Sunday, April 13, 2014

From A Life Lived On The Edge - A Modest Proposal

 "I grant this food may be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for Landlords, who as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best Title to the Children."

Much as Jonathan Swift, who wrote the original essay anonymously in 1759 to mock the heartless attitudes of the hierarchy towards the poor in Ireland, I was going to make this  piece my own form of Juvenalian satire - "contemptuous and abrasive, addressing social evil through scorn, outrage, and savage ridicule. This form is often pessimistic, characterized by irony, sarcasm, moral indignation and personal invective, with less emphasis on humor."  Somehow, that wasn't me. I try to be funny, occasionally glib but with a point - you know, the way I have written for so many years when talking of things I feel passionately about in skating. However, events of the past seven weeks have made me rethink my approach. 

You know that I have been a "modest" supporter of IJS. I am a realist. The 6.0 system is gone, so we need to make the best of what has been handed out. Since the original COP-cum-IJS was instituted in 2003, incessant tuning and tweaking has taken our sport to a place I not only strongly disagree with, but I truly feel will ultimately kill it, if it doesn't kill our athletes first. The latest problems became abundantly clear this Olympic season, though they had started to rise from the ashes of 6.0 a long time before. Programs have given way to a battle for points; with a few exceptions, skaters and coaches are being rewarded for being good mathematicians. Music is redundant and, in a majority of cases, seems to be superfluous to the smelly-foot spins, mechanical movements and flailing footwork. I thought this was supposed to be the "art and sport" of figure skating. 

We should have seen this coming. I don't think any of us wanted to believe it.  I was in denial until I saw what was going on, live and in person, from the stands in Sochi. And it wasn't just our skater's epic fall that resounded around the world; it wasn't just watching Plushenko crumble under the weight of his injuries. It wasn't watching mathematics defeat magic, or flailing defeat form. It was ALL those things that came together in one Perfect Storm on the Black Sea. 

I pondered this for a long time afterwards, mostly at 3AM. What insidious thing has taken over since 2003 to bring us to this point? What series of carefully placed monkey wrenches has been thrown into the mechanics? I started looking at programs closely.
"After all, I am not so violently bent upon my own opinion as to reject any offer proposed by wise men, which shall be found equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual. But before something of that kind shall be advanced in contradiction to my scheme, and offering a better, I desire the author or authors will be pleased maturely to consider two points."
  1. Skaters are over-training and injuries are overtaking the sport 
  2. Math appears to be the only prerequisite to doing well
When did this start? Well, of course it began with the new scoring system, but it took a stratospheric leap, so to speak, when one rule was instituted - bonuses after the halfway point in a program. 
"As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many years upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of other projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in the computation."

If you are one who is only interested in the math, be it a coach or a skater, in my humble opinion a dangerous precedent has been established. Push yourself through. Forget choreography; don't worry about presentation. Break out the abacus and start ticking those little beads from one side to the other. It doesn't matter if you fall. You started with a high base mark. "Calculated" risk is worth taking. Jump...jump...jump, jump, jump. If you need to relate to the judges or the audience, simply exaggerate your arms, point, wink and shake your booty. It doesn't matter because those little boxes are filing up. And a beautiful thing is being lost in the process.
 "I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection."

So, with apologies to Jonathan Swift, here is my "Modest Proposal" to the ISU:
  •  Rescind the rule of bonus points. It is causing skaters to either attempt things they shouldn't be doing, or making them abandon choreography in favor of a higher score which is contrary to what the "art and sport" of skating is all about.
  • Institute a form of the "Zayak Rule" for jumps that limits quads to one in the short program and two in the freeskate. No more. No plus points for having them late in the program. 
  • Make skating to the music worth something. It's supposed to be worth something.
  • Somehow give acknowledgement to clean programs.
  • Stop the practice of submitting program content in advance as it telegraphs a "bias" to the judges and the technical referees before a program is even presented. Score what you see, not what you think you're going to see.
 There you have it. My opinions are mine, as unsophisticated and uneducated as they may be, I firmly believe they are modestly reasonable. 

