I'll try to keep this one entertaining without tears, but no guarantees. The last few days of the Olympic games for me have been everything I could hope for - triumphs and upsets, resumption of old friendships, and the beginnings of some new. It has also been a renewal for me personally.
Travels and Travails:
On Thursday, I received my travel info under my door. On Sunday morning at 5:20 am, a bus would be leaving from the Riberi media village to Milan Malpensa airport and I needed to be aboard. Given that the last night of short track was on Saturday and with post-production work that would last until at least 1am, and given that the Sports Illustrated party at the Budweiser dome (the "grand-daddy of all Olympic parties") was also Saturday night, this made for a guaranteed all-nighter. I was OK with that. "sleep on the plane" I thought. Little did I know I was on path for near-all nighters three nights in a row.
More events and more famous people:
Tuesday: The same Tuesday that I ran into Chad Hedrick's dad in the street, earlier in the day I had gone on from the Men's 1500m long track over to the Palavela rink to watch the Ice dance.
Upon arriving, I walked up to the "regular" media area where reporters from all the world sit and grabbed a chair to sit down. Soon after I was kicked out by a guy with long hair who apparently won gold in the ice dance event in 2002. So I went up to the broadcast booth to watch and was invited to stand right at the side of Scott Hamilton, Tom Hammond, Dick Button, and Sandra somebody as they called the figure skating. Tom and Scott did most of the talking and it was actually pretty funny when Dick Button would talk as he spoke so loud that audience members would look up. Dick is getting on in years and has a reputation for being a bit crotchety.
(Picture: Dick Button, Scott Hamilton, Sandra, Tom Hammond),
The costumes were outrageous, but it was fun to watch nonetheless.
(Picture: Ice dance flowers ceremony)
The view from the booth was excellent as you can watch the skaters enter and exit the locker room area and see all the "off camera" things that happen down that aisle. I got to watch my friend Diego's limited eye contact with Barbara Fusar Poli - his wife (the red haired women famous for "the glare), as she entered the ice and completely ignored her partner until the end of the routine. I also could watch all the dynamics of the women's singles. In the booth I had still had my headset, so sometimes I would radio down to the camera guys and ask them to do ridiculous things like, "follow Sasha Cohen at an uncomfortably close distance." Those guys were really cool - in particular the lead guy who we called "Brownie"complied with just about everything we asked (though in the case of that request - he did that without thinking.."
(Picture: view from broadcast booth: Sasha Cohen prepping for her long program)
(Picture from the booth: Sasha w/ Brownie & his camera)
Wednesday was the short track heats and womens relay discussed in the last newsletter.
Thursday I went to watch men's 10,000m long track. At first I chose a random spot on the far side of the rink to sit and it wasn't 5 minutes later that I heard and then saw Paul Hedrick about 5 seats over wearing "Team Hedrick" gear. At this point I'd had my fill of Paul and decided to switch to the other side of the rink. About 5 minutes later the woman in front of me was shouted at for getting in a photographer's way (his fault, not hers) and we ended up chatting. It turned out to be Dan Jansen's wife.
The finish of the very long 10K was nonetheless exciting, with Bob De Jong setting a blistering pace, and the final pair of Chad Hedrick and Carl Verheijen going for gold. Chad set out at a pace above De Jong, but 25 laps on the 400meter oval is a long, long way. Slowly his advantage drifted away and then he dropped to #2 on time. Then Verheijen started closing, and the Dutch fans in their royal orange raised the roof urging him on. The noise was astonishing and I was convinced that with their efforts alone, the Dutch fans were going to help Verheijen steal the silver from Chad.
However, Hedrick, upon seeing Verheijn on a backstretch cross-over with only a few laps to go dug deep, swinging an arm in a sudden excel, and distanced himself again from the Dutch skater. However the late surge was not enough to overcome DeJong who struck superman poses by the side of the rink as the Dutch fans went crazy with their 1st (gold) and 3rd (bronze) finishes. Chad did actually seem to celebrate as well which was good.
Before she left, Dan's wife showed me a picture from her digital camera that I found very gratifying - "This is a picture of Shani cheering for Chad." Good for him.
