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 #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 #7: An Introduction to Short Track Speedskating

 Tonight, short track will be LIVE and in prime time! The men's downhill was cancelled due to snow conditions, so we are now the lead story and the pressure is on. The men's 1500m Gold medal race is tonight as well as the women's 500m heats and relay heats.

I'm just back from the pre-production meeting with Ted Robinson (announcer), Andy Gabel (color commentary), Fred Gaudelli (producer) and Andrea Joyce (field interviews).  Sitting one table over was Bob Costas, and two tables over were Al Roker and his family. We walked through all the various stories and builds and order of events, the commentators practiced all the names, and then we wrapped - we head to the rink at 2pm to get ready.

So, what can you expect tonight? Here's a summary I wrote for the crew back in Torino:

SHORT TRACK SPEEDSKATING – a primer

 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: 111.12 meters in length.

 Add a half dozen speedskaters in their skin tight multi-colored suits racing for the finish line – like track and field or horse racing – and the simple format is complete.

The logistics of short track speedskating are also straightforward – a fixed number of laps (or half laps) comprising an even distance in meters (500, 1000, 1500, 3000 or 5000 meters), with the first skater across the line being first.

Time on the stopwatch, while an interesting anecdote, does not factor into the results except for the honor of holding a record.

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, 17 1/2 inch blades means that the “fastest” skater quite often does not win.

One need only to remember watching the Australian Stephen Bradbury in the 2002 Olympics, who advanced by luck of disqualification in the 1000 meter heats to the semi finals. Self admittedly the slowest skater in those semi-finals, he proceeded to win that race - after all the other skaters crashed, placing him in the finals and into the medal round. Then again in the finals, while pacing off the back of a pack of top ranked USA, Korean, and Canadian skaters, Bradbury managed to avoid disaster and come across the line first – again not through his own merits – rather through the misfortune of the leading skaters. The gold medal was his – even though his efforts in all the preceding rounds suggested those of a non-contender.

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

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?
  • What combination of skaters are are racing? How will it play out?
  • What unforeseen events will occur?

What does it feel like?

Think back to certain winter moments - those times of walking on slick, wet ice – to your car across frozen puddles, or down the sidewalk after a freezing rain.

Then remember that moment when your shoes first touched dry asphalt after sliding across the icy puddle, or the instant when you regained traction after passing back underneath the porch roof. To a speedskater, that is exactly what it feels like to be on ice with our long blades – it is feeling of traction and grip, stability and power.

An 17” speedskating blade on perfectly smooth ice is grippier than rubber on asphalt and more stable than a ski on snow. The blade, its sharp edge, and its tracking ability while in motion, are able to smoothly receive every ounce of energy provided by powerful leg muscles to propel the skater forward.

Granted, the motion is sideways – like tacking in the wind with a sailboat - but the 17 inch blade is like yards of canvas gathering wind: the lateral forces are released in a tangential motion and converted to forward speed smoothly yet powerfully. Each stroke on the ice is a combination squat thrust (sheer power) and ballet (no wasted motion, fluid extension to the very tips of the range).

Now imagine that ultimate grip – no amount of effort will result in a slip – and a slow concentrated thrust  through with the legs: massive force passing in liquid slow motion through the blade to the ice.  The strength of the contracted leg is absolute, and the hold of the blade provides a supreme feeling of power. The controlled release of the piston-like skating stroke brings to mind the action of a hydraulic cylinder – a fluid, consistent, and powerful.

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 slow thrust you were able to deliver to the car to get it moving is the closest thing in life to the feeling of a speedskating stroke.

Now, add to this motion the g-force dynamics of a jet fighter and you have the right combination.

As a skater moves towards the corner, there is a momentary feeling of weightlessness as the body lifts with the final skate stroke, and then falls as the body and center of gravity compresses downward and sideways to enter the corner.

As the direction of the skater changes, centripetal forces cause a 2G acceleration to crush the body lower. In order to stay aligned over the center of the 1mm blades, the skater rolls inward, and the upper body leans way out over the blocks.

The powerful motion of the crossovers (corner strokes) then take over and compel the preservation of the momentum carried into the corner. Timed right, you’ll see the powerful transition of the full extension of the left leg underneath the right leg, both blades carving firmly just prior to the apex of the corner (the center most block).

A smooth transition of the force between the two legs at that precarious moment preserves the integrity of the corner and allows the skater to enter a “pivot” – a one footed change of direction back toward the far end of the rink, and then relax the arc of the corner a bit through the latter half – reducing the G forces and allowing multiple crossover strokes of acceleration into the straightaway. The apex block is also the focal point of most crashes and many disqualifications. At the point of the turn the muscles of the body are stressed to the max – imagine squatting down to a 90 degree bend on one leg… holding it, and then putting on a 150lb backpack (the additional pressure provided by the 2G acceleration of the turn). Then balance all of that on a 1mm blade…

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

Is it hard?

