering - product design in June.

 

I was also coming off a successful speed skating season: national and world team member, second in the national championships, and a 10th place finish at the world speed skating championships in the 500m despite training on my own in California of all places, while completing one of the toughest curriculums in the country.

 

Newly single, physically at the top of my game, ready to graduate, the world was my oyster.

 

During that spring of 1990 I made a significant decision – to put all my eggs in one basket and pursue speed skating with all the passion I had and let my new degree sit on a shelf: after graduation, I entered, for the first time in my skating career, the full time summer training program of the national speedskating team.

 

That July I moved to Colorado Springs to train with the national team along with Dan Jansen, Bonnie Blair and about 20 other top U.S. Speedskaters and participate in a number of tests including V02 Max (ability to process oxygen), BMI (body mass index), Max Power Output (peak watts on the bike), Max Squats (lbs. lifted), Vertical leap and others.

 

To say that I failed these tests (for the most part) would be an understatement – as it turns out I had the lowest test VO2 Max of anyone on the team – held to be the single greatest predictor of success in the sport. Other tests results were middling at best except for the peak power output.

 

As the season progressed, after a strong start, my world started falling apart. Training always hurts and you learn to ignore the pain and focus on the future, but at some point that autumn, my lap times – which were always a bit unpredictable, began to have a pattern to their unpredictability – they were bad and worse depending on the day. By the time of the trials for the world cup and world championships, they were so bad that I had to face the fact that I was not going to have a shot at making the team – despite being in the top 5 the last two years – without consistent training – living in California.

 

I think I ended up 12th.

 

People patted me on the back at the national team trials – “next year Coyle – this year doesn’t matter.” And it was mostly true – the next year, the same competition would be the selection for Albertville : the Olympic trials – the true goal of all this suffering.

 

The rest of my training woes and eventual recovery I’ll save for a separate write-up on principle #1 “Race your Strengths,” but for this report, I’ll focus on a very important decision that came next: I still had the remainder of a full winter season ahead of me – without the support and funding of the team – what should I do?

 

I didn’t qualify to travel and race on the national team, supported and paid for by the Olympic committee funds (like I had the last few years), so I had only two choices:

 

  1. Stay back in the U.S. and train (fully funded) at the U.S. Olympic training center with the other members of the team who didn’t qualify for travel team support and funding for travel or…   
  2. Find a way to get overseas and travel the world cup circuit on my own dime, racing in the ‘open’ category in the competitions that would allow it.

The coaches’ perspective was as predictable as it was compelling: “Stay back John, focus on building your aerobic base, make up for all those lost years in California ” (by the way… lost years? What about the successes during that period?)

 

I felt like any other choice than that recommendation would be stupid – that those ‘in the know’ knew what was best for me. These were smart people who cared about me and were unilateral in both wanting me to succeed and in recommending the best way to do so.

 

But…there was that other part of me – the rebellious part - the part of me that didn’t relish in training for its own sake – that found little gratification in posting laps and times just for the sake of laps and times - the part of me that loved the thrill and unpredictability of racing.

 

The idea of spending the rest of the winter pounding out laps in the cold and dark of Lake Placid , New York had me in a state of depression… yet I felt like I couldn’t really justify any other choice.

 

Fortunately I do have that occasional stubborn and rebellious streak – and that side of me came to the fore during those days and it was then that I remembered the words pounded into my head for years and years by a different coach at a different time...

 

“Racing is the best training, Coyle, racing is the best training.”

 

I can still hear Walden’s voice and, more importantly, the overbearing conviction that came through that an alternative viewpoint was not only without merit, but would not to be entertained. (In many ways Mike Walden reminds me of our CEO and my occasional mentor, Jack Rooney of U.S. Cellular®).

 

Discussions with Mike were nearly entirely one-way.

 

After the speedskating world cup team trials, as the ‘official’ team was preparing to leave for Europe , decision time for me came. When asked for my decision, suddenly those words came tumbling out verbatim to my coaches Stan and Susan. I said, “You know, as much as continued training in the program is compelling and I appreciate the offer, I think that for me, racing is the best training, so I’m going to find a way to get over to Europe for the world cups.”

 

It was rather interesting that by embracing one set of conventions, I was bucking another. More importantly, since that day 18 years ago, I can say with complete conviction that any other set of training or racing guidelines not in agreement with those held by Walden have inevitably led to failure.

 

The reality of confidence is much more ephemeral and emotional in nature than the logic of time suggests: it comes minutes at a time. A perfect extension, a pair of straightaway strokes, fast lap, a winning race - these feelings ladder up and can build confidence - particularly when there is a progression. Ultimately though confidence can be a house of cards undone by the faintest breath of weakness.

 

A slip? Getting passed? Dying on the final corner in an important race? Back to back exhausted practices where form seems to disappear? Like water in a drain, the tide of confidence washes away quickly and leaves no reminder of its presence. As each week and hour and second and skate stroke grew consecutively weaker and more anemic, so my confidence atrophied like light from the stub of a dying candle.

 

It seems hard to fathom – that ones’ results and confidence could be so high one year prior, only to fall so low. But in the mirror of hindsight and distance it becomes easy to gloss over the weeks and days and hours and suggest, “Well, you were great the year before – you knew you’d recover…”

 

I DID NOT know. Part of me believed the test results – that I was a poor athlete and that I didn’t belong… Part of me didn’t know what, or who to believe… If someone stopped me and said, "4 years from now you'll be standing on the podium at the Olympic games with a medal around your neck," I  would have nodded and smiled - but deep down I had begun to accept the possibility that I really wasn't very good. Fortunately a small part of me believed what Mike Walden, and Mark Affholter, and Stan Klotkowski had told me – that I could be world and olympic champion. So I chose to try and believe that…

 

...and prepared as if it were true...

