Haute Savoie and the Best World Cup Yet?

Men’s mass start, Le Grand Bornand, 2017.

France has its own way about many things, and the Biathlon World Cup turns out to be one of them. The recent weekend of competitions in Le Grand Bornand was one of the most fun, atmospheric, and exciting events I’ve been to, although I’ve struggled to explain in words exactly what made it different.

“I could go for the greatest skiing right from the venue!” Yeah, but I also had amazing ski adventures in Norway, Austria, and Germany.

“The crowd was so huge, and so energetic!” Yeah, but see also, Ruhpolding and Holmenkollen, not to mention the Czech Republic for 2013 World Championships.

You begin to see the problem. It was different all right, but is there a word for how?

But whatever it was, which I will try nevertheless to articulate, it was amazing. Not only the races, but also everything else I did while there: the extra day I got to spend skiing up on a plateau, the ventures into a historic city nearby, the tartiflette I ate two days in a row in perfect happiness.

My usual reporting gig goes something like this: take a plane or train until I’m in the closest big city, take a train or bus until I’m in town, walk to wherever I’m staying or else beg for a transport from the organizing committee. Usually, walk. Sometimes far.

As the beginning of this World Cup weekend drew nearer, it became increasingly clear that this wasn’t going to work very well. The distance from Zurich to Le Grand Bornand is not too far, but the connections were terrible. There was a bus directly from Geneva to Le Grand Bornand, but as a ski-season bus it only began to run the week after the World Cup came to town (come on, guys!). An email to the organizing committee asking for a suggested alternative went unanswered. Sleuthing revealed that instead I would have to spend a long layover in Geneva, take a bus to Annecy, spend a long layover there, and take another bus to where I was staying.

Knowing that FasterSkier wouldn’t be able to reimburse me for it, I nonetheless rented a car. The weather forecast was terrible. I began to slightly dread the trip.

It was dark by the time I left Geneva on a Friday night, when everyone else is also trying to escape from the city to the mountains. Traffic was at a standstill on the highway. I eventually reached Annecy and turned up to the mountains, creeping along in a line of cars through the increasingly snowy roads. The mountains were hidden in snowsqualls and I had no sense of where I was going. With few named roadsigns, I drove past the place I was staying three times before actually finding it.

France, it must be said, is not always convenient or straightforward.

But when the World Cup was last held in Le Grand Bornand four years ago, everybody raved about it. And I had been told that La Clusaz, just on the other side of a ridge, was one of the best places in the world to go for a ski. Maybe when I woke up in the morning, I figured, I would see what all the fuss about Haute Savoie was really about.

The next morning, it was snowing – a lot. I had hoped to go for a ski nearby, but knew the trails wouldn’t have been groomed so early. Instead, I tried to get to the race venue to get my accreditation and snag a spot in the media center. The roads were terrible. I walked up to the main road and spotted a bus coming, clearly heading for the venue. Traffic slowed and as it happened, the bus idled to a stop just next to me. I put out my thumb to hitchhike. The bus was completely full, but the driver, an aging French man in an excellent beard and sweater, opened the door and folded down a sort of jump seat for me. I was in luck. We were off!

I was deposited in the old town of Le Grand Bornand near the beautiful church at its center. The mountains were still partially hidden, but provided a gorgeous backdrop. Even though it was three hours before the race, the town was already packed with spectators, dressed up patriotically and happily chatting, having a beer or hot mulled wine to get in the spirit.

After dropping off my laptop and snagging some cheese from the media cafeteria, I wandered around the venue, trying to figure out the stadium setup and how I would get between the shooting range, the finish line, and the mixed zone.

Spectators were filing in and music was blasting – good music, creating a party atmosphere. The French athletes had all made playlists and up on the big screens you would see, “you are listening to the playlist of Chloe Chevalier!”

This sounds silly, but playing good music goes so far in creating an atmosphere. And I’ve never particularly noticed or not noticed the music at races, but this time, I noticed it. The music was good, and it was fun, and it made everyone excited.

As race time drew near, the stands were already so loud. There were 15,000 or 16,000 people there, between the stands and the various hillsides out on the course. In the stadium, they were doing the wave. On the hillsides, fans were going crazy when a French athlete skied by. At one point, those filling the stands sang the Marseillaise. Someone had a trumpet they would play occasionally.

And then – race time. Off they went, and the crowd went even wilder. In they came to the shooting range, and the crowd cheered every hit target from a French athlete. They cheered for everyone else, too, although at two points they also cheered when other athletes (Johannes Bø and, I think, Anastasiya Kuzmina) missed shots, before seeming to remember that this was really rude and not doing it again.

The crowd cheered for everyone. In press conference after press conference, non-French athletes would say how the energy of the place helped them, how it was one of their favorite races, how crazy it was how the fanbase in France had grown in the last four years.

In the men’s mass start, Russia’s Matvey Eliseev ‘dirtied’ his first stage: he missed all five targets. That put him a minute and 15 seconds behind the next last competitor. When he reached the shooting range again, the crowd cheered him – the last place skier, and a Russian to boot – nearly as loudly as they had cheered Martin Fourcade. And when he went out on the course, the hillside cheered him up the climbs every bit as loudly.

That is something I don’t see (or hear) very often.

After a frustrating three days of racing for the French, they finally swept the mass starts. Both Justine Braisaz and Martin Fourcade carried the tricolore across the finish line. To say the crowd went wild is an understatement.

“This was tougher than some World Cups where we are less expected,” Fourcade later said of the pressure. “But it’s also what we want, asking for a World Cup at home.”

Biathlon wasn’t a big sport in France just five years ago, even though Fourcade was well on his winning ways. What happened? When asked what she would suggest a North American organizing committee do to try to mirror this success, Susan Dunklee said, “marketing.”

Whatever it was, it was magical. The crowd was big, but it wasn’t the biggest I’ve ever seen. Instead, something about their energy was completely different. It was French. It was more joyous than you would find at most other venues. The happiness at being outside, on a beautiful day in the mountains, watching an exciting sports event, was expressed totally differently than anywhere I’ve ever been.

But I didn’t work all weekend, and the other stuff was just as great as the competitions. Before Sunday’s race I had gone for a ski with fellow Dartmouth and Craftsbury alum Mary O’Connell, and Dartmouth alum Jenny Land Mackenzie. Because of all the security and closures around the race course, we had to walk maybe a kilometer up the road before finding a ski trail to hop on. Then we simply followed it up a long valley. It was a sunny morning. There were the mountains.

Mary and Jenny, rather excited at the good skiing we found ourselves having.

And there was all the snow! It has been so long since central Europe has had a good December. I was blown away at how good the skiing was. We saw Matthias Ahrens, the head coach of the Canadian team, out for a classic ski too.

“This is so amazing!” I said.

“Isn’t it!” he said.

We had a quiet Sunday evening, and I resolved to go to La Clusaz the next day. I’d been told it should be on my bucket list of places to ski and I was beyond excited. Jenny and Susan were considering alpine skiing, and I was torn: I knew going with them would be a blast, but I had wanted to cross-country ski La Clusaz for a long time and this was my one day of opportunity.

When we woke up in the morning, it was a blizzard. We couldn’t even see the hill across the valley. It was supposed to keep snowing all day. Downhill skiing was out of the question. We had a long and slow breakfast. I despaired: part of the La Clusaz experience of my dreams was the blue sky above and the mountain views all around. That clearly wasn’t going to happen.

But we had all day and nothing to do, so my companions pointed out that we should just drive up there and check it out. The drive was fairly harrowing, as the road got more and more snowy and greasy as we went. The rental car was steering like a large boat, climbing slowly, stopping slowly. Also, I had no idea where I was going or what the touring center even looked like, so I was afraid we would pass it without knowing.

That was no concern, as when we finally made it up, up, up to the plateau, the ski center was one of the last things on the road. It was still snowing, but we saw a groomer heading out. We were in luck!

I had only two pairs of skis with me, so I skated and Jenny classic skied, and Susan went for a walk. As we followed the groomer down a big hill to the Lac des Confins, we thought, now this is pretty good! The groomer stopped to work on a snowfarming project, though, and the skiing got a lot more difficult. We climbed to cross the road again and get onto the main trail system, where we spotted an uphill trail that seemed to have been groomed… not recently, but at least that morning.

Photos of La Clusaz taken later in the day, after lunch, when it was only snowing a little, rather than SO MUCH.

