Wednesday, December 24, 2008
In Düsseldorf, Christmas Comes Early
The late afternoon Dusseldorf calm along the Rhein the day before the World Cup city sprint.
As I wrestle about in my coach cabin seat in seat seven hours into an eleven hour flight from Frankfurt to Seattle, the realization dawns on me - after six weeks and five World Cup starts in Europe - I am headed home. The day is Monday, December 23rd. Home just in time for the holidays.
I think everyone appreciates heading home. It's why we can relate to when Dorothy of Wizard of Oz clicked the heels of her glittery red shoes and said, "There is no place like home," for exactly this reason; there is no place like home. After spending a week in exile, in a Swedish cabin quarantined from the rest of my team, followed by five more weeks bouncing around Europe from ski race venue to venue, from hotel to hotel, I crave a little normalcy, the comforts of home. I look forward to the looks of city drivers as I ski through the snowy streets of Wenatchee on my rock skis with a yellow labrador as companion. I look forward to catching up with friends from the elementary schoolyard days; to striding it out along the first ski trails I ever knew; to sitting around the Christmas dinner table with my brother and sister, mom and dad, digging into a monstrosity of slow roasted prime rib with all the accoutrements.
And skiing. After starting the season with the most ebullient of hopes - I love that word, ebullient, meaning a bubbling up of high-spirited fervor and enthusiasm - I started the season slightly below my expectations and continued this progression through my next two sprint World Cups. Yesterday I awoke and I told myself, "Today is another chance. Let's make the most of it." Then I went out and did that in perhaps the most diabolical of ski race formats, the two-man sprint relay.
In bricks-and-mortar terms, the sprint relay begins with perhaps forty teams, broken up in two semi-final heats. The race starts with me racing one mile. I then tag off to my teammate Andy Newell. As he navigates his one mile segment of the race I try to recover before starting my next one mile race-within-the-race. This goes on for six miles.
The top three teams from each semifinal move onto the final. The next four fastest non-qualifying teams, regardless of which semi they raced, fill out the World Cup Sprint final. My teammate and I made it in as the 7th seed, the fastest of the "lucky losers." The eleventh fastest team, Switzerland I, was just .9 seconds behind us. Five teams, four spots in the finals, all separated by less than a second. Welcome to the razor thin edge separating success and close-but-no-cigar of World Cup competition.
Racing an hour later in the finals, under the floodlights of the otherwise dark of the Düsseldorf sky, is what it's all about. As I spin on an exercise bike trying to clear the leg-burning lactate acid out of my system between races, our Swedish wax tech Petter Johansson says, "You know, we could be on our way back to Sweden if you and Andy didn't ski so well." Johansson's smiling. Maybe even beaming, which is saying a lot of the most-practical of all people, the Swedish blue-collar worker. It's his way of saying, "Good job. Now forget this and focus on the task at hand. Let's do something special in the final."
It's chasing after moments like these that made me want to be a professional ski racer more than anything in the world - president, professional ball player, derivative analyst at Goldman Sachs - from the second grade on. Moments like these are confirmation that I made a pretty good decision.
For the coaches of the US Ski Team, I'm pretty sure helping athletes put themselves into opportunities like this is what keeps them in the sport, and away from their significant others for significant chunks of the year. For Johansson, I'm pretty sure watching his team rip around the track on race skis he prepared beats the 3400 kilometer road trip he made to get out fully-loaded Fiat Ducato cargo van from Northern Finland to Central Europe.
In the end, a Russian took out five other skiers in a horribly skied 180 degree turn on the fourth of six laps. Newell was one of them. Norway I, Sweden I, Russia I and France I all get away clean. We fight our way back, almost all the way. In the end, we finish fourth, four seconds behind the winning Norwegians.
Personally, only my third place in the 2007 Estonian World Cup classic sprint is a better result. For the United States, no relay team has done better, ever.
I am close. I am fit. After a couple weeks of mediocrity, the training, the talent, the desire and the racing opportunity are all coming together - an ideal way to end the first block of my racing season. Now I have a handful of days at home to enjoy, to get out for a couple hours on the tele boards, then sip afternoon cappuccinos, before my next hard period of training start.
The heart of the season beckons ahead. Bring it on.