Saturday, March 28, 2009


Some weeks ago ITA alum Matt Chisam posed a question on the nature-versus-nature debate. At the time I was away on a self-prescribed week long internet and telephone exodus in Rybinsk, Russia. Mr. Chisam's question was, "What do you believe had the most influence on your athletic career - nature or nurture?"

Since then, I've had time to ponder this and today is as good as any to put these musings to print. Initially, I thought the point mute and as I work my way through the question I keep coming back to one idea, that nature and nurture work in concert together, not in opposition or at the expense of the other. Our genes expressing themselves accordingly to the environment and opportunities one finds them exposed to. This is my interpretation. This is my belief. You can call it Torin's Theorem of Gene Expression. Now let me make you a believer.

Look, I get it. Alice In Chain's Layne Staley might have said "deny your maker" in an anthem from my youth, but that doesn't mean I have to believe in all he's selling. The way I see it, our genetic make-up plays a part in perhaps every single interaction in every single person's life. Nature's backers will point out the prodigies. No matter how much I enmesh myself in the world of virtuoso piano competition, I'd play chopsticks to Frederic Chopin's compositions. But most prodigies are likely found in chess, music, pure mathematics. These domains draw upon a specific, singular, delimited skillset. Gary Kasparov didn't need to attend chess school to kill your queen, conquer your king. But I'm sure it didn't hurt to learn from a couple of grandmasters of chess, either.

I'm sorry. Even after all this being said, in sport and in life, is there nothing surer than wasted talent? For every Michael Johnson, there's ten, twenty, (a hundred?)Obree Moore's.

And it seems everywhere you want to look, you can find an excuse. Freud tells us to blame our parents. Marx, our society. Wrong neighborhood, wrong side of the tracks, too rich, too poor... It's as if personal responsibility no longer, if ever, exists.

If I see any message in this, it is - do not buy the label. The moment we believe in our hearts success is determined by an ingrained level of ability - free and independent of determination and resilience and hardwork - we become brittle in the face of adversity. When someone says, "I'm just not talented enough," maybe that's the least of the problem. Because what is talent is not elusive? If not fleeting? If not collaborative?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

among ocean and mountain

With a glance back, time's march forward hinges halt. In the post-Lahti Ski Games race analysis, the final words read, "Find a way to win. I can. I know this. I know this better today than yesterday. I need to know this just as well tomorrow as today. Now it's how I can make this happen."

From Finland, I take away another sight. It comes from the ski jumps in Lahti. On a hill visible throughout the town, a progression of six ski jumps rest, a reminder to the young Lahti jumper where the ultimate goal lies. And this goal, to fly through the air far past the big hill 130 meter K-mark as forty thousand rowdy, stumblingly intoxicated countrymen cheer you on at the Lahti Ski Games.

Skiing by, I see kids five or six years old heading off the 25 meter hill. The jump, comparative to last night's big hill competition, makes for a short flight. But still, for one revealing moment, the young jumper gets into the full flight before touching back upon earth with a telemark landing. Icarus would like the effort. So would Janne Ahonen. Or America's Billy Demong.

From Lahti, I head west to Trondheim, Norway. Walking along the Nidelva river, heading to the open ocean fjords of downtown Trondheim, I'm taken aback by the cityscape scene. Cobble stone walkways and wooden bridges give way to the Atlantic. The sky is clearing and the last rays of day's sun make a final appearance. It's March, yet drifting piles of whiteness from yesterday's snow collect on the ocean front docks, yet there's only open water in the harbor. Ah, to take in the beautiful incongruity of a 64 degree latitude matched with a zero foot starting elevation.

First I pass by the Nidaros Cathedral - a tower of granite and craftmanship and copper seen from every house and hamlet, built in 1152 in this onetime pagan Viking land.

On the hill overlooking city and fjord, an austere white castle looms. It's the Kristiansten Fortress, built to keep out Swedes with a thirst for conquest.

On the aquatic side of the street, reclaimed old brick buildings that once hosted maritime dry-dock operators and ship builders now house college students, cafes, corner markets and small boutique shops.

It's then I have the thought. All cities are built along some source of liquid, with perhaps the better measure given to those residing along an expanse of salty ocean water. But the best of cities? The ones atop my list have but one requirement - a place where ocean and mountain meet.

Raceday came yesterday. Instead of using gooey klister or a purple-hued hard wax concoction in the wax pocket - the centermost part of my classic skis - I go on my "zeros." The name comes from the conditions the ski works best in; that is, fresh snow falling within a degree or two from zero centrigrate. Zero skis are made by taking sixty grit sandpaper and roughing up ski's wax pocket. This operation leaves micro-hairs of flourinated polyurethane that cling to the snow when compressed against it, then release when the compression ends.

Not everyone likes the feeling of skiing sandpapered skis. Not everyone can change their technique to make zeros a viable raceday option. For this very reason perhaps I love racing on "zeros".

And yet, as in everything in life, there's two distinct areas of enterprise: There's things you can control. And there's the things you cannot.

In Trondheim, I drew starting position number one for the interval start, race-against-the-clock, prologue. Normally this would be fine. Today, though, a just before raceday snow storm settled in, blanketing the race loop with a layer of wet, slow, suctiony powder I got to plow through. In the race against the clock, this was an added challenge.

I layed it out on the course. Fifteen seconds later, Fabio Pasini of Italy finished. We're within a tenth. Next, two-time World sprint medalist Johann Kjoelstad crosses the line, half a second back. Then comes, Nokolay Morilov, fresh off a bronze at Worlds, +4.5 in arrears.

Okay, I've done what I need to do. Now it's off to get the effort out of my body and to get ready for the head-to-head racing that'll determine first to thirtieth. Only, it's not to be today. The once powdery tracks soon glaze. Gliding velocity speeds up. I finish 37th, my racing day ending early. All that awaits me today is hard intensity, away from the nine thousand spectators lining the course.

Next week, racing around the King's Castle in downtown, Sweden awaits. Another opportunity. Not losing the feeling I had in Lahti, going out and skiing strong and big and fast in Stockholm is totally, 100%, within my control. The King of Sweden will be there. So too, will be, Princess Madeleine. A personality of intrigue, to be sure.

Wait, what's that I hear in the distance? Could it be? Yes, it is. The bells of Nidaros Cathedral ring. They ring for you. They ring for me. I'm coming Miss Madeleine...

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Still among the shadows

"Even though the sport inspires magic, it's magicians need the latitude to be human." -A friend after a hard day.

"For I fancy I do know the nature of courage, but somehow or another, she has slipped away from me and I cannot get a hold of her and tell her nature." - Plato

Ciao for now. -Tk