“Let’s go!” Jenny said. And off we went.

After maybe 200 meters, I was absolutely dying as I tried to skate up the big climb through the soft powder. It seemed like a death march. After what felt like forever, we had made it one kilometer. I regretted giving Jenny the classic skis. The trail was five kilometers up, and I wasn’t sure I would make it. But slowly but surely, we reached the top of the trail, where there was a picnic table. It seemed that we were on a small ridge and that there were taller mountains on every side, although we couldn’t really see them. On a sunny day, it would have been the ultimate spot to stop and have a snack. This wasn’t that day, but as the snow kept falling it was completely magical and quiet.

We were covered in snow, and wet, and I worried about how cold it would be descending the 5 k back to the touring center. But we covered the ground in literally just a few minutes, screaming at the hairpin corners, and eventually shooting out into the huge field back down on the plateau.

We tossed the skis in the car, and went inside to drink coffee and have lunch with Susan as the blizzard continued outside. The restaurant/café was cozy, the atmosphere warm and charming. I devoured more tartiflette (a dish of potatoes, bacon, and reblochon cheese, the local specialty), and gradually warmed up.

We spent the afternoon driving down to Annecy, wandering the Christmas markets and eating roasted chestnuts. We admired the old architecture, walked past a huge castle, wondered how the canal system worked. And then it was back to the chalet for another quiet night before we all flew back, separately, to the U.S. the next day.

Perhaps part of the reason this was such a happy trip for me was that it came at the end of the work year. I was embarking on two weeks of ‘vacation,’ or, at least, time away from the office. I was free of all the things I had said I would do before I left. That creates a certain jubilation.

But the amazing scenery and atmosphere, the ski trails and the cheese, all of that was pretty special and I think even if I had been in a bad mood it wouldn’t have lasted long.

I’ll conclude by saying what I heard so many people say during that weekend: “why doesn’t the World Cup come here more often!?”

Jenny and me, giddy!

Advertisements

Hochfilzen

I’ve been in Hochfilzen, Austria, for a bit over week now, and dang, it has been AWESOME!

I spent all my mornings in the first week skiing, including one great 40 k day on classic skis:

The last time I was here, in 2013, it was one of those bad winters the Alps have had recently. I showed up with some brand new Fischer skate skis that I was dying to test out. I did test them out, but barely any of the ski trails were open and I ended up hitting some rocks that were poking through. After just a few days in Hochfilzen, my skis were no longer pristine (and I felt pretty stupid – although luckily the scratches weren’t too bad and those are still my favorite race skis).

This winter could not be more different. There is tons of snow, thanks in part to good grooming. It has been warm and some of the south-facing slopes have melted down to brown hillside. But where the trails were packed, it’s no problem. Pillerseetal, as this region is referred to, advertises 100 kilometers of ski trails. I’ve checked out a lot of them. The trails connect different villages, each with their own little flavor, and it has been a blast to explore around.

I’ve had some great skiing in Switzerland this year, but only being able to ski on the weekends is tough. To have this whole week to literally ski my brains out, I’m in heaven. Before I left on this trip I had reached a big milestone in my PhD, submitting the first chapter from my dissertation to a journal. Being able to take a mental break after that was perfect.

(Of course, while I was here, I heard back that the paper was rejected and I had to reformat and rewrite bits and submit it somewhere else but… that’s academia. Get used to failure.)

While I have definitely been taking some recharge time, I’m also here for biathlon World Championships. (And in fact, that’s why I’m in Hochfilzen instead of somewhere else – thanks, biathlon, for bringing me to this place I have totally fallen in love with!) The weather was sunny until Friday, which meant that watching the races from behind the shooting range was a real treat:

The races have also been great. A highlight was seeing Lowell Bailey win the 20 k individual, the first World Championships gold ever to an American biathlete. I’m really proud of the story I wrote about that; I think it might be the best race story I’ve ever written.

It was fun, and funny, to be an American journalist on that day. Often, I’m the only one in the mixed zone who wants to talk to the Canadian or American athletes. There are a few exceptions – Lowell has been doing more interviews because he is doing really well this season and also his work on anti-doping issues has raised his profile. Tim Burke and Susan Dunklee get some attention from the foreign press and anyone who does well on a given day might get one or two questions. But mostly it’s me.

On the day Lowell won: not so much. Every single television crew wanted an interview. He took longer to go through the mixed zone than any athlete of the entire Championships so far, I think. The media coordinator actually pulled him before the last TV crew could get an interview, and sent him to the press conference. Then, he had to take photos with his medal, before popping back to take more questions. Because television always gets first priority over written press, I didn’t get to talk to him until more than an hour after he finished – even though I was basically the only home-country press on site! By then, I was getting pretty hangry, so I have no idea how Lowell held it together through the whirlwind. Although I’m sure he just wanted to have some quiet time, it was really cool to see how much interest there was in American biathlon, all of a sudden.

Here’s Lowell answering questions from Norway’s TV2, while a journalist from France’s L’Equipe looks on:

All the races have been fun to watch, though. When the race is over every day, it is sort of a bummer to have to leave the beautiful weather to go inside to do the writing. At least the press center has some good windows, that’s not always the case.

Recently the weather turned, with a big snowstorm rolling through during the women’s relay. The coaches looking through scopes on the shooting range put up little umbrellas to shield their expensive scopes and the whiteboards they use to track where shots go. Photographers were wearing ponchos and fashioning protection for their telephoto lenses out of basically anything they could find. Personally, I wished that I had a hard-shell jacket… but luckily it was still warm, so a raincoat would do.

My time here is almost over, and soon it will be back to work on science stuff. I can’t say that there has been any day here that I have taken completely off from my PhD, but it has still been a nice break. It has also given me time to catch up with Susan Dunklee, who has been one of my closest friends for ten years regardless of the fact that we occasionally have a reporter-athlete relationship! It was Susan’s birthday earlier this week. She organized a little pizza party for herself using an outdoor grill made by one of her sponsors, and then her coach Jonne organized a second little party too.

And, I’m feeling better and better about my skiing. I’m way more fit and strong than I was last season, and I’m looking forward to hopping in some races again, maybe as soon as next weekend.

ten days in Norway.

On the 16.7 k Holmenkollen loop - which is easy to reach not only from Holmenkollen, but also from other city T stops like Sognsvann.

On the 16.7 k Holmenkollen loop – which is easy to reach not only from Holmenkollen, but also from other city T stops like Sognsvann.

I just got back from a trip to Norway. As always, it was phenomenal. I have nothing against Zurich – I’m pretty happy here and it is as close to an ideal situation as I could think of living in a city – but I came home thinking, why didn’t I do my PhD in Oslo?

There’s something about seeing the T-Bane packed with skiers of all ages and ability levels, or heading out to ski on a weekend midday and running into probably hundreds of people out on the trails just outside the city. It’s a city where everyone is chic and blond, usually dressed in black, very stylish. But nobody looks at you with eyes askew if you’re out in Bjørn Dæhlie ski pants and a ratty old Swix jacket.

Or, if you’re going to watch a ski race and you pull on a classic Norwegian wool sweater instead of an expensive technical jacket. Wool keeps you warm. Nobody laughs at that.

I stayed with my friend Knut in Oslo, and by the end of the week, I was thinking about what a great life it would be if, like him, I could just take the T a few stops to access hundreds of kilometers of ski trails after work every day.

Because even if Zurich is pretty darn close to optimal, from my naive, short-term-staying experience, Oslo might be just that tiny little bit closer.

But anyway. That was a lot of digressions. I headed to Oslo to cover biathlon World Championships for FasterSkier. Apparently it was snowing in Oslo on the Friday night when I was supposed to arrive, and my flight got canceled. Nearly all the other people on the plane were heading to watch World Championships and cheer for the Swiss, and we all groaned as the news came over the PA system. It’s snowing? They can’t handle snow at an airport in Norway?

I scrambled to find a new flight, thinking that there was no way that they could get a whole airplane’s worth of people rescheduled, especially if the weather continued to be bad. This involved a lot of research on my phone, and getting someone else to buy me a ticket on a different airline as I scrambled around, and then getting to the front of the customer service line and getting offered a flight that night anyway, and canceling the ticket that had just been bought (we got a full refund). I arrived to the Oslo airport at midnight and schlepped my stuff via the night bus to Knut’s house. It was around 2 a.m. and he was waiting for me… thanks Knut, you’re the best.