This extremely controlled and concise motion is difficult. However – the motions are repetitive – unlike ballet the number of required motions is drastically reduced. The real difficulty of the sport lies in the compression of the body required to form the aerodynamic shape. Wind resistance, ultimately, is the primary obstacle to speed.

If speedskating races were held a vacuum, a skater could stand nearly upright and kick out a series of highly powerful shallow strides in rapid sequence to attain maximum speed. However, with the friction of wind the comes with speeds approaching 40 mph, the skater is required to try and form a teardrop shape, with arms and legs bent in a greater than 90 degree angle. The loss of muscular leverage at these compressed angles is severe – I won’t try to describe the physics, but just imagine these two examples:

1) Imagine if you had someone sitting on your shoulders. Now, in a fully upright standing position, imagine bending your knees slightly and then straightening them again. If you can imagine that situation, you probably can imagine that performing that minor knee bend and subsequent straightening would be very easy. The human body’s power output from near-full extension of the muscles involved is tremendous. Most of us could imagine even jumping a little with that weight on our back. However, this position is ineffective due to the constraints of wind resistance. Instead…

2) Imagine squatting down – all the way down, sitting on your heels. Then extend one leg straight out – kind of a Russian dancer stance. Now, balanced on that one foot 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 the weight of another person resting on your shoulders (from the centrifugal force) while traveling 30mph, tilting sideways at a crazy angle balanced on a 1m blade and you have the essence of the sport. (Here's a rough diagram I put together for NBC with estimates of the forces:)

The compressed body position required by the aerodynamics of the sport demands high power from the legs in a full range of motion, with an extreme amount of coordination of balance, timing, alignment of weight and effort, and subtle coordination of a series of heretofore unused muscles in the abdomen, hip, knee, and ankle to ensure that the powerful compressed stroke passes evenly sideways without interruption or slippage.

This is why few that have started the sport after age 13 succeed, and how a 25 year old skater with 5 years of experience will look like an awkward novice compared to a 10 year old with the same experience. After some point, the synapses required for this kind of exquisite control wither away and cannot be trained.

The only exception to this hard and fast rule is the relatively recent crossover of in-line speedskating 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.

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

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

One unexpected outcome of all the uncertainty in the sport of short track is cultural in nature. One might expect that with all of the clashes and crashes, disqualifications and controversy that the tensions between rival teams and competitors might be very high: that the close proximity in the races might result in a natural distancing factor between athletes off ice and outside the venue.

Surprisingly, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A look at the sister sport of long track speedskating, a sport with no physical contact, few to no disqualifications, and racers competing almost clinically against the clock (in separate lanes and only two at a time) finds a culture where competitive tensions are at their highest. Long Track speedskaters are, more often than not, solitary, taciturn creatures, with serious countenances betraying the competitive tension embodied in every activity.

Short track skaters, in contrast tend to convivial, open and playful, with the occasional prank between and within teams a long standing tradition – a culture where each emotional explosion at the referees for a disqualifaction (or lack thereof) is equally matched by the off ice hijinks, stories and accompanying laughter between the skaters in their locker rooms, in the shared spaces playing hackysack, and back at the hotel over dinner. It as if the vagaries of the sport, the unpredictability of the results, and the shared suffering of uncertainty over the whims of lady luck has created a common culture of tolerance, humility and respect between athletes of different cultures, languages and perspectives.

There is an oft repeated, little understood phrase repeated consistently by the competitors that ultimately reflects this shared understanding. Apolo Ohno was interviewed on camera after the 2002 Olympic 1000 meter gold medal race where he crossed the line sprawled across the ice belly up in second place after being taken down from behind by a chain reaction four skater crash in the final corner. He had just lost certain gold to the unlikely Australian Steven Bradbury who glided in on the wings of lady luck – well out of contention - yet the winner of the coveted gold medal.

Asked for his views on the events that had unfolded, it would have been understandable if  Apolo has been less than charitable: he could have said things such as “it was unfair, I had it in the bag, the Korean skater grabbed my leg, Steven wasn’t even a contender…” but true to the culture of the sport, and out of respect for the dozens, if not hundreds of races that Steven didn’t win under similar circumstances, Apolo merely shrugged, smiled, and uttered those those seemingly innocuous yet significant words repeated over and over in this turbulent and exciting world: “That’s Short Track.”

It sure is.

 

Vancouver Journal #4: Meet the Short Track Team

Vancouver Journal #4: Meet the Short Track Team Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Last Wednesday I received a call from the producer for short track. His name is Fred Gaudelli and he knows football pretty well per the snippet I pulled from a sports journal below:

Fred Gaudelli has been presenting football on television since the early ’80s, when he produced USFL games on ESPN.  In ’01, he moved from ESPN’s Sunday night telecasts to ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” and with the shifting of the NFL’s TV arrangement this season, he was recruited by Dick Ebersol to oversee production for NBC’s new Sunday night package.  As Al Michaels considered overtures from Ebersol to join the new Sunday night team, he said Gaudelli, in addition to booth partner John Madden, was key to his decision to do so.  “When Fred Gaudelli was hired ... that was huge,” Michaels said at the time.  

