2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #15: The Single Greatest Event at the Olympics

download In terms of live events, tomorrow is the single greatest event at the Olympics. Figure skating has artistry and camera work, costumes and color. Slope-style has the dizzying heights, brilliant sun, and amazing gyroscoping of the athletes 3, 4, 5 seconds in the air - for TV these and others are the glamor sports - great on film with awesome replays.

Short track, with its standard uniforms, fluorescent lights and indoor location looks a bit flat on TV. But... In the venue it is all action and mayhem, volume and noise in a tightly contained space where athletes trade spaces of inches and travel speeds in excess of 30mph on razor sharp blades making turns harder than jet fighters, crashing, crashing and crashing again until the winner, sometimes ejected from the mayhem emerges.

SUB-SHORTTRACK-master675

Anyone who has been to an olympics and pretty much anyone else knows that tomorrow is the one ticket for the games if you want to leave having the penultimate olympic experience: "thrills and chills" and the "agony of defeat." Is it unpredictable, often unfair, surprising and full of upset? Of course it is and what does all that do for the drama, the excitement and energy? It drives it, it makes the crowd manic, particularly when the home country (Vancouver/Canada '10) and (Sochi/Russia '14) is a driving force in the results.

The last few days the Olympic park is abuzz - everyone know knows the spectacle of short track now. In about one hour tomorrow night, the men's 500m gold medal, womens 1000m gold medal and the men's 5000m relay gold medal will be decided. There are FIVE teams are in the relay final, 20 men on the ice battling and it will come down to a duel between USA and Russia for the Gold. I expect USA to win but will be close and the Russian fans will WILL Ahn to the victory if they can - he's the anchor for Russia and JR Celski will be the anchor for USA

I'll be wearing earplugs this time... After Vancouver my ears rang for 2 days (and I've been to a lot of rock concerts with no problem).

2014 Olympic Games - Short Track Speed Skating 1500m

Make sure to tune in, or if you are here in Sochi let me know - I MIGHT be able to help you get you a ticket!

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #10: How To Watch Short Track – Part 2

Tonight, the first set of short track races will be aired on NBC. The men’s 1500m Gold medal race is tonight as well as the women’s 500m heats and relay heats. Since it is tape delayed, here's a picture of us calling the races.  IMG_2635 So, what can you expect tonight? Here’s a summary:

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.

The short track rink

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 17.5” speedskating blade on perfectly smooth ice is grippier than rubber on asphalt and more stable than a ski on snow. A Nascar can only pull 1 G-force on dry pavement, the space shuttle hits 3 G-Forces in launch, and a short track speedskater hits 2.7 G's at the apex of the corner.

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: a 1000lb squat thrust.

Now, add to this motion the g-force dynamics and angles 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 2.7G 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 at an angle of 65 degrees+.

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 2 of yourself on your back: the additional pressure provided by the almost 3G acceleration of the turn). Then balance all of that on a 1mm blade, headed toward the wall, on ICE.

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 30 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:)

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 5.13.21 PM

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.

 

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #3: Day Two of Olympic Trials and "How to Watch a Short Track Race"

Jessica Smith and JR Celski continued to dominate in the two rounds of 500m quarterfinals, semifinals and finals today - again winning every single race. The races were actually a bit predictable with the exception of Chris Creveling whose luck had turned yesterday with a penalty in the 1500m and today a fall in the first 500m and then a slip in his 500m quarterfinal leading to a 1/1000th of a second miss on making it into the A/B semi finals.

My stats spreadsheet for tracking points

For now Celski and Alvarez have locked up spots, and if the team were selected today, Malone, Creveling and Kyle Carr would join them based on overall standings. Tomorrow should have JR again winning, and if Creveling is back in place and wild cards like Jaynor or Kyle Uyehara don't break through, then that should still be the mens team. For the women, Emily Scott secured the second spot today, and unless a wildcard like Chen or Gehring were to win the 1000m overall tomorrow, Dudek will be the third spot.