Hanging out in the press section behind the shooting range during the men's sprint.

Hanging out in the press section behind the shooting range during the men’s sprint.

Saturday and Sunday were sprint and pursuit racing, and it was pretty exciting. The crowds at Holmenkollen National Ski Arena are no joke, so when Norwegian Tiril Eckhoff won the women’s sprint and Ole Einar Bjørndalen took silver in the men’s sprint it was serious. Seriously loud. I immediately remembered why I loved this job. In the pursuit I managed to sneak onto the course and take some photos with the Holmenkollen ski jump in the background, even though I didn’t have a photo bib. (When I tried this later in the week, I got yelled at and kicked off the course. ‘doh.)

Emil Hegle Svendsen (Norway), Tim Burke (USA), and Quentin Fillon Maillet (France) in the men's pursuit. This photo should never have been allowed to be taken, for I am written press, a.k.a. scum of the earth.

Emil Hegle Svendsen (Norway), Tim Burke (USA), and Quentin Fillon Maillet (France) in the men’s pursuit. This photo should never have been allowed to be taken, for I am written press, a.k.a. scum of the earth.

On the plus side, races started in the afternoon- so in the mornings I skied out of the end of the race course and into the Marka, the big forest area in the north(ish) of Oslo. The ski trails! There are so many, and they are so fun! Wide trails and narrow trails, hilly trails and flat trails, trails through bogs and trails through forests. Trails to huts that serve waffles and hot chocolate. Trails that are criss-crossed by winter hiking trails; trails that go all the way down to the edge of the city. So many trails!

On Sunday I checked out the old 16.7 k race loop, which was historically used for the famous Holmenkollen 50 k: three loops of that bad boy. Parts are still used for the current course configuration (which has a longest loop of 8.3 k). The 16.7 k has a lot of uphill, and, of course, a lot of fun downhill, but it’s a workout. I was getting tired by the end but my skis were flying and I was on real snow! Cold, dry(ish) snow. That hasn’t happened to me so many times this year. I was in heaven!

There weren’t many people who brought skis into the media center, so I always accidentally make a spectacle of myself when I do this. But the woman I was sitting next to thought it was cool.

“Now you know the course conditions for writing your story!” she said.

Yes. Exactly.

A journalist who skis? No way!

A journalist who skis? No way!

But to have two sprints on Saturday and two pursuits on Sunday is a lot of work for the press, and afterwards I was pooped. I ate dinner at the media center and was late getting home, only getting to hang out with Knut a little bit.

So I was pretty thrilled that Monday and Tuesday were off days from competition. Monday around lunchtime, I went downtown and hopped on a train to Lillehammer.

Side note: I love the trains in Switzerland, and for sure the country is more connected via the train system than any other country. But Norway has one thing on them: wireless. My train had perfect, fast, wifi the whole time, and I felt really spoiled. Way to go, Norway! #richcountries

My friend Erik picked me up at the train station after work and we headed up to the Birkebeiner Skistadion, the home of the 1994 Olympic trails. We had about an hour before we had to pick up his son from daycare, so we cruised around, Erik classic skiing and me skating. Erik is a good skier. I could barely keep up with him and was glad I wasn’t classic skiing! But actually, I bet he was working pretty hard too. Neither of us would say, “slow down!”

I have stayed with Erik, Emily, and their family a few times, and it is always delightful. I spent some time hanging out with their kids, playing games, drawing pictures, building obstacle courses for marbles, reading bedtime stories. I don’t generally want to have kids, but every time I hang out with their kids, I think, well, maybe…. 

After we’d put the kids to bed we watched all the available episodes of “Pling i Kollen”, the comedy news series of the World Championships created by NRK personality Nikolay Ramm and Swedish skier Robin Bryntesson. They are hilarious, even if you don’t speak Norwegian or Swedish. We were dying laughing – particularly at the fake hip hop music video made by Ramm, Tarjei Bø, and Emil Hegle Svendsen (here) or the music video “the story of biathlon.” Later in the week they did a great segment with Canada’s Macx Davies called “Macx The Man” (google it). You can find all the episodes here if you want to catch up on Norwegian ski humor.

The next day was a beautiful blue-sky day – something we hadn’t had much of in Oslo, which is often rather foggy. Erik pointed out that it might be one of the best skiing days in a while. So after dropping off the kiddo at daycare, Emily and I drove up to Sjusjøen and went for a ski! It was my first time on classic skis in two months (races in Switzerland are almost entirely skating…) and my first time on extra blue in, I don’t know, two years!? A really long time, that’s for sure.

Happiness.

Happiness.

It felt phenomenal. It was one of those days skiing where you think, this is what I was made for. Running? It’s okay. But my body is meant for skiing, and it’s the thing I love. Can this season go on forever?

I absolutely love the landscape of the Lillehammer/Sjusjøen area. It’s hard to describe to someone from most parts of the lower 48 in the U.S.: it’s not the arctic tundra. There are trees. But they are small and scrubby, and sort of sparse. The landscape is open, but not flat. It rolls away from you for what feels like it could be forever. It’s easy to get into a trance-like state of mind striding your way along these trails.

Beauty.

Beauty.

After about 15 k we were back at the car, and Emily headed home. I knew that this would probably be my best ski day all season (things were already melting back home in Switzerland), so I kept skiing. I headed down from Sjusjøen to Lillehammer on the Birkebeiner trail, which is a super fun descent, then cruised around on the Inga-Låmi trails for a while before finally skiing all the way down into the town of Lillehammer. A short ten minute walk brought me back to Erik and Emily’s house where I scarfed down some leftovers and took a much-needed shower.

I’d skied a full marathon and was rarely been happier all winter.

That afternoon Emily and I took their daughter into town to a nice coffee shop and hung out, just the girls.

The next morning I had to leave and, as always, it made me sad. I hopped on the train and then once in Oslo headed directly to the venue, where I met up with our occasional reporter and photographer JoJo Baldus, who had been at the Vasaloppet over the weekend but was now in Norway with his dad getting ready for the Birkebeiner. He was set up with a photo bib and we chatted about the Vasaloppet (not the favorite race either of us had ever done…) and photos for the day. It was the women’s 15 k individual, and it seemed possible that American Susan Dunklee might win a medal. She had been skiing out of her mind fast so far in the championships.

She didn’t, but it was a great race. It was a relief to have JoJo doing photos. I was able to get home to make some dinner for Knut, which was nice, and we caught up on a new episode of Broad City. Life was good.

The rest of the week proceeded pretty much like that: I’d ski in the morning, report in the afternoon, get home late. From my usual wake-at-6:30, bed-by-10:30 old-lady schedule, I shifted to waking up at 9 in the morning and staying up past midnight: operating on Knut time, perhaps?

The finish zone in the women's pursuit.

The finish zone in the women’s pursuit.

The highlight of the week results-wise was when the Canadian men won bronze in the men’s relay, a race that Norway won. Both things were good: the Norwegians winning meant that the stadium was loud and the atmosphere completely unbelievable. The Canadians’ result was also unreal. They are all good athletes, but it had never come together for them like that. It was crazy to watch. I was interviewing Scott Gow when Brendan Green was in his final shooting stage, in position to lock up the medal. We stopped the interview and watched the broadcast screen.

Brendan hit one, two, three, four… five shots! The bronze was theirs!

Scott looked pretty blown away and something that’s weird for me as a reporter is that, I guess I’m pretty empathetic or something, so when someone cries in an interview about retirement, tears come to my eyes. If they had a bad race, I feel bad bugging them about it. It’s a little awkward and sometimes borders on unprofessional, maybe? I can’t help it, though, so I like to think that there’s a balance between doing my job, and being empathetic, and that athletes might appreciate that I’m not totally oblivious to their state of mind. But I’m not sure.

In this case, the excitement totally caught. I’m a journalist, not a PR person working for the Canadians, yet after interviewing all of them so many times, I felt so darn excited and proud for them. While the other journalists were sort of bemused – well that’s something, isn’t it, Canada, huh – I was cheering along with Scott.

“Can I give you a hug or something?” I asked.

“Yes! Please!” he said.

And then an organizing-committee media person whisked him away: he and his teammates had to get ready, with all of their identical team-issued gear and their bibs on over their jackets, to go mob Brendan as he crossed the finish line. Sarah Beaudry and Julia Ransom, watching the race from the side of the trail above the mixed zone, shouted down to Christian Gow to change is hat so it was an official Biathlon Canada one. Good discipline, team.