Like the 2006 short track producer, Steve Lawrence, it became quickly clear that Fred is a very direct, no nonsense kind of guy. “I want to know everything, to go to every practice, to get behind every story.” Whatever my day job, the pecking order in this business is clear: unapologetic directives, curse words, and thick skins are the rule.

I still remember 4 years ago when I received my employment offer to join the NBC broadcast team for the 2006 Olympics. My hiring manager, who previously had been quite short and direct, suddenly took on a slightly more conciliatory tone, “look, there’s going to be tempers flaring, and odds are high you’ll get ignored, sworn at, chewed out, cut off – even fired - possibly multiple times. Just keep at it and don’t let it phase you.” In our first production meeting in Torino, the producer looked around at us and said, “Listen, I’ll cut the crap: lets get this sh*% f*@!ng right the first time so we can all go home, no excuses.”

Torino was taped though due to the time change, and apparently everyone is “twice as nice” when taped compared to how things are when they are live, so we’ll see for 2010. I wonder how many times I’ll have to be fired before I get fired?

So, who’s on the short track team and who might you see on TV?

Short Track: Men

Apolo Anton Ohno (27): There was a Time article a while back with a thesis of  “what’s in a name?” comparing the results of an Apolo Ohno with, say, someone with a name like “Amy Peterson,” and questioning whether Apolo would have had the same notoriety with a different name. As it turns out Amy Peterson is a five time short track Olympian with 3 Olympic medals – all long before Apolo but I bet you never heard of her. (Amy and I trained, traveled and raced together for more than a decade and she’s amazing.) But… what makes fame? If it could be designed, if there were easily identified ingredients, then it would be more accessible and less fleeting. “Pants on the ground?” The reality is that Apolo is the face of short track speedskating – between the stories, the drama, the medals, and the “style” elements, Apolo managed to help a cipher-of-a-sport go mainstream.

Sample text last winter to Apolo when I was in Vegas and someone asked me if, as an Olympic athlete I’d been to the Playboy Mansion (No, I have not.)

 “Apolo – you ever been to the Playboy mansion?”

Response? “Yes! 3 times!”

I wrote a funny little piece for Apolo a while back as his self nominated agent that I’m sure he’s been dutifully following (isn’t Jessica Alba single again?)

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

The reality behind the name is that the little guy with the soul patch on his chin who put short track on the map in 2002 is one of the most naturally gifted speedskaters the world has seen. His balance and timing are impeccable, and he wins not through gargantuan "take the lead early" efforts, but through clever movements through the pack, using the draft of the skaters in front and saving his energy for the final bolt to the line.

My experience: Apolo's first national team trials were in 1995 when I was at the top of my form - he was an unknown punk kid of 13. A year later in 1996, he won the trials - at age 14 shocking all of us. In 1997 and 1998 he didn't make the teams despite having all the ability and talent in the world. I joined him on the sidelines in 1998 when I didn't make the Olympic team. In 1999 he got his act together and has been at the top of the sport since. In the 2002 Olympics he won several medals including a gold in the 1000 meters after a Korean skater was disqualified after finishing first, and another gold in Torino in the 500m, 5 medals to-date. He's pretty quiet and shy, but at the same time carries himself with confidence. We know each other reasonably well, and his father and I talk at the races.

 

JR Celski (19): another shy kid, and impossibly nice, JR’s story is pretty amazing. Within the span of a year, JR went from a promising Junior (2008) to World champion in 2009 (in the 3000m) and winning second overall in the 2009 world championships. Andy Gabel, the color commentator for short track in Vancouver, my former roommate, and fellow silver medalist from the 1994 Olympics commentated on his decisive victory in the 3000m at the 2009 world championships this way: “he took off early in the race, then he lapped the field. Then he took off again and dropped everyone like they were standing still.”  JR may very well have won the Olympic trials and was skating a cut above Apolo until disaster – he fell in the 1000m and slashed himself – very badly – a deep wound through muscle that kept him off the ice for 2 ½ months.

Given that he’s only resumed training for a month or so now, it seems quite unlikely JR will be able to have any significant results. However, it was also unlikely for an 18 year old to win medals in 4 out of 5 events in his first world championships (last March in Vienna, 2009).  If he does, he will be a media darling.

Jordan Malone (25): like Derek Parra and Chad Hedrick, Jordan is a crossover from inline roller skating having one national and world titles in that sport. Jordan narrowly missed the 2006 team while skating on a broken ankle. I’ve met him only briefly.

 

Travis Jayner (27): Only met him once or twice – very tall and thin, but wicked fast. Outside shot at the individual events. Very unassuming – hard not to like.