 

 

By January of that season I was no longer the celebrated “ California skater who won the 1000m time trial at the world team trials and was 10th in the world” the year before, I was another burnt ember: the “low V02, ‘lucky’ guy, who couldn’t hack the realities of ‘real’ training for the sport.”

 

Unsurprisingly to those of you that know me now: despite all the advice and signs, I decided to buck convention and all of the advice: I went to Europe anyway.

 

I sold one of my bikes and received a little gift from my parents and raised a total of $1500 for my 2 month trip (which became 3 months by the way) to Europe . The $1500 I needed had to cover round trip airfare, 2 new pairs of skates, housing, food, and travel for 90 days....

 

I was all set.

 

I got a roundtrip fare from Chicago to Amsterdam for $400 and negotiated with the Viking skate factory in Holland to give me the national team discount and provide me new skates for $150/pair, so I spent another $300 on new skates. Now I had $700 left for 2 months. $1.33/day – perfect.

 

My parents helped me by springing for a Eurail pass in addition  - good for 60 days and 15 rides. I hoped to stay beyond the skating season and see a little bit of Europe so I decided to not activate it for those first 30 days. I got on the plane to Europe .

 

------------------

 

I arrived in Amsterdam in the early gray of morning after the usual overnight flight, exiting the white modern white terminal filled with the acrid smoke of European cigarettes to a typically gray, moist and damp Dutch day. After some navigation between the train station and the closest tram, I managed to find public transport to the Viking skate factory on the outskirts of town.

 

After a quick tour of the massive warehouse, I spent about 2 hours in the factory trying on skates barefoot in order to find a pair that fit perfectly. Sure they all “look the same” but the reality is that minute differences in the shape, stretch, and contours of the leather and blade made for significant differences. I’m a size 43 but I bought two pairs of size 41 skates for a tight fit, and added to that a custom distinction – switching the standard set of 16 ½ inch 1mm wide blades blades for 17 ½ blades and carrying a spare pair in a cardboard poster tube. I was set for the season.

 

I left the huge factory (the interior of which looked much like the end of the first Indiana Jones movie) where there were aisles and aisles of speed skates – primarily for the domestic public (there are over 1.2 million registered Dutch speed skaters – vs. about 2000 in the United States ) and walked back to where the main highway cut through town and followed an entrance ramp down to the viaduct.

 

First stop, Munich , and then onto Inzell, about 800km away. Ready, set, …. THUMB. I had never hitchhiked, but the concept was easy to understand.

 

Standing by the roadside next to the roaring traffic I was carrying a number of objects that, as it turns out, would become important later. I had my large black backpack with an internal frame full of about 50 lbs of clothing, shoes, and gear. I also had 2 boxes of skates, and one small poster tube with a spare set of blades. And then I had my 40lb duffel bag with all my skating stuff: sharpening jig and stones, oil, tools, skinsuits and warmups. All told I had about 100lbs of stuff – both hands were full and I had a back full of a backpack.

 

Other than the recent massive failures with regards to my training I generally considered myself as serendipitous – having a ‘green thumb for life’ – and on that day I got four aces. Not 20 minutes after I first stuck out my thumb, a rusty old jalopy pulled up and 4 doors popped open full of friendly, smiling young faces with Australian accents who asked pleasantly, “Where you headed mate?”

 

I told them.

 

“ Munich ? No shit! That’s where we are going! We just bought this old beater and are heading to Munich for Octoberfest! Climb on in!”

 

I had to tie my backpack to the roof and then held my skatebag and boxes on my lap in the middle seat of the rear of the old jalopy, but the warm dutch beers they passed around quickly had me laughing and jabbering away with the rest of them and we headed on our way all the way to the German border (OK, that’s like 30 miles – Holland is tiny).

 

Serendipity then lost her grip and a god-awful shaking took over the car and then shiny metal disks began to shoot from underneath the car in all directions to an incredible cacophony. At first I though the engine had exploded – except it was still running – but our forward progress began to slow as we coasted: we had dropped the transmission.

 

My newfound pals immediately began the mourning process but I had no vested interest in the bum auto deal they had made that morning and instead untied my backpack and resumed what would come to be a very typical posture over the coming months – standing with a slight lean at the edge of the road, arm curved with thumb out, trying to look ‘safe.’

 

A tow truck came and I said goodbye to the Aussies but an hour went without anyone stopping for me. Then two hours. I began to despair… and then it began to rain… hard.

 

I began to panic and ran for the next overpass and stopped in the shadow underneath. Now dueling needs began their wrestling: stay in the dark and not get picked up? Or be wet and miserable but visible?

 

I opted for a compromise and would choose cars that looked “kindhearted” and would dodge out into the light and rain with my thumb out.

 

This went on for quite some time and finally after another 2 hours (which is an incredibly long time by the way) suddenly my luck turned again. Behind a “kind looking” Euro station wagon was a large Euro truck/trailer combo that put on its air brakes and roared to a stop about 100m beyond the overpass.

 

I was overjoyed and sprinted up to the bright red cab.