Of course, if the ISU eliminates the short program all of this will be moot. Because, like a master chef who readies his knife to surgically slice the fresh young meat he's laid upon a slab of ice while administering his final cuts, skating will be poorly served - not as an amuse bouche, but as entrails - the remains of which will be set upon the floor as scraps, to be devoured, spit out and then forgotten.
"A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter."
Food for thought.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sochi Sojourn Part Five: Everything You Wanted to Know and Weren't Afraid to Ask

So much of our experience during competition has been well chronicled. In fact, the reports, blogs, Tweets and posts actually made it difficult for me to find a way to talk about our experiences outside of what happened. It was a conundrum. 

The only seeming solution was to reach out to some wonderful friends to see what THEY wanted to know about our experience in Sochi. Since I've shared so much, and since so much (true and not-so-much) had been reported, I felt friends would truly have the questions that needed to be answered.

I was correct.

Below are some wonderful queries that made me think; made me wonder and made me both smile - and shed a tear or two. Here is "Everything You Wanted to Know and Weren't Afraid to Ask About Sochi."

Q: Did you truly feel safe at all time or were you ever scared since the riots on independence square and people of interest were but few hundreds of miles away? 

A: We never felt threatened; quite the opposite. There is something about Olympics that brings people together like no other event could possibly do. Peace and harmony through sports: That’s what the Olympics embody. That’s truly what we felt while were in Sochi. There was nationalism, but that’s true at all events.  It is a very special thing when, despite political differences, the world can come together.

Q: Compared to other Olympics did you feel that less people were there, when I saw pics of the streets or events it seemed somewhat empty?

A: We were there right after opening ceremonies. Most of the sports were in qualifying rounds early on; not figure skating, however. The first few days it did seem a bit strange. It was the “Russian Olympics,” with very few spectators from other countries. By the time we departed, it was a global happening that was more like Vancouver was in 2010. The issue with Sochi was not whether people stayed away, but the distance away. We flew 20 hours to get there. By anyone’s standards, that’s a schlep! Once we arrived, it was the trip of a lifetime that we got to take twice.

Q: Were you able to enjoy any of the other sports during your time in Sochi?

A: We were offered tickets to a number of events, but because of what happened to our son, and the media and sponsor requests we were honored to do, we actually only saw one other event: Long track speed skating. What an incredible experience to sit in the Adler arena, amidst the Dutch fans, and watch the initial trial events. It was incredible. We wanted to go to curling because I became obsessed with the sport during the US Team trials on TV, but tickets were sold out. The arena was small and access was at a premium. We were offered hockey tickets, however the games were during practice ice or at competition times. The Mountain Cluster was not close so, once again, we didn’t get to see any snow events. That’s my only regret from both Olympic experiences. I hope to remedy that in South Korea where I would dearly love to volunteer for the USOC or the Olympic Committee in some capacity. I love South Korea, so it’s a natural fit for me to want to attend in 2018.

Q: What was your favorite thing about Sochi that had nothing directly to do about the competitions directly?

A: Oh, that’s simple. We love discovering new wine and in Sochi we were able to get wine from Cuba and Russia. It almost felt “illegal” to sample wines from countries not easily accessible to us. We truly enjoyed having a chance to do that. Remember, we are products of the Cold War so this was a true treat.

The other favorite thing about Sochi was the sunsets. The Black Sea is beautiful. The beaches are rock, not sand, and when wet, they absolutely glistened at the close of day. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen.

Q:What was the biggest comfort of home you missed having/doing while traveling?"

A: COFFEE!! Oh, there was coffee, of sorts. We attempted coffee once or twice, but it was the color of that infamous “water” photo posted by some member of the media on Twitter before the Games began. We drank lots of bottled sparkling water and the occasional Diet Coke (Lite Coke) when we needed a caffeine boost.

Here’s a funny story: Our son came to meet us after practice one day. He was carrying a Starbucks cup. We nearly tackled him to find out where he got coffee. He brought his own Via with him. The cup had come from NBC. It seems they had their own stealth Starbucks – complete with Baristas – imported from the US. If you thought pin trading was a big thing at Olympics, "black market" Starbucks was the coveted prize! Even though we were in the Today Show Green Room one day, we never found the Holy Grail of coffee.