Simon Cho (17): Simon won the 5th spot on the team after a series of mishaps hurt other favorites. That said, he’s  fast and proving himself.

Not making the team were Jeff Simon, who skates some of the fastest laps in the world in a slightly off kilter way, and Anthony Lobello – who was on the Torino team and had been skating well.

Women’s Team:

 

Katherine Reutter (21): Her second year at the helm of the U.S. short track team, Catherine has become a powerhouse in the middle distance events, charging hard and leading from in front, medaling again and again in the world cups. She has possibly the best left leg follow through I’ve ever seen. I’ve talked with Catherine a couple of times and she’s personable, but quite focused – she’ll be skipping the opening ceremonies to ensure she’s ready for the relay semi finals the day after. I know more from her dad, who connected with me via my blog and we’ve been corresponding back and forth for a while. Catherine will likely medal once or twice in the games, though a gold will take a special effort.

Catherine was a guest on the Colbert show a few weeks back and it was a really funny episode. “Let’s trash talk the summer games for a second – Michael Phelps? How easy is it to swim through water – when you run on top of water with samurai swords strapped to your feet.” Even though Stephen knew it was coming, the request to sign a “cute, but too-young-to-professionally-flirt-with” speedskater’s thigh, suddenly had him in a rare flustered moment – he tried to do it from the desk to keep his distance, couldn’t, so circled around and then realized he was now potentially in a worse position considering the very short skirt… his dodging and apologies to his wife were priceless “honey, I had to do this for the Olympic team!” – check it out here:

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

Alyson Dudek (19): New to the team, Alyson won the short events at the trials and her best hope at the games would be in the 500m. Alyson’s father (who is a lawyer) and I are members of the U.S. Speed skating Committee.

Kimberly Derrick (24): Just a young girl in Torino, Derrick has been around a while now. Notable in Torino was that her grandfather passed away just a few hours before her 1000m qualifier. I can still remember the director/producer in my ear. “I can see it – a tear on her cheek! – zoom in, zoom in dammit! Ted, build the story! Brownie, have the camera on her as she exits all the way to the locker room!”

Allison Baver (29): Another crossover inliner, Baver headed up the women’s team for a number of years, racking up a number of strong results in world cups, but falling short of the medals in her two prior Olympic bids. Allison also dated Apolo on again off again for a half dozen years, and is notable for a number of seeming contradictions: she’s tough – recovering from a series of serious injuries to continue competing at a high level – including a broken leg last season in a world cup in Bulgaria. She’s “high maintenance” – a skater known for wearing makeup to practice, pursuing a side career in modeling, and having a bit of a prima donna reputation, and she’s smart – she finished an undergrad an U Penn and an MBA from NYIT while skating. I’ve had a few conversations with Allison and she chose to show me her studious side.

Lana Gehring (19): I don’t know Lana, though I shared a flight with her mother a year ago back from a world cup I was announcing. It was a dream for Lana and her mother to make the games, and here she is – at the world’s biggest party.

Preview – Vancouver Journal #5: A Short Track Primer – what does it feel like to skate 35mph around a track the size of your living room?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2008 Short Track World Cup Day 1 (October 18)

Speedskating is an odd sport. Teams travel half the globe in order to compete in the world cup, and, if their first races don't go well, can find themselves finished after the first day and only 1 or 2 races. Hence the the repechage round - a sort of "wildcard berth" opportunity was invented to provide these skaters with a chance to move back into the main event.

It was announcing these heats and qualifiers that we spent our time in the morning - from 10am until nearly 2pm. The good news was twofold: Charles Ryan Leveille was the only American in the rep round (everyone else qualified) and he was one of the elite few to make it through all the rounds and back into the main event.

After lunch with Kori Novak (who leads US Speedskating marketing efforts) and Nick Gismondi (NBC Universal Sports announcer/producer) there was time for a short break and then back to the main events - the men's and women's 1000m and 1500m semi finals and finals.

Women's Races:

Baver skated solidly and moved into the 1500m final where she finished fourth after a last minute pass where Yang from Korea took away her medal spot. Kimberly Derrick followed up with a bronze medal finish in the 1000m after Liu from China was disqualified. Both ladies look fit and lean and well trained and skated up front and aggressively. Both seem to miss that special kick the Koreans and Chinese seem to save for those last ditch efforts - but wisely try to control the races to serve their strengths.

In the rely semifinals, the Chinese women destroyed the world record by almost 3 seconds and team USA finished not far behind the old record but more than a half lap down on the Chinese. Nonetheless, they are in the finals tomorrow with China, Korea, and Canada.

Men's Races:

In a rare event I can't remember ever seeing in my experience, team USA had 3 skaters in the men's 1500 A final. Charles Ryan Leveille clawed his way back up through round after repechage round to regain a medal shot in the final, Travis Jayner put on the turbos in his semi to blast for 5th to 2nd with a magnificent move in the semi finals, and Jeff Simon skated some of the most interesting and turbulent races of the day yet still making the medal round.