Team Canada doing a tv interview.

Team Canada doing a tv interview.

It was kind of a whirlwind trying to track down coaches to talk to for the story and even just to talk to the Canadians. For once, they were asked to do many, many interviews for foreign broadcasters. The written press is the last group to get access to athletes in the mixed zone, so by the time the team made it to me there were literally two minutes before they had to go to the press conference. I didn’t get to ask many questions and it made me mad: here I was, the only journalist from their home media who was here, the only one who would actually be transmitting their comments back to their fans at home. Shouldn’t I get the same chance to ask them questions? Isn’t that what their friends and family wanted?

I complained vigorously to the organizing committee media guy who had hauled them off, and he was very apologetic, but said there was nothing to be done. Luckily after the press conference I could chat with them plenty.

(I later ran into that guy at a party, and we ended up laughing: both of us are scientists for whom this was not our main job. He was just working at Holmenkollen for the week. It was fun, he said, but he was glad it was over.)

As the week wrapped up, Knut and I were able to catch up with Hannah Dreissigacker and Susan Dunklee, U.S. athletes who had been our teammates at Dartmouth College. Living abroad I don’t see friends from home very often at all – in fact, they are probably the ones I have seen the most since moving to Europe in the fall of 2012. They come to Europe to race; I try to see them, or sometimes we get together in the spring after their race season is done.

It was fun to get some time together, and definitely one of the highlights of the whole trip. After all, you can find good skiing if you just have enough time and money to travel, and most of my skiing I do alone. But friends? For me, spending time with old friends, friends with whom I have a history of more than a year or two, is such a rare treat.

Now I’m back in Zurich, back to work. Every day that passes, this idea that I should be living in Oslo recedes a little further away into the back of my mind.

After all, here the birds are singing and the flowers are blooming. It’s spring. There’s plenty to be done, plenty of friends to have lawn parties with, a bit of last spring skiing to seek out, and after that, mountains to climb.

A foggy, magical bog-forest in the marka.

A foggy, magical bog-forest in the marka.

what it’s like to be a ski reporter.

Finn Hagen Krogh was a thoughtful and fun interview despite already going through the television gauntlet. (Photo: Markus Schild/www.nordic-online.ch)

Finn Hagen Krogh was a thoughtful and fun interview despite already going through the television gauntlet. A reporter’s key tool: phone with voice recorder. If I try to take notes my shorthand is insufficient and I miss things, so I record interviews and then later listen to them and type out what the athlete said. (Photo: Markus Schild/nordic-online.ch)

Note: to see the writing and reporting I’m referring to, head to http://www.fasterskier.com.

Last weekend I headed to Lenzerheide, Switzerland, for the opening three stages of the Tour de Ski. It’s just an easy two hours on the train and bus from Zurich, and I found a great airbnb in town. They were my first races of the season reporting on-the-ground for FasterSkier and I have to admit I’m not sure I was totally prepared. The first day was a sprint, which is basically the most hectic race from a reporting perspective, so I had my work cut out for me.

The first step is, of course, watching the race. Usually it’s nice to be out on the course, but in a sprint that’s impractical. The race is so short that if you are out on a hill you can’t get back in time to catch the athletes at the finish line. So I just watched the qualifier from the mixed zone and caught some athletes as they went by.

What is the mixed zone? It’s basically a gauntlet that athletes have to walk through before they can go back to their team trailers and changing huts. Athletes walk on one side of the fence and media line up on the other side. The first boxes on “our” side of the fence are reserved for TV and video, outlets like Norway’s NRK and Sweden’s Expressen. There’s also radio. After interminable interviews, the athletes reach “us”: the written press. If they are tired of talking about their races already (understandable) sometimes they just blow past us. If they stop, depending on the athlete, it can be a total media scrum (looking at you, Norwegians; I’m usually one of the only people trying to talk to Americans and Canadians, so if someone has a good day and suddenly everyone wants to talk to them, it’s sort of a shock to have to fight for minutes). As one of the few women there and one of the smaller people in general, I’ve gotten elbowed in the face a few times. I’m trying to get better about asserting myself.

IMGP8252

With one of the other women journalists in the mixed zone.

In big events like World Championships and Olympics, the volunteers and officials are pretty militant about making athletes go through the mixed zone. At smaller World Cups this isn’t so much the case, so a few times athletes just grabbed their warm-ups from the bags that had been transported to the finish line and headed out for their cool-downs. I don’t blame them, but it meant that I had to hunt them down later at the wax trucks. I’m not technically supposed to go into the “team areas” (each different area of the venue has a separate accreditation category and normal journalists are only accredited for specifially media areas like the mixed zone and the press center) but in this case it worked out because the same lax attitude that let athletes skip the mixed zone allowed me to walk straight in where I should have been stopped.

Anyway… after the qualification I chatted with some athletes: Sophie Caldwell from the United States, who had a great qualification round, and the American and Canadian athletes who had missed the heats and were done for the day.

I ran back to the media center and quickly filed a short story about Sophie’s qualifier. There was less than an hour between when I finished talking to athletes and when the first quarterfinal started, so I worked quickly. I had also talked to Simi Hamilton about what pressure he was feeling after winning the race the last time a Tour de Ski stage came through, so I had to transcribe those two interviews, write the story, and list the results of all the North Americans in the qualifier. We quickly pulled a picture of Sophie from the qualifying round. I posted the story and ran back to the mixed zone just as the heats started.

Immediately, things were confusing. Sophie had a tough round and finished in fourth. She could move on as a lucky loser, but it depended on how the later quarterfinal heats went. If she was out I didn’t want to miss talking to her; but if she was in, she needed to be focusing on recovery. I also didn’t want to be insensitive or insulting by saying, “hey, if you don’t move on, can you come back?” Then it would sound like I was doubting her, and she was probably already not thrilled with how things had gone. I’m not sure what exactly I said as she walked by, but it was slightly awkward. Later, she ended up making it all the way to the final and I talked to her after that.

For most of the others, it was clear by the time they came through the mixed zone after a quarterfinal or semifinal heat whether they had made the next round or not. So I did more interviews. They usually take just two to five minutes. A hard thing is to keep watching the heat that is taking place, so you know what’s going on, while paying attention to the interview you are in the midst of conducting. Luckily, athletes usually want to watch their teammates, so I was able to watch some of the exciting heats on the big screen after all.

I made some poor choices in terms of clothing and got super cold while interviewing athletes. It had been sunny and warm and gorgeous, but the thing about the Alps is that the mountains are steep and once the sun goes behind them the temperature drops precipitously. I wasn’t prepared for this. Not for the first time, my iPhone was shaking as I held it out to record. U.S. sprinter Andy Newell took pity on me and gave me his parka, which was super nice of him. At first I didn’t want to take it because it was too awkward, but I was really cold and so eventually I did, and it helped immensely.

A few fun facts about this:

(1) The interaction happened at the end of my interview with Andy. Gerry Furseth had to transcribe this and he left it in the transcription, me saying, “Yeah, I’m fucking freezing!” I will try to be more professional in the future.

(2) Wearing a U.S. Ski Team parka led to one of the Swiss reporters asking if I was the U.S. press attaché and if I could get him a chat with Simi Hamilton. The U.S. does not have a press attaché at these events and I am definitely just a journalist, but Simi is nice and accessible so I just pointed the guy in his direction.

(3) Those parkas are SUPER WARM! If you are in the market for a super sweet parka, this is it.

After that, it was back to the media center. I didn’t take any photos of this media center, but here are a few I have from past World Cup trips. Here’s the one in Oslo before a biathlon competition, with the famous drummers lining up to enter the stadium. These tables are equipped with lots of outlets and by the time the race is over will be packed with journalists shoulder to shoulder (or computer to computer… with lots of paper start lists, camera equipment, and cups of coffee scattered everywhere).

DSCN0944

Oslo, 2014 Biathlon World Cup.

In Lenzerheide, there are few permanent buildings so the media center was less substantial – a big tent with a floor put down and heating inside. There were probably 50 or more of us working in there and it was perfectly pleasant and adequate. I started working immediately after grabbing a cup of coffee from the media center’s food table. That meant deciding how we would divide up our coverage – how many stories to write about each race, what the narrative is, what athletes’ quotes go in which story.

