Really Living: Casablanca, Morocco... 25 years ago (vol 1)

After nearly a year long hiatus primarily due to work demands, I'll be re-launching this blog over the coming weeks and months. I say re-launching vs. re-starting because I will be re-branding it as well. In the next few weeks this site will be re-named "Really-Living" and will be re-organized around that concept. I will also try to post regularly - shooting for every Thursday. Discovery: A gift from my 17 year old self:

My basement last summer: grey light slanted through the sliding glass doors and pooled around puddles of warmer light under the bare bulbs and their dangling strings. Squatting in a far corner I sorted through piles of books, shoeboxes heaping with old letters, and a plasma globe from the 80’s. There, under a pile of receipts for products long since gone was a pair of unlikely objects. I had a sense of déjà vu as I drew them from the bottom of the box, a sudden wave of haunting intimate knowledge yet unfamiliarity: a tiny spiral bound notebook, and a thin red hardbound training diary bound by a rubber band. Two 25 year old gifts from my 17 year old self – jaggedly scrawled journals of my first two trips to compete in the world championships – first, the 1986 world speedskating championships, and  second, the 1986 junior world cycling championships.

Of the two artifacts, my curiosity was piqued the most by the latter. Africa, Morocco, Casablanca – the scents and sounds came flooding back - torn pages of memory now whole: senior year of high school, graduation, the 7-11 cycling team, Eddy B., the Colorado Springs Olympic training center, and a return to a familiar yet alien place where I was yet an outsider. A dozen 17 year old kids dropped in North Africa with little supervision absorbing the sights and sounds of a completely foreign culture... Then… yes then, a sudden smile, a memory of that day that preceded it all: the heat, still air over shimmering concrete, and the crisp latticed shadow of bicycle wheels on the velodrome, and the “perfect race” an exquisite combination of adversity and triumph, surprise reversals, and vindication.

No. Nothing since had ever topped it. Not any of the following world championships, not the Olympics or the medal race. No, the “perfect race” of that summer possessed all the elements of a McKee plot – the inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, and resolution. Never again would the outcome of a race so utterly possess all facets of my existence. More to come on that race, but first the denouement: Casablanca, Morocco. (Pictures complements of Stefan Spielman, journal is un-edited except for punctuation)

The creased binder creaked as I eagerly opened to the first page of the journal and read those first words, penned by that familiar stranger. Walking backward into a dream I read:

(Tuesday) The plane flight was 6 1/2 hours and I didn't sleep at all. We left at 8:00pm from New York and arrived at 7:30am in Casablanca, Morocco.

The people at the airport treated us very well, although they didn't speak English. We drove through a dry wasteland - shrubs and dead grass - to our hotel on the outskirts of downtown on the ocean. I wish I had a camera - there are so many strange sights and smells. Men hold hands with men and women with women - a social custom that apparently you do with friends.

It is flat here for the most part. The people here are generally very dark skinned and many seem to have some black as well as arab ancestry. There are also some full blown african natives here. About half of the people are wearing long shawls in town while the rest have 'normal' clothes, but the further from downtown you get, the more the traditional dress gains a monopoly. The traditionally dressed women usually wear hoods and veils.

Armed and unarmed soldiers are stationed occasionally on the highway and in the city. There are nice modern buildings in town, but there are a lot of rundown chipped stucco apartment buildings too. There are some nice houses, but otherwise the average household dwelling consists of a small vegetable garden surrounded by a white painted wall on three sides and a shabbily built flat-topped, low-roofed house comprising the fourth wall. The floors appear to be dirt. There are also houses made of cheap corrugated sheet metal rusting into the dirt - very poor.

The people seem to like us very much - I'm not sure if it is because we are Americans or because we are cyclists. After unloading our stuff, we set off to find a place to eat at 10:00am. Apparently restaurants serve meals only at certain times, so we went to three places before being able to get someone to serve us food.

When we arrived at the hotel, no one spoke Arabic or French in our group so we were having a hard time. We weren't making much progress until a young man - approximately 22 years old - very nice looking with nice clothes (casual) and a cheerful attitude introduced himself as Mohammed and told us he would help us. He helped us unload and get our rooms and found us a restaurant. He kept asking us about "Rock and Roll" and if we liked Chuck Berry, E.L.O., or Ray Charles. He was very entertaining.

He explained that he was an English major at the university and that he wanted to be a translator someday, so he was practicing. When we finally found a restaurant, Mohammed ordered for everyone. While we were waiting for the next 15 minutes we were accosted by approximately 17 "street sellers" selling sunglasses, chains, ornaments, wallets, and shoe shines. I was smart enough to give a definite no and look away, but some of the guys looked at the stuff, while others would say no and then watch the men with interest in their eyes. Some of the guys (Mike and Greg especially) got rude - which didn't help much. One of the peddlers had open sores and pustules all over his body - talk about culture shock! The man selling sunglasses was trying to sell them for $25. Before he left, he was asking only $5.