We flew back through Frankfurt on the way home. The MOMENT we got off the plane, we made a beeline to the main terminal and found Starbucks. I was sick as a dog with a sinus infection and I was on antibiotic. It didn’t matter. Addiction is addiction.  Antibiotics and Puffs be damned! It didn’t matter that I couldn’t taste anything. It was COFFEE! It was Starbucks! It’s a First World Skate Mom Problem and the solution was at hand. After eight straight days of caffeine deprivation, this was heaven!

Q: What's the one thing you could have done without after eight days in Sochi?

A: Hearing “Sleduyushchaya ostanovka ..” (the next stop is…) 14 times a day going to and from Sochi to the Olympic Coastal Cluster on the bus. It was burned into our brains. I still hear it in my sleep!

Q: What was your favorite experience?

A: There were so many that were on an equal level.  I’ve already talked about discovering Cuban and Russian wine.  I will never forget the sunset walk in Sochi and dinner along the walkway at a small café. I also found my now famous “Fuzzy Bunny Slippers,” the joy of my life.

We were so honored to be asked to represent Olympic families with US Olympic sponsors.

I got to meet Bonnie Blair, who actually introduced herself to me. I found that amusing since she’s an idol of mine. We were asked to talk to sponsors as Olympic moms. I had to leave for the freeskate and Bonnie took my place. As I was being ushered out of the event and escorted to the Iceberg Arena because the men’s completion was already underway, Bonnie turned to me and said, “I’m honored to meet you. I’m Bonnie Blair Cruikshank. I can’t believe what your son did! Good luck to him tonight!” The impact of that simple statement didn’t hit me until the next day.

Q: Which Olympics was more exciting and enjoyable and why? 

A: These experiences were wildly different. Vancouver  was our first trip to the top of Olympus. We didn’t know what to expect; we hadn’t received much information and we were left to our own devices to a great degree. Sochi was completely different.

US Figure Skating started preparing us for this trip well in advance of our even knowing if we’d be attending. We had webinars every month beginning in August. We had information; we had questions answered. We were as prepared as anyone could be to go half-way around the world and into a political “danger zone” in order to attend the Games. We also had the great advantage of having been to the “Top of the Mountain” before. We found ourselves in the enviable position of being able to advise new parents about what to expect, where to go and who to rely on. While each experience is unique,
there are trusted “known” elements – like P &G Family Home and the USA House. These were our safe houses; the places with internet, old friends from home, smiling faces, big hugs and warm hearts. We couldn’t have survived without them in Vancouver, and we really would not have survived without them in Sochi.

 To a great degree, though, I’d say Sochi was the most enjoyable. We had experience, and that meant the world to us. While we loved Vancouver (personally my favorite city on the planet), we went into our second Olympics with experience. You can't understate the value of that.

Q: Top Five “Yea’s and Nays” in regard to the differences between Sochi and Vancouver.
Sochi – Culture, overall experience, unique locale, transportation, security.

Vancouver – Atmosphere, outside options to explore, food, international feel, friendliness.

Sochi – Lack of ability to communicate with the volunteers, the sheer distance between venues within the park, lack of understandable signage, lack of COFFEE!!

Vancouver – Transportation (it was a hot mess), lack of pre-Olympic information caused us to waste at lot of time; distance between venues within the city made it nearly impossible to attend other events, even if you were offered tickets. There was a severe lack of communication and there was no financial support. Thank GOODNESS for the help that was graciously provided this year by every family through the Destination Sochi: Family Tree program this year.(If you donated: THANK YOU on behalf of all the families! You made this happen!)

Q: Have you watched any of the Paralympics on TV?

A: I am a huge fan of Paralympics. I was a blind ski guide in Aspen for years. I watched as much as I could and was so grateful that NBC and NBCSN broadcast hours on TV, along with being able to watch on the internet when broadcasts were not available.

Q: Do you foresee a time when adaptive athletes will compete in winter sports directly against able bodied athletes ?
A: Yes, but it will depend on the sport.  To me, it isn’t as much a matter of adaptive athletes against able-bodied athletes; it’s about being an Olympic athlete and representing  your country. All athletes have my total respect.  I know what we’ve gone through to raise an Olympian. I can only imagine what Paralympic parents have had to do. It truly humbles me.

Q: What did you see of Russian culture that gives you hope for the future?

A: The youth. There were more than 30,000 volunteers at the Olympics – most of them young people in their 20’s. I saw the eyes of the future of Russia in Sochi.