 

I’ll never forget the face of the man who swung open the door – not because he was so memorable or unique by his-self – instead because his visage was so much like another – that of “Timmons” - the unfortunate wagon train driver in the movie “Dances with Wolves”. The same greasy hair, pudgy face, and the same cigar clenched firmly in his brown molars.

 

The difference in this case was that when he spoke, instead of a patois of redneck English, my driver spoke only in French and I had not the slightest idea of what he was saying. He didn’t seem to care, and jabbered away for quite a while until I was able to squeeze in, what seemed to me, an important verbal salvo: “ Munich – Munchen” – my destination.

 

“Deutschland!” I added, and he nodded and smiled and then began talking again and then began working the gears judiciously.

 

I was wet and tired (I was up all night on the overnight flight) and it was warm and dry and despite the smoke and the ambiguity of where I was going I just decided to trust in fate, and close my eyes.

 

Still talking my driver put the pedal to the metal and off we roared, crossing the German border shortly thereafter.

 

Sometime after a laborious dispute with the border guards and the repeated exit and return of my cigar smoking driver to review the contents of his load I fell asleep. It was just twilight, but the 36 hours I’d been awake, combined with the Dutch beers and contrast of the damp cold and the sudden warmth found me susceptible and I slept for hours without a care for where my wagon-train driver was taking me.

 

I was dreaming. Somone was fighting with me – buffeting me around my head and shoulders, intent on delivering a message. Finally I opened my eyes to find that I was being shaken.

 

4 inches from my face was the stub end of a dead cigar and my driver was shouting in French, roughly shaking me, stopping only when I finally moved an arm to indicate I was alive. I lifted up groggily looking through the windshield – seeing nothing but black.

 

The impassioned dialog and gesticulating continued but my head swam in a fog and it wasn’t until Timmons reached across me and unlatched the door and waved his finger that I finally understood.

 

Translation. “Get out.”

 

That’s what all that meant…

 

So I got out.

 

What else could I do?

 

I grabbed my backpack, my two boxes and tube and the heavy duffel bag and climbed down the steps of the big red cab, black in the darkness.

 

I first noticed the cold when the winds of the departing trailer swirled around me – it must have been only 35 degrees – and damp...

 

Then, location: where was I?  Ahead there was a lit sign over the highway and seemingly the only illumination for miles. Like a moth I staggered with my load to the flame.

 

I drew close enough to read the sign even as in the brightening gloom I could see the sudden division of the highway. The sign read, “Franzosich Rechts, Deutschland Links” – “ France left, Germany right.” My driver and his big red truck has gone right, the streaks of his disappearing taillights still remaining imprinted on my retinas – to France.

 

Thank you Timmons.

 

Now what?

 

As if on cue, it began to rain. At first it was a smattering of drops, but it then quickly settled into one of those steady downpours that last for hours.

 

The drops were initially stopped by hair and clothing, but within minutes they began to find channels through the already damp materials of my clothes and course down my back and into my shoes.

 

I began to shiver – violently. I immediately began walking as a defense mechanism – my 100lbs of ‘stuff’ burning more calories than a brisk walk would. But.. I hadn’t actually eaten.. and only a feeble warmth was generated from the effort. My teeth began to chatter uncontrollably. I still remember it. I kept thinking of George Washington for some reason. Wooden teeth. Mine sounded wooden – and it was so clichéd to have them bouncing up and down like as if they were in the hand of a spastic mannequin.  

 

Worse still – with my forward progress, all light disappeared and I found myself sloshing through inky blackness, just the twinkling of the drops and the occasional glint of road markers flashing wetly against the black giving any indication of time or space.

 

As my clothes became more thoroughly sodden it suddenly occurred to me – not one vehicle had passed in the last half hour… So I checked the time: 2am.

 

As I walked, I began to dissect what I knew about hypothermia – how your energy fails and instead of fighting you start to give in and then a calm begins to permeate your limbs. With a start I realized I had stopped walking. My jaw was still chattering though.

 

I began again – but back towards the light.

 

I crossed beyond it and then turned around, and then headed back again. One foot in front of the other, arms aching with the load.

 

So I began what became an incredibly long military drill of marching and discipline. Suffering.

 

Enduring.

 

My hands turned to ice, and my feet too. My legs and arms grew numb and I stopped wiping the water from my eyes and stopped hunching my shoulders to protect my neck. I just walked and when I grew tired of walking I began an ugly sloppy jog, lead footed and sloppy, but I jogged.

 

Sometimes I carried my stuff, other times I set it by the side of the road. I kept moving. I have never, ever been more tired… leaden, deadened, numb, cold.

 

At some point I began to realize that I could die.

 

Right there on a lonely stretch of highway I could just stop walking and die – and that in fact it could probably happen in less than an hour. I was so cold that it didn’t really phase me… and the lack of emotional response did scare my rational mind…

 

It was then that a sudden light grew behind me. Headlights.

 

Unbelievable!

 

Life resumed and hope grew and I marched back toward those lights waving my arms. The headlights remained dim pricks in the inky blackness for a while an then suddenly became bright with that weird sound familiar from TV – “wreee-oooowwwww” and the car erupted from the distance to directly in front of me to long gone in a matter of seconds.

 

My despair reached new levels.

 

3 am and I’m wearing dark clothes and I’m sopping wet in freezing temperatures while in the middle of f!#ing nowhere and I’m trying hitchhike on the goddamn autobahn! People are driving 120 mph! Who in their right mind is going to stop for the wet madman hitching on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere?

