Memories of a sports writer

03/20/2013 3:08 PM

03/21/2013 7:35 AM

In 2002, I received one of the most exciting and daunting assignments of my newspaper life, to cover the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where I am currently to cover the Wichita State basketball team in the NCAA Tournament.

As we were flying into Salt Lake last night, from Phoenix, I saw again the beauty of this city and area. And I remembered those nearly two weeks that I spent here 12 years ago.

I was never a big Winter Olympics guy. I went skiing once and mostly fell. I wouldn’t get in a bobsled if you gave me a million dollars and the notion of me on a pair of skates is at once hilarious and horrifying.

Two sports I enjoyed covering the most were hockey, because of the number of NHL players who were involved; and curling, because it’s a sport I could see myself attempting.

Covering the Olympics is unlike anything I’ve ever done in my career. I stayed in a Courtyard Marriott on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, but was rarely there. The shuttle picked us up at 6:30 or 7 and took us downtown to the media center, where we figured out what bus we needed to be on that particular day to cover the event we were interested in covering.

Often, the drives took an hour or more as the bus battled traffic and climbed mountains, literally, to get us to our venue.

After every event, there were interviews. Then the trip back to the media center. The time to write. It was usually 10 or after by the time I made it back to the hotel. And this went on for 12 days.

I had to dress in layers because of the frigid climate. I wore snow boots and a giant parka. I was completely out of my element, left to figure out things on my own. But it was such a new experience and such a great challenge that I adapted. And after a few days, I started to know my way around.

There was some figure-skating controversy (when isn’t there?) There was a great hockey tournament. There were people from so many places. The bus rides I took from the hotel to the media center, which lasted 20 minutes or so, were like a foreign language class in school.

I’ve provided a couple of columns I wrote about the Olympics below. One is a column about the prospect of attending, written before I left Wichita. The other is my accounting of curling, a sport I fell in love with. I’ll check back a bit later with another blog on the new Big East, which now officially includes Creighton. But I wanted to share my experience of 12 years ago.

HERE’S TO THE WINTER GAMES _ AND AN UNFROZEN LAPTOP    My first reaction after being assigned to cover the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City was to look for a blanket. I’m not a big fan of winter. I was doing just fine with those 60- and 70-degree days in January, thank you. Last week in the Wasatch Mountains surrounding Salt Lake, the high temperat ure was 20-below. Hey, I believe in doing whatever it takes to bring the story to readers. But 20-below tests my limits. The second thing I did upon getting this assignment was to search for how many Kansans will be participating in the Games. Then I remembered: we don’t have much snow in Kansas and we sure as heck don’t have mountains. These Olympics will be as Kansan-less as an anti-wheat rally. Recently, though, my excitement about going to the Olympics has started to spike, even though there is a poll that indicates one-third of Americans believe there will some kind of terrorist attack in Salt Lake. Security for these Games is at an all-time high. People have told me to expect to wait two or three hours while getting my credentials upon arriving in Salt Lake. Fine. Take as long as you want. Just keep everyone safe. It has been fun to try and map out a schedule of the events I want to cover, realizing all the while that wrenches are likely to be thrown into my plans. I can’t wait to see the first American receive a gold medal and witness the emotion that follows. I’m looking forward to standing at the bottom of the Grizzly course at Snowbasin Ski Area and watching the finishes of the men’s and women’s downhill races. In some strange way, I’m curious about the sports of skeleton and curling. Curling sounds a lot like shuffleboard. One of the U.S. curlers, Myles Brundidge, is 41 and weighs 230 pounds. Now that’s my kind of Olympian. Another, Joni Cotten from Mt. Prospect, Ill., is 48. But she’s only an alternate. It bothers me that professional athletes are now sent to represent their countries in the Olympics. The novelty of the Dream Team in men’s basketball wore off after one gold medal. And with professionals now on the ice in hockey, there will never be a repeat of the greatest moment in Olympic history – the U.S. men, a team of amateurs, defeating the heavily favored Soviet Union en route to the gold medal at the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. But I have to admit, watching the fight for a gold medal in men’s hockey, a fight that will include all of the great players in the NHL in the uniforms of their countries, will be fascinating. Canada is favored to win the gold. But Canada, with a roster that includes Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros and the NHL’s top scorer, Jarome Iginla, hasn’t won a gold since 1952. Then again, the Canadians have never had a roster that looks like this. I am thankful that I only have to write the names of some of the particip ants in the Winter Olympics and not pronounce them. Even writing them, however, is a challenge. There is speed skater Jochem Uytdehaage of Netherlands, cross-country skiers Katerina Neumannova from the Czech Republic and Julija Tchepalova from Russia, and biathletes Liv Grete Skjelbreid-Poiree and Gunn Margit Andreassen from Norway. It would be a kick just watching them check into a hotel. This will be the third Winter Olympics held on American soil. American patriotism, at an all-time high after Sept. 11, will be one of the major stories of the Games. The U.S. never does that well in the Winter Olympics. Four years ago at Nagano, Japan, American athletes combined for 13 medals, fewer than Germany, Norway, Russia, Austria and Canada. The U.S. Olympic Committee is projecting a 20-medal haul for the United States this time around. That would mean a lot of red, white and blue. CURLING SLIDES INTO OLYMPIC SPOTLIGHT

