Phil's Gold

Features
Author:
Publish date:
Phil's Gold Lead

During a tour of the Utah Olympic Park just outside Park City, home to the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, I keep quiet while a guide points out the highlights. Atop the long concrete funnel of the combination luge/bobsled/skeleton chute that jags across the hillside, a team of junior Canadian riders takes a training break. The rear panels of their skinsuits have been shredded and duct-taped and shredded again. "The G-forces really hit through that last turn, our guide elucidates. "That squeal you hear? That's a skeleton rider's chin guard scraping along the ice. He looks at me as he says this.

I have come to Utah to live life under the Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius. To go swifter, faster and higher in seven events over four days: skeleton, ski jump, biathlon, luge, speed skating, figure skating, curling. At 32, I'm not the next Bode-killer; I'll never hear the Kitzbühel cowbells ringing. Even so, to me, the Olympic ideal is underpinned by the notion that anyone can come out on top, that any body could be the raw material for athletic perfection. Or at least a solid bronze in badminton.

As a child, I was always that last kid: last one picked for kickball, last batter in the Little League lineup. (Actually, my only lifetime at-bat ended with a black eye.) Even skiing, at which I am now an unashamed expert, never came naturally—it took the gift of sidecut to finally get me through the chutes. Yet I still believed that someday, some sport would call my name. I'd lace on the shoes or choke up on the javelin or unsheath the foil and, finally, I'd be the natural, the jock, the brutish but graceful figure with the perfect aim and unstoppable footwork and a misty half-hour special with Bob Costas.

And maybe, here in Park City, that moment is upon me. Sensing the need to butch up, I lose my seat belt for the 10-mile-an-hour van ride back down the mountain. I'd better start somewhere.

Day One
Nordic Jump, Utah Olympic Park

I arrive in a silver-bullet skinsuit, carrying a pair of nine-foot jumping skis. Dan, my instructor, is on park-bomber twin-tips. When I ask him how my bindings work, he says, "I don't know, dude; I've never used those. Never used the jump skis? "Not ever. Later, he tells me: "They were just like, 'You know how to jump, right? In the park?' And I was like, 'Yeah,' and they were like, 'You should teach the nordic camps.' When I snap off a plastic plate that might or might not be part of my binding, Dan kicks it back on with his boot. "No worries.

"No worries will become my week's mantra; one by one, every coach will insist on me not worrying. (A few things I shouldn't worry about: falling, crashing, breaking an ankle, getting second-degree "ice burns, wearing women's tights, going too fast, too high, too far.)

Lest you think this nonchalance worries me, I should point out that Dan can take the 20-meter ski jump. Backwards.

As we ropetow to an array of baby jumps, his chill-dude method grows on me. The jumps are no big deal, he vibes: "Just get a big pop in. You've got to squat on the way down, getting as low as possible and flattening your back; the "pop is a push-off just at the terminal lip. You jump literally straight up into the air, not out, dropping your heels and lifting your toes.

And maybe I shouldn't worry. My first jumps, off the baby five-meter and junior seven-meter, contain all the thrill of jumping off a sidewalk. But even though I'm not allowed past anything higher than the 40-meter, and today's longest flight won't top 20 feet, something about moving into the double-digit jumps sets off my sweat glands. I already know the skill set: Point the skis downhill and commit. But by the time I'm ready for my first 10-meter, what should be a gentle slide off a goosebump has exploded into an agony-of-defeat disaster-in-waiting. Strangely, I think about my kids—specifically, that I don't yet have any, but I might someday, and maybe I should avoid anything precipitous.

The0, it turns out, is pretty easy, too. In fact, so's the 20. On these minor jumps, the actual flight is over in a blink. The annoying refrain of every high school coach in America is, in this case, right on: It is all in your head. Slipping down the run, popping, landing, even crashing—none of it hurts. The actual jumping is a breeze.

With only a few minutes left before the hill shuts down, I decide to go for the 40. It's last run, I'm beat; there will be no better moment. When I drop off at the ropetow's final stop, I ask Dan if I can take the 40. "Go for it, he says, with all the enthusiasm he can muster after three hours of watching me slop-jump. I let a 20-something budding freeskier go ahead of me, but first I ask her for some tips. "Well, I cased the knuckle on the first few tries, but the trannie is really nice. I nod. She jumps. It's awesome. I line up. "No worries, I mumble, and drop in.