As the crowd filtered out, I heard a familiar voice. 5 rows above me was an old summer coach of mine - Bobby Fenn, and directly in front of him was Shani Davis. My luck of being in the right place at the right time on this trip continued. So I congratulated Shani and then sat and talked with Bob Fenn.
(Picture: Shani and I)
Bob is Shani's coach - outside the US team. Bob does not work for the skating association, but instead has been hired directly by Shani.
After long track Thurday I went over to the figure skating to watch the women's singles short program. I stopped by the "talent" trailer to check email, and Dick Button was in there napping. A funny thing happened when one of the zillion young interns running around came in and started harassing him like a sparrow would a crow -
"Dick - get up! get up! You have to get dressed and get to makeup!" (She was actually poking him)
"5 more minutes," he said lazily without moving or opening his eyes, but she wouldn't relent (I began to see this was a nightly occurrence)
"Get up Dick! Get up! Let's get you to makeup! No time! No time!"
(Picture: Dick Button's wardrobe)
I stumbled out the trailer laughing and headed up to the booth to watch Sasha take the lead the first night.
Figure skating: Figure skating has a totally different air than short track. Where we are a bare bones crew of the 3 of us plus a couple techs in the booth, Figure skating has probably 2 dozen people in the booth. I'm pretty sure that the sole job of one of the interns was to get Dick Button water. Not surprising considering that the on-air ratings of women's singles figure skating rate higher than anything on TV - exceeding that of even the Super Bowl. The audience too shares this rarified air - with tickets going for almost $500. Fur coats on the women seemed the norm and when I went to get coffee I was amazed at the couture of the audience.
I came again Friday night to watch Sasha fall, and Arakawa win with a near perfect performance. Before heading to the booth, I had a nice long conversation with Scott Hamilton - who is a new father - about how fatherhood changes you, and how the passion for this little person can both mellow you and yet create the possibility for violence previously unknown to either of us (if someone were to threaten our children.) It was one of those gratifying conversations where both sides understand each other completely. I later met his wife that evening and she was quite charming and friendly.
And so Thursday turned into Friday and after some Sushi with Tedd and Dan, I wandered off for the requisite visit to the Shamrock bar to check on Misi's progress.
Olympic Mascot - Misi Toth
There were some weird fuzzy critters that were designated as the "mascots" of the Torino Olympics, but for me and many others, the official mascot was none other than US short track skater Misi Toth. Misi worked as a spotter for NBC in the truck - calling replays and camera angles etc. Whenever I think of someone who enjoyed this Olympics to the max, I will forever think of Misi Toth. Misi missed making this Olympics only by a spot or two and made up for not racing with his nightlife.
Misi started spending a portion of every evening in a pub called Shamrock's. The bartender, Sergio, adopted him and it wasn't but a few days in before the "Misi calendar" was posted on the bar, on which they would track daily whether or not he could make it there every night through the end of the Olympics. From what I heard his quest was successful.
One funny story though. On my the second or third night in town, Tommy had just arrived and went to the Shamrock to find Misi. Tommy and Misi were old friends and with a bit of an expectant air, Tommy (along with Dan Weinstein) went to the Shamrock to find him.Lo and behold as they approached the bar, a fight in progress exited the doors and 3 guys proceded to punch, slap, and kick the defenseless unfortunate soul in the middle of the group for about a minute before the receiver of the abuse made a run back inside the bar.
Upon arriving inside, Dan and Tommy were confounded to find their friend Misi with a bloody nose, swelling under one of his eyes and a wild look on his face. They tried, unsuccessfully, not to laugh as Misi described how this girl was drawing with a pen on his arm, and then suddenly these guys showed up and "asked him outside." Why he went out - he still can't quite explain. "They were really little - just tiny little guys." he says as though that somehow helps to explain.
(Picture: Olympic Mascot Misi Toth and his black eye - in the production room)
Misi had a green and blue eye for a week before the color faded. Bode Miller step aside - Misi has you beat in every way - he finished HIS contest.
