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

Day 1 1/2 of the Short Track Worldcup, Salt Lake City, Utah

I managed to get a decent amount of rest last night despite being out on the town with all 3 of my teammates from the 1994 Olympic games - the first time in probably 10 years that we had a chance to spend more than a few minutes together.  The evening was filled with good natured insults, stories from the road and a series of toasts.  Underneath all the verbal horseplay though, was a mostly silent acknowledgment that the bonds of this sport had forged between us. Like all great friendships it was exactly as though no time had passed, and even though the group dynamic had not happened in more than 10 years, it might have been yesterday.

Joining us were Liz & Paul Marquese, Rusty Smith, and Ian Baranski. As the lone female, I suspect Liz learned a lot more about life on the road than she probably every really wanted to know.

 Back at the rink this morning and we announced our way through all of the repechage rounds - basically "second chance" opportunities for skaters eliminated yesterday to gt in some additional races and grasp at the two spots that would lead them back into the official meet this evening.

 An interesting rumour is swirling around at the meet - that they are attempting to bring in Apolo's "Dancing with the Stars" partner Julianna in to sing the national anthem tomorrow night. No idea of the validity - but it would be good for the sport.

 I'll post again tonight after the races are over - we are skating the 500 and 1500m finals tonight.

 -John