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DAY 23: It’s OK to Lose

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Sunday afternoon would have been a great time to shop as virtually every Canadian and every TV was tuned to the biggest game in the history of hockey: Canada vs. USA. This one game was worth the millions spent by Canada on the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Since the announcement of Vancouver in July, 2003, the people of an entire nation had circled Sunday, February 28 on their calendars for the gold medal hockey game. For generations to come, Canadians will always remember where they were when Sidney Crosby – the next Wayne Gretzky – punched the puck past USA goaltender Ryan Miller.

I arrived at the Main Media Center after driving from Whistler, joining our USOC Media Team in the office to watch the final 10 minutes. It was a close fought hockey game, just 2-1 Canada, and a real defensive struggle. Time after time the Canadians foiled the onslaught of the Americans until, with just 24 seconds left, we tied the game.

There was little decorum in the normally placid press room that afternoon. You could hear the screams of fans as you walked down the hall. And every single television in the cavernous convention center was tuned in to that single channel.

In the end, the winning goal caught us, too, by surprise. There was a moment of stunned silence, as we heard a road from the Canadian Olympic office just down the hall. It was over Canada had won.

My sadness was short lived after a call home to my wife, Carole. She had been watching live – probably the first time she’s seen hockey. She quickly said, “It’s their sport, it’s their country, it’s their Olympics. It’s OK for them to win.”

She was right!

Canada won 14 gold medals in these Games, but they needed only one. This one. Hockey. Their sport. OK, maybe curling, too. But this was the one that united a nation. This was the payback for seven years of hard work to welcome the world. This was the one that every Canadian man, woman and child would hang their pride on for the rest of their lives.

This was my seventh Olympic Winter Games. We were proud of our country’s own 2002 Olympics. We reveled in the wintersports culture of Lillehammer in 1994. But I’ve never seen a Games like this where the people celebrated sport as the Canadians and were so anxious to introduce the world to their culture. I’ve never been a part of an Olympics that was just plain fun from start to finish.

When we walked from BC Place to Yaletown and on to the Waterfront after Closing Ceremony, we saw firsthand how much this meant to Canada. Six or seven hours after the Game, thousands and thousands of Canadians still filled the street. Cars were jammed, horns blaring and the maple leaf flying out of every window. There was no way that anyone was showing up for work across Canada on Monday morning.

For America, beating Canada in the gold medal hockey game would have been one of the biggest headlines of the Games. But by Tuesday, life would have moved on. In Canada, it inspired a nation – a country that welcomed the world, had its best Olympics in history and won the gold medal in ice hockey.

“Alexandre (Bilodeau, moguls gold), your first gold medal gave us all permission to feel like and behave like champions,” said VANOC CEO John Furlong at the Closing Ceremony. “Our last one will be remembered for generations.”

All you could do Sunday evening was to feel happy for Canada and to share its pride in a job well done.

It was their “Miracle on Ice.”

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Day 21: Flashbacks

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Billy Demong leads Johnny Spillane into the stadium on the bell lap (Tom Kelly)

The Olympics both creates memories for the future and evokes flashbacks to the past. Thursday was a veritable stream of touchpoints as the most remarkable medals of the Games were earned when Team USA took complete control over the nordic combined large hill competition to win gold and silver.

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DAY 20: Along the Creek With Paul

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Tom, DC and Peter

Two years ago yesterday, our friend Paul Robbins passed away. The day before, in one of his proudest moments, he conducted the Lindsey Vonn media teleconference when she won her first Audi FIS World Cup title the day before on the Olympic course at Whistler Creekside. Paul would have loved these Games – especially the success of the nordic combined athletes.

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MY OLYMPICS: Nagano

Japan has always been one of my favorite places – such a unique culture. While you might not think of it, the Japanese are rabid fans of winter sport. I had seen that in 1985 when I took a group from my Worldwide Nordic USA adventure travel company to Sapporo and attending the 1993 World Alpine Championships in Morioka-Shizukuishi. Nagano was a city quite unknown to the world, but the alpine peaks west of the city near Hakuba provided an amazing backdrop.

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DAY 19: Perseverance Begets an Olympic Medal

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Olympic silver for Billy Demong, Johnny Spillane, Todd Lodwick and Brett Camerota.

There have been many historic medals in the last 11 days. Hannah Kearney kicked it all off on Day 1. Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn etched their names into the history books with Olympic gold, and Seth Wescott became the first American skier or snowboarder since Andrea Mead Lawrence in 1952 to win two gold in a career. But tonight was something even more special. You could see it in their faces as they took to the world’s biggest stage – Proud Papa Todd Lodwick hugging and high-fiving his teammates. Four young men did something no one could every have imagined would be possible. They did it with a plan and perseverance – never giving up. And they are now Olympic medalists.

