Friday, March 5, 2010

It's time for a timeout

I will probably not be posting here for a while. I have come to realize that blogging is consuming too much of my limited time, and there are other things in my life right now that are priorities.

For those of you who have visited regularly and left comments, thank you so much. I have appreciated your interest and your feedback.

I wish all of you peace, happiness and good health.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Of relationships, rivalries and respect

Much was made in the media during the Winter Olympics over the friendship — and rivalry — between skiers Lindsey Vonn of the United States and Maria Riesch of Germany. I wondered how hard it is for the two women to remain close when they are swapping places on the podium or, even worse, when one is dominating the podium.

And then I remembered that I personally know something about the subject of love and competition, because I introduced my soulmate and skimate, Marge Carl, to racing and she's been hot on the tails of my skis ever since! Marge has something I don't have — a national title in what has been billed as the world's largest recreational ski race.

In March 2007, just four years after taking to the gates for the first time, Marge was standing atop the podium at the NASTAR National Championships in Steamboat Springs, Colo., having the gold medal in her division placed around her neck by U.S. ski team member Steven Nyman (at left in photo, with former Olympian Doug Lewis crossing the stage).

It was a dream come true for the then-43-year-old resident of Richmond, R.I., who excitedly shared the news by cell phone with her parents as they sat poolside in Stuart, Fla.

Although she grew up in a skiing family and started skiing at age 8, Marge didn't get into racing at an early age, she said, because her father didn't want to waste the ski day waiting in line to race. The closest she came was a faux downhill race at age 12 at The Balsams resort in New Hampshire in which participants guessed how long it would take to ski straight to the bottom and whoever was closest to their prediction won. Her prediction was way off, she said, but her father won a pin and gave it to her, perhaps whetting her appetite for the hardware that was to come.

It would be nearly three decades before Marge would take on her first gate, in February 2003 on a cold and icy day at Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire, when she decided to try a coin-operated giant slalom course, hoping to catch me. Marge finished about 6 seconds behind me on that first run — an absurd margin for such a short course — but she was ready to go back up and try it again.

"I think I got the race bug that day," she said.

By the next year, Marge began participating in NASTAR, a recreational racing program offered at ski areas throughout the United States that allows participants to compare their times in a giant slalom course, at least theoretically, with those of the national pacesetter, who is usually a U.S. ski team member. Marge was by then thoroughly addicted to gates.

NASTAR participants are divided into categories — bronze, silver, gold, platinum — based on how close they come to the "par time," or the national pacesetter's time. Marge lingered in the bronze division for only a few races, then moved into silver.

She qualified for the National Championships at Steamboat by placing first in the 40-44 silver division at Wachusett Mountain in Princeton, Mass. Since I had qualified, too, at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire, we decided to make the trip to Colorado for what we figured would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The championships would be a four-day affair of parties, concerts, ski movies, race clinics and, of course, racing. It was a chance for us mere mortals to hobnob with the likes of Phil Mahre, Diane Roffe (shown at left autographing Marge's race bib), Daron Rahlves, A.J. Kitt, Kaylin Richardson and other former and current U.S. ski team members. It was also an opportunity to meet fun people from all over North America who shared our love of skiing and ski racing.

"The qualification for nationals happened at a perfect time for me," Marge said. "At that time, I was transitioning from the silver to gold group."

Marge said that during the flight to Colorado, she was feeling pretty confident about her chances. "My goal was to get in the top three. I would have been thrilled with the third spot."

But racing at Steamboat would prove to be a far bigger challenge than at Wachusett or Bretton Woods or anywhere else that we had raced up to that point.

"Yikes," Marge said, recalling her thoughts upon first seeing the trail where our respective races would take place (at right, the second trail from left in foreground). It was not the steepest trail we had ever skied on, but was most definitely the steepest trail we would ever race on.

Marge admits that her confidence dipped just a bit, but come race day, she said, "I was pretty focused. I felt like I really wanted it." And, thinking about her parents in Florida, "I wanted to make them proud."

As for me on race day? Well, never mind, this story isn't about me. We'll just leave it that I finished dead last in my division (45-49 gold).

Marge, however, took on a tough course — on which Daron Rahlves had set a blistering pace — with, if not exactly full-blown confidence, the knowledge that she could handle it. The steepness and spring-like conditions that day made the racing more like survival skiing, and Marge (on course, below) survived better than the 12 others in her group. The event consisted of two days of racing, two runs each day, with the best run from each day counting toward the final result.

