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Winter Olympics Journal

March 2, 2010 4:51 PM

2010 Games from the rear-view mirror

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We rolled out of Canada yesterday, and people were still talking about where they were when Sid the Kid helped Canada win hockey gold. Everyone had a story.

Athletes are returning home. I was struck by the differences in skiing and the cult of celebrity when I read about the post-Games whereabouts of Lindsey Vonn (alpine gold and bronze) and Billy Demong (Nordic combined gold and silver).

Vonn went on Leno and will cameo on her favorite TV show, "Law and Order."

Flag-bearer Demong, at home in Park City, Utah, went to a kids' Nordic ski practice.

"Sixty 5- to 15-year-olds playing with some Olympic medals is fun to watch!" he wrote on Facebook.

After a day of unsuccessfully trying to shake the post-Olympic blues, here are some Olympic honors from my Whistler perspective.

Courage Award: To Petra Madjic and Joannie Rochette. Madjic managed Slovenia's first cross-country Olympic medal (bronze) despite racing four rounds of 1.4-kilometer sprints with broken ribs and a collapsed lung after falling 10 feet down a gully during pre-race training. Rochette kept it together for a bronze-medal finish, skating just two days after her mother died suddenly soon after arriving in Vancouver. I don't know where that grit comes from, but most of us don't have it.

Cover Your Ass Award: To luge officials who blamed Georgian Nodar Kumaritashvili's death during training on the slider, rather than the track. Bobsledders proved how insulting this logic was, after several of the world's top drivers crashed during competition.

Top jig, gold medalist: Steve Holcomb, driver of U.S. I bobsled "Night Train" sled, who has done the "Holcy Dance," on just about every track in the world. Google it. It's silly, but worth it.

Best day: Nordic combined gold-medalist Demong. We watched, in person, as he turned the grueling, difficult sport into something cool. Later that night, we saw him drop to one knee and propose to his girlfriend of two years. Then the guy gets a call that he'll be the U.S. flag bearer. All in the space of eight hours. Next stop, Vegas?

Best turnaround: Bode Miller. From Torino insult to Whistler success story. Guy skied for the cycle -- gold (super-combined); silver (super-G); bronze (downhill). The bigger surprise was he actually seemed happy and grateful. That's a long way from about a year ago when he said a gold medal would mean "less than nothing" to him.

Best ending: Host Canada, winning hockey gold, with a Sidney Crosby goal in overtime against the U.S.? Come on. It was perfect.

Wistful award: Someone made the right call in having Neil Young sing "Long May You Run" in this closing ceremony short on poignant moments.

Sensitivity award: To whoever's idea it was to move a memorial to the deceased luger from the huge Olympic rings to a quiet, dignified spot nearby. Every page of a memory book placed there had handwritten notes. All Olympics long, including Sunday, people were placing pins, candles and fresh flowers there, including an athlete's medal-ceremony bouquet. Here's hoping they make it a permanent memorial.

Oops award: To Canadian Nordic ski team officials, who never made it clear that Brian McKeever's spot in the cross-country 50-kilometer race was provisional. Many assumed it wasn't, and wrote stories about the inspiring vision-impaired skier who would be the first Paralympian to compete in the Winter Games. The day before the race, he was crushed to find out that coaches were entering another skier they thought was stronger. Ouch.

Best spontaneous moment: At a key time during the 10th end of a tense curling match, the crowd broke into the Canadian national anthem. It was so loud, Canada star John Morris stopped and smiled, savoring the moment before returning to business.

Best quiet moment: Before USA I's bobsled team pushed off for the final time en route to the gold medal. Said "Night Train" crew member Steve Mesler: "...(T)here was a moment where the four of us were standing there and everyone else had gone inside and we were the last ones there and it's a moment that I kind of stopped for a half a second and took it in. The four of us in an empty parking lot getting ready to go down the hill. I'll never forget that." (The Olympics ended Sunday, but Whistler still remembered slain luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. Photo/Meri-Jo Borzilleri)

March 1, 2010 2:20 AM

Horn signals end of Games for me

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On Day 17, the final day of the 2010 Olympics, I finally had my fill of crowds. While standing in the midst of a packed crowd of hockey crazies in Whistler Village's main square, watching the gold-medal game, it got to be too much.

