Vancouver Journal #13: Beginnings and Endings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I knew exactly how he felt.

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

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

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

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

“What did you say?” I asked.

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

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

Vancouver Journal #9: To walk or not to walk?

Vancouver Journal #9: Opening Ceremonies – to walk or not to walk? Monday, February 15, 2010

Years, even decades of training go into an Olympic bid, and most of the millions that attempt this feat fail to join the few thousand that do. Morning, afternoon and evening they suffer, sweating and straining in pursuit of a distant dream – a few remembered snapshots from childhood serving as the glowing grail for this quest.

For most, those images can be distilled down to two mental pictures that have kept them motivated all these years. First and foremost is the vision of climbing the podium, bending down to receive an Olympic medal to the roar of the crown and the tears of joy and relief from friends and family.

There is another dream though, one that is far more realistic for the thousands of Olympians here chasing dozens of medals, and that dream is to march in the opening ceremonies and witness the pageantry surrounding the lighting of the Olympic cauldron.

But this dream is fading: more and more athletes are skipping the opening ceremonies and the parade of nations has become a gentrified walk of coaches and staff.

Why? You might ask.

In pursuit of the primary dream, everything becomes secondary – the vision of that ephemeral medal becomes ever more singular and the lesser, more realistic dreams fall away. To walk in opening ceremonies is to be on your feet for 2 – 3 hours – certainly not on anyone’s list of “best preparation” techniques for an athletic competion. Many simply choose not to attend – which is certainly their right.

However, some are just banned from participating by coaches and staff. At least one team I’m aware of was banned by their NGB (national governing body) to walk in the opening ceremonies – probably dozens.

Then there is the middle ground, some are “guilted” out of going. For the U.S. Short Track team, they were told it would be “selfish” to walk.

Wait, you say, that’s terrible!

Well, perhaps it is not so simple. As a skater in the relay, three other people who have dedicated their life to this sport are relying on YOU to put in the performance of a lifetime – just to make it to the medal round. If a skater were to walk in the opening ceremony and fail to pull his or her weight during the race – and the team were to lose as a result, then yes, perhaps that would be selfish.

Further, there is the mental aspect – everyone is always trying to find that edge, a refrain in the brain saying “I’ll bet the Koreans are not walking,” starts to further frame the issue.

I’m very happy to have the memories of walking in the Lillehammer opening ceremonies and witnessing the spectacle of a ski jumper flying 100 meters through the air while carrying a flaming torch in his grasp…

But, I have to admit I would trade that memory in a second for the silver medal those games also provided.

Is there a solution to this quandary? One solution would be to require every competing athlete to walk in the opening ceremonies in order to even the playing field. This seems unlikely, but the second solution is potentially more realistic – what if they planned the opening ceremonies two days before the first event?

I’m reminded that the Olympic motto is "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle.”

Still, has something gone missing?

Vancouver Journal #8: Prime Time! The Short Track Competition Viewing Schedule

Stephen Colbert is here - somewhere - he'll be at the races on Wednesday.  Who would have believed it - my little sport, little old short track, was broadcast live and in Prime Time on Saturday night to ratings well above the last Olympics where skiing was the headliner. And it did not disappoint - from Apolo's sweeping pass in the heats showing that he's here to race and "send a message," to JR Celski's miraculous return after a major injury, and then the rough and tumble final where at first it looked like Apolo would win, then a near certain 4th, and then around the final corner a crash leading to a silver and bronze for USA - that's short track.

In case you were ever wondering what kind of intense training is involved for these skaters to race like this, here's a great piece done by Time:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdKiY92WE40&feature=player_embedded

I HATED the turn belt, though I rather enjoyed the stair jump workouts - jumps were one of the few workouts I was good at.