It was with some dismay we watched and called a race where 2 of the 3 Americans - with an opportunity to dominate the race - sat in the far back. Leveille and Jayner sat in 6th and 7th and wasted their medal opportunity. Simon hung tough and scratched out a rough and tumble bronze.

And then it was Ohno time. I had heard he was fit, I had heard he was fast, I had seen he was lean - slimmer than the guy we used to call "chunk" has ever been. And he was hot - moving through the quarters and semis with those bursts of power and coordination that few in the sport have ever been able to master. Then, suddenly, with 3 or 4 laps to go in the final event, while potentially setting up one of those 'Apolo moves' he was down hard into the boards - perhaps stepping on a block, and it was a Korea  with a 1-2-3 finish.

The evening ended with the men's 5000 meter relay semi finals -my favorite event in sport - and drama abounded in both semis - but team USA put together a solid relay and finished just behind the Korean team. Apolo looked tentative on his right, Lobello and Jayner were solid if uninspired, and Simon continued to be a lightning rod (similar to the individual competition) for danger. Still, he matched Apolo for big moves in putting team USA into qualifying position and, joining Korea, Canada, and a surprise Russia, will be in the finals tomorrow night.

Its now 2:30am and time to get some sleep - up early to announce the heats and repechage for tomorrows events.

2008 Short Track World Cup #1, Salt Lake City: What are the 'rules' of short track?

Flying out this afternoon to announce the first short track world cup competition of the year in Salt Lake City, along with my compatriots from last year Carl Roepke and DJ Paul Helms. Should be a blast. So, you might ask, what is this short track thing all about - seems a very dangerous and unpredictable sport..

Here's a summary of the sport from an insider's perspective:

SHORT TRACK SPEEDSKATING – an introduction

 

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: 111.12 meters in length.

 

Add a few speedskaters in their skin tight multi-colored suits racing for the finish line – like track and field or horse racing – and the simple format is complete.  The fundamental metrics of short track speedskating are also straightforward – a fixed number of laps (or half laps) comprising an even distance in meters (500, 1000, 1500, 3000 or 5000 meters), with the first skater across the line being first.

 

Time on the stopwatch, while an interesting anecdote, does not factor into the results for the Olympic games.

 

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 disqualification in the 1000 meter heats to the semi finals. Self admittedly the slowest skater in those semi-finals, he proceeded to win that race - after all the other skaters crashed, placing him in the finals and into the medal round. Then again in the finals, while pacing off the back of a pack of top ranked USA, Korean, and Canadian skaters, Bradbury managed to avoid disaster and come across the line first – again not through his own merits – rather through the misfortune of the leading skaters. The gold medal was his – even though his efforts in all the preceding rounds suggested those of a non-contender.

 

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

 

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?
  • What combination of skaters are are racing? How will it play out?
  • What unforeseen events will occur?

  

What does it feel like?

 

Remember those times of walking on slick, wet ice – to your car across frozen puddles, or down the sidewalk after a freezing rain?

 

Conversely, remember that moment when your shoes first touched dry asphalt after sliding across the icy puddle, or the instant when you regained traction after passing back underneath the porch roof? To a speedskater, that is exactly what it feels like to be on ice with our long blades – it is feeling of traction and grip, stability and power.

 

An 17” speedskating blade on perfectly smooth ice is grippier than rubber on asphalt and more stable than a ski on snow. The blade, its sharp edge, and its tracking ability while in motion, are able to smoothly receive every ounce of energy provided by powerful leg muscles to propel the skater forward.

 

Granted, the motion is sideways – like tacking in the wind with a sailboat - but the 17 inch blade is like yards of canvas gathering wind: the lateral forces are released in a tangential motion and converted to forward speed smoothly yet powerfully. Each stroke on the ice is a combination brute force (sheer power) and ballet (no wasted motion, fluid extension to the very tips of your range).

 

Now imagine that ultimate grip – no amount of effort will result in a slip – and a slow concentrated push through with the legs: massive force passing in liquid slow motion through the blade to the ice.  The strength of the contracted leg is absolute, and the hold of the blade provides an supreme feeling of power. The controlled release of the piston-like skating strokes brings to mind the action of a hydraulic cylinder – a fluid, consistent, and powerful extension.

 

If you have ever had the ill-fortune to push a stalled car, and were lucky enough to have a curb or wall as a backstop for your feet, then that incredible push you were able to deliver to the car to get it moving is the closest thing in life to the feeling of a speedskating stroke.

 

Now, add to this motion the g-force dynamics of a jet fighter and you have the right combination.

 

As a skater moves towards the corner, there is a momentary feeling of weightlessness as the body lifts with the final skate stroke, and then falls as the body and center of gravity compresses downward and sideways to enter the corner.