 

our very tight broadcast booth

How to Watch a Short Track Race:

  1. Recognize that time doesn't matter - so in the longer races, the pace may be slow in the early goings
  2. Know that drafting is a factor and that taking the lead with more than 4 or 5 laps to go probably means you'll get passed by the skaters getting a 20% increase in efficiency by following in your wake
  3. Know that because of 1 & 2, the laps between 7 to go and 5 to go are where a great proportion of passing and maneuvering happen. Each skater HOPES that with 5 to go they find themselves in second or third place with a skater up front who has the pace high and will fade at the end.
  4. Know that passing on the outside is less likely to lead to a penalty for contact, but a LOT harder - only the best can do it at speed.
  5. Know that passing on the inside is easier, but runs the real risk of contact and if the skater doesn't get 1/2 body length lead will be called for a penalty and be given last place points
  6. Know that passing on the inside and having contact around block 3 in the corner often leads to falls and if so, runs the risk of also causing a yellow card to be issued which means that skater penalized will get no points.
  7. Lap times above 11 seconds are SLOW, lap times of 10 seconds or so are medium. Lap times of 9 seconds are fast, and lap times in the low 8's are ALL OUT - 35mph plus.

So, tomorrow, watch where the skaters line up - JR has been racing from the front because - HE CAN. He's strong enough to do so. That probably won't work in the Olympics, so we may see him sit farther back tomorrow to practice passing from the back. Same goes for Jessica. After the start you'll see the pace go at a medium clip for a couple laps and then watch for skaters swinging wide going into the corner and putting in extra strokes. Their angular velocity will remain the same, but when they come out of the corner their actual speed will be higher and then can then either dive inside for the easier but more dangerous inside pass, or put on the afterburners and try to make it around the outside. Several of these moves will happen from 7 to go until 5 laps to go and then a new paceline will usually emerge as the leader sets a fast enough pace for the following skaters to bide their time. Then with 3 or 2 or even one to go, additional moves will happen by the skaters strong enough to gather the speed necessary.

Inside the production truck where the producer and director and graphics and others sit

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #2: First Day of Short Track Olympic Trials

Today was the first day of the short track Olympic Trials - for most of the athletes the most stressful races of their lives. I joined a new broadcast team including Jim Carr (producer) and Terry Gannon (commentator) and Apolo Ohno (color commentator). My daughter Katelina demanded that Apolo meet her "Labbit" and he was happy to oblige. IMG_1952

The races were excellent and Terry and Apolo quickly found a rhythm. Jessica Smith and JR Celski dominated the 1500m races and earned the first two spots on the Olympic team in Sochi. I did my best to support the team by helping arrange interviews and answering question as simple as spelling and as complex as the temperature of the ice and humidity in the arena. In the photo below we are watching a replay of a questionable penalty of Chris Creveling in the second round 1500m final.

IMG_1972

My role was to be the subject matter expert for Apolo and Terry and the production crew and get them any information they needed. Below is an edited stream of my emails to the team about the races, participants, and rules that is probably more than anyone would want to know, but the first "soundbite" effectively describes a key moment in the sport and I was happy to hear Apolo using this language tonight.

--------------------- The "pivotal moment" (literally in this case) The pivotal moment in short track (also called a "pivot")is when a 175 short track skater hits the apex of the corner - at that moment thanks to 2G's of centripetal force they do the equivalent of a 350 lb one legged squat from a greater than 90 degree knee bend, while leaning over at 60 degrees, all the while balanced on a 1MM wide 17 inch blade traveling 35mph directly at a wall, on ice. This is where most falls and disqualifications happen as well, and where the ice gets very rutted and unstable.

Olympic Qualifying: Women Three women's Olympic team spots are available. At the games we will have 3 women in the 500m and 1500m and only two skate the 1000. Qualifying goes like this: whoever wins the final points for a distance at trials for each of the distance earns a guaranteed spot. If it is 3 different girls, then that is the team. If the same girl wins more than one event or all three, the additional spots will go by overall classification for the meet. This does create the possibility that "win at all costs - even if it means making a bad pass" may likely take place. In the case of the 1000m, where only two girls will skate, the two skaters selected will be a) the winner of that event and b) the woman ON THE TEAM who had the highest finish in the 1000.

Olympic Qualifying: Men Five Olympic team spots are available. At the games we will have 3 men in each of the 3 individual events, and then the relay team. Similar to the girls, the winner of each distance will have a guaranteed spot on the team. Additional spots will be based on the second place finishers in each event. If there is overlap (likely - JR will likely place in all 3 for instance) then the remaining spots will be drawn from the third place finishers and overall standings.