My start is shaky—I'm sliding at an angle, and it feels like I'm headed off the run. So I drop a butt-cheek into the hill halfway down and drag off into the snowdrifts, etching a stuttering J across the run. I figure I can start again from where I fluffed it, but Dan shouts at me to de-ski and walk down. I ignore him and clunk over to the 20 in my boots. My last leap is far from glorious, but I get it done, calling to mind the Olympic creed, as attributed to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics: "The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well. [NEXT]Day Two
Biathlon, Soldier's Hollow

After a drive-thru breakfast of Burger King and Advil, I dumbly make my way to Soldier's Hollow, a soft valley in the Wasatch runoff where the 2002 Olympic biathlon was held.

Although it evolved from a kind of arctic-hillbilly pastime—a-skiin' and a-huntin'—biathlon's recent history is martial, full of rifle-toting Swedes and Norwegians patrolling their remotest borders for suspect Norwegians and Swedes. (In international competition, the best American finishes tend to be in the top 20s; the bright spot of 2002 being Jay Hakkinen's 13th place, an Olympic American high.) The Finns, whose soldier-skiers helped drive the Russian Army from Finland in 1940, have a word for the necessary quality: sisu, the grit to get done what must be done, regardless of obstacles. Finland, it should be noted, has brought home seven Olympic biathlon golds since 1960.

Here's what the sprint biathlon demands of you: Skate-ski three or four miles at top speed, drop your poles, unsling your rifle, load it, remove the snow-guard from your rifle-sight, remove your stomach from your throat, and calmly pick off five targets 50 meters away—all within about 25 seconds. Then do it again. Incidentally, if you miss a shot, you'll have to do another lap on the skis.

"We'll go slow the first time around, says my coach, Barb, an encouraging woman with the rock-hardest sisu I've seen. We warm up for a lap, and I'm feeling pretty pro in my Team America skinsuit, on loan from a woman named Jesse. ("Women's sizing is good for you, she tells me. "Slimmer fit.) The slim-fit skate-skis, sworn enemy of my massive jumpers, are a welcome variation; I only trip twice.

Barb teaches me some gun basics, how to flop to the ground before shooting prone, how to calm myself before pulling the trigger. "Become the shooter, she says, meaning, as opposed to the huffing grandma you are on skis.

Once I get going with the gun, a shift occurs in the universe: I'm an ace. The targets—black disks that fall away to white when hit—are five-for-five, all white. "You're a natural, cheers Barb. It's true: I keep shooting; targets keep falling.

"Let's take a real lap, Barb suggests. A real lap? "At speed. So you can see what it's like to come in with a high heart rate.

The key to a good lap is to carry your shooter's calm onto the course. No big bursts out of the gate; every move made in clean, consistent efficiency; breathing timed to slow as you approach the shooting station. I know this—I am the shooter—but right from the start I blow it. I go out fast into the first straight but stutter on the uphill, so I try to make up for lost time by hammering the flat leading into the range. By the time I flop out, my heart rate's breaking 180, and with all that blood bobsledding around my arteries, stability is minimal. I shoot two for five.

My penalty lap is a contemplative few minutes. I need the rest; I'm sobered by my bad aim. But there's hope: Norwegian Magnar Solberg won his second biathlon gold at 35; I'm still a spry 32. I'm coming for you, Magnar, and your sisu, too.

Day Two
Skating, Utah Olympic Oval

Figure skating: Forget it. That dainty "sport of teeny girls and preening boys? Can't do it. Not a chance. At the Utah Olympic Oval, deep in the outskirts of Salt Lake City, I try a single half-hour and quit. Thus, I can relate no wild tales of ice-dancing, no operatic leaps, not even a flubbed axel. I can only heave thanks to my 98-pound instructor, the effortless Katie Moose, for allowing me to lean on her as I flail and clop around the rink.

I expect speed skating, on the other hand, to treat me more kindly. Skiing and biking have blessed me with the requisite quads, and I've spent weeks watching old loops of Bonnie Blair, Eric Heiden and Karin Enke, the East German "Monster Woman. Visualization, the coach in my head tells me, is crucial. At that level, at least, I'm ready. There's something deeply blissful about long-track skaters cruising the open lanes: when they get into the distance, when they've hit their rhythm, they all get the same Zen-zombie look. No popping, no flopping, just an astral-plane ride across Planet Ice.