Soon, though, the press conference began. The podium finishers, once they are done with TV and print media in the mixed zone, come into the media center for a press conference run by the international federation (FIS for skiing or IBU for biathlon). It’s really handy that the press conference is held in the media center where we are already working because it means we’re much less likely to accidentally miss it!

(That said, FIS now doesn’t always do press conferences – specifically, not on the last day at each venue during the Tour de Ski, and sometimes in Davos they haven’t had them either. This is a huge pain in the butt for me. Of all the journalists, FasterSkier staff are probably responsible for talking to the most athletes – we check in with almost every North American in every race, and also need quotes from the podium finishers if they are not American or Canadian [which is most of the time]. Most others only talk to the top one or two finishers from their country in each race – we have two countries to cover, not to mention that most readers want to hear from each of their local heroes! It takes a long time to talk to all the North Americans and so sometimes we miss international athletes as they walk through the mixed zone at the same time. Knowing that the podium finishers will be in a press conference is huge, and I dislike it a lot when there’s not press conference.)

Oslo women's biathlon sprint press conference with race winner Darya Domracheva (center), Marie Dorin Habert (left) and Susan Dunklee (right) who had her first World Cup podium that day.

Oslo women’s biathlon sprint press conference in 2014 with race winner Darya Domracheva (center), Tora Berger (left) and Susan Dunklee (right) who had her first World Cup podium that day. Note the journalists watching and typing on their computers at the tables in front of me.

After the press conference, it’s back to work. On a sprint day everyone finishes at more or less the same time, so there’s one press conference and then the other. On a distance racing day, if the women go first, at this point there might be just an hour or 45 minutes before the men’s race. I usually try to really quickly write a story about the most important thing (to our readers) that happened – either running a story about a North American who did particularly well, or writing a recap of how the race played out at the front. It’s a sprint to get it done and frequently it needs proofreading by someone else as I run back outside, but it makes things so much easier later, when you have one more race under your belt and are even more tired, to know that one story is already out of the way.

Why does it matter psychologically to have one story already published? On a day where there is a women’s and a men’s race both (so, all days for regular skiing World Cups; most but not all days for biathlon World Cups; and only a few days at Championships and Olympics) we might produce four stories: one about the winners of the women’s race, one about the winners of the men’s race, and two more. That could either be a story about Americans and a story about Canadians, or a story about North American men and one about North American women. Four is a lot of stories.

In Lenzerheide I was really lucky because there was little else going on in the nordic world. No biathlon World Cups, no NorAms in Canada. Only on the last day, Sunday, did U.S. National Championships start. Usually our small staff is trying to cover both World Cup circuits and any domestic racing all at the same time. If I’m at a biathlon World Cup alone, that means that maybe I end up writing all four stories, start to finish, including taking the photos, sorting through them, doing and transcribing my own interviews, and then writing. I remember nights in Ruhpolding where I’d stay up until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. writing and then have to wake up and do it all over again. Some of those later stories are decidedly NOT GOOD.

Since nothing else was going on, though, I had a lot of help, both on the ground in terms of some volunteers and remotely. Alex Kochon, the head honcho for our FasterSkier reporting team, would help me go through the process of deciding what the stories should be and then took on one of them herself each day. We also had help from Jason Albert in Bend, who wrote one story each day. Jason and Gerry Furseth (a Canadian helper) were also total heroes and transcribed a lot of the interviews I did. Listening to your own interviews is bad enough (I hate the sound of my voice and some mannerisms I’ve unfortunately developed when interviewing), but transcribing someone else’s is ten times worse because you don’t know what was talked about. Since you don’t know what’s coming, you’re more likely to have to listen to the same section several times.

Thanks Jason and Gerry, and I hope you never have to listen to my stupid voice, bad interview questions, and awkward laughter again… but probably you will.

I also had a helper to sort through photos, which was huge. When you have hundreds or thousands of photos, picking out a few to go with your story and then cropping or editing it appropriately takes a surprising amount of time.

On the sprint day things took a long time and I didn’t leave the venue until after 8 p.m. I think that the grocery store was closed by the time I got back to the town of Lenzerheide, so it was good for my hunger levels that I had eaten a lot of snacks in the media center. Probably not so good for my health though as candy bars and hot chocolate have dubious nutritional value…. no regrets.

After reporting all day and, that first day, writing three stories of my own, I was exhausted. I had written more than 3,000 words, under time pressure, and tried to make sure they were good ones. It takes a lot out of you. Doing a race weekend or a long series like a Championships is like being in college and having a major take-home exam every single night. And it adds up. Over the course of two weeks at the Olympics in 2014, I wrote something like 55,000 words, or the length of The Wind In The Willows.

So exhaustion? That’s what reporting for FasterSkier is like.

Luckily, reporting can also be really fun. In the distance races on Saturday and Sunday I got out on the course to watch. Who doesn’t want to be here? Watching races still often gives me goosebumps and rushes of adrenaline at the finish. Being there in person is a total experience.

IMG_3459

Lenzerheide on the sprint day. Actually the distance day the weather was totally gross.

Being with buddies, I also took advantage of some things that I usually don’t – namely, events organized for the media. In this case it was a dinner organized at the Panoramarestaurant Rothorngipfel on Saturday night. We all took the gondola up; unfortunately it was sort of stormy and socked in that night so we did not get views from either the gondola or the restaurant, which is 2865 meters (9400 feet) high. But it was a really nice dinner and I got to meet some other media people as well as learning more about Lenzerheide from the organizers. That makes it sound like they forced us to listen to publicity, which is partly true, but I have really enjoyed skiing in Lenzerheide since I moved to Switzerland so I was actually very interested. They are aiming to host biathlon World Cups in the future and now have both a paved rollerski loop around their range and a snowmaking loop for early-season skiing. It will be interesting to see how things go in Lenzerheide, and I hope they succeed.

We soaked up the atmosphere. It was unique as usually I sleep on people’s couches and spend as little money as possible on these trips. We have a minuscule budget compared to major news outlets. Not a single FasterSkier employee makes their full living out of this work. To be able to keep more money as salary, we try to spend as little as possible when we are on the road. So to be a bit more high class was a treat. (To be clear, we did not pay for the dinner… thanks Lenzerheide folks!)

With Jojo Baldus (right), a Twin Cities skier who is volunteering with us this winter as he spends some time in Europe around the WorldLoppet races, and Kim Rodley of nordic-online.ch. (Photo: Markus Schindl)

With Jojo Baldus (right), a Twin Cities skier who is volunteering with us this winter as he spends some time in Europe around the WorldLoppet races, and Kim Rodley of nordic-online.ch. (Photo: Markus Schild)

The scene.

The scene.

It was fun to have JoJo Baldus around. He is in Europe on a gap year before college, aiming to ski all the WorldLoppet races. In between races, he’s helping out FasterSkier – very generously, as I made clear many times that we can’t really pay him! Luckily he seems to be having fun. He doesn’t have any reporting experience but is very enthusiastic and asks all the right questions. He tried to learn some interviewing techniques from me, but since I have zero formal training I don’t know how helpful I was. JoJo is also a great guy to hang out with, so it was a blast!

IMGP8278

JoJo listening in on an interview…. For blog aficionados, note the blue mittens in my hands.

I crammed in as many interviews as I could, publishing some on Monday when the Tour de Ski had a rest day. My theory is that when I am on the ground, I might as well take every five- or ten-minute chat that I can and somehow, we will turn it all into content.

But I have to say, even with all the help, it made me exhausted. The most fun trips are when we have a few reporters along, because the people who work with FasterSkier are fantastic, each and every one of them. My first trip was to Oslo World Championships in 2011 with Topher Sabot, Matt Voisin, and Nat Herz. It was so much fun! Then I went to biathlon World Championships in 2012 by myself. It was also fun, but a lot more work and with nobody to sympathize with. Trips to the Olympics in 2014 with Alex and Nat, and to skiing World Championships in 2015 with Alex and Lander, were highlights.

As I look towards this year’s biathlon World Championships in Oslo, I’m excited because, well, World Championships! Oslo! Biathlon! Fun! But I have to admit that I’m dreading doing all the work myself. There will be other racing going on, like the FIS Ski Tour Canada, so it won’t be like this Lenzerheide weekend where I could simply send interviews off to our other staff to transcribe, or expect some of the writing to get done by them as well.