Surreal moment #1
I was just reminded of this weird surreal moment. On the night that Wilf O'Reilly, Jeroen Otter, and I squared off against Paul Hedrick in a 3 hour dialogue, something quite funny and bizarre occurred. Paul is a very large man, and during our conversation he had gotten up to stagger over to the men's room. Along the way, in the hallway, was a large, heavy, steel barrier which probably weighed 300lbs. It was used to close off the bar at night (if it closed.) Well, Paul knocked into it, and it fell over with a sound like a car wreck - 300 lbs of steel against tile in the hush of the hotel hallway. The racket was unbelievable, and as one side of it was convex, it rattled back and forth for many seconds.
Like a shot the hotel proprietor was out, and weirdly, out of the blackness, dozens of heads popped up. Seems that the proprietor was letting tourists with no place to stay crash on the couches in the lobby over night - there was probably 20 people packed into the tiny lobby - all, now, awake and frightened.
Then it got weirder. Paul tried to lift it, but couldn't by himself, making an incredible noise himself with his grunting, so Wilf and I helped him and finally got it into standing position again.
(Picture: Wilf O'Reilly and Paul Hedrick & the infamous barrier)
Then, on the stairwell above, a voice. All I could see were naked feet, bare legs, and gathered to either side, the fringe of a fur coat. The upper body was blocked by the staircase. She hissed again and we turned, "Vat ist going on! Vat ist all de noise?!". Wilf explained calmly - "just knocked something over - sorry for the trouble."
She gave an "ach!" and turned with a huff and marched back up the stairs. "That voice," I said, with a dawning realization, starting to laugh, "that voice sounded familiar." "Was that...?" "Was that..?"
"Yes," smirked Wilf, and joined me laughing.
"That," he said, "Was Katerina Witt - and she's pissed." and threw his head back to howl with laughter.
Surreal Moment #2
The same night or.. morning - after haranguing Paul Hedrick for hours, Wilf went up to his room and I walked out with Jeroen - my old Olympic coach. We were having a conversation about how we would have prepared differently for the '94 games and what "might have been" for '98 if I had stayed in the program. I apologized for abandoning the program and he apologized for not finding a way to convince me to come back in time to prepare properly for 1998. It was some nice closure on an old wound.
As we left the hotel around 5am, I still had a 45 minute walk ahead of me back to the media village, and Jeroen had his bike which he was going to ride to the athlete village - same direction - just a little farther.
I still had some left over energy, so I volunteered to jog (in my leather jacket, backpack and dress shoes) and we headed off into the darkness together, laughing about old training regimes where we used to do the exact same thing - me running, him riding and harassing me.
We had gone a good distance when we passed a shadowy figure under some of the archways covering the sidewalks near downtown. As we passed the unknown voice from the darkness said, plainly in clear English, "Jeroen? - still making Coyle run extra laps? Let the poor guy rest." We slowed and asked who it was, but whoever it was turned the corner behind us without responding, and we continued forward, laughing that at 5:30 in the morning on a darkened street in the middle of Torino Italy, we should happen upon someone who knew both of us well enough by our voices and our shared past to make this kind of comment.
Many have asked what the highlight of the games was for me. There were so many fantastic moments - from the little things like service and friendliness of the Italians, the long walks and the Marochino coffees, catching up with 15+ ex-competitors and swapping ward stories, to meeting and having dinner with Franz Klamer, or discussing short track with my favorite of all time cycling star Mario Cipollini (to be discussed later).
However, for me, what was happening all along was deeper - more galvanizing to my soul and to who I am as a person. I was realizing something that I had avoided for years - that I loved this sport - this wholly unpredictable, humbling, challenging and exciting sport of short track speedskating. I was slowly embracing the conclusion that the vagaries of the years of competition had not only left their mark on me, but that somehow, despite my long felt feelings of failure, that I had left my mark on the sport as well.
I had talked before about these over-competitive parents, and how their offspring might be uniquely suited to excel in this single minded focus of athletics. I think there is no question that "it works" when it comes to the singular goal set in their lives, and the fear of failure that helps to push them beyond pain, beyond endurance. Chad showed that Thursday night when he pushed beyond all pain to skate away from Carl Verheijen and win the silver.