 

No one.

 

I might die. Maybe I’m ready to die. So tired, so cold, so hungry, so weak. No fire stoked below as I walked, no warmth stole through my limbs, but I knew if I stopped walking I would die and I didn’t want to die – I was too young to die, I had too much to do to die.

 

So I walked – away from the light, toward the light, away from the light, toward the light..

 

After about an hour and a half more of marching I decided to do some more exploring. There was an embankment to the right and I re-climbed it and saw… nothing. Not a light, not a house, not even a telephone pole – just the grass underneath my feet, and blackness…

 

Still, I resolved to pick a direction and assume that this, this hay, or grass or whatever that had been neatly mowed into rows, that someone – somewhere had done this work.

 

I resolved to follow a row.

 

I followed that row.

 

It didn’t take long before two things occurred: one, it began to get extremely dark – and hard to find my footing, and two, I began to think about all this grass, this neatly manicured row of grass… maybe…. maybe  I could…

 

I stopped. I turned around.

 

I saved my own life.

 

I walked back as close to the light as I could while still up the embankment and then I implemented the plan that had been slowly gestating in my head for the last 10 minutes.

 

First, I set down my bags and boxes, and then I began to gather the grass. Shoving, combing, lifting, gathering, I quickly developed a coffee table sized mound, and then it grew to the size of a doghouse, then two doghouses. For once the exertion warmed me and in about 15 minutes I had gathered a mound of grass about 5 feet high, ten feet in length (including taper) and 6 feet wide. Think about it – that’s a HUGE mound of grass – and fifteen minutes in the dark can feel like forever…

 

What came next took the most courage of all: after shoving my bags and boxes under protective cover of the grass, I then stripped down, exposing my body to the 35 degree downpour, and I removed every single bit of sodden clothing I had on including my soaking wet shoes until I stood naked in the field under the pouring 35 degree rain, shivering violently, hardly able to control my hands which were becoming more numb by the second.

 

Next, I pulled my one dry warmup jacket out of my backpack, and 3 dry racing skinsuits out of my duffel bag. Draping the jacket over my head like a floppy umbrella, I proceeded to put on all 3 spandex suits – one over the other, while staying mostly dry under the jacket.

 

Finally, I grabbed the heavy cardboard tube with the spare set of blades and shook the spare blades out onto the grass and then pushed them underneath the pile. I then pulled the tube under the protective cover of the jacket and then shoved it through one of its arms.

 

Finally, I got on my hands and knees and, with my head draped in a shoulder of the jacket, used it as protective cover against the wet outer layers of grass and burrowed carefully into the interior of the grass mound.

 

I had been careful to layer the dry bottom layers of grass from the mown rows into the bottom of my mound and quickly my problem became breathing amongst the dust and tendrils of dry grass versus the expected battle against drowning in the wet drops.

 

I wriggled carefully into what I conceived of as the middle of the mound and felt a million pricks of grass around me itching and catching the fabric of my skinsuit. But what I also felt was unique again that night – the sudden return of warmth reflected to my limbs from these same pricks.

 

Finally I reached out an arm and pushed it through the grass until I could feel the damp of the rain and then jammed the cardboard tube, along with the arm of the jacket through that tunnel in the hay and then adjusted the drape of the jacket – which still remained over my head – such that the arm and the corresponding tunnel of outside air created by the tube was right in front of my mouth and nose.

 

I blew out hard through the tube like a snorkel to clear the passage and then took a deep breath.  I was pleased to receive not the dusty air of the interior of my new straw home, but the cool damp oxygen of the outside world.

 

It may sound odd, but in about 90 seconds I was 100% out-cold asleep: warm, dry, a little itchy, but safe.

 

I was dreamless in my little cocoon – the long flight, the endless walking and worrying, the rain and shivering all passed into the warm depths of sleeps’ embrace.

 

Finally, the noise and rumble of passing traffic woke me up. It was still dark – yet I woke feeling refreshed as though I’d slept a decent long time. I figured I better wait until it was light before I began hitching, but I went through the exercise of pulling my arm up into my cocoon under the jacket and pushed the button to glow the light to see what time it was…. 2pm!  I had managed to sleep nearly 10 hours under a pile of grass – but wait – it was still dark – how could that be?

 

When I finally lifted an arm and parted the grass, a few faint streaks of light began to penetrate and I realized that it was, indeed, midday.

 

I stretched a little and then decided to burrow out through the top of my lair. Sure enough when I finally began to extricate myself, the brilliant afternoon sun of a clear day began to shine through.

 

It was then that my senses tingled… with the sudden quiet – the traffic noise and rumble of the autobahn and suddenly, inexplicably been, well, ‘turned off.’

 

The traffic noise and vibrations I had felt from the nearby autobahn had entered a deathly erie silence that seemed, oddly, to correspond with my recent exit from my cocoon.

 

Shaking off the straw, I opened my eyes fully and saw nothing at first but the brilliance of the midday sun and the shining piles of straw and grass littering the field in front of me. Beyond that I could see a corner of the autobahn with no cars navigating its long stretch.

 

Another run of cold blood… with that sensation I began to turn.

 

Behind me – not 15 feet away was one of the world’s largest pieces of machinery – a 20 foot high behemoth of modern industrial capacity – a ‘thresher’ collecting the fruits of the summer harvest – stopped dead in its tracks due to the odd formation of grass – the nest of which I had suddenly hatched…

 

I’ll never, for as long as I live, forget the next few seconds – both what actually happened, as well as the processes in my brain that finally switched on at this opportune time.