 

As the direction of the skater changes, centripetal forces cause a 2G acceleration to crush the body lower. In order to stay aligned over the center of the 1mm blades, the skater rolls inward, and the upper body leans way out over the blocks.

 

The powerful motion of the crossover (corner strokes) then take over and compel the preservation of the momentum carried into the corner. Timed right, you’ll see the powerful combination of the full extension of the left leg underneath the right leg, both blades carving firmly just prior to the apex of the corner (the center most block).

 

Having two feet down at that precarious moment preserves the integrity of the corner and allows the skater to enter a “pivot” – a one footed change of direction back toward the far end of the rink, and then relax the arc of the corner a bit through the latter half – reducing the G forces and allowing multiple crossover strokes of acceleration into the straightaway. The apex block is also the focal point of most crashes and many disqualifications. At the point of the turn the muscles of the body are stressed to the max – imagine squatting down to a 90 degree bend on one leg… holding it, and then putting on a 150lb backpack (the additional pressure provided by the 2G acceleration of the turn). Then balance all of that on a 1mm blade…

 

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

 

Is it hard?

 

This extremely controlled and concise motion is difficult. However – the motions are repetitive – unlike ballet the number of required motions is drastically reduced. The real difficulty of the sport lies in the compression of the body required to form the aerodynamic shape. Wind resistance, ultimately, is the primary obstacle to speed.

 

If speedskating races were held a vacuum, a skater could stand nearly upright and kick out a series of highly powerful shallow strides in rapid sequence to attain maximum speed. However, with the friction of wind the comes with speeds approaching 40 mph, the skater is required to try and form a teardrop shape, with arms and legs bent in a greater than 90 degree angle. The loss of muscular leverage at these compressed angles is severe – I won’t try to describe the physics, but just imagine these two examples:

 

1) Imagine if you had someone sitting on your shoulders. Now, in a fully upright standing position, imagine bending your knees slightly and then straightening them again. If you can imagine that situation, you probably can imagine that performing that minor knee bend and subsequent straightening would be very easy. The human body’s power output from near-full extension of the muscles involved is tremendous. Most of us could imagine even jumping a little with that weight on our back. However, this position is ineffective due to the constraints of wind resistance. Instead…

 

2) Imagine squatting down – all the way down, sitting on your heels. Then extend one leg straight out – kind of a Russian dancer stance. Now imagine lifting the heel of the extended leg up off the ground, and then try to stand up using only the completely bent leg’s power: nearly impossible for anyone other than an acrobat, Russian dancer, or speedskater. Do that with double your weight and you have the pivotal moment of the sport.

 

The compressed body position required by the aerodynamics of the sport demands high power from the legs in a full range of motion, with an extreme amount of coordination of balance, timing, alignment of weight and effort, and subtle coordination of a series of heretofore unused muscles in the abdomen, hip, knee, and ankle to ensure that the powerful compressed stroke passes evenly sideways without interruption or slippage.

 

This is why few that have started the sport after age 13 succeed, and how a 25 year old skater with 5 years of experience will look like an awkward novice compared to a 10 year old with the same experience. After some point, the synapses required for the exquisite control wither away and cannot be trained.

 

The only exception to this hard and fast rule is the relatively recent crossover of in-line athletes. Not surprising considering the similarities of the two sports.

 

Why all the disqualifications?

 

In the relatively recent years since short track speedskating has entered the mainstream consciousness, it has brought along with it the expected perceptions of speed and danger and unpredictability. In addition, there also exists an ongoing element of controversy with regards to the judging system and the calls for disqualification (or lack thereof) that have occurred in many of Olympic races.

 

In the first few Olympics, the din centered around American Kathy Turner and the women’s races. In 2002 the men took on their fare share of the controversies.

 

In 1994 the protest and accusations swirled around American Kathy Turner and her skating en-route to winning gold in the 500m in the face of an early collision with Natalie Lambert of Canada in the heats, and then Zhang Yanmei in the final – claiming that Turner had grabbed her leg en-route to her second consecutive gold medal.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

One unexpected outcome of all the uncertainty in the sport of short track is cultural in nature. One might expect that with all of the clashes and crashes, disqualifications and controversy that the tensions between rival teams and competitors might be very high: that the close proximity in the races might result in a natural distancing factor between athletes off ice and outside the venue.

 

Surprisingly, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A look at the sister sport of long track speedskating, a sport with no physical contact, few to no disqualifications, and racers competing almost clinically against the clock (in separate lanes and only two at a time) finds a culture where competitive tensions are at their highest. Long Track speedskaters are, more often than not, solitary, taciturn creatures, with serious countenances betraying the competitive tension embodied in every activity.