Mohammed and the owner finally drove them off so we could eat. Lunch was composed of French Bread (very good - it comes with all meals) and steak and French Fries with Coke or Orange juice to drink. I  had Coke - I wasn't going to risk getting sick. I ended up eating a Shishkebob someone had ordered (Stefan) as well. It was pretty good but everything has a weird taste.  The smells are weird too - our Hotel has this strange musty smell. Scott says it is incense. After lunch we slept until 4:00pm then got ID cards for worlds, then went for a ride.

The people loved us - everywhere we went people would wave – hundreds and thousands of them (a far cry from a ride earlier in New Jersey prior to Somerville and Nutley where after 100 “hello’s” only one small boy returned our greeting) . They also all had something to say – everyone would always wave and yell something in French or Arabic. We rode 20 miles – first we went to the track then South along the coast, and then finally around the 8 mile road course loop which is relatively flat with one 180 degree turn and was marked with arrows painted on the road.

We then went to eat the correct time at the hotel. At one point, as we returned our bikes through the parking garage, we came upon our hotel staff removing dead chickens from the trunk of the car – bodies complete with feathers intact and simmering (festering?) in the heat in the trunk. No surprise, we had French bread, bean soup, an omelet with spices, and – of course – chicken for the main course w/ apple pastry for dessert, all with mineral water to drink – pretty good!

After dinner, Stefan, Scott and I went out to the beach, walking down the shiny cobbled steps to the sand. Every night about 8:00 it gets cloudy and foggy until morning – whereupon it clears up – all the cars have yellow headlights for the fog.  The tide was coming in and we climbed around the ruins of some old castle or other building, then sat on the rocks that the ten foot high waves were crashing on. We looked across the 1000’s of miles of water back to home. It was really beautiful.

I’m going to bed – its still Tuesday.


Next up: Where Mohommed is arrested and dragged away by his hair, screaming...

Vancouver Journal #10 - TV debut and racing

I haven’t had much time to write but it has been a crazy and fun week. Katelina and Shannon came in for three action packed days taking in opening ceremonies, the first day of short track, the award ceremonies with Nellie Furtado. Opening ceremonies was a rather significant investment – but worth it. I hope it is something Katelina will remember her whole life and that it lights a little spark for her – more on that to come.
On Thursday I made my broadcast TV debut (with the exception of a very confusing interview in Albania last May:
NBC Universal Sports does a morning show live by the waterfront with previews and recaps for the action taking place. Somehow they got my name to help them out on short track and of course I accepted, despite the early wake up (6am).
So Thursday morning at 6:45am I showed up to a white tent on the plaza next to the torch and proceeded to "get makeup" which consisted of some airbrushing and powder, and then on to the set with Terry Gannon and Lindsay Soto. We reviewed a video of the night’s races and I provided commentary and answered questions. My face was only on screen for a minute or less and the whole thing was only 5 minutes or so, but if was fun.

Apparently I did OK - they invited me back and Saturday morning and Lindsay and I previewed tonight’s races and I was on air about 15 minutes or so (w/ commercial break). It was fun and I was only a little nervous. After that show the producer sent me an email that said "they loved you and we want you back," so that’s good. It is truly amazing that the little sport that consumed much of my life and saw maybe 2 minutes of airtime in Lillehammer is now dominating the airwaves during primetime. It is the dream we all had hoped the sport would realize.

Saturday night, at 6pm local, and 8pm CST, we went live again with short track. Actually, all of it wasn’t live we "Elvised-in" the men’s 1000 preliminaries before going truly live some time after 7pm (9pm CST). "Elvising" is basically running things on a short delay so that various segments can be better coordinated – apparently an EVS machine does this process. the women’s 1500m heats aired on late-night.

I’ve been doing some diagrams for the producer as well and the first one I did aired the other night – just a simple figure of a tight track vs. a wide track. Here’s some snapshots of diagrams you may see coming up in the broadcast.

Passing patterns for short track
Simple stuff, but they like it. I've spent about 10 hours building another one for the relays - coming soon.
Saturday’s races were phenomenal and Apolo now is the most decorated Winter Olympian in U.S. history. Were it not for 3 slips – one for each American, I think J.R. Celski, Katherine Reutter, and Apolo would have had different placings – Apolo gold, Reutter probably silver and Celski would have been in the final – possibly with a medal.
Reutter was truly amazing in the final, skating near the front, reacting quickly to every move and then sliding a little too far forward and clicking, dropping from 2nd to 8th in the blink of an eye. Fighting fiercely, she staged a furious comeback passing her way back into 4th place, just one spot shy of a medal. No slip and she’s for sure silver, possibly gold.