Marge looked at the leader board after the first day to find that she had the lead by .58 seconds. The next day, she topped her closest challenger by a whopping 1.55 seconds, sealing her championship victory.

That night at the medals ceremony, we waited in the cold and rain for three hours until Marge's division was finally called. She took her place atop the podium to receive her gold medal, a nice Descente jacket, some new ski poles, and the admiration of other skiers, most of all me. She had come a long way since that day at Cannon Mountain just four years earlier, and I couldn't have been prouder.

You're a true champ, Marge, and I'll always welcome the competition you bring to our racing.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The biggest names you've never heard

I don't know about you, but I'm suffering from a bad case of Olympics fatigue. I can't take any more tiaras, tears, shin-anigans, pouty Russians, lascivious snowboarders or cigar-puffing women. I was beginning to think maybe I had missed the addition of boorish behavior as a medal sport.

So I thought today might be a good time to take a look at a couple of athletes who embody the Olympic spirit perhaps more than those who have been training their whole lives for it. I remember watching the opening ceremonies two weeks ago as an alpine skier from Ghana proudly entered BC Place stadium. Ghana in the Winter Games? Skiing? Well, why not.

Here's Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, who is expected to take part in today's slalom, making a pretty compelling argument for why he has as much right to ski in the Olympics as Bode Miller, Carlo Janka or Didier Defago.

And then there's Marjan Kalhor, the first female athlete from Iran to compete in the Winter Olympics. She was last among the finishers in the giant slalom on Thursday and in yesterday's slalom, but was happy and proud to be representing her country at the Games. Now that's class.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Words to live by

American figure skater Johnny Weir clearly marches to the proverbial beat of a different drummer.

He has been a polarizing figure in the world of figure skating, raising eyebrows with some of his unconventional costumes and his outspokenness. When he finished sixth Thursday night in the men's competition, the crowd audibly registered its displeasure with the judges.

But Weir seems comfortable in his own skin, something for which no medals are awarded.
"You must always be yourself and always enjoy what you are doing ... You can't care what anyone else thinks because really there is no basis for that in your life. You have to live your life for yourself. So even when I was little I was playing on a soccer team and running the complete opposite way pretending to be a zebra, an ostrich or something. So I have always been like this."
— Johnny Weir

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fit to be the best

A big congratulations to American skier Lindsey Vonn, who yesterday won gold in the women's downhill, beating the competition by an impressive margin and outskiing the weight of the expectations heaped on her by the U.S. media before the start of the Winter Games.

It's worth noting here that Vonn owes much of her success on the mountain these past few years to her training off of it. She is widely considered the fittest woman on the World Cup circuit, spending countless hours at the gym working on her strength, endurance and balance.

You can find a look at Lindsey in the gym here.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Let the Games begin!

There was a time when I loved watching the Olympics, but not so much anymore. I realized this last night when just 28 minutes into the opening coverage of the Winter Games in Vancouver, I found myself thoroughly bored. Granted, I was perhaps rushing to judgment, since last night's broadcast had very little to do with sport and much to do with pomp and circumstance, which I've never been terribly fond of.

Less than an hour into the broadcast, there had already enough faux intrigue and drama to make me turn my attention to other matters. Whatever happened to just covering sport for sport's sake?

Instead, the network parcels out its coverage in small doses of feel-good narratives, interspersed between monstrously expensive commercials.

It was hard last night to watch athletes from country after country come parading into BC Place stadium, all smiles and waving flags and bright colors, just hours after luger Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia had lost his life in an Olympic training accident that was sickening in its suddenness and violence.

Life does not always lend itself to tidy narratives.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Saints kick it up a notch

I've always liked that saying "without risk, there can be no reward."

Well if ever there were a perfect real-life illustration of that principle, it was last-night's gutsy Super Bowl win by the New Orleans Saints.

The onside kick by the Saints to open the second half was sheer brilliance. They could have kicked deep, as nearly any other team would have, and then most likely would have watched the Indianapolis Colts march methodically down the field for a score, as only the Colts can do.

But no, the Saints took a risk — a huge risk — and it payed off, big-time.

The Saints showed that they are the best, and they did it in truly super fashion.