 

Short track skaters, in contrast tend to convivial, open and playful, with the occasional prank between and within teams a long standing tradition – a culture where each emotional explosion at referees for a disqualifaction (or lack thereof) is equally matched by the off ice hijinks, stories and accompanying laughter between the skaters in their locker rooms, in the shared spaces playing hackysack, and back at the hotel over dinner. It as if the vagaries of the sport, the unpredictability of the results, and the shared suffering of uncertainty over the whims of lady luck has created a common culture of tolerance, humility and respect between athletes of different cultures, languages and perspectives.

 

There is an oft repeated, little understood phrase repeated consistently by the competitors that ultimately reflects this shared understanding. Apolo Ohno was interviewed on camera after the 2002 Olympic 1000 meter gold medal race where he crossed the line sprawled across the ice belly up in second place after being taken down from behind by a chain reaction four skater crash in the final corner. He had just lost certain gold to the unlikely Australian Steven Bradbury who glided in on the wings of lady luck – well out of contention - yet the winner of the coveted gold medal.

 

 Asked for his views on the events that had unfolded, it would have been understandable if  Apolo has been less than charitable: he could have said things such as “it was unfair, I had it in the bag, the Korean skater grabbed my leg, Steven wasn’t even a contender…” but true to the culture of the sport, and out of respect for the dozens, if not hundreds of races that Steven didn’t win under similar circumstances, Apolo merely shrugged, smiled, and uttered those those seemingly innocuous yet significant words repeated over and over in this turbulent and exciting world: “That’s Short Track.”

 

It sure is.

 

 

Day Three of the Short Track Worldcup, Salt Lake City, Utah

Men's results: Apolo fans got and eyefull and earful on this final day of racing here at the Utah Olympic Oval. Wearing the usual red bandana under his helmet, Apolo led the team in overall results by winning the men's 1000m final in a finish that can only be described as "typically bizarre" - with 2 of the four skaters going down with 4 laps to go, and then a cat-and-mouse between Apolo and Lee from Korea.  Apolo led as the "mouse" in the final few laps, zigging outside the lane markers and slowing up - luring his prey to take the lead, and then when Lee failed to take the bait, he put on the afterburners and easily made it home to the line in first. Despite the fact that Ahn - Apolo's main nemesis from Korea - was not here, I don't think I've ever seen Apolo skating better - and today he didn't mess around in the back like yesterday - leading out his quarter and passing earlier in his semi to easily qualify.

Rumours of the supposed visit of his dancing with the stars partner Julianne swirled right up until the moment when the national anthem was played by my partner in the booth, Paul "Gain Master" Helms.  Oh, a funny aside - starting day 2, I demanded that every single time Paul Stanley from Great Britain stepped on the ice, that Paul queue up "I Want to Rock and Roll All Night" by Kiss. I'm not sure he ever noticed, but we got a good laugh out of it. Paul was a lot of fun and we got to a point where when I would announce the race results we would have a seemless transition back to the music by using the key word, "Unofficially" - e.g. "...finishing in second, unofficially" - (queue music.)

Jeff Simon continued to wow in the men's 500m - that is until hitting the boards hard in the 500m quarters after taking over the lead, and proceeding to break his collarbone. Talking with team doctor Eric Heiden after, Heiden suggested it would only be a few weeks before Jeff could start skating again - unsure of whether he'll be able to skate at the world championships in March.

Simon Cho and J.P. Kepka skated well, ultimately ending up 3rd and 4th in the B final. Kepka's blades continue to be a problem.

Ladies Results:  Reutter - the young prodigy on the women's team continued to impress, skating probably the single best 1000m race I've ever witnessed on our ladies team in the semis. As things heated up, Katherine displayed a precocious sense of presence, decisively moving into 2nd and qualifying position with several laps to go and then "sensing" movements up the inside and outside, heading them off, while spurring the Chinese lead skater to pick up the pace. To an outsider it was probably a fairly straightforward race,  but as an insider, I can tell you that few have that 'gift' of being able to read a race like she displayed. The fact that they both broke the old world record (unofficially) was another indication of her rising talent.

Again in the final Katherine was tenacious, again following world cup leader Meng to a second place finish - her second silver medal of the competition.

Relays: In the relay finals, our boys went down early (again) and Kepka seemed super tentative. Apolo was working it really hard but they were unable to catch back up to the other teams.

Our ladies team fought well and finished physically in 4th, but earned a podium spot after Canada was disqualified.

 Afterparty:

A large number of the teams, skaters, and ex-skaters met downtown at "Squatter's Pub" before moving on to "The Cove". My teamates from '94 and I had dinner at Macaroni grille and then moved on to Squatters. There we hooked up with the second best U.S. relay team of all time - Rusty Smith, J.P. Kepka, & Alex Izychowski (a no-show on Apolo) and started down the usual path of ever-devolving story telling.