 

The door of the bright red cab swung open and out popped the head of a German farmer – at exactly the same time that I registered his expression – a face I’ll never forget in its openmouthed astonishment - I realized exactly what it was that I was wearing.

 

I had changed in the pitch black of a downpour without a thought to style or color. I had only 3 skinsuits in my possession at that time – two blue USA skinsuits, and one rather odd trade – a purple, pink and silver suit from the Belgian national team. Most notable was that this was the last one I put on, and furthermore I was wearing the purple hood – overtop the other 2 hoods and suits.

 

So… to conclude this interesting convergence of events, let me play it out from the farmer’s perspective: A long, stormy night… a huge field finally drying up in order to gather up the grass for market – let’s fire up the big machine – but Achtung! What’s this weird mound of grass… better slow down…

 

And then it happens – the mound moves and an appendage appears – it looks like a hand… but it is shiny and purple…

 

Out of it next comes the rest of this.. thing. Purple, pink and silver and shiny, no hair to be seen, this alien creature stretches as though it owns the place and then turns – and…

 

And it LOOKED RIGHT AT ME!

 

I began to laugh.  The ludicrousness of the situation suddenly permeated my core and I began to laugh and laugh and laugh. I bent over, rustling in the pile and pulled out my pack, bag and boxes and then carried those, along with my semi-scarecrow jacket with the tube still in the arm down the embankment to the autobahn still laughing.

 

I didn’t bother to dress – just stood by the road in the purple, pink and silver spandex and in less than two minutes a couple in a Ford Probe pulled over and picked me up and drove me not only to Munich, but the 30 miles beyond to Inzell, where they dropped me off at the rink in time for the Dutch national team training session.

 

I had missed the USA practice, so I asked for, and received permission to skate with the Dutch national team. Bart Veldkamp and Rintje Ritsma, famous in their roles within their country and for brief periods during the Olympic games, these same skaters were on the ice when my awkward limbs finally made their way out onto the rink.

 

I was doing some warmup laps, trying to gain some semblance of form and a couple of the younger Dutch team members formed behind me, but after a little while a chorus of curses rang in my ears and finally one of them skated up on the outside of me and said – “whats with all the grass?” They had been slipping on the bits of hay and grass continuing to escape from my skinsuit.

 

Chastened, I retired from the ice, entered the restroom and threshed my skinsuit like a doormat, finally returning to the ice without complaint.

 

After the session, Dutch laughter rang around the room, and finally someone switched to English and asked the inevitable question – “why so much grass? Old skinsuit? Sleep in a hayloft?” (laughter)

 

I finally explained my ordeal and they laughed, but now the distance was gone and many came by to thank me for entertaining them.

 

Even in Torino , 16 years later, I saw several of these Dutch skaters and without hesitance the called me by the appellation coined that day, “Hey Grasshopper!”

 

Afterword:

 

I would have quit speedskating for sure if I hadn’t had that miraculous tour through Europe 18 years ago. Mike, like always, was right: racing is the best training.

 

-John

Stan Klotkowski

Stan Klotkowski:

Stan Klotkowski was my coach back in the early 90’s. Stan is a polyglot from Poland who speaks Polish, German, Hungarian, English and probably several other languages. He became a regional coach for the United States International Speed Skating Association (USISSA) and found himself with the misfortune of being my coach in the 1990 and 1991 seasons.

Stan’s version of the English language was a lot of fun. It was interesting. His analogies and metaphors were unlike any I had heard. It was never quite certain if the metaphors and similes Stan offered up were Polish sayings or just ‘Stanisms’ – I suspected they were some combination of both. But they worked…

Here’s one: Stan told me over and over, “John – you makes skate like duck – feet wide opens – you must makes your feet straight – even when you are walking – you must always makes your feet straight.” Sure enough, on video I could see an awkard transition between strokes where my feet were pointing out.

Even to this day, I can find myself walking and then suddenly catching myself – making sure my feet are pointing forward. This last February, after a significant snowfall, I walked our dog around the pond behind our house. I was chagrined to find my footprints with my toes pointing out at an angle off center. I reversed it on the way home.

Some lessons never die.

Some of Stan’s other lessons were for others – but I still remember them. Rick Swanson, another skater under Stan’s tutelage had difficulty keeping centered over each leg – his knees tended to lean inward, knocking together with each stroke. Stan’s advice?

“Rick, you skate like young girl - first time having sex” (Here Stan pantomimes knees locked together) “You must makes your knees open – not like whore (he pantomimes legs wide open) – just straight – nor-mal”. We laughed about this one for a long time – but Rick’s technique immediately improved.

Stan, like Walden, believed in me. For an entire season, Stan would wake early, arrive at our slovenly hotel or dorm room, and take our resting pulse while were still sleeping to ascertain whether we were well rested. I think my inability to recover completely threw Stan off – he was always convinced that he had scared me or wakened me, or his favorite when I finally found a girlfriend, “Your pulse makes very high – but I think it was because you are finding a girl...”

In the early weeks with Stan – my first year of full time training after graduating from college, I progressed quickly, and his (and my) excitement grew. I was like a desert flower just waiting for rain – my jumps, my squats, and my lap times improved dramatically. But who knew that I was operating in a delicate ecosystem of fast twitch and slow twitch muscles?