Then my own path - I had always felt embarrassed by my lack of success given what some called my "clear talent," and lack of successes in part driven by my self training and in part due to my "lack of focus" taking on grad school and near full time work while preparing for the 1998 Olympic games (between the 1994 and 1998 Olympics, I started and finished my MBA at Kellogg, and worked 35 hours a week as an engineer). In the 1998 pre-season, I returned to full time training, but it was too late and not enough - or too late and too much - still not certain.
After not making the '98 Olympic team team I made a clean break from the sport, literally leaving the 1998 Olympic trials in Lake Placid, New York and driving 2600 miles straight over 45 hours to Phoenix, Arizona where I started anew and put it all behind me.
So, it was quite a great surprise to feel and witness the open arms of the sport welcoming me back after 8 years. The first indication of success in spite of failure came from Apolo Anton Ohno himself. Last year there was a World Cup Short Track meet in Milwaukee and between races I re-introduced myself to the former teenage prodigy that had crushed me easily at the 1997 world team trials, and who finished a few spots behind me - but disappointed like me - in the 1998 Olympic team trials.
His eyes opened wide, and he turned to a friend and said, "this guy: cycling, skating, silver medal, Stanford, businessman - he's done it all - and all at once." He and his friend then vigorously shook my hand. I was embarrassed but pleased that he even remembered me.
Now it was a year later, and I'm in Italy watching him win 3 more medals to complement his gold and silver from 2002. And slowly, I found myself oddly included in this pantheon of stars of the sport - from Yan Li the coach, to Derek Campbell the team lead, to the host of parallel figures from my years in the other broadcast booths - Kawasaki, Lee, O'Reilly, Gagnon, Kuwai, Bradbury. Gone were the artificial barriers created by the competitions, and what was left was the respect for a battle well fought and mutual suffering and more suffering through the travels and travails inherent in the sport.
A few nights into the games, on the night he won gold in the 500m, I was re-introduced to Joey Cheek. We had met long ago, and in the intervening years, I have been a mentor to a competitor of his, Chris Callis, who as I mentioned barely missed making the team.
As we shook hands, Joey said, "So you are the guy Callis talks so highly of..."For Callis to talk highly of you, you must be a very special person." I was taken aback yet again. We then huddled for a few minutes and discussed his aspirations to get into Stanford and whether I could put in a good word. (Joey recently had his application for Harvard rejected.)
We chatted for few minutes I left with a nod and a handshake and I felt strongly that this was not just a single minded skater, but a great person.
Later, I discovered that he donated all his winnings ($35,000) to charity - what a gesture from a guy who has been living out of a duffle bag for years.
However, my personal highlight came on Friday night, February 24th - the night before the 500m final (where Apolo won gold) and the night before the best event of the Olympics: the 5000m relay final (where our boys won bronze).
The setting was the Huntsmen bar downtown Torino, where, suddenly a familiar face appeared in front of me. What transpired next literally changed my life.
It was Alan Izykowski - the father of Alex Izykowski - a member of the short track team who had already skated the 1500m - eliminated (just like me 12 years ago) in the semi finals, and who was now prepping for the 5000m relay the next day.
Alan had had a few drinks and was gregarious, but I'll never forget what he said next. He came in close, put his hand on the back of my head and pulled my forehead to his and said, "John, I want to thank you for something."
His eyes focused unwaveringly, intensely on mine."For what?" I said, honestly, not knowing. And as he spoke, the noise and sounds of the bar faded as the words registered.
"12 years ago, you came to Steamers bar in Bay City, Michigan for a little skating party after the '94 Olympics. You probably don't remember this, but that night you put your medal around Alex's shoulders - he was 11 at the time - and it changed his life, and our lives forever."
He continued, "We would not be here, right now, if you had not come there that night." "Alex kept that picture for years."
"Tomorrow Alex is skating for gold, silver, bronze - doesn't matter. No matter what happens, we'll be happy just to have been here and experiencing all this - thank you - thank you John."
His eyes had tears in them, and I looked around in bewilderment and for a moment tried to think of a humorous deflective answer, but his eyes and hands would not let me go, and I was forced to face - and accept - this heartfelt thank you for something I didn't even remember doing.