I'm a bit behind on posting pictures - haven't figured out how to download from my older camera (can't find the right driver), but opening ceremonies were amazing, as was last night's first medals ceremony. I'm off right now to watch the Long Track 500m races, followed by US short track practice. Here's the current schedule - only the finals are guaranteed to be shown, but it seems likely we will broadcast most of the races:

February 17     5:00 p.m. – 5:12 p.m. Women’s 500m Quarterfinals Pacific Coliseum

Wednesday      5:25 p.m. – 5:57 p.m. Men’s 1000m Heats Pacific Coliseum

                                 6:10 p.m. – 6:17 p,m. Women’s 500m Semifinals Pacific Coliseum

                                 6:32 p.m. – 6:53 p.m. Men’s 5000m Relay Semifinals Pacific Coliseum

                                7:06 p.m. – 7:10 p.m. Women’s 500m B Final Pacific Coliseum

                                7:11 p.m. – 7:15 p.m. Women’s 500m A Final Pacific Coliseum

February 20     5:45 p.m. – 6:15 p.m. Women’s 1500m Heats Pacific Coliseum

Saturday             6:28 p.m. – 6:44 p.m. Men’s 1000m Quarterfinals Pacific Coliseum

                                   6:58 p.m. – 7:15 p.m. Women’s 1500m Semifinals Pacific Coliseum

                                   7:28 p.m. – 7:37 p.m. Men’s 1000m Semifinals Pacific Coliseum

                                   7:50 p.m. – 7:56 p.m. Women’s 1500m B Final Pacific Coliseum

                                   7:56 p.m. – 8:03 p.m. Women’s 1500m A Final Pacific Coliseum

                                   8:05 p.m. – 8:09 p.m. Men’s 1000m B Final Pacific Coliseum

                                   8:10 p.m. – 8:15 p.m. Men’s 1000m A Final Pacific Coliseum

February 24     5:00 p.m. – 5:32 p.m. Women’s 1000m Heats Pacific Coliseum

Wednesday      5:46 p.m. – 6:11 p.m. Men’s 500m Heats Pacific Coliseum

                                 6:25 p.m. – 6:35 p.m. Women’s 3000m Relay B Final Pacific Coliseum

                                 6:35 p.m. – 6:45 p.m. Women’s 3000m Relay A Final Pacific Coliseum

February 26     6:00 p.m. – 6:12 p.m. Men’s 500m Quarterfinals Pacific Coliseum

Friday                  6:14 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. Women’s 1000m Quarterfinals Pacific Coliseum

                                  6:43 p.m. – 6:50 p.m. Men’s 500m Semifinals Pacific Coliseum

                                  6:52 p.m. – 7:01 p.m. Women’s 1000m Semifinals Pacific Coliseum

                                  7:13 p.m. – 7;17 p.m. Men’s 500m B Final Pacific Coliseum

                                  7:17 p.m. – 7:22 p.m. Men’s 500m A Final Pacific Coliseum

                                  7:23 p.m. – 7:28 p.m. Women’s 1000m B Final Pacific Coliseum

                                  7:28 p.m. – 7:34 p.m. Women’s 1000m A Final Pacific Coliseum

                                  7:50 p.m. – 8:02 p.m. Men’s 5000m Relay B Final Pacific Coliseum

                                  8:03 p.m. – 8:15 p.m. Men’s 5000m Relay A Final Pacific Coliseum

Vancouver Journal #6: Passing the Torch

Vancouver Journal #6: Passing the Torch

Thursday, February 11, 2010

 It was drizzling and chilly and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to do it. But I had agreed to do it so there I was in sketchy neighborhood of Detroit at 8pm on a Friday night. Then they told me, “the torch is a couple of hours late, can you wait?”

 The Olympic torch has been crossing Canada for more than 100 days now, passing in and out of 90% or more of the communities of this huge country along the way. A few days ago, on day 102 it made its way to the west coast, 60 miles north of Vancouver into a community of a few hundred called Mission.

Yesterday in a kickoff meeting for the NBC crew, John Furlong, the architect of this games’ proposal spoke in clear, simple and inspiring terms about the journey of the Olympics to Vancouver, and of the torch itself. “Amazingly,” he said, with a mist of tears forming in his eyes, “at 6am on a weekday, there were more than 10,000 people lining that road for the one single minute it took for the runner to pass through that tiny community.”