As I worked harder and harder, my results, laps, and strength wained. This was vexing for everyone involved – but most of all for Stan and myself. For the second or third time in my life, I found a direct correlation between ‘working hard’ and ‘failure’. I began to soft pedal.

If for 2 or 3 months I was the first to wake up, the highest jumper, the deepest squatter, the most intensive when it came to technique and laps, eventually I began to just “show up.” The worst part? My results immediately improved – though not enough to make me a serious contender (despite being one for several years while training part time living in California).

I saw Stan a year and half ago in Salt Lake City. He was every happy, gregarious and complementary. He told my wife that, “if John had just makes more hard training, he makes Olympic champion and world champion – he is true talent.”

I’m so pleased to have had such a coach and inspirational figure in my life as Stan – he truly taught me proper skating technique and for those lessons I’m eternally grateful. But in the 20/20 vision of the rear view mirror – he was wrong. I failed the training regimen not from not working hard enough – I failed because I wasn’t made of the same stuff as an Eric Heiden or Bonnie Blair. I was and am a weak and fragile facsimile of those kinds of athletes. And when I forced my body into weeks and months on end of anaerobic, high intensity workouts with little rest, I removed the one chance I had for success.

Thank you Stan for all your care, support, and belief. I wish I had truly had the kind of talent you hoped to nurture in me. That said, despite my flaws, and with your adept guidance on technique – I did get pretty far.

-John

 

Stan Klotkowski, Feb, 2006

The Dohnal Family

Whenever I think of the Dohnals, I always think of the movie Parenthood. In particular, I think of the woman whose daughter was dating Keanu Reeves and whose son (Joaquim Phoenix) is in a bit of trouble. So much drama in that household in the movie - now multiply that into 2 daughters, and 3 sons, and you get an idea of the Dohnal household - mass chaos all the time. (And Jean Dohnal sounded, and even looked a lot like that mom in the movie) The reason I know it was similar is - I slept on their couch - a lot. For years on end it seems I would fly into Milwaukee or drive or get dropped off somehow at their house and I would either sleep on the couch out front or on the floor in David's room. They'd feed me and talk to me and make me do chores. Honestly I felt like one of the kids - just slightly better behaved - as befits a guest.

Bob (Mr. Dohnal) would ask me to shovel or clean something and I would do it - and then all the other kids would laugh at me - "You're actually going to DO it?" They'd say incredulously.  One time, because Bob found out I was an 'engineer' he asked me to fix a light switch. I did so, but when I put in the new one, I reversed the wires, and for years I get hell for the basement light switch where 'down was on, up was off'.

Growing up in a strict household where you didn't contradict your parents, it was absolutely stunning to me that these kids had so much freedom to mouth off and disobey - and in my earlier years, for a while, I thought in some weird smug yet jealous way, "these kids are going to turn out all bad..."

Let's see - David (Slacker) has done multiple duties in Iraq for the US military and will return home to his new bride in Alaska.

Brett and Kevin have both earned significant promotions in the military and are officers of significant stature and travel the world.

Cari is married and living a great outdoorsly life in Durango Colorado, and Darcie is a doctor with several beautiful children. She also won a silver medal in the 1992 Olympics and we traveled together for years on the world team.

So - why did they do it? Why did they feed and ferry some kid around they hardly knew (at first) back and forth to competitions? What prompts this kind of rewardless charity from parents with a large brood who are trouble enough on their own to take on multiple other kids as well and care for them? Why were those kids so nice to me?

I don't exactly know, but they have set the gold standard. I do also know, that my continued skating during my college years, while living in California, was significantly contingent upon my ability to come stay at their house again and again, for years on end, to compete in those meets. And without that continued exposure to the sport and quality competitions, I would have never have made an Olympic team.

Thank you Bob. Thank you Jean. Thank you Slacker and Darcie and Cari and Kevin and Brett. Maybe it seems small to you - but you all have had a big impact on my life.

-John

Torino #6: Famous People

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

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

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

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

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

(Derek Parra)

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

(Carrie Walsh)

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

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

paul-hedrick.jpg

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

(Bonnie Blair Cruikshank and David Cruikshank)

Bonnie Blair Cruikshank and David Cruikshank

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

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

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

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

(Picture: Nancy Kerrigan)

nancy.jpg

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

(Picture: Franz Klammer - still a stud)

franz.jpg

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

(Picture: The Visa "Bobsled Martini Bar")

visa-bobsled-bar.jpg

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

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

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

with-franz-klamer.jpg

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

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

-John   

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

A short track primer: 

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

SHORT TRACK SPEEDSKATING – an introduction 

Basics: The logistics of the sport of short track speedskating are easy to comprehend. A simple visual will suffice: inside the nicked and gauged plastic walls surrounding hockey rinks the world over an oval track is laid out using black plastic lane markers - 7 of them per corner, with one center, or apex block. The total course distance is 111.12 meters in length. 9 laps = 1000 meters.  Add a few speedskaters in their skin tight multi-colored suits racing not for time, but for the finish line – like track and field or horse racing – and the simple format is complete.  

Short track rink layout The fundamental metrics of short track speedskating are also straightforward – a fixed number of laps (or half laps) comprising an even distance in meters (500, 1000, 1500, 3000 or 5000 meters representing 4.5, 9, 13.5, and 27 laps respectively), with the first skater across the line being first.  Time on the stopwatch, while an interesting anecdote, does not factor into the results for the Olympic games. 