But only an hour removed from my botched ice-date with Katie Moose, I worry that the thing they call "speed skating might end up what I call "prelude to a broken pelvis. It looks simple enough. Push skates outward, move body forward. Get up enough speed, and in the turns you'll get about 45 degrees of lean before your edges give way. Wherein lies my trouble. Riding an edge in rental skates—which, at $15 a day, are cheaper than a professional sadist but just as effective—is a bit like hopscotching across a balance beam while trying on bike tights.

Pair this with learning to skate from a genuine Olympian—in this case Erin Porter, 2002 short-tracker—and embarrassment becomes inevitable. I'm suited up. She's suited up. And there the similarity ends. To help me get a feel for my edges, Erin has me fall hipward into the deep pads that line the oval. I drop; they hold. "See? she says. "You have to trust the skates. She says this while wearing a pair that are made from carbon fiber and cost $1,600.

Practice might help, too. Crossing my skates for a turn is beyond me; even in the long straightaways, where I should at least be able to push some kind of rhythm, my skates cut an asymmetrical staccato. Instead of smoothly propulsive strokes, my arms flap like a flu-struck chicken's. Poles, I think. Where are my poles?

This isn't only in my head; I can't do it. I got spooked with Moose, and now I fear the ice. Unless you're lacing up skates by age 5, it seems, you're hopeless. [NEXT]Day Three
Skeleton, Utah Olympic Park

In the many famous photographs of Jim Shea, the winning American skeleton slider, the blazing centerpiece is his American-eagle helmet, the fierceness of which is matched only by Shea's searing blue eyes underneath. But then you look a little closer, and you notice—is that duct tape on his sled? Are those dents? Is it a bad sign that even the best slider in the world has crashed hard enough to take chunks out of his equipment?

Hurtling down a frozen waterslide head-first on a cafeteria tray: This is the sport of skeleton. Your ankles might crack as you pinball around the iced-concrete curves, G-forces will suck your head ever closer to the track, your eyeballs will scream as the air roas you approach the shooting station. I know this—I am the shooter—but right from the start I blow it. I go out fast into the first straight but stutter on the uphill, so I try to make up for lost time by hammering the flat leading into the range. By the time I flop out, my heart rate's breaking 180, and with all that blood bobsledding around my arteries, stability is minimal. I shoot two for five.

My penalty lap is a contemplative few minutes. I need the rest; I'm sobered by my bad aim. But there's hope: Norwegian Magnar Solberg won his second biathlon gold at 35; I'm still a spry 32. I'm coming for you, Magnar, and your sisu, too.

Day Two
Skating, Utah Olympic Oval

Figure skating: Forget it. That dainty "sport of teeny girls and preening boys? Can't do it. Not a chance. At the Utah Olympic Oval, deep in the outskirts of Salt Lake City, I try a single half-hour and quit. Thus, I can relate no wild tales of ice-dancing, no operatic leaps, not even a flubbed axel. I can only heave thanks to my 98-pound instructor, the effortless Katie Moose, for allowing me to lean on her as I flail and clop around the rink.

I expect speed skating, on the other hand, to treat me more kindly. Skiing and biking have blessed me with the requisite quads, and I've spent weeks watching old loops of Bonnie Blair, Eric Heiden and Karin Enke, the East German "Monster Woman. Visualization, the coach in my head tells me, is crucial. At that level, at least, I'm ready. There's something deeply blissful about long-track skaters cruising the open lanes: when they get into the distance, when they've hit their rhythm, they all get the same Zen-zombie look. No popping, no flopping, just an astral-plane ride across Planet Ice.

But only an hour removed from my botched ice-date with Katie Moose, I worry that the thing they call "speed skating might end up what I call "prelude to a broken pelvis. It looks simple enough. Push skates outward, move body forward. Get up enough speed, and in the turns you'll get about 45 degrees of lean before your edges give way. Wherein lies my trouble. Riding an edge in rental skates—which, at $15 a day, are cheaper than a professional sadist but just as effective—is a bit like hopscotching across a balance beam while trying on bike tights.

Pair this with learning to skate from a genuine Olympian—in this case Erin Porter, 2002 short-tracker—and embarrassment becomes inevitable. I'm suited up. She's suited up. And there the similarity ends. To help me get a feel for my edges, Erin has me fall hipward into the deep pads that line the oval. I drop; they hold. "See? she says. "You have to trust the skates. She says this while wearing a pair that are made from carbon fiber and cost $1,600.

Practice might help, too. Crossing my skates for a turn is beyond me; even in the long straightaways, where I should at least be able to push some kind of rhythm, my skates cut an asymmetrical staccato. Instead of smoothly propulsive strokes, my arms flap like a flu-struck chicken's. Poles, I think. Where are my poles?