 Q: What was your favorite Olympic moment?
A: I suspect you’d think it was watching my son rise like a phoenix after the short program and go on to honor his sport and the Olympic spirit by finishing, even though he was injured. While that was certainly a pivotal moment of which I am extremely proud, my favorite moment came right after the short program skate when a young woman from Kazakhstan who was sitting next to me, realized I who I was. She was so moved by what happened – and so attuned to the fact that I was upset and frantic for word on how my son was doing – she turned to me and in broken English asked if she could give me a hug.  We held on to one another and we both cried. It was a moment I will never forget.  That one act of kindness from a complete and total stranger, defined what the Olympics truly mean.  

In retrospect, Sochi was so much more than I expected it to be, but for many different reasons. While we also left with many questions about Russia, the people and daily life outside of the Olympic experience, we also left with a great respect for the history and the culture. The Black Sea is truly beautiful. The people are proud; the culture is genetic. But in my opinion, ultimately, like China, the eyes of the world will be the final judge of what happens in the future. Olympics open up vast possibilities that truly transcend politics IF politicians allow it to be so. In the end, I think I saw the eyes of the world in the fresh, young faces of the Russian Olympic volunteers. If I am any kind of a judge of character, I'd say the future will be much brighter than the past because the Olympic experience is a present that cannot be manipulated - nor its lessons ignored. 
Thank  you Sochi. Thank you Russia. I hope you realize what a change you made, not only in us, but deeply within your very heart and soul. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Sochi From My Rearview Mirror: Part Four

Don't You Know Who I Am?'

About a week before we left for  Sochi, we met with a friend from the U.S. Olympic Committee. We had been asked to assist with sponsors while we were at the Games, to sit with them at some of the events and to explain the figure skating team event to guests new to the sport. I found that particularly entertaining since we had no clue ourselves, but we figured after 24 years, we could probably "wing it," as my mother would say. In trade for our assistance, we were given some Olympic swag, including Team USA flags, American flags and Team USA lanyards. Like rare Olympic pins, some lanyards are coveted collectibles. Having a Team USA lanyard is considered a major score. 

It was now late morning of our first day in Sochi. Armed with tickets, lanyards and only about four hours sleep, we were headed to our first foray at Olympic Park. It was practice day for the men's individual events. That night, the team freeskate was taking place. It was a "first" and being Team USA hosts, we didn't want to miss it.
 There were two ways to get to the Coastal Cluster from our hotel. First, there was the train. Located nearly 2 miles from where we were staying, this didn't seem like the practical option. Not only was it a "healthy" walk requiring actual planning time, it also meant another layer of security to go through at the station. Since we had arrived late the night before, we did not have our credentials or our required Spectator Pass - a mini passport that was needed for entry into every Olympic venue; we only had our event tickets. That, alone, did nothing; the Spectator Pass was the key element. 

The second, and seemingly easier transportation option, was to take the bus. We had been advised in advance that this was not only closer, a mere 3/4 mile uphill from the Zhem, but the buses required virtually nothing  in order to board - something we found true four years earlier in Vancouver. The directions to the stop were simple: Left out the hotel door, down the stairs to the waterfront; left again and up the stairs to the park, then up a long hill to the stop across the street from the Hotel Svetlana. Simple enough. 
Of course, after finally getting to sleep at 3AM, we were late. Practice ice was at 3PM but  we needed the coveted Spectator Pass first, something we had applied for on line weeks before and that included all our personal information and a copy of our most recent passport pictures. We knew there were varying locations to retrieve the passes, but as we were only two hours away from practice ice and 40 minutes from the park by bus, we decided to get to the park. After all, how bad could it be? we'd paid for the passes; we had our tickets. It shouldn't take long to get the passes and get going.
Hopping on the B3, we were finally headed off for our first official Olympic adventure. We were tired, but the anticipation of seeing the park and the venues had buoyed our spirits. We were armed with our Team USA lanyards, our tickets for the Team Freeskate event; we were ready to roll. There was just one SMALL problem: The tickets for that afternoon's practice ice were nowhere to be found. In our haste to get out of the hotel, find the bus and head out on the 40 minute trek to Adler from Sochi, one little thing had been overlooked - other than no coffee, no food and no bottled water. The practice ice tickets were sitting on the dresser in the hotel room. 
With no internet service available, we had to rely on my phone data. A quick text was sent to our wonderful USFS skating contact who had taken such good care of us the night before. My statement was brief: We're jet-lagged and absentminded. We were on our way to the park and might she POSSIBLY have two extra tickets to practice? Fortunately, after a delay that seemed like forever, the answer that came back was yes. 
One crisis averted.
The recorded announcement on the bus said " Sleduyushchaya ostanovka Olimpiyskiy Park." "The next stop, Olympic Park." For us, that meant find the booth, pick up our spectator passes and walk right in.
Not exactly.
Unlike Vancouver, where all the venues were scattered throughout the city, Sochi Olympic Park is a massive and enclosed area, reminding me of a Russian Fabergé egg - ornately jeweled on the outside but with little to no hint of what was encased within. Signs were in Russian with other languages printed in seeming mouse type just two shades lighter than the background paint of the billboards. We asked where we needed to go to get the passes; we were met with quizzical looks by the young volunteers and the words, "Net Angliyskiy," or "No English." 
We were now less than an hour to practice ice and we couldn't find the building to get our credentials. 
After much confusion, finger pointing and flared tempers (and that was just between my husband and me as we tried to negotiate directions), we found a sign that pointed us to the ticket pavilion. We now had less than 30 minutes to make practice ice and we hadn't even stepped foot in the park.