Racing: yet, like many things in life that seem straightforward, the actual play by play of the sport tends to defy the simplicity of its rules. Crashes, interference, and disqualifications factor into the results at levels unprecedented in any other sport, and even in “clean” races, the dynamics involved with multiple competitors lined up on a tight, short, narrow track of ice going 35 mph on 1mm wide, 18 inch blades means that the “fastest” skater quite often does not win.  One need only to remember watching the Australian Stephen Bradbury in the 2002 Olympics, who advanced by luck of disqualifications in the 1000 meter heats to qualify for the semi finals.

Self admittedly the slowest skater in those semi-finals, he proceeded to win that race - after all the other skaters crashed, placing him in the finals and into the medal round. Then again in the finals, while pacing off the back of a pack of top ranked USA, Korean, and Canadian skaters, Bradbury managed to avoid a disasterous crash that took out all four leading skaters and come across the line first – again not through his own merits – rather through the misfortune of the otherskaters. The gold medal was his – even though his efforts in all the preceding rounds in that race suggested those of a non-contender.  

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

Analogies: Short track tends to draw two analogies in sports – first, Nascar – due to the importance of drafting and the critical path skaters must follow to maximize their speed, and second, horseracing, for the relative importance of the track conditions and race length in the final result.  Who will win on any given day? It depends…. 

·         Is the ice soft or hard?  How long is the race?

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

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

·         What unforeseen events will occur?  

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

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

A 17” speedskating blade on perfectly smooth ice is grippier than rubber on asphalt and more stable than a ski on snow. The blade, its sharp edge, and its tracking ability while in motion, are able to smoothly receive every ounce of energy provided by powerful leg muscles to propel the skater forward. Granted, the motion is sideways – like tacking in the wind with a sailboat - but the 17 inch blade is like yards of canvas gathering wind. The lateral forces of the skater's powerful quadriceps are released to the ice in a tangential motion and converted to forward speed smoothly yet powerfully. Each stroke on the ice is a combination brute force (sheer power) and ballet (no wasted motion, fluid extension to the very tips of the range).  

Now imagine that ultimate grip – on good ice no amount of effort will result in a slip – with a slow concentrated push from the legs - massive force passing in liquid slow motion through the blade to the ice.  The strength of the contracted leg is absolute, and the hold of the blade provides an supreme feeling of power.

The controlled release of the piston-like skating strokes brings to mind the action of a hydraulic cylinder – a fluid, consistent, and powerful extension. If you have ever had the ill-fortune to push a stalled car, and were lucky enough to have a curb or wall as a backstop for your feet, then that incredible push you were able to deliver to the car to get it moving is the closest thing in life to the feeling of a speedskating stroke. Speedskaters regularly push over 1000lbs cleanly on the hip-sleigh in the gym.

Now, add to this powerful motion the g-force dynamics of a jet fighter and you have the right combination.  As a skater moves towards the corner, there is a momentary feeling of weightlessness as the body lifts with the final skate stroke, and then falls as the body and center of gravity compress downward and sideways to enter the corner.  As the direction of the skater changes, centripetal forces cause a 2G acceleration to crush the body lower (double your weight). In order to stay aligned over the center of the 1mm blades, the skater rolls inward, and the upper body leans way out over the blocks. The powerful motion of the crossovers (corner strokes) then take over and compel the the preservation of the momentum carried into the corner. Timed right, you’ll see the powerful combination of the full extension of the left leg underneath the right leg (the 'classic' speedskating pose) with both blades carving firmly just prior to the apex of the corner (the center-most block).  

Having two feet down at that precarious moment preserves the integrity of the corner and allows the skater to enter a “pivot” – a one footed completion of the change of direction back toward the far end of the rink, and then begin to relax the arc of the corner a bit through the latter half – reducing the G forces and allowing multiple crossover strokes of acceleration into the straightaway. The apex block is also the focal point of most crashes and many disqualifications.

At this point of the turn the muscles of the body are stressed to the max – imagine squatting down to a 90 degree bend on one leg… holding it, and then putting on a 150lb backpack (the additional pressure provided by the 2G acceleration of the turn). Then balance all of that on a 1mm blade while leaning over far enough to put your elbow on the ground… 

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

Is it hard? This extremely controlled and concise motion is difficult. However – the motions are repetitive – unlike ballet, gymnastics, or figure skating the number of required motions is drastically reduced. That said though, the real difficulty of the sport lies in the constant compression of the body required to form the aerodynamic shape. Wind resistance, ultimately, is the primary obstacle to speed. If speedskating races were held a vacuum, a skater could stand nearly upright and kick out a series of highly powerful shallow strides in rapid sequence to attain maximum speed. However, with the friction of wind the comes with speeds approaching 40 mph, the skater is required to try and form a teardrop shape, with arms and legs bent in a greater than 90 degree angle.

The loss of muscular leverage at these compressed angles is severe – I won’t try to describe the physics, but just imagine these two examples:  1) Imagine if you had someone sitting on your shoulders. Now, in a fully upright standing position, imagine bending your knees slightly and then straightening them again. If you can imagine that situation, you probably can imagine that performing that minor knee bend and subsequent straightening would be very easy. The human body’s power output from near-full extension of the muscles involved is tremendous. Most of us could imagine even jumping a little with that weight on our back. However, this position is ineffective due to the constraints of wind resistance.