Sometimes what gets me through is going skiing, and this was also true in Lenzerheide. Mostly we skied on a loop in town, but after the races finished on Sunday and volunteers took the stadium apart with amazing efficiency, we went out for a ski on the World Cup course. It was hard. But it was magical and fun. I love ripping downhills and World Cup courses deliver in ways that trails designed for tourists do not. I was pretty worked over by the time we had done a few laps though – the uphills are for real!

(In this case, the long uphill out of the stadium was great, really skiable, and would be fun to push in a race. The steep uphill out at the edge though, before the athletes zoomed down to lap through the stadium? Not so fun.)

It was a great weekend, but a lot of work. Now, time for me to be back at my “normal” job, doing science.

Interviewing Jessie Diggins.

Interviewing Jessie Diggins.

daily diary

Yesterday was an easy day. With one phenomenal North American result between the two races, we didn’t have to do particularly intensive coverage. It was in fact the easiest day we’ve had so far, except for the day before when there was no races! So here’s what it looks like on an easy day:

8:30: wake up. yeah it’s not super early, you’ll see why later. First I read and respond to e-mails and correct mistakes we have made in articles we posted last night.

9:00: go for a jog. It’s not the most inspiring jogging up here, you can do a loop all the way around Gorki Village in about ten minutes. It takes you through the village plaza, which is nice, but also past a lot of ongoing construction. There’s a few building projects on such steep slopes that Alex and I are certain they won’t last five year. As I was running by one, a pile of rocks literally fell off the retaining wall and rolled down the hill. So much for that. Alex and I jog together about half the time; this day I was alone.

9:30: take a shower and pack for the day. when I go to bed at night my stuff is usually exploded all over one side of the room because I’m too tired to organize it, so packing means picking all the pieces back out.

10:00: go down to breakfast. Nat arrived shortly after me so we ate together. It is an amazing buffet! Everything you could imagine, even maple syrup. The scrambled eggs are amazing and they often have smoked salmon. I want to eat everything, every day. This is the only square meal we get each day so it is not something to rush through – it’s something to savor. The buffet is included in our hotel fee but we aren’t getting reimbursed for other expenses and of course, food at the venues is incredibly overpriced and not all that good. You can’t even get free water in the media center – a far cry from what I’m used to on the biathlon World Cup where they serve amazing food for free to all media workers. So, we take our time and stuff ourselves at breakfast, then sneak apples into our bags as well as little sandwiches we have made with the bread and other goodies from breakfast. So far nobody at the hotel has yelled at us.

10:30: Nat and I leave the hotel.

10:33: we arrive at the top of the gondola in Gorki Village and start heading down.

10:41: we get off the gondola and start walking up towards the mountain.

10:58: arrive at the base of the gondola to the Laura biathlon and cross-country ski venues. Go through security.

11:01: get on the gondola heading up.

11:07: the gondola stops…. we are all nervous.

11:09: the gondola restarts! thank God!

11:16: get off the gondola

11:18: get on a bus to the biathlon venue.

11:20: the bus stops at a weird place where I guess some volunteers sometimes get on or off, but there is absolutely nothing around there so we don’t understand where these people are coming from.

11:24: arrive at Laura biathlon venue! Phew!

11:26: sit down in the media center

11:35: walk out to the shooting range to try to snag Susan for a hug during training – it’s her birthday! Unfortunately she did a short training so I missed her. She had invited me over to the athletes’ village but I didn’t have time to go on this particular day and I felt terrible for abandoning her on her birthday. Happy birthday to my favorite biathlete! Anyway, since I’m out there, I have some useful off-the-record conversations with Matthias Ahrens, head coach of the Canadian team, and Max Cobb, an American who is the TD (basically, head organizer) of the biathlon races at the Olympics. The course conditions are very difficult to prepare for and Max really has his work cut out for him. We talk off the record about twice a day and it’s great to have an American in this job so that they are available to us – for the ski races it’s a Czech guy, and obviously it’s not anywhere near as easy for us to get constant updates about what is going on from the officials’ side of things!

11:57: go back to the media center. work a little.

12:15: start walking up to the cross country venue.

12:21: arrive at the shuttle departure for athletes and staff next to the venue. I met up with Pepa Miloucheva, my old coach from my days on the Craftsbury Green Racing Project. Pepa is here coaching Tucker Murphy, a fellow Dartmouth grad (much older than me) and ecologist (much better than me) who is originally from Bermuda. Tucker trained with us in Craftsbury off and on before the Vancouver Olympics, where he was the first skier ever to represent Bermuda. He’s at it again this year and Pepa is here as his coach – she walked with Tucker in the opening ceremonies as he carried his flag, and they all wore great Bermuda shorts. Anyway, it was SO FUN to see Pepa! We got to catch up a little bit over a coffee before we both had to scramble back to work. It’s amazing the different ways people find to get to the Olympics.

12:45: leave the coffee place

12:52: arrive back in media center. Get to work on publishing an article. Pretty much every day, we all publish something before racing begins. Often it’s dealing with the leftovers from previous races – Alex was working on something using all the quotes we had from the sprint day, since we were so busy covering Kikkan and Sophie and the actual race winners that we never wrote much about the other Americans and Canadians. Other times, it’s things that aren’t directly connected to the racing, just other fun Olympic stories. Nat was working on a “reporters’ notebook” piece about making the trip down to the Black Sea on our off-day, and I wrote something about the flagbearer nomination process, since Susan was the voting representative for biathlon and told me how it worked. It was pretty cool actually. But it was a hurry to….

1:46…. publish it before…

2:02: walking up to the cross country venue.

2:08: The race actually started at 2 p.m., but the first loop was off in the woods on the other side of the venue so we went up a few minutes late and stopped lower down on the course. We watched people go by, tried to keep the best track we could of splits for the racers we cared about, and I took some photos. We ended up standing next to these two guys from North Dakota who came to watch hockey but were taking an off day to come up to the mountain. They had just randomly decided to come to cross country skiing – one of them was a recreational skier but the other had never been skiing in his life! They asked lots of questions and it was sort of fun to explain cross country skiing to them. Credit to these two guys for checking out an entirely new sport!

2:55: Ida Sargent skis by, the last American bib in the race and after the top-seeded skiers. After taking a few more pictures, run up to the mixed zone.

2:57: Arrive in mixed zone. Alex is already there and Nat arrives soon. Talk to Sadie, Ida, and Holly. Stick around while we look for U.S. and Canadian coaches – eventually Alex runs off to look for them. Nat runs off to look for Vidar Lofshus, the Norwegian coach. I stick around even longer as I wait for Marit Bjørgen to finally leave the extensive broadcast area – seriously she had to give so many interviews – and make it to the written press section. Then wait longer while she talks to the Norwegian press. Finally, she makes it to the English-speaking press section. Get a few quotes.

4:00, roughly: head back to the media center. On the way down I run into Nat and Alex who are talking to Reto Burgermeister, the Swiss guy who coaches Alexander Legkov and Ilia Chernousov. Have an off-the-record chat.

4:15, roughly: arrive back in the media center. I download the photos I have taken and quickly upload a dozen photos to our facebook account. Nat says he will go to the press conference but it turns out we’ve missed it already… whooops!

4:35: start transcribing the interviews from the American girls.

4:45: realize that it’s way way way too hoot in the media center. we move outside and are working on our laptops sitting on the terrace of the biathlon building, with the beautiful mountains in the background.

5:20: go back inside to finish writing the article on the American girls.

5:48: publish the story about the American girls. Nat is still working on the international race report and Alex has the challenging task of putting something together about the Canadians, none of whom did well. They keep working.

5:55: grab a start list and run out to the shooting range.

6:00: arrive on the range just as the first starter of the men’s biathlon 20 k, Evgeniy Garanichev of Russia, leaves the starting box. Watch some of them start, take a few illicit photos while trying to hide my point-and-shoot camera. Move over to the range as Garanichev comes through, and begin the tough task of trying to track how many shots each racer misses over four stages in an interval-start race. I quickly jettison the stats for people I don’t think have a good chance of ending up on the podium, but I’m still trying to keep track of about 25-30 racers, who are scattered throughout the field. Sometimes I will have two on their second prone shooting and three on their first standing all at the same time.

6:15: am approached by Dr. Jim Carrabe, the head medical guy from the International Biathlon Union. I interviewed him a few days ago so we watch the results scrolling through and we have an off-the-record chat. I really appreciate it and it’s great to have these connections. He’s also a nice guy. However, during this time I lose track of shooting for quite a few racers! Tough to multitask!