Back in the mid-90’s, as a part of the Atlanta summer games, the Olympic torch passed through Detroit. I guess Detroit was short on Olympians at the time because they not only asked me to take a leg of the torch run (and who is “they?” I still don’t know) but they asked me to anchor the main leg into the city on a Friday night.

I remember thinking, “Friday? Really? I guess so...”

I’m sad for my former self. I didn’t realize the import of the moment, the sacrifice and time of the volunteers, or the deeper meaning of the run of the torch across the country and into the Olympic stadium that characterizes each Olympic games. No, I was too busy with my stuff. Did I thank the dozens of volunteers that checked me in, gave me a gift bag, helped me select a t-shirt? Maybe. Maybe, I thanked one or two people and ignored the organizing effort that had delivered this odd and miraculous moment.

After the torch left the tiny community north of Vancouver, it started brushing the outskirts of this large city, and the next town it entered had 50,000 people lining the streets – all to see a butane-lit fire pass through its city limits. The next town had 100,000 people. In just a few days, a billion people will witness its final journey through the stadium just a few blocks from here as part of the opening ceremonies.

Why? Why show up to a guaranteed non-event?

I wondered the same myself 15 years ago in Detroit as I shuddered in the rain wearing the white “torch bearer t-shirt” and shorts. Finally 2 hours later I received the handoff of the flame to my torch, lit it and began to run. In less than 100 yards I exited a forest preserve area and entered the city proper. Rather than a fun evening event for a family at 8pm on a balmy Friday night, it was now 11pm and raining steadily – who would stay out now? I knew I had to run only 1 mile, but no one had conditioned me for the impossible reality that somehow, someway, 100,000 people were still there lined 7 and 8 deep for a mile, screaming and cheering, watching the flame bounce in my unsteady grasp. All that effort just to watch this – this arbitrary passing of the flame. Why? Why did they bother? Who cares? As an Olympian I didn’t quite ask those questions, but I did wonder.

I finished my leg of the run, passed on the flame to the next runner and extinguished my torch and then proceeded to ignore the very adamant advice by the torch bearer team to empty my torch’s butane tank (it still fires up beautifully 14 years later!) and then I went home.

This is where the mystery starts. I ran the leg, got wet, tired out my arm, and went home. Apparently (and I don’t remember this) a few days later I brought the same torch to the beach clubhouse where I had grown up and where I worked on and off with my mom selling candy and flipping burgers. I apparently showed it to a little girl named Meryl and her parents, who lived a couple houses away on the street behind us.

The fact that this happened, and that I don’t remember it, reminds me of a quote worth repeating from someone I care about deeply about:

“I guess you never know what role you may play in someone’s life or just how important the things you choose to do or say or choose not to do or say may turn out to be.”

The father of a good friend said just those words to me four years ago almost to the day when his son won an Olympic medal in Torino and again I was reminded of the effects and outcomes of words and deeds – someone is always watching.

As it turns out, little girl living just a couple houses away was watching and saw something that mattered – or at least her parents did.

The little girl isn’t little anymore – she’s 23, and she’s here in Vancouver on her first Olympic team. Her name is one you may well get to know in the coming days - it is Meryl Davis, and she’s very, very good at her sport of figure skating (ice dance). As Dick Ebersol relayed clearly to the broadcast team yesterday, she and her partner Charlie White are one of the potential breakout stories of this Olympics.

I only learned all this four days ago, and a day later I found myself on the phone with Cheryl Davis, Meryl’s mom. Cheryl was recalling that moment in the beach clubhouse, and how important it had become in their lives.

Last night I was fortunate enough to have dinner with figure skating Olympians Paul Caruthers, Kristi Yamaguchi and Paul Wylie and they all indicated that the “energy” in this subjective sport was warming towards Meryl and Charlie as potential gold medal favorites.

I guess you never know what role you may play in someone’s life…”

I wish this little girl the very best in the coming days.

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.