This isn't only in my head; I can't do it. I got spooked with Moose, and now I fear the ice. Unless you're lacing up skates by age 5, it seems, you're hopeless. [NEXT]Day Three
Skeleton, Utah Olympic Park

In the many famous photographs of Jim Shea, the winning American skeleton slider, the blazing centerpiece is his American-eagle helmet, the fierceness of which is matched only by Shea's searing blue eyes underneath. But then you look a little closer, and you notice—is that duct tape on his sled? Are those dents? Is it a bad sign that even the best slider in the world has crashed hard enough to take chunks out of his equipment?

Hurtling down a frozen waterslide head-first on a cafeteria tray: This is the sport of skeleton. Your ankles might crack as you pinball around the iced-concrete curves, G-forces will suck your head ever closer to the track, your eyeballs will scream as the air roils over them at 52 miles per hour. "Remember, warns my coach, "if you fall off, stay put. Otherwise the EMTs can't find you.

The key, of course, is not to worry. During the 50 or so seconds it takes to get down, you won't much be able to; the angry wave of speed you're riding washes away all thought.

"You can expect to go 55 miles per hour today. But it's going to feel like 20. I'm coached at the start by an eager former lugist named Robbie, 22, alongside a group of Chicago salesmen in town for a conference. Our sleds—padded plastic trays with steel rails paralleling their undersides—all have names. Most are macho names, Chip and Cougar. Across mine is written "Maria. (Maybe I'm lucky. The last guy to pick gets a sled named Pinky.)

"Only five seconds of this sport is work, says Robbie. The opening sprint, hurling enough momentum onto the track before leaping atop your sled, can mean the difference between the Wheaties box and another four years of obscurity. "The sliding is the easy part. For us, launching from the junior start, six curves before the spiraling finish, there will be no sprinting: It's all easy part. Katie Uhlaender, a U.S. women's skeleton team member with linebacker thighs, stops by for a look. After listening to Robbie for a bit, she snorts. "That's more instruction than I ever got. They were like, 'Stay on, go down.'

After competing for most of the season with one broken foot and another broken ankle, Katie is ranked 6th in the world; the word at the Park is she's America's next gold-getter. The last thing she sees before launching herself down each run are the words NO MIND that she's written on top of her sled. "It's to keep me from thinking. I just need to go, you know?

Do I? I do. My initial splits are slow, but once I get my speed going, I'm ruling the run like a no-mind genius, shifting my shoulders to push Maria through the turns. The salesmen are all gravity-bombs at six-foot-one and -two and -three, but I've got the maneuverability. On my last run, every split is the fastest, and after I cross the finish I want to hit the podium and shout, "Sell that, Chicago!

Day Three
Curling, Ogden Ice Sheet

"I'll point to where I want the stone to go, says Vern. "You throw it there. Vern is my skip, captain of my four-person curling team at the Olympic Ice Sheet in Ogden, 80 rush-hour minutes north of Salt Lake City. The stone in question is 42 pounds of polished Scottish granite with a handle.

On the ice with us are about a hundred amateur curlers, most slightly lumpy, all enthusiastic boosters of their sport, with T-shirts that read "Curling ROCKS! Come Sweep with Me and "WARNING: The Surgeon General has determined that it is OK to SMOKE your OPPONENTS.

The basics of the game have been explained to me by my host, Cathleen, a bright-eyed Ogden redhead: You slide a stone 150 feet across the ice to a bull's-eye; teammates with spongy brooms swab the ice ahead to encourage a stone on its way; then the other team does the same. Their stones knock yours out of scoring range; yours crack theirs into the icy outfield. In Olympic-level curling, it goes on like this for 16 throws; whoever's got the most stones on-target in the end wins.

Still, I'm not entirely sure I know what's going on. Vern's minimalist take belies curling's complexity. You're not just hucking rocks across a hockey rink; you're employing an arsenal of moves—the steal, the tap-back, the cross-house double—in a slow strategy of set-up and destroy. Like arctic bar pool.With play on, Cathleen, the sociable and informative mother of three, has turned into a silent machine. Vern, guiding the game from the far target, is yelping instructions at his sweepers in some guttural curling code, like a farmer hollering for hogs gone missing in the peat. "HEYuhh-HEP! EP! EP! and "ree-YOH-ree-YOH, almost willing the stones to order with his weird upcountry incantations. My throws go nowhere near the target, spiraling off like moons

Related