7:10: Tim Burke has finished up his final shooting and is out on course. I leave the shooting range and head in so that I can catch him in the mixed zone.

7:14: pit stop in the media center to grab my puffy coat, because I am freezing cold. Alex is still in there working (Nat had long ago headed out on course with his photographer credential to take photos) and says she’ll join me soon.

7:20: arrive in the mixed zone. It’s a while before anyone comes through. Eventually, Nat comes and he talks to Tim and Lowell. Alex talks to Russell Currier. I talk to to JP Le Guellec and Brendan Green. In between, we chat with the other reporters and watch the results trickle in on the jumbotron in the stadium. From the mixed zone, I had to stand on my tippy toes to see anything other than the top two lines of the results as they scroll by. But you want to know – for the later starters, I had already left the range so I don’t know how they shot, which is good information to have before you start talking to them!

7:55: take a few minutes to enjoy the sunset.

807: back in the media center.

8:15: head down to the press conference. we are determined not to miss it so I decide to go. Lowell had a great race and Nat has a lot of material from him, so he will head up that effort, and Alex will try to put something together with the material from all the guys who did not do as well.

8:34: press conference is over so I head back upstairs and start working.

9:25: Max Cobb wanders through the workroom and stops to chat. More off-the-record conversations. Nat asks what this weather situation is doing to his job and he says something like “it is making my life a living hell.” we talk a lot about what else can be done to fix the course situation, but the answer is not much. Max says that the last resort is to change the times of the races, since the snow is still cold and fast and nice to ski on in the morning. But at the Olympics, with all the tickets and broadcast arrangements, you can’t really just change the time of a competition unless you have a darn good reason. It seems that the powers that be don’t consider a huge percentage of the field crashing horribly to be a sufficiently good reason. As I said before, poor Max.

10:10: publish my story after I have gone through Nat’s hundreds of photos and pulled out a few of the best ones. It’s a pretty interesting one – my favorite part is that Erik Lesser, the German biathlete who took silver, was doing it in part for his grandfather, who raced for East Germany in the 1976 Olympics. Axel Lesser was the second leg of the relay and was skiing in second place when he somehow crashed into a spectator and either due to injury or equipment breaking had to withdraw. Anyway, the silver medal came back to the family after all thanks to the grandson. Erik Lesser also talked about his 93-year-old great grandfather. It was a fun story.

10:15: relax a little bit and post some photos on facebook.

10:30: put up a short blog post about the biathlon mass start start list, which has just been published. The mass start is limited to 30 men and remarkably, three Canadians and two Americans have made the cut. Their spots came at the expense of Tarjei Bø, the Norwegian who is the reigning World Champion in the discipline but has had an abysmal Olympics so far, and Germany’s usual top-ranked biathlete, Andreas Birnbacher. Lots of interesting stuff in there.

10:57: publish.

11:01: we begin packing to go home as Nat and Alex have also finished their stories. Yay!

11:07: actually walk out of the press workroom. we have made a mess and our brains are mush so it takes us a while to get our shit together.

11:10: we are about to get on a bus to the gondola when Nat realizes that he has left the camera on the workroom table… he runs back inside.

11:10 and 10 seconds: the bus leaves. we aren’t on it.

11:12: we get on another bus.

11:15: the bus actually leaves, with us on it.

11:17: bus arrives at the gondola station.

11:18: get on the gondola. we ride down with some Russian volunteers who speak basically no English. They are very friendly though so we have a fun and strange conversation on a variety of topics, using a lot of hand gestures, simple words, and basically we all end up laughing at each other. It’s fun to talk to them.

11:30: get off the gondola and begin walking back towards Gorki.

11:49: reach the bottom of the Gorki gondola!

11:59: get off the gondola at the top.

12:00: we are walking down the steps from the gondola when a guy lounging beside a golf cart insists on driving us to the hotel. This has never been an option before. Frankly it’s nice to stretch our legs but he seems pretty insistent so we get in. The guy proceeds to tear through Gorki village taking the corners at top speed like a rally car driver! Alex is sitting in the last row of seats facing backwards and I’m a little worried we are going to lose her. It’s pretty fun and we are laughing like maniacs. I wonder if the driver is drunk.

12:01: arrive at the hotel. Nat is tired and goes to bed, but Alex and I are way too jazzed up from the day to fall asleep. We’re also starving as all we have eaten is snack food since breakfast. So we make ourselves a little supper: crackers and cheese, apples and nutella. And we drink a beer. There’s nothing on television so we look up a few videos on YouTube and respond to a few more e-mails. I read a couple of pages of my book, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared. It’s a great book! You should read it. Anyway, we slowly decompress from the day.

1:15: go to bed. We continue to chat about things with the lights off as we’re falling asleep.

This is the earliest we’ve gone to bed in days – on the sprint/women’s pursuit day, when we arrived back in the hotel we couldn’t relax and instead had to keep working (although we did pop open a few beers as we continued to transcribe, write, and sort through photos). That day I think we didn’t go to bed until almost 3 a.m. That’s more the normal situation, which explains why I sleep until 8:30, which is far later than normal for me, and then struggle to pry myself out of bed.

And then the process starts all over again.. usually by realizing that one of those stories that we published at midnight has some major typo or mistake in it. A great way to start the day!

editorial decisions, and difficulty making them.

Sometimes I write things that accidentally turn out to be incredibly relevant. This happened twice in the last 48 hours. First, I wrote a story about course conditions in the men’s biathlon pursuit, where there were several high-profile crashes. I had asked a couple different athletes and coaches whether they thought the course was safe, and talked to the race TD about what was being done to improve the course. I mentioned in passing that maybe the same issues would crop up on the cross country course.

Ha!! I have never seen so many crashes in a single day of racing as I did yesterday. Heck, Dario Cologna, who had won the skiathlon a few days before, crashed twice in the same heat. (“Dario Cologna what is wrong with you?” the stadium announcer asked after the second crash – one of my favorite things a stadium announcer has ever said.) The men’s final was marred by a major crash that allowed a Swede who had completely given up on the race due to back pain, to overtake several athletes (including a Russian whose ski broke and had to double-pole around the course until Canada’s head coach Justin Wadsworth handed him a new ski), and earn bronze. That’s not the way a Olympics should be decided. (Nat wrote a great article about the men’s race.)

Secondly, I wrote a blog post which you’ll see below, a large part of which is about how difficult it is for me to interview athletes who have had a bad or disappointing day. I wrote:

“I think this makes me a bad journalist. I have a bit too much compassion, I’m a bit too connected to the athletes, and I’m a bit too emotionally invested in both their performance and their feelings. People scoff when I start to back off out of sympathy – what are you, Chelsea, a wuss?”

To say that this turned out to be relevant would be an understatement. Kikkan Randall failed to advance out of the quarterfinals, and I think every American in the stadium, no matter what their interest or profession, was left speechless for a few minutes. This wasn’t even in the realm of scenarios we had imagined or planned for.

Randall was obviously incredibly disappointed, and it was tough to watch. As I wrote about the more general case, her sadness was out there for everyone to gawk at. Kikkan was gracious, and her incredible responses to questions from the media even garnered their own headlines (including this great story in the Christian Science Monitor, co-authored by Christa Case Bryant, who I raced against in a ski marathon once).

And, of course, it was a story that we had to cover, even if I wish everybody would have just let poor Kikkan alone. Alex was the one doing the interview, and she did a great job. I’m proud to work with someone who shows compassion and respect for the athletes, and it proves that you don’t have to be a former elite skier yourself to understand basic human emotion and treat these guys well. (why would you?)

The other half of that blog post had been about media coaching and how it sometimes makes interviews bland. And I gotta say – all the U.S. athletes yesterday were great. They were very on-message, but they were also speaking from their hearts and saying great things. In that sense, it was an easy day to be a reporter – just not in a lot of other senses.

I could write more – in fact I just wrote a long bit about our schedule yesterday, the on-the-fly editorial decisions and priorities we had to set, and how external factors ended up maybe giving an impression about our coverage that was different than the one we, or at least I, intended to convey – but it seemed very self-interested and like I was trying to justify something that was probably not a big deal. So I deleted it.

The short version is, Sophie Caldwell had an amazing race. Sadly, Sophie was overshadowed by what happened to Kikkan, both in mainstream news and, somewhat unintentionally, in the timing of our coverage. She didn’t deserve that. Sophie was a star yesterday and it’s amazing that she can do this just two years out of the college racing scene. Go Sophie, you kick ass, and you’re a lovely person too!