After the first period, I left, starting the 20-minute walk home. Approaching the village's outskirts, it got quieter and quieter. Traffic, foot and vehicle, was practically at a standstill. Everybody in town, save for the crossing guards, were watching the game.

Then I heard the horn. Not a car horn. An old-world-sounding horn.

I looked down the street, and walked into a Ricola commercial. A Swiss-looking guy had the long-stemmed, wooden alpenhorn propped on the sidewalk corner. He'd blow it in one direction, then the other.

I approached, and asked (politely), what was up.

The horn-blower's friend explained. Another buddy of theirs had left his hat on one of the Olympic buses. With hundreds of buses in the Olympic fleet, chances were slim they'd find it. They were waiting on the corner for him to hopefully bring back some good news.

They were blowing the horn because "we want to give him good energy," said the friend.

Pivoting the horn in one direction, then the other, allowed you to hear the sound bounce off mountains on either side. I stood and listened. Sure enough, the mournful sound bounced back from the snow-covered range, in full view now that the weeklong fog had lifted.

It was cool. On the final day of the 2010 Games, it was like my own dignified, simple closing ceremony, minus the crowds. Fine with me.

February 27, 2010 8:41 PM

Lids could mean bright future for Canadian near-Olympian

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Funny, the people you run into on the bus at the Olympics.

The other day, I boarded and saw a woman with a nifty-looking ski hat. It had a great design and colors. So I said so.

Turns out, the woman is a Canadian cross-country ski athlete. She missed making the 2010 Olympic team, she said, "by this much," and held her thumb and forefinger a half-inch apart.

Shayla Swanson is here because, she said, family and friends already had bought lodging and tickets. They thought they'd be at Whistler to watch her compete. Instead, she's here, riding the bus like a regular person, watching along with them.

The day we met, she was headed to Whistler Olympic Park for the cross-country individual sprint event. That's where I was headed too. Having never covered the sprints before, I had done some studying, but asked her to explain a few things. Nothing like getting information from a knowledgable source.

Swanson found out she didn't make the team after a series of races in December. Two months later, you can tell it still hurts. But she's trying to make the best of it.

We live in the same "neighborhood" in Whistler Village, so I bumped into her a couple times on the commuter bus. We talked hats. She was pleased I liked hers, because she made it. She and another skier founded and run Sauce Headwear (www.sauceheadwear.com), which makes these cool cross-country hats.

They've gotten pretty popular in Canada. Canadian star Clara Hughes, the only person to win multiple Olympic medals in Summer and Winter Games (speedskating and cycling), has one and wears it when she's off the ice. Can't beat advertising like that.

On the bus, I asked Swanson if she was retiring from competition. She said she wasn't sure, that she was still deciding. Maybe it was time to direct her energies into a career, doing hats full-time.

But she looked wistful. It must be hard to devote your life to something, barely fall short, then try to decide what's next.

Hard to make that kind of decision at the Olympics, feeling the buzz and watching her almost-teammates compete. I wish her luck in the future. (A Sauce Headwear hat, or toque, as they say in Canadian. Photo/Sauce Headwear)

February 26, 2010 10:35 PM

Robbins (and hat) still along for Olympics ride

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The thousands of fans heading to the nordic venues at Whistler Olympic Park the past couple weeks probably haven't noticed a quiet guy in a Red Sox baseball cap and a U.S. Ski team jacket, clutching a styrofoam Dunkin' Donuts cup with a plastic lid.

That's DC Robbins, and in the cup are some of his father's ashes.

Paul Robbins, DC's dad, was well-known in ski journalism circles as the guy in the rainbow tam-o-shanter who presided over U.S. skiing press rooms and teleconferences.

He could pull a response from reticent skiers, remember race results from decades ago and elicit groans or rolled eyes with cornball jokes and nicknames.