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DAY 17: Proud Champion

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A happy Bode Miller celebrates one of his best performances ever. (U.S. Ski Team/Tom Kelly)

Minutes after crossing the finish line, Bode Miller chatted with Olympic silver medalist Christin Cooper on NBC. “When I passed the (finish) line, I stood for a second and I was like ‘That was unbelievable, I can’t ask for anything more.’ For my first Olympic gold, it was absolutely perfect.” It wasn’t boastful, it was from the heart – a heart he left on the snow as he fought wobbly knees through the final slalom gates to victory in the men’s super combined.

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MY OLYMPICS: Lillehammer 1994

There was a daily ritual in Lillehammer during the 1994 Olympic Winter Games. At the small ski resort of Hafjell, just a few clicks north of the village, each day in late afternoon the chairlifts would fill with cross country skiers. At the same time, it was one of the more convenient ways for us to reach our cabin at Hafjelltoppen. So each day we would join the ranks of nordic enthusiasts, each carrying a small backpack with a sleeping blanket and chunks of firewood as they headed for the ridgeline and skied the 15 kilometers to the Olympic cross country ski trails where tens of thousands of Norwegians camped overnight along the trails to have a good vantage point for the races the next day. Such was the spirit of the Norwegian people and an Olympics that truly celebrated the culture of a nation.

I remember the day in 1987, working at the USSA office in Colorado Springs, when I heard the news that Lillehammer was named as the site of the 1994 Olympic Winter Games. I was dumbfounded, at first, that this tiny Norwegian village of around 20,000 people and just a few small hotels could stage an Olympics.

While working at Telemark Lodge in northern Wisconsin, we adopted Lillehammer as a sister city for our respective Birkebeiner cross country ski races. I knew the town and its leaders, and had been there many times. It was a wonderful small village, but an Olympic city?

There are infinite ways to measure success. But by every measure, Lillehammer played host to the greatest Winter Games of all time. It wasn’t just the organization. It was the ski heritage of the nation that warmed your heart.

It began with a brilliant Opening Ceremony with a torch delivered by ski jumper. It was the lines of spectators hiking across a frozen lake to the finish area in Kvitfjell. Or the estimated 100,000 spectators who lined the trails for the men’s relay, then filtered downhill to the jump stadium. These were hardy, knowledgeable fans with a sense of history.

Our U.S. Ski Team came into the Games with hopes and some level of modest success. But a preview story in Sports Illustrated trashed the team, calling them the “Uncle Sam’s lead footed snowplow brigade.” It took one day to prove writer E.M. Swift wrong – very wrong!

It was a brilliant, crisp, bluebird day as Tommy Moe knifed his way down the mountain at Kvitfjell to win the men’s downhill and earn a redemptive SI cover. Then it was Picabo Street with downhill silver, Moe with super G silver on his birthday and Diann Roffe starting number one in super G and taking the title. Add to that moguls silver from Liz McIntyre and it was a pretty successful Games for the USA.

The tiny town welcomed the world with temporary hotels and a well-publicized environmental awareness program during the Games. It utilized fast trains to Oslo to move tens of thousands of fans each day. From the upside down Viking ship speed skating venue in Hamar to the ski jumps and cross country trails of Lillehammer, to the slopes of Hafjell and Kvitfjell, it was a sensational Olympic Winter Games.

My memories are still vivid with our little cabin in Hafjelltoppen, where they had figured out that water temperature where you couldn’t say it was cold, but it was sure never hot. It was the crowds on the tiny Main Street of Lillehammer and shopkeepers who got to know you and welcome you personally to their town.

Yes, it was cold – bitter cold every single morning. But the people of Lillehammer warmed your heart.

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DAY 16: Oh Canada

Tonight was the night we learned there are more than two words to the Canadian national anthem. Tonight was the medals ceremony for John Montgomery, the toast of Canada. Friday night in skeleton at the Whistler Sliding Centre he became the third Canadian to win gold but first in Whistler. You couldn’t even get close to the entrance gates Saturday night at Whistler Medals Plaza, as thousands jammed inside and hundreds more packed the sidewalks of Village Stroll. It was a night to be proud for all of Canada.

After Friday night’s win, Montgomery was paraded through the streets of Whistler as a national hero, full beer mug in hand. On the set of CTV in Skier’s Square, he led a proud nation in its anthem as the world learned his amazing story.

A 30-year-old auctioneer from Manitoba, he is, literally, the Olympic dream. When Vancouver got the nod in 2003, he made a commitment to be there – not as a spectator, but as an athlete. After a short look at speed skating, he found skeleton and set his mind to being in Vancouver to represent his country.

Seven years later, here he was – sliding for Canada, capturing the hearts of a nation, and winning an Olympic gold medal.

I only happened by medals plaza that evening, but knew of his story. And I knew right away this was a special night. I didn’t go in, but watched with hundreds of Canadians who were straining for views of the big screen TVs over the fence.

When his name was called, he swept the podium step clear with his hands and he leaped up onto the box, pumping his fist in the air. With hand over heart, he led a nation in singing its anthem, as adults and children alike – both inside and outside Medals Plaza, and in homes from the Maritimes to the Yukon, joined in with pride in saluting their newest national hero!