But then I did. I remembered going to that small gathering and being proud at that moment of what we had done, and proud to share that unique talisman of the Olympics - the ever sought after weight of the Olympic medal. And the weight of the metal, and the medal, began, finally, to register.
And I decided, finally, to accept it for what it was.
I straightened, pressed back, and meeting his eyes solidly, I said clearly, "Al - if I tell you one thing tonight to remember, remember this - take lots of pictures tomorrow - you'll never regret it. This is a time to live in the moment and to be proud of just being here - no matter what happens tomorrow. I have almost no pictures of the Olympics - don't make the same mistake."
"Document it for him Al - do it for Alex. Just remember your camera." And we took a picture together that I'll keep for a long, long time.(Picture: Al Izychowski & I)
Short Track, Saturday February 25th
The lights were different that night - the greatest of all nights at the Olympics.
It being the last night before closing ceremonies, everyone has focus and care. Lots of hugging everywhere you walk as new and old friends prepare for the pending parting. Inside the Palavela, instead of the bright lights putting the rink into a monotone glare, the colored lights of figure skating welcomed guests to the rink for the final night of short track at the 2006 Olympics.
All the athletes from the mountains were down, bobsled, skiing, ski-jumping, aerials, and snowboarding - prepping for closing ceremonies the next day. And tonight, this night, there is only one event in town this night - the Short Track finals for the Mens 500m, the women's 1000m, and the best of them all, the men's 5000m relay finals..
The excitement was palpable, actually, from the silence in the crowd. Rather than the usual medium level conversations, the spectators filtered in early but used hushed tones.
With 3 gold medals on the line - to be awarded that night rather than the next day in the medals plaza (there WAS to be no next day - the next day the games were over) the finality of the Olympics, and the importance of this 16 days to the athletes was plain to see.
I arrived early for our pre-production meeting with the crew - Danny, Ted, Steve, Misi and I, and now Andrea Joyce who replaced Lesley Visser. Steve explained that "el Hefe" was counting on tonight to be a big night (Bob Costas). Ted and Danny were to do an "on camera" pre-race discussion on Apolo's chances, and if things went right, we'd bring his father, Yuki, up to the booth.
(Picture: Apolo's dad Yuki Ohno & I)
(Picture:Ted Robinson, myself, Tom O'hare & Dan Weinstein)
After the meeting, Danny and I wandered into the still-empty arena and took one of my favorite pictures of the games - just he and I - two lucky guys rejoined to their sport - in the colors of the re-born ice stage.
(Picture: Dan Weinstein, myself, and the final night lights)
We took our places and watched the hushed masses filter in, and then waited for the action to begin. Ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani showed up, as did a huge contingent of athletes from around the world. And began it did, with a bang - the first men's heat having one of the most aggressive first laps in history with Li Ye from China being disqualified for physically latching onto the other 3 competitors prior to 2 man crash and the 3rd skater going inside the blocks.
Play by play at this point is unnecessary, but suffice it to say that Apolo was lucky to make it through the semi finals with the second failed outside pass of the games on Li Jiajun. Nonetheless he looked strong, and with the DQ of Jiajun he was in the final.
Men's 500m final:
Then, with long overdue serendipity - Apolo drew lane # 1.
In the 500m final, lane 1 is everything. If you can get the start, and if your competitors fight amongst themselves (common) the race can be yours. With Ahn in lane 4, it would mean that Ahn would likely have to come around #3 and #2 to even have a chance at Apolo.
Yes, Apolo jumped. Or, to use short track lingo, he "timed it right" and got away clean. It didn't matter - he would have won the start anyway, and then. well then he coasted for two laps, and the two Canadians in #2 and #3 spot didn't challenge - hoping for a slip later in the race. And then with 2 to go, Apolo put the after-burners on, and there was no chance. Sure, Ahn had more speed, and he slipped, stealthily from #5, to #4, to #3 at the line, but he was not a contender.