For 30 years, Robbins was a fixture at ski races around the world and at the bottom of press releases and emails that kept journalists up to date on latest results by American skiers and snowboarders.

Robbins, 68, died suddenly of a heart attack two years ago this week, hours after moderating a teleconference call that featured Lindsey Vonn from Whistler after she wrapped up the World Cup downhill title.

The call included a Robbins touch -- he arranged for Picabo Street to be a surprise addition to the call, knowing the star had been a mentor to Vonn.

My first week at the 2010 Olympics at Whistler, I kept thinking I saw him -- wire-rimmed glasses, rainbow hat, grey walrus mustache. With Paul, you always got a cheery, sometimes bellowed, greeting audible across the pressroom. He made you feel welcome. To this day, he is missed.

A former UPI bureau chief and military information officer in Korea, he had an encyclopedic memory for ski race results that went back years. He had a way of making you feel welcome, even if you were new to the room. Give him a name, and he'd give you a story idea.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Nordic combined team won unprecedented Olympic silver. After the medal was secure, DC led a small cluster of ski journalists and officials to the bottom of a ramrod-straight spruce, a short hike from the finish line at the cross-country venue.

Robbins had made friend Peter Graves, the NBC analyst, promise that if he outlived him, Graves would make sure to bring his ashes to the next Olympic Games. And vice versa.

DC dug a hole in the snow and deposited some of the ashes, and others sprinkled the hole with snow. There's a little bit of Robbins buried at the finish line at the World Cup stop at Beaver Creek, Colorado too.

"Paul Robbins is proud," nordic combined team member Billy Demong wrote on his Twitter account after the team event.

That night, nordic combined silver medalists Todd Lodwick brought Robbins' hat along for the medal ceremony. Shiny silver medals shared a podium with a rainbow tam.

Robbins had a special place in his heart for the Nordic guys, who toil in sweat and obscurity compared to their alpine counterparts. He would have enjoyed these Games, watching the Nordic combined team make history.

On Thursday, I saw D.C. again, carrying the cup on the bus to the ski jump venue, where the final Nordic combined event would be held.

"I thought he'd like to see this," he said, and talked about how much he missed his dad.

That day, the U.S. won gold and silver. The tam made another appearance at the victory party. It was the first U.S. Olympic gold in a nordic sport (cross-country skiing, ski jumping, biathlon, nordic combined) in the history of the Games.

We knew that. But we sure wish Robbins was here to tell us anyway. (Paul Robbins. Photo/Associated Press)

February 26, 2010 2:27 AM

Good day for skier: Olympic gold, proposal, U.S. flag-bearer

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When you win an Olympic medal in skiing, the U.S. Ski Team usually throws you a party.

At Whistler, the parties have been frequent at Spyder House, the ski apparel company that has taken over a local store in Whistler Village.

But none have been anything like Thursday night's.

First, a crowd of a couple hundred people toasted that day's new medalists, nordic combined gold and silver medalists Billy Demong and Johnny Spillane.

Not only was it the first nordic combined gold medal for the U.S., it was America's first Olympic nordic gold of any kind -- cross-country, ski jumping, nordic combined or biathlon.

Little did anyone know, but Demong, 29, had something else on his mind, and in his backpack.

When the party was in full swing, Demong took the microphone and said he "had a little question to ask." He dropped to one knee and proposed to his girlfriend of two years, Katie Koczynski, a former skeleton slider he met at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y. (She said yes.)

Demong said he had been carrying the ring around in his backpack for a while, waiting for something good to happen. On Thursday, it did.

But the remarkable news didn't end there. Not long after, the four-time Olympian Demong, from Vermontville, N.Y., told us he had been picked to carry the flag for the U.S. team in Sunday's closing ceremony. Each sport nominates an athlete, and the entire athlete delegation then votes on one person.

Historic gold, proposal, U.S. flag-bearer. Now that's a good day.