Oh, in case you were wondering or wanted to sing along:

Oh Canada (official lyrics)

O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

Dining Tip
Best laid plans for a nice dinner of Arctic char and a nice BC chardonnay at home were dashed yet again. But the alternative was quite acceptable, with my first dinner at Whistler’s USA House with our friends at the USOC. Tonight was a night to honor one of America’s greatest heroes, Lindsey Vonn, and her super G bronze.

Cool Stuff
I’ve always found Lush to be a fascinating story, selling strange smelling soaps by the pound. Carole also loves Lush, so it’s a great gifting stop. Lo and behold, it was bubble bath night at Lush with the eager staff luring in customers from the Village Stroll by blowing bubbles in front of the store.

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MY OLYMPICS: Albertville 1992

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On a rainy night in Cypress, 18 years after her own gold in Albertville, Donna Weinbrecht poses with gold medalist Hannah Kearney.

Few people had heard of Albertville. But everyone knew Jean-Claude Killy, who swept all three alpine skiing gold medals in 1968 at Grenoble. Just a short distance away in France’s Savoie was a region that became known as Le Space d’Killy. It was a spectacular collection of venues spread out than any other Games in history, from the city of Albertville just a short distance from the shores of Lac Annecy, to the towering peaks of the Bellevarde in Val d’Isere.

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DAY 10: Nordic Heritage

I’ve been privileged to be in the finish area for some amazing athletic moments in my life. Some of those images are forever etched in my mind. The past few weeks have brought many of them to the forefront – more in the nordic sports than any other. Like the day in December, 1995 when a young Todd Lodwick proudly waved an American flag across the finish line for the USA’s first nordic combined World Cup win. Or that noisy, cryptic cell phone call from Paul Robbins early one morning in February, 2003 when I ‘thought’ he said something like Johnny Spillane had won the World Championship (or the next call I made to my friend Peter Diamond at NBC to get it on TV, which he did). On one hand, those memories pale in comparison to what happened today. But, on the other hand, they represent the milestones that led to today’s historical achievement by Billy Demong, Todd Lodwick and Johnny Spillane.

There was one medal awarded to an American at medals plaza tonight. But it was split three ways. Johnny Spillane, the recipient, would be the first to tell you that. In a race where his teammate Todd Lodwick sacrificed himself to set a torrid pace – the only speed the Americans know – Johnny was quick to show his respect. And while Lodwick was pulling the pack along, it was Billy Demong who pushed from behind – moving from 24th up to challenge the lead pack, eventually finishing sixth.

Earlier in the week our CEO Bill Marolt held a press conference where he spoke about the long term investment our organization has made in nordic combined. A few days ago I had lunch at NBC with former coach Tom Steitz. We talked about those days in the 90’s where we all had this plan and this dream. You get one World Cup win and you think you’ve arrived. You win World Championship and you think you’ve made it. But, today, we have three athletes winning at the highest level. And now we have an Olympic medal.

In fairness, it is Johnny Spillane’s medal. He earned it. He earned it with the comeback from every surgery, from every mile on the bike, from every one of the thousands of jumps and miles on roller skis. Despite a surgery as late as October, he showed it with the strongest early season results. He showed it by beating his fellow World Champions at the Olympic Trials. And he showed it by winning Olympic silver – nearly gold – and etching his name into history.

Johnny is soft spoken, but speaks with conviction. He knows the significance of his medal on his tiny niche sport. And he knows how to show gratitude.

It was a whirlwind for Johnny, with interviews in the mixed zone, a one-question press conference (really!) at the venue, a ‘real’ press conference at the Whistler Media House and a family celebration at the Spyder U.S. Ski Team House that evening. In every case he was humble and recognized that this was about the Team.

We’ll see the guys twice more with the next outing being a very special day – the next being Wednesday, Feb. 24 with the Team event. There’s a good chance we’ll see other medals. There’s a long and growing history in America for this tiny sport of nordic combined. As the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band says, “It’s great to be a part of something so good that’s lasted so long.”

Cool Stuff
As is usually the case, the nordic venue at the Whistler Olympic Park is one of the most fun for spectators. While I’m biased because he’s my best friend, it’s great having Peter Graves in the venue for the PA call. But it’s also been exciting to watch what I call the venue clown. I don’t mean it in a derogatory way – it’s the person who is on the mike in the grandstands for the purpose of entertaining and motivating the spectators. It is ironic, on this great day for nordic combined, that the stadium clown is none other than Rob Powers – 12 year veteran of the nordic combined coaching staff now turned competition announcer. He is sensational, motivating the crowd and keeping it fun while prancing on a stage in front of the stands.

Dining Tips

Those of us working the media routine at the venues don’t have a lot of disposable time. Sit down for lunch? Hardly. This morning I started out with the $8 breakfast. No, it wasn’t a plate of scrambled eggs, hash browns and bacon. It was a wrapped (good, though) muffin and bottle of OJ. For lunch, word rippled quickly through the press room that they were serving chili. $11 later and I had a wonderful cup of chili and a Coke.