Surveying the situation, it looked bleak. There were clearly two lines that resembled an unruly shopping mall flash mob on Black Friday. Volunteers blared instructions in Russian through battery-powered bullhorns. Thousands - literally THOUSANDS of people were swarming the building like locust. Every manner of language could be heard coming from people waiting simply get their spectator passes. That culturally rich vocabulary included some words that needed no translation because they resonated regardless of the language; a simple emphasis on a syllable, the roll of the eyes and a hand gesture said it all. There was no doubt we were not going to make it to practice because we didn't have tickets, it was late and we hadn't had anything to eat since our cheese plate at 1AM in the hotel bar. 

Thinking quickly, my husband had me stand in what appeared to be the shorter of the two lines while he approached a woman supervisor to see if she was willing to speak English. I frantically used my international data once again in order to send a text to our son's coach stating it would be a cold day in Sochi if we made it to the rink on time. Two days of travel and all the perfect planning, we were foiled by our fanaticism and insomnia-induced ineptitude. I was resigned to a two hour wait in line, not even knowing if I was in the correct line because there were no signs, just volunteers screaming into bullhorns in Russian. 

I had lost sight of my husband by this point. The line was not moving; more people were piling in; there was a lot of pushing and shoving. I am not tall, but fortunately my husband is. He was wildly gesturing to me, motioning for me to come over to the fence where he was standing with the officially-dressed woman. My inclination was to stay put. If I moved, that meant I lost my place in line, but he was intense and insistent. I yielded my coveted spot, fought upstream like a salmon and made my way to the lady and the fence. 
Like the Gates of Heaven, the fence parted. She ushered us past the crowds who were staring - no, glaring - at us. We were taken in a door that was clearly marked "out," and this angel of mercy muscled her way to the desk and placed our papers in front of a sweet young lady who immediately printed our Spectator Pass and sent us on our way. From the time I yielded my spot in line to the time we found ourselves headed to the TSA-type security that would get us access into the Fabergé egg - five minutes. We were going to have to move quickly, but we now had a chance to make it to practice. We weren't sure what happened. We weren't sure why this angel of mercy opened the gates for us; all we knew was something special happened and we weren't going to question it.

Later that night at USA House, where we were meeting our USOC contact before the team event, we related the story of our seemingly miraculous experience with the Spectator Pass. Our contact chuckled and said he had heard the same story from a couple of sponsors. The common thread: Our Team USA lanyards. Apparently, the young volunteers working the massive lines of humanity at the Spectator Pass Registration building mistook us to be Team USA officials because of the lanyards. Not wanting to offend, they facilitated our registration to simply get us on our way.

I've never been a fan of being treated differently from everyone else. That day, however, I was happy to be mistaken for someone important, and to have the on-going private joke between my husband and me whenever we encountered a challenge with crowds, lines, or anything during our Sochi sojourn become, "Don't you know who I am?"