It was, the "perfect race." Clean, fast, and with a clear winner, and Apolo screamed when he crossed the line. In the booth Ted and Danny were saying, "And Apolo wins it! he's done it!" and in the background, embarrassingly, I found my voice screaming and my arms up in the air "Yeahhhh!!!!" until I regained myself, looking around furtively to see if my lack of professionalism was noticed. But all eyes were on the drama unfolding on the ice.
Quickly I subdued myself. Thank God for close range microphones.
(Picture: Apolo heads out, casual style, for his medal ceremony)
But still, this was just the warm-up for the main event. The one that Picabo, and Shani, and Chad, and Mario Cipollini, and Arakawa, and Bode, and former NY mayor Rudy Giuliani and Bradbury, and Dan and Ted and the Izykowski's had come to watch, along with as many athletes as could find standing room up in the athlete section - the 5000m mens relay gold medal match.
By the time the 5 teams of 4 men took the ice (20 skaters) the crowd was chanting - the Italians their song, the USA chanting USA, and the Koreans, Canadians, and Chinese contingents each with their own battle cry. The rafters were booming with voices. I don't know how Ted and Danny could talk or even concentrate over the noise.
As they announced each team, a roar shattered the ice, and the 20 skaters filtered forward only to disperse to their relative stations. And then this weird sound started. As the started readied, the crowd began this thrumming sound, "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh" that built to certain level and stayed - much like the kickoff at a football game, but with no crescendo - merely the reflection of the restless energy in the arena.
And so each team was introduced, and the gun finally went off with team USA taking the lead.
I won't describe the race, but over the next 6 ½ minutes 20 men suffered like there was no tomorrow, and near the end two races emerged - South Korea vs. Canada, and USA vs. Italy. The noise was unbearable, and I watched as our boys lost the lead to Italy at the same time Canada took the lead from Korea.
And in that weird parallel time warp, Ahn and Apolo stole back the gold and bronze medals from their worthy competitors of Canada and Italy, and the place erupted into absolute mayhem.
I can still hear Ted's voice at the end. "and if you think the short track relay isn't the most exciting event of the Olympics, tell this to the crowd of 8000 screaming on their feet!"
Which indeed they all were.
And I watched our boys grab a flag and hug Korea, and Canada, and China, and Italy, and then each other, and then pose for silly multinational pictures, laying on the ice, going on shoulders, carrying coaches - all the things we did back 12 years ago in 1994 that I remember so well.
(Picture: Korean team on-ice medal winning hijinks)
And the medals were handed out, and we headed to production where Ted and Danny would have to stay til the wee hours of the morning. And at 1am, they set me free. One more party, and a few more stories..
(Picture: Rusty Smith, Alex Izychowski & JP Kepka w/ their medals)
The Sports Illustrated / Budweiser Party
Hyped from the earliest days, the Budweiser dome - a million dollar temporary structure on the Po River - was slated to be the end all destination for the who's-who of the last night of the Olympic games. On February 25th, Sports Illustrated was hosting a party that was broadly proclaimed to be THE place to be at this Olympic games
My scene or not, I had to try to get in. After all, I knew from conversations with Rusty and Alex, J.P., and Apolo, Bradbury, and the Australians, Parra and the longtrackers that that is where they were going to be.
The question was how to get in?
I arrived with my partner in crime Tommy O'Hare and we cleared the first hurdle - passing security into the USA House - right next to the Bud dome, and sharing a driveway (fenced and guarded) with the "celebrity entrance" to the Bud dome.
There were literally thousands of people filling the streets trying to either get in to the Bud Dome, or just waiting to watch the A list of celebrities entering the dome.
The driveway to our right was lined with 100m of red carpet and the brightest of all white lights, and every few minutes an announcement would be made and the crowd would roar, and someone famous would stalk down the aisle. 6 foot models in scanty clothing, athlete after athlete wearing their medals, and the entire Italian short track team - these arrived as we huddled in the driveway trying to figure out our next steps.
Tommy and I were not alone - a few nights earlier we were talking to some of the staff of the Visa Olympic Reunion Center whether we could get into the S.I. party at the Bud dome. They had overheard Tommy and I talking about the preceding week's party. I had no idea if we could get them in, though I had done it once before with my limited, dated Olympic credentials. However, I thought it might actually help, in this case, because, unlike the other houses, which were staffed by male and female American interns of all ages, the Visa house had decided to staff its house with young, female, black eyed Italian beauties.