Instead… 2) Imagine squatting down – all the way down, sitting on your heels. Then extend one leg straight out – kind of a Russian dancer stance. Now imagine lifting the heel of the extended leg up off the ground. Finally try to stand up using only the completely bent leg’s power: nearly impossible for anyone other than an acrobat, Russian dancer, or speedskater. Do that with double your weight and you have the pivotal moment of the sport.  The compressed body position required by the aerodynamics of the sport demands high power from the legs in a full range of motion, with an extreme amount of coordination of balance and timing, and an alignment of weight and effort. These subtle refinements require a series of heretofore unused muscles in the abdomen, hip, knee, and ankle to constantly adjust to ensure that the powerful compressed stroke passes evenly sideways without interruption or slippage.  

This is why few that have started the sport after age 13 succeed, and how a 25 year old skater with 5 years of experience will still look like an awkward novice compared to a 10 year old with the same experience. After some point, the synapses required for the exquisite control wither away and cannot be trained. (See an interesting article by Daniel Coyle on this topic: How to Grow a Super Athlete - http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B04E1DC1E3EF937A35750C0A9619C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=10 )  The only exception to this hard and fast rule is the relatively recent crossover of in-line athletes. Not surprising considering the similarities of the two sports. 

Why all the disqualifications? In the relatively recent years since short track speedskating has entered the mainstream consciousness, it has brought along with it the expected perceptions of speed and danger and unpredictability. In addition, there also exists an ongoing element of controversy with regards to the judging system and the calls for disqualification (or lack thereof) that have occurred in many of Olympic races. In the first few Olympics where short track took place (1992, 1994) the din centered around two time gold medalist American Kathy Turner in the women’s races. In 2002 the men took on their fair share of the controversies: 

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

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

Which brings us back to 2002, where in the1500m mens final, a disqualification of Korean skater Kim Dong Song led to a gold medal – a first for American men – being awarded to Apolo Ohno who physically crossed the line second. However, the controversial nature of the call, and the dearth of medals for the strong team of Korean men led to highly publicized death threats from the Korean public. When Apolo returned to Korea for the first time since the 2002 Olympics for the 2005 world championships, he was met at the airport by 100 policemen in full riot regalia – just in case.  

Then, of course there was the 1000 meter incident with Bradbury… 

One unexpected outcome of all the uncertainty in the sport of short track is cultural in nature. One might expect that with all of the clashes and crashes, disqualifications and controversy that the tensions between rival teams and competitors might be very high: that the close proximity in the races might result in a natural distancing factor between athletes off ice and outside the venue.  Surprisingly, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

A look at the sister sport of long track speedskating, a sport with no physical contact, few to no disqualifications, and racers competing almost clinically against the clock (in separate lanes and only two at a time) finds a culture where competitive tensions are at their highest. Long Track speedskaters are, more often than not, solitary, taciturn creatures, with serious countenances betraying the competitive tension embodied in every activity.  Short track skaters, in contrast tend to convivial, open and playful, with the occasional prank between and within teams a long standing tradition – a culture where each emotional explosion at referees for a disqualifaction (or lack thereof) is equally matched by the off ice hijinks, stories and accompanying laughter between the skaters in their locker rooms, in the shared spaces playing hackysack, and back at the hotel over dinner.

It as if the vagaries of the sport, the unpredictability of the results, and the shared suffering of uncertainty over the whims of lady luck has created a common culture of tolerance, humility and respect between athletes of different cultures, languages and perspectives. In deference to this very real aspect of the sport, there is an oft repeated, little understood phrase repeated consistently by the competitors that ultimately reflects this shared understanding - a phrase that tends to sound awkward without all of the context behind it.

This phrase was aptly quoted by our own Apolo Ohno. Apolo was interviewed on camera just after the 2002 Olympic 1000 meter gold medal race where he had crossed the finish line sprawled across the ice, belly up, in second place after being taken down from behind by a four skater chain reaction crash in the final corner. He had just lost certain gold to the unlikely Australian Steven Bradbury who glided in on the wings of lady luck – well out of contention - yet the winner of the coveted gold medal. Asked for his views on the events that had unfolded, it would have been understandable if  Apolo had been less than charitable, especially given the stiches he would undergo, and the scrutiny he received for his "lucky" prior finish, and the fact that he was clearly intefered with… Apolo could have said things such as “it was unfair, I had it in the bag, the Korean skater grabbed my leg, Steven wasn’t even a contender…” but true to the culture of the sport, and out of respect for the dozens, if not hundreds of races that Steven didn’t win under similar circumstances, Apolo merely shrugged, smiled, and uttered those those seemingly innocuous yet significant words repeated over and over in this turbulent and exciting world: “That’s Short Track.”  

It sure is.

John K coyle

Torino #5: Racing and Working

Newsletter #5 February 19, 2006: Racing and Working 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The production crew

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

Using the telestrater

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

Wires and more wires

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

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

Stephen Bradbury & I

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

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

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

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

Italian House

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

Bud Dome on the River Po

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

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

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

 -John K Coyle

john coyle

Torino #4: Arrival and first days

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

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

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

 Riberi media village

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

my room at Riberi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leslie Visser and Dan Wienstein

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

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

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

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

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

Working the booth - myself, Dan Wienstein, Ted Robinson

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

Keeping stats for shorttrack

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

Preview - Newsletter #5: coming soon! 

 -John     

john k coyle

john coyle

Torino #3: Departure

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

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

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

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

Torino 2006 Long Track Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-John

john coyle

john k coyle

Torino #1: The Road to Torino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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