To some extent we have to make editorial decisions based on what our readers want to see. Disappointingly for me, many more people have read our story about Kikkan missing the semifinals than have read our story about Sophie setting a new American record.

But at other times, we have to stand up and say, you know what? I don’t care what you want, we’re the editors and this is what you’re getting, and you’ll like it, damn it. This is what we’re writing about today. If I could do that, I would, and I would focus on Sophie rather than rehash Kikkan’s tears over and over again. But it’s a complex situation and it’s not always my decision to make. (It’s also a reason why I would be a terrible businesswoman.) It has been a good reminder to try to just maintain that compassion as much as I possibly can, do good work, and hope that some people appreciate it.

tough work.

rings

We’ve been working hard and today will be our biggest day yet: the cross country ski sprint, an event where Kikkan Randall is favored to win the first gold medal by a female American ever, and the first medal at all in two decades. If she wins, we’ll be busy. If she loses, we’ll be busy. Almost immediately after the sprint final, a women’s biathlon pursuit starts next door. I’ll probably be the only person we send over to that race – where an American, Susan Dunklee, sits in 14th at the start. It’s possible she’d win a medal, too. We are going to be working very, very late tonight.

But it’s not the hard work that gets me. I’m a worker, it’s in my genes. I will work myself to the bone. What is hardest for me is the emotionally difficult work.

Yesterday’s men’s biathlon pursuits was a day like that. JP Le Guellec of Canada was in the lead about halfway through the race, on an absolute tear with clean shooting and the fastest shooting times. He is a great guy and one of my favorite interviews. We were so, so excited. Then he crashed and lost the lead. Next, he realized he had broken a ski, and had to stop and get another one. Needless to say, concentration was broken and he started to make mistakes on the shooting range (though he had lost so much time that it was not like he would have been able to get a medal at that point anyway). All in all, it was a disaster.

When JP came through the mixed zone, I was nervous about having to ask him about his race. But then I remembered all those things that make JP great. Was he frustrated? Yeah, definitely. He said he wanted to punch a wall. But he actually talked to us, was honest about what happened and how he was feeling, and wasn’t either surly or resentful that we were bugging him when all he wanted to do was go find that wall to destroy. He was also honest about the fact that he had maybe made a mistake (people have said that skiers need to respect the downhills and take them with less speed), and that being in first place at the halfway point didn’t guarantee him a gold medal by any means. He wasn’t overly dramatic, and he didn’t make himself out as a victim as many people would probably have been tempted to do.

The way that JP deals with bad situations is partly with his sense of humor, and he lets that show through in his interviews. I didn’t include this in my article, but JP is retiring at the end of this year and he joked, “well, I’ve never broken a ski before, so I guess that’s something I had to do at least once in my career.”

It’s refreshing. I remember one time I asked him about a pretty bad race, and tried to pick something positive out to start off my questioning with. He immediately called me out by saying something like, well, I totally raced like shit. But he didn’t leave it at that: we had a personable conversation about what had gone wrong and what was to come next.

Working with someone like JP makes me think a lot about a two different things.

1: The effect of media coaching. I know a lot of the other athletes we talk to pretty well at this point. I know that almost all of them also have great senses of humor. They are nice people, professional, interesting. Some of them, however, have had extensive media coaching about what to say and what not to say. They act quite differently in interviews than they do in friendly conversation. Their humor might not come through. Their personality might not be apparent. You might not realize how interested they are in a wide variety of issues inside and outside of their sport.

And that’s to be expected. It’s a part of being professional. It’s a way to not offend people, to seem humble when you’re actually confident, to seem positive when you’re actually heartbroken, to project an image that people can look up to when you’re actually reacting with the emotions of a five-year-old. Part of being a role model is to be a gracious competitor, but I doubt that anyone is actually gracious all the time. Your first reaction, especially when you are exhausted and have used up all of your physical and emotional energy in a race, might not be a mature one. I’m not an Olympic athlete, but I’ve had plenty of races where I acted like a total jerk afterwards (this one time at Rumford for nationals where they screwed up my bib number comes to mind). I’m glad there was nobody sticking a microphone in my face. I probably wouldn’t have handled it as well as these athletes do.

Other athletes just aren’t that psyched to be speaking publicly. It’s not something they like or are interested in. And that’s totally fine, too. They got to the Olympics by being really ridiculously good at their sport. An interest in public speaking is neither a natural accompaniment of natural athletic talent, nor a necessary prerequisite for success. Some athletes are naturally chatty, charismatic people. Others aren’t. Who cares?

But all of this does affect their brand. Part of the reason people love reading about American skier Kikkan Randall is that while she’s diplomatic, polite, and gracious, she’s also honest. She’ll let on if there’s problems. She’ll make a stand. She has worked really hard as the athlete representative to the International Ski Federation, and so she both knows and understands the problems in skiing and is willing to talk about them. She’s a great, fun, interview, which makes for good reading. The same is true of JP with his honesty and sense of humor.

Did both of these athletes start off this way? I’m not sure, as I wasn’t even ski racing yet when they began their careers. I have no idea how their personalities and personas have changed over the years.

(I can imagine that if at some point along the way, some media guy told JP he had to tone it down and stop lacing his comments with profanity, he would have mostly ignored them anyway. He’s one of the few people I have seen who can say “it was just fucking downhill from there” and not seem even remotely like an asshole.)

But I think about some of my friends and the acquaintances in the ski world, and I wish that they’d be just a little more open and honest when people interview them (I’m not even talking about me: I’m not frustrated with our working relationship or anything, not in the least. I ‘m talking in general). That’s their decision, of course. But they are great, fun people, and I’m not sure that always comes across. By sterilizing things a little less, they might gain some more fans.

(If they want them, that is. Maybe it’s all part of a sophisticated strategy to avoid having to waste too much time dealing with the media, which of course takes time and energy away from other parts of their jobs as professional athletes.)

2: My least favorite part of my job. When someone has a bad race, I feel conflicted and nervous when I approach them to talk. Sometimes, they are literally overcome. Yesterday Lowell Bailey, who had simply a mediocre race, nothing disastrous but certainly not what he was hoping for, looked at us, looked down, and walked away. He couldn’t talk about it. I really felt for him, and I don’t want to push it.

I’ve had even worse reactions from at least two other athletes over the years, who didn’t even stop and sometimes swore under their breath at me when I tried to snag them for a comment.

Plus, talking to a sad athlete just isn’t that fun. All of their disappointment is right out there for you to gawk at, and at least for me, some of it even transfers to my own emotional state.

I think this makes me a bad journalist. I have a bit too much compassion, I’m a bit too connected to the athletes, and I’m a bit too emotionally invested in both their performance and their feelings. People scoff when I start to back off out of sympathy – what are you, Chelsea, a wuss?

Or maybe it’s because I have no formal journalism training. I don’t know how to handle these situations! I’m a professional by experience, but nobody has really ever taught me much of anything.

I was really happy yesterday when I was able to take the JP story, and my colleague Nat did a roundup of the American performance. He did a great job calling up the coaches and just talking and talking to them until they said some interesting things about what might have gone wrong for the guys. And it wasn’t an antagonistic conversation – it was friendly, it just required a lot of banter to break through and get to the point, which turned out to be an interesting one. You can read Nat’s excellent story here. I really admire Nat for his ability to go get it in situations like this.

Anyway, though, a story is a story, and if the story is that something bad happened, then we need comments on whatever the bad thing was just as much as we would need comments about a gold medal performance. I know that just as much as the next guy. We aren’t PR workers, thank goodness. I never, ever want to do PR! Writing positive stories all the time and doing damage control would be super boring. Yuck.

But when I dig in to tough situations, I want to have time to work on them, to digest and understand what’s going on, and to get thoughtful comments from people. If their first reaction is heartbreak, it’s hard to be the one demanding that they pull themselves together and say something. They risk either saying something they will later regret, or having to make a huge mental and emotional effort to be gracious and thoughtful.

This is the Olympics, where everyone has high hopes for everything. I think I’m going to encounter a lot more of these situations. And I’m going to make myself deal with them. But in my heart of hearts, in the back of my mind, I’m going to be apologizing to the athletes for having to do my job and not just leaving them in peace. Thanks, guys, for putting up with us media folks!