Remembering what we'd been told about the Bud dome and the "scouting parties" for the young and beautiful, we agreed to meet them there that night to see if we could help them get in - and there they were - just outside the USA House gate. We got them into the courtyard paralleling the red carpet walk, just as they announced, "Fabio Carta from the Italian Short Track Team" to a massive roar.
The girls were excitable and speaking in excited hushed tones in Italian to each other.
At this point I was re-introduced to Graham - the guy who had allowed me to enter the week before. He asked me, "why aren't you in already?" and I said, "Well, Tommy and I brought 5 friends - we were hoping to get them in...."
He looked daunted and said, "5? - Not sure I can do five - maybe 2."
And I said, "But it is these ladies here.."
His admiring glance said it all, and 2 seconds later Graham concluded with, "Well, here's 7 passes then, enjoy!"
We began climbing through the barriers one by one when he interrupted me with a question, "Oh by the way John, you were short track right? What year?"
60 seconds later, as we gathered and then headed awkwardly into the lights and down the red carpeted aisle, the loudspeaker crackled something in Italian. Not exactly sure what it said, but I definitely heard, "Patinaggio de Velocia - USA - short track" as Tommy and I and 5 smartly dressed young Italian women marched down the red carpet to the roar of the unknowing throng. I doubt Fabio himself had a better escort. The ludicrousness of the situation was not lost on Tommy or I and we eyed each other embarrassed for a few seconds. Then Tommy straightened his spine, turned, raised his arm and confidently gave his best, formal parade wave to the crowd, who roared their approval. I began laughing beside him and could not keep a straight face. The ladies, no doubt, enjoyed their grand entrance.
(Picure: Grand entrance through security to bud dome)
And then we were through the metal detectors and security, and we entered the Bud dome - artificially introduced, but alive with the electricity of the party.
Inside was a special world - a world where all the stresses of 16 days had been put aside - where smiles were on every face, and where flashes were going off at a rate of 10 per second. Everything was possible in this world of young talent and fresh rewards. Tommy and I looked at each other, smiled, shrugged, and marched on in.
(Picture: Bode Miller with Tom and I - apparently in his 'usual spot')
And it was weird. Our positions supporting the sport had put us in contact with many of the athletes, and with even more of the select few non-athletes allowed inside the dome. So as we entered, we both had the distinct feeling - as we discovered later - that we knew, well, not "everyone" but a lot of people. Me I felt like the belle of the ball in a masculine sense. After parking the Visa girls in back, I made a few rounds and would only walk a few feet before meeting someone from the preceding weeks.
I brought my camera and took snapshots with many of these new and old faces.
About an hour after I entered, I saw an unmistakably famous face. Tall, craggy, lean, and . well, handsome I guess, the face of Mario Cipollini was as famous to me as that of Katie Couric might be to someone else. If Franz Klamer was my one skiing hero, and Heiden my one skating hero, then, other than Lance Armstrong himself, Mario Cipollini was very clearly my cycling hero. Known as "the Lion King", Mario won 42 Giro d'Italia stages, and 12 Tour de France Stages, and the 2003 World championships in his long and storied career. Incredibly flamboyant, he was famous for wearing zebra striped skinsuits and he once appeared at the start of the Tour de France wearing a toga and riding in a chariot pulled by his teammates.
I asked one of the Visa girls to introduce me and pulled the only card I knew - I said, "Mario - I'm an old friend of Frankie Andreu." (Frankie and I grew up racing together in Detroit - Frankie went on to be Lance Armstrong's lieutenant for several tour de Frances before retiring to commentary for OLN).
"Ah yes, Frankie - good man." said the Lion King.
(Picture: Mario Cipollini & I at the S.I. party)
"I'm here with NBC for short track - me, I competed in short track at the Olympics myself." I said, numbly.
"Ahhhh!" He brightened. "Short Track is best! I watch myself! Let me see." and he bent down and imitated the skating strokes. "Me - I'm too tall no?" he asked and then stood up, towering over me. He then patted the top of my head and said - "You - too big too?" He then reached down and grabbed my leg.. "Still strong! Good!"