FYI Only - Olympic Qualifying - Relay, Men: The relay (men only) will also be pulled from these five skaters. It will be coaches decision based on schedule and who is skating the best. A 5th skater MIGHT be used in the heat - if so he will also stand on the podium / earn a medal if the men finish in the top 3. If the heat is easy or if the 4th and 5th skaters are very similar in ability/experience then this will almost certainly be the case.

Referees: Al Gresheim is the chief referee - he makes the final calls. Will likely use replay for anything questionable but the TV timetable will put pressure on him to keep things moving.

Coaches: Stephen Gough (Pronounced like “cough” - Canadian from ’94 short track Olympic team) is the head US coach, Alex Izykowski (Bronze medalist short track from Torino) will be the assistant coach. Jae Su Chun (former US National coach) will attend – not yet certain if he can go down by the ice for the trials – he will be at the Olympics but NOT allowed down by the ice. I'm friends w/ Gough and very close with Alex, so again if we need anything from these guys I can probably help. Of course even more true for Apolo in the case of Alex as they used to room together.

Venue/Ice: Todd Porter will be the facility manager for the rink and Mark Norman is the VP of the Utah sports facilities and his boss. I grew up with both these guys so if we need something from them let me know and I can probably arrange to get it. The ice was shaved down two weeks ago, the lines repainted, and the new water they put down is a mix of the ultra-purified water they use for long track and some city water. This results in ice that breaks less easily and is more “sticky” and faster for the short track skaters. Times should be fast due to that and the 4300 foot altitude.

New Starting Rules: Until recently, one jumpstart was allowed for each skater, with second jump by the same skater and then they are out. This resulted in the possibility of 4, 5, even six jumpstarts which hoses up TV coverage : ) (this happened a couple times in Vancouver) Now the rules are that the first jump by any skater results in the second jump by any skater to be applied to everyone, so on the third jump whoever jumps (even if they didn't jump the first two times) is out. However if the first skater who jumps, jumps again, they ARE out. Example: Lane 1 jumps – is called for it, has one jump, next jump and he/she is out. Restart and Lane 2 jumps – now EVERYONE has a jump, and next jump – no matter who – is out. Restart, Lane 3 jumps – he/she is out.

Judging calls, Penalties and Yellow Cards: Please eliminate the word disqualification from your lexicon – no longer applies to short track. Most judging calls in short track take place during passes that result in contact. This contact will result in a PENALTY for IMPEDING if the following is true: The overtaking skater does not get at least ½ body length ahead of the skater being passed. If they DO get ½ body length or more, then they can essentially cut in front of the skater being passed. Skaters can received a penalty for jumpstarts per the above or for throwing a skate at the line (lifting the skate off the ice to try and gain advantage). Penalties result in getting the last place finish and points for whatever round they are in.

If a skate throw or impeding call are particularly dangerous or rough, the referee will issue a yellow card. Yellow cards can be issued for other poor behavior as well. This is not a penalty – the skater in this case gains NO points for the round they are in – its as if they never skated and everyone below them moves up. Two yellow cards = a red card and the skater (or coach) must leave the competition and premises. If something is serious enough, the referee can issue a red card directly. No one has seen a red card being used (YET)

Controversy etc. You've probably read or heard but speedskating and short track have been plagued by some significant controversies in the last 2 years including the two head coaches being asked to resign last year with 19 skaters signing a petition suggesting verbal and physical abuse, skate tampering (allegedly at former coach Jae Su Chun's suggestion) by Simon Cho on a Canadian team member's skate and Simon's subsequent ban. Sadly this is nothing new to the sport with lawsuits and arbitrations featured many times over the years. I have served on the arbitration panel a couple of times so can provide more color as required.

Quick learnings from Torino / Vancouver: - Names are difficult to pronounce - need to get pronunciations from those who know - Because names are difficult, #'s are hard to see and "skaters all look alike" to the laymen, it is often best to refer to the skater by color / country when not famous/contenders, and name/#/color when they are a contender. Example, "and #14, Apolo Ohno sweeps into the lead over the chinese skater in red. The two Korean contenders, Lee and Lee follow in the medium blue and yellow." Of all these, color is the easiest way for the viewer to know who you are talking about. - I typically count laps over the radio for the producer / announcers - let me know if you want me to do so. - I typically track where falls and disqualifications happen during the race and indicate them by lap and "turn #" but instead of "2 turns" we pretend there are four - with the first half of the first corner from the main Start/Finish being turn 1, the second half of the first corner = Turn Two etc. Again let me know if this is usefull to you James and/or your camera people.