(Nordic combined Olympic medalists Brett Camerota, Billy Demong, Todd Lodwick, Johnny Spillane. Photo/Ron Judd)

February 24, 2010 8:57 PM

Whistler bears part of Olympic pin trade

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Instead of those indecipherable cartoon characters masquerading as Olympic mascots, Olympic organizers should've just chosen a bear.

Up here at Whistler, signs of black bears are everywhere. Whistler Village, along with the Olympic Athletes Village, is on land that used to be a landfill.

So this place used to have quite the bear population, and you're reminded of it every time you turn around. Signs tell you to dispose of your garbage properly, to not feed bears, to report them if you see them.

Even throwing something out, like a candy-bar wrapper, makes you think of bears. That's because the typical public trash can has not only a lid latched from underneath, but -- because the bears must've figured that out -- there's a metal grate over the can when you open it. At least there is at our bus stop, in a residential area.

(I haven't seen a bear yet, but wonder what happens when you need to throw out something bigger than a 4-by-4-inch square.)

The Whistler bear is iconic here. It's on t-shirts and all kinds of tourist knickknacks.

A community of about 100 bears lives within Whistler's municipality of 10,000 permanent residents. Naturally, development -- including that for the 2010 Games -- has squeezed the bear population and challenged locals to come up with a way to keep bears from becoming dangerous nuisances.

There's a Whistler Bear Working Group. There's a BearSmart Community Program. One local even designed a Whistler Bear pin for the Olympics, called the "Cubby." He gave away nearly 4,500 of them to school kids to raise awareness, and local grocery stores are selling them for $5 to raise money for bear rehabitation.

February 23, 2010 3:17 AM

In-person Olympics can be magical, maddening

Watching the Olympics on TV and seeing them in person are vastly different experiences.

Covering them is something else entirely. Yes, NBC's lame delay of live events stinks, especially for us poor souls on the West Coast. But the good thing about TV is it takes you to many places in a day.

When you're covering a Winter Games, every day is a crapshoot. Each day, you can get to one event, at most two. Half the time, you're bemoaning what you're missing.

It's like being at a golf tournament and hearing a roar from another hole, knowing you aren't where you wanted to be.

Here at Whistler, a closed-circuit Olympic Broadcast Service shows the Games all day and night, so at least you can keep track of the news.

But on Thursday, I'll probably be at nordic combined when the U.S. women play Canada for hockey gold. Last Friday, I was at ski jumping when the Americans won silver and bronze in the super-G.

But sometimes the fates align, and you're in the right place at the right time.

For a week, while America racked up medal after medal, I was on a personal losing streak. Here I was, at the Olympics, and it had been seven days since I wrote about someone actually winning a medal.

Then came Sunday, and Bode Miller's super-combined gold. It was certainly the story of the day, and one of the highlights of these Olympics. He goes for a fourth medal in today's giant slalom.

Lodwick pic.jpgYet many times the best stories come from people who don't win something, or come tantalizingly close to a dream. Nordic combined (ski jumping and cross-country skiing) athlete Todd Lodwick, the five-time Olympian, has won world championships and World Cups, but never an Olympic medal. He was fourth last week. He has two more shots, including tomorrow (Tuesday), when he tries again in the team event.

Maybe that's when it's going to happen. Maybe, as he says, "fifth time's the charm."

And maybe, I'll be in the right place at the right time.

Photo Courtesy: U.S. Ski Team

February 21, 2010 2:12 AM

Olympic buses have Canada flair, Raymond Burr

Scotty1.jpgWHISTLER, B.C. -- Here at the Olympics, we spend a lot of time riding buses -- from home to the Whistler Media Center, from the WMC to ski jumping, from the WMC to Whistler Creekside, etc. We also spend a lot of time waiting for buses. (Not that I'm complaining.)

There are buses from all over. Texas, nearby Washington state and of course, Canada.