Next up, the men’s final. The atmosphere in the arena was charged with energy. I don’t know how to describe it – it is different, I think, than a hockey game or other events. Hockey lasts a long time with lots of action. Short track is sort of an extended set of pendulum swings that crescendo into a peak into the final seconds of the medal round.

First, the preliminaries with hometown favorites and the associated nail biting passes and false starts generating nervous excitement and spontaneous celebrations. These were followed by the lull of the ice resurface, and then the semi finals where everything is laid on the line and in split seconds the medal race is decided. Another lull for another resurface, and then this weird hush and then a building energy, a low vibration building into a thrumming and then roaring and chanting as the skaters took their marks for the gold medal round, where in just over one minute fortunes would be made, and lost.

The skaters were introduced, one by one, helmets off, and then the scoreboard suddenly flashed, "Silence!" forcing the 11,000 on their feet in the sold out stadium into a momentary quiet before the gun cracked open the explosion of sound. After that I could no longer hear Ted or Andy – only an overwhelming wave of white noise crushing my eardrums.

With 2 ½ laps to go Apolo was in 3rd behind the Hamelin brothers – both from Canada – and the hometown crowd was screaming. But the crowd didn’t know what we knew – that the train was just about to leave the station with Apolo setting up wide and two Koreans in tow. A sudden stumble and Apolo went backwards as the Koreans streamed by and into the lead. Then with only a half lap Apolo rallied, swinging around the Canadian brothers, and the rest, as they say, is history: 7 Olympic medals in one of the most unpredictable sports in the world.





Vancouver Journal #2: The World’s Biggest Party

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Last week I received my NBC credentials in the mail. More than airplane tickets, the hotel room, the food at the commissary, the salary or per diem, these two laminated plastic cards are the primary perk for being a part of the NBC Olympic team. With these two cards I will be able to enter virtually any event at the Olympics and get down to the “mixed zone” where only athletes and press are allowed. Sadly opening ceremonies are the one even where even these credentials won’t work. .

The Olympics, for most, are a television event. People from around the world tune in to watch their favorite sport and watch the unfolding drama. Part of the delight of watching is the grand backdrop, the once-in-four-years stories of success, and those “agony of defeat” episodes as well.
A series of traditions help to create the spectacle: the running of the torch, the fanfare and fireworks of the opening ceremonies, the parade of nations and, finally, the lighting of the torch. (See pictures attached from the Torino Olympics opening ceremonies.)

But being there is different. The Olympics are the single biggest party in the world. For 17 days, a few million people, all in a good mood, all with a love of sport, walk around in a perpetual state of delight – wide eyes taking in the spectacle of a city transformed – many with family or friends, or the friend of a friend taking part in the events. I would expect that downtown Vancouver will be much like Torino was four years ago – throngs of people in hats and scarves pouring in and out of cafes and restaurants, bars and shops, camera crews and temporary broadcast pods, and the occasional brightly colored warmup suit of an athlete strolling casually along with everyone else.

 Most people are nervous to speak to the athletes, but for the most part, these fears are unwarranted. 99.99% of these athletes have toiled in anonymity for years, if not decades. To be recognized by strangers for their investment with few interested questions and a request for a snapshot can make an athlete’s day – and indeed in a half hour stroll you will likely see a dozen or more of these spontaneous group shots taking place, brightly suited athletes surrounded by a huddle of smiling strangers blocking pedestrian traffic to complete the picture. The atmosphere is even more enchanting in the evening. Even as the temperatures drop, a new level of interpersonal warmth is created.

In Torino, incredibly colorful and complex lighting displays arched over the streets downtown lighting the vapors of breath and laughter in the cold winter air. The question, “where are you from,” usually with an accent is more than a gesture of politeness – it is an invitation to a true conversation, one that often turns into an invitation – to a reception, an event, or to a party.  Some may consider the Olympics a frivolous enterprise – these are “games” after all. World hunger isn’t being solved, no mines or nuclear warheads are being deactivated, and despite efforts to become more “green” there is likely a negative net contribution to global warming. That said, consider world ills – world “weaknesses” as it were. Perhaps as a society, as a world culture, we are guilty of much of the same negative bias and focus as we are as teams and individuals. We spend our time and energies on fixing what is wrong rather than celebrating and adding to what is right.

The Olympics are ultimately a celebration of strengths – a study in what is right vs. a focus on what is wrong. The world needs its cancer seminars, and violence prevention workshops, but in the end perhaps what it needs most is a positive focus for its energies. Perhaps the world needs more of these games, a bigger focus on what is right in the world. For this we thank the Greeks of nearly 3000 years ago who fed the world this amazing enterprise where the celebration of excellence triumphs again and again. 


Preview of Vancouver #3: Meet the athletes – short track and long track team members