Confusing things we should explain (more on this to come) - Starting procedure - movement of the track (there are 5 "tracks" that help keep the ice fresh - implications of the moving track for the shortest race - the 500m (distance from the start line to the first block of the corner gets shorter or longer depending on which track which creates an advantage for the skater in lane one) - How lane positions are selected (based on seeding from the last heat or event) - the equipment (blade bend, cut proof clothing, neck guards, shin guards etc.) - disqualifications (these are common) and review (officials have the option to review video footage)

IMG_1979

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why? You might ask.

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

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

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

Wait, you say, that’s terrible!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, has something gone missing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confidence

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

…and prepared as if it were true…

Stan Klotkowski

Stan Klotkowski:

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

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

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

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

Some lessons never die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-John

 

Stan Klotkowski, Feb, 2006

The Dohnal Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-John

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

(For those new to short track and the vagaries of this sport - check out my post under Torino Olympic Journal 2006 -  Torino #3 1/2 - its an insider's view into the sport based in some part on Apolo's own ups and downs within this turbulent but exciting world.) Its been a long, but interesting day. I arrived at the Olympic Oval at 8:30 this morning in prep for my gig as in-rink announcer for this 3 day event.

Despite my stint for NBC as statistician for the Olympic games in Torino, I had never done microphone work before and was suitably nervous as I was introduced to my co-announcer Carl Roepke - an accomplished Luger who worked Torino as well doing the commentary for Luge and Bobsled.

 Thank God for Carl - as the first race was called to the line - I froze - I suddenly didn't know the first thing about the sport and couldn't even begin to think of something to say. But Carl, the cool professional read the heat card notes and called out the names of the skaters in the echoey rink.

Slowly but surely Carl and I developed a rhythm - along with Paul the DJ. Carl would call out the skaters names coming out for the race. I would do most of the actual race announcing - passes, laps to go, background on some of the skaters. Carl would ask a few questions during the quiet periods of the longer races - "tell me about the skates, John..." or "what should we expect to see in this relay, John?" and I would respond naturally (I hope) "Well, Carl, what you can expect to see is...."

 I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy this - after all, I'm pretty much an introvert - mildly anyway - and I'm a visual, not verbal thinker. But I found, after a time, that there was a pacing to the event - like a waiter knows when their food is ready we knew when it was appropriate to comment or be quiet - when to call the race to the line, when to wait. And in those moments as a good friend Kevin Lowell writes in his book "In the in-between" we, in our support roles, established the rhythm and meter for the event - human metronomes for the music unfolding on ice.

 Apolo looked solid - breezing through his preliminaries and heats in both 500 meter races (they are running the event twice here at this world cup) and his 1000m prelims and heats as well. Team USA qualified in both the men's and ladies' relays into the semi-finals as well. No finals were run today - those are saved for the weekend.

In other news I finally met Kori Novak, in the marketing group for U.S. Speedskating and a former pupil of my favorite aunt - Sharon Shaub.

All my team is here from the 1994 games - from our coach - Jeroen Otter - and Randy Bartz, Andy Gabel, Eric Flaim, and Tony Goskowicz.

 Its 6:30 now and we just finished up the day - 10 hours straight of calling races and learning - me about how to announce and inflect my voice, Carl about the nuances of the sport and complexities of the relays.

 Tonight, now doubt will want to be a late one - and with Bartz and Flaim not needing to work in the morning, will require some discipline on my part to ensure adequate sleep.

 Oh, one other completely self serving note - to be found in the internet tags linked to this blog: Allison Baver and I had a chance to catch up in between races - unfortunately she missed the start of one of her events (1000m) due to a change in race order. She was visibly upset - rightly so. I asked about her an Apolo - whether they were still an item, and the answer was equivocating - "on again, off again". So considering that a good portion of the traffic to this blog appears to be from women seeking the answer to the question "Does Apolo have a girlfriend?" The answer is "sort of."

-John

Friday, February 8, 2008 - U.S. Olympic Oval, Kearns, Utah