I asked him what he was doing now (he retired last year at the age of 38) and he replied, "Nothing. Absolutely nothing." and smiled.
I took a picture with him and then watched him make his way into the crowd with a harem of onlookers following. The Lion King in his new jungle.
At one point I was making my way to Amanda Barker and Steven Bradbury. Steven had just secretly told me that he and Amanda had gotten engaged a couple days earlier, but to swear to secrecy (it is now public knowledge). As I migrated toward them, I first ran into Gabrielle - an Italian Olympic rower from the 2004 games who provided me her card for helping her get in tonight.
Moving forward, I happened upon Catherine Raney and her boyfriend Mark Norman (who I had grown up with in Detroit) and we exchanged hugs and business cards. Two steps later, and Carrie Walsh - giantess and Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist grabbed my hand and swung herself into a pirouette underneath my arm as I swung free.
(Carrie Walsh - Giantess)
Finally, I reached the safe haven of Steven and Amanda, who had been perhaps my closest companions other than Tommy and Dan for the preceding weeks. "My, you are popular tonight" said Amanda as I gave her a hug and turned to Steven. "Yes - very odd" I said and whispered in her ear "Congratulations - take care of Steven - you are his strength." She said, "I know, and I will."
(Picture: newly engaged to Stephen Bradbury: Amanda Barker)
I then turned to Steve and we hugged as well. "Mate," he said, "I'm coming to the good ole' USA and counting on you to find me some good speaking work so I can tell my story."
"I'll do my best" I said, and with that and a handshake, I turned my head and made my way toward the exit.
One of the many nights near the end where I was surrounded by athletes, one of them, Kip Carpenter, asked me suspiciously, "So, why is it you are here? Why you?" And I was embarrassed because he was right. What luck, what serendipity had brought me to this pass? I had to turn back to him with some thought, and I said simply, "Kip, I don't know - do I deserve to be here? Probably not. Am I ecstatic to be a part of this once again? You bet." (Picture: Kip Carpenter)
Now it was 4:00am and time for me to head for the media village and the bus. On my way out of the Bud Dome, I had to stop and grab my jacket, and the backpack that had made its ubiquitous presence known for the last 3 weeks. And people - lots of hands to shake, and hugs to make. But finally, I felt the cooler air toward the exit signs, and I sighed and turned to take it all in one last time.
I thought of all of the goodbyes that night - to all my old and new friends. Stephen Bradbury, Ted Robinson, Casey Fitzrandolf, Catherine Raney, Tommy O'Hare, Misi Toth, Danny Weinstein, Dave Cruikshank, Stephen Lee, Jeroen Otter, Wilf O'Reilly and the USA speedskating team.
Near the door I saw, again, an important face.
It was Alan Izykowski, standing with his wife, his daughter, and his son Alex who was talking with J.P. Kepka. They both had their medals on.
Earlier that evening, Mrs. Izychowski had asked for our help and Tommy and I went out to try and help get Al and his daughter into the dome (they were lost in the throng facing the gate.). Tommy and I sat out in the cold monitoring the crowd for a while as Graham (the guy with the passes) searched them out. With Alex and JP's medals to join us, we eventually got them inside. Weird that they should thank me when I was no help at all.
As I made my way across the room toward the exit with my jacket and backpack on, Al saw me and stopped mid-conversation, and our eyes met across the sea of heads.
Al turned, and nodded his head in a slow bow - all the while keeping his eyes, shining with pride, on mine, and I nodded back, my eyes welling up.And proudly, slowly, he raised up his arm over the heads of the throng, and then, eyes still connected to mine, he pivoted slowly, grandly and brought to bear on his son the camera firmly grasped in his fist.
And Al's eyes left mine with a broad smile so that he could take what was probably the 100th photo of the evening: his son, with his Olympic medal, his arm around his friend.
.at the Olympic Games.
March 2, 2006, Wisconsin
PS: Torino #9 is the letter that Al Izychowski sent to me after the games after reading this newsletter.