At least in Canada, they've made waiting halfway interesting. One bus is named "Canada Stars of Stage and Screen," with cartoon portraits of celebrities screened on one side. raymondburr2.jpg

OK. Here's a quiz. In honor of the 2010 Winter Olympics host, we're going to name some stars. Try to guess who, among the following, ISN'T Canadian:

 Christopher Plummer. Fay Wray. Mary Pickford. Raymond Burr. Lorne Greene. Chief Dan George. Leslie Neilson. Keanu Reeves. Kim Cattrall. Eric McCormack. Brendan Fraser. William Shatner. Neve Campbell. Matthew Perry. James M. Doohan.

Answer? Trick question. They're all Canadian. 

February 20, 2010 3:04 AM

Lake Placid's Weibrecht right at home at 2010 Games

andrew-weib.jpgWHISTLER, B.C. -- Andrew Weibrecht is not just from Lake Placid. He's from Lake Placid.

Me too. I've covered four Olympics, and Friday at the 2010 Olympics was a day to remember. Weibrecht, 24, won an Olympic bronze medal Friday in men's super-G, a surprise to everyone but his own team.

Lots of people move to Lake Placid to train for the Games. But he's one of about a dozen home-grown Lake Placid athletes here, likely the most the small, northern New York town has ever sent to a single Games.

When Weibrecht won, I got goosebumps. He's the first homegrown Lake Placid Olympic medalist since goalie Pete Sears won silver with the U.S. hockey team in 1972.

(For those sticklers-for-detail, Jimmy Shea's 2002 gold skeleton medal doesn't count, because Shea did not grow up in Lake Placid, host to the 1932 and 1980 Winter Games.)

Many countries have "houses" here -- Swiss House, Norway House -- to host visitors a long way from home. Lake Placid must be the only town to have a house.

Lake Placid Friendship House exploded into cheers this afternoon when Weibrecht's bronze was secured, right behind Bode Miller's silver and Aksel Svindal's gold. If Weibrecht were staying in the Athletes' Village -- he and his alpine teammates are holed up in a slopeside condo -- he'd find himself in familiar company.

Thirty years after it hosted the Games, the small town has produced a bounty of Olympians who either grew up in Lake Placid or its surrounding towns.

Besides Weibrecht, there's biathletes Haley Johnson and Lowell Bailey, both from Lake Placid along with Tim Burke, from nearby Paul Smiths; Vermontville's Bill Demong, a nordic combined athlete; luger Chris Madzder and ski jumper Peter Frenette of Saranac Lake and bobsled driver John Napier of Schnectady/Lake Placid. Bailey, Demong, Burke and Johnson rode the same van to high school ski practices at 1980 Nordic venue Mt. Van Hoevenberg.

The connections don't end there.

Kris Cheney-Seymour, their former Nordic coach, has a mom who works in the same small doctor's office as Burke's mom. Demong's mom and Frenette's mom work in the Saranac Lake High School music department together.

Big Games. Small world.

February 19, 2010 3:03 AM

Swede's medal worth cheer

We were inside the big tent, the biathlon media center at Whistler Olympic Park waiting for the men's 20K to begin Thursday afternoon.

One of the great things about the Games is TVs are everywhere, and they're always tuned to the Olympics. When you're waiting for one event to start, you can watch another. For an Olympics junkie, it's a little bit of heaven.

Lindsey Vonn was about to push off in the combined slalom, skiing last, leading after the downhill portion. Maria Riesch, Julia Mancuso and Anja Paerson were done, awaiting their medal fate at the bottom of the hill.

Riesch was guaranteed a medal. So was Mancuso. Not Paerson, the gutsy Swede who had come back to ski after a scary, violent fall on the final jump of the women's downhill, on the same course, just one day earlier.

This was biathlon, but most eyes were glued to the TV. Vonn charged, and halfway down, hooked a gate and fell. Pockets of people around the press tent exploded into cheers and clapping.

Judging from his reaction, the guy sitting next to me had to be a Swede. He was yelling with joy. He saw me and stopped abruptly.

"Sorry. Sorry," he said. He patted me on the back.

"Anja, the accident," he explained.

He wasn't rooting for Vonn to fall. He was rooting for Paerson to medal. In a time when more fans seem to root for the other guy to fail more than their own to succeed, it was nice to hear.

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