I love that a by-product of the vagaries of the sport of short track speedskating inevitably leads to a balancing act of off-ice pranks and general mischief that continues to this day - despite the increasing professionalism of the events, the training and the athletic regime.  At one point we captured a photo of the 14 years ago silver medal team, with the 2 years ago bronze medal relay team - with a little Scott Koons mixed in the middle (member of the 1998 team)

(picture (left to right) me, J.P., Bartz, Izychowski, Flaim, Koons, Gabel, Smith)

old-and-new-relay-teams.jpg

For me personally, the evening had several "golden moments" - perfect moments of time where time stopped and where the rhythm of the conversation bypassed the usual niceties and turned deeper - first with my teammates at dinner as we discussed our respective contributions to the team, and then later in conversations with Mike Koorman about retiring.

It was 3am by the time I closed my eyes, and 4:30am when the phone rang for my wake up call and my return to the airport for the flight back to Chicago and a full day of work.

Suffering? Yes - of the 'chosen' variety.

Worth it? Absolutely.

 -John

Day Two of the Short Track Worldcup, Salt Lake City, Utah

The racing last evening was fantastic. To the tune of a sold out crowd, every American qualified in their first rounds (500 quarterfinals and 1500 semis) - Jeff Simon, Apolo Ohno, Katherine Ruetter and Allison Baver - and moved on to the next round. Quarters & Semis: The first heat of quarterfinals of the evening set the tone as the women set a new world record time, taking 2 tenths of a second off of Evegenia Radinova's long standing (since 2001) record in that event.

Jeff Simon looked fantastic, winning his quarter with a blisteringly fast time not far from the world record - only a few hundredths off. JP Kepka cranked out a fast one as well and both guys moved into the semis where Kepka moved through to the final, but Simon was disqualifed after a risky move up the inside with one lap to go despite winning his semi.

Same great story in the women's 1500m semis where in a race that when from the gun - a Japanese skater setting a blistering pace as USA (Baver) and a Chinese skater followed at a careful pace closing the gap only with 4 laps to go. By the time they finished, they had surpassed the old world record by over 2 seconds, with 4 of the 6 skaters beating the old record. Allison Baver set a new U.S. record and displayed some significant fitness boding well for the finals.

Katherine Reutter - a young, fresh face from Champaign, Illinois also skated very well in her 1500m semi taking the lead multiple times to secure her spot in the finals.

Apolo hung all the way in the back of his 1500m semi, slotting up one spot with 5 laps to go and then taking the rest of the field an an easy burst of acceleration to win his semi and move into the finals.  He looked smooth, confident, powerful - but I couldn't help but wonder why Apolo doesn't play it a bit safer - perhaps he's practicing for the traffic that will likely always be a part of the finals where the skater's abilities are more even? It certainly creates suspense and is exciting but...

Finals:

In the men's 500 Kepka appeared to be having skate trouble and finished 4th.  The women's 500m had Chinese skaters in lanes 1, 2 & 3, which is also the order in which they finished and also their respective placing in the world cup overall - incredible dominance.

In the women's 1500 m final, when all was said and done both Baver and Reutter skated an amazing race - at one point leading the race 1 and 2 - something I can't remember seeing in all of my years of skating - American women in a distance event leading in a world cup. Things mixed up with about 5 laps to go and Baver got caught up on some traffic that led to a disqualification but put her out of contention for the win.

Ultimately I called to the podium Yang Zhou from China for the gold, Katherine Reutter for the silver and Allison Baver for the Bronze - two Americans on the podium.

 The crowd was very very loud and I think our announcing was lost much of the time - which is fine by me. But it only got louder as Apolo took to the line for the 1500m final. There was a lot of movement throughout the race, with Apolo playing his following act while the Korean skaters Lee and Lee (Seung-Hoon & Ho Suk) moved up earlier and ended up on the front of the race. Apolo was undaunted and waited until less than 2 laps to go, sweeping into 3rd position easily. As the bell rang Apolo set up wide for a double pass on Lee-squared and at the last minute he shut down, drifting back into 3rd and finishing there at the line. On the replays it actually looked like he had the speed to complete the pass - and either way, he was clearly the fastest man in the race and again it calls into question his tactics. Something for Jae-Su - U.S. team coach - to sort out.

Awards Ceremony: Announcing has become easier and more natural - except for the awards ceremonies. Hardly ever paying attention to the ceremony - even when I was in them - I was only given a brief outline of the order of events and was unsure of exactly what to say, or how it was orchestrated - was I calling the shots? Or were there cues I was supposed to be picking up on? I was flying solo on this one as Carl was wrapping up a puck-throw contest sponsored by Samsung.  I didn't want to screw things up and undermine the recognition and rewards for all the hard work of the skaters.

 I seemed to sort it mostly out - only getting one name wrong for the ISU representative (miscued on my cards) and establishing a rhythm to the awards - announcing the award giver, then the winner first, wait, then second, wait, third, then the flowers given by the sponsor and then, "here are your champions!"

I was nerve wracking though and I looked forward to the end of the evening and a chance to hang out - yet again - with my teammates and friends in downtown Salt Lake.

-John