   OGDEN, Utah OK, I want to curl. I want to get out there on the ice, with a broom and slick shoes, and slide stones. I have been looking for a hobby, and curling has been looking for me. Just one problem: There isn’t a curling rink within a two-day drive of where I live. For some reason, curlinghasn’t caught on in most parts of the United States – one of the only things that doesn’t make me proud to be an American. But if you’ve been watching the Olympic competition, you know what I’m feeling. Don’t you? I gotta curl, you gotta curl, all God’s children gotta curl. “It’s so much fun,” said Olympian Kari Erickson, the skip of the U.S. women’s team. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing it.” Erickson, who said her team played poorly during a 9-4 loss to Denmark on Thursday morning, was a track athlete in middle school and a swimmer in high school. Her parents introduced her to curling, and it was love at first sight. She has been curling 42-pound stones now for 14 years. There are people who scoff at curling, especially as an Olympic sport. After trial runs in Calgary (1988) and Albertville (1992), curling became a medal sport in Nagano four years ago. I have heard people say curling belongs in a bar with three or four pitchers of beer. I have heard people wonder how curling can be an Olympic sport when many of its competitors wear short-sleeved shirts. I have heard people utter these words: curling is for sissies. Oh yeah? Just Wednesday, American men’s skip Tim Somerville refused to talk to the media after botching a shot during his team’s loss to Germany. That is the most encouraging sign yet that curling has arrived as a legitimate force in the United States. I mean, there are dozens of athletes in football, basketball and baseball who regularly refuse to talk to the media. Now a curler has joined that elite club. Unlike Somerville, most curlers are eager to get the word out about their sport. And they are encouraged by the mostly positive reviews they are getting during the Olympics. “This is wonderful,” Erickson said. “We have gotten so much coverage here and everybody is talking about us. That hasn’t happened much for us in the past.” It’s not easy to find a curling hotbed in the United States. Erickson said most of the rinks are in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and even then many of them are make-shift, formed on hockey rinks. “I’m lucky, there is a curling rink where I’m from in Bemidji, Minn.,” Erickson said. Just to the north in Canada, almost every town – even the smallest – have curling rinks, Erickson said. That helps explain why Canada has been so dominant in the sport. Four years ago, the Canadian men won the silver medal, behind Sweden’s gold, while the Canadian women won the gold. Curling - think of horseshoe pitching, shuffleboard and sweeping out your closet all thrown together – was introduced in Scotland. There is even an early Scottish poem about curling, an excerpt from which is:”No party politics around our Tee, For Whig and Tory on the ice agree; Glory we play for, may it be our lot, To gain the Bonspiel (curling tournament) by a single shot.”

Makes you choke up, doesn’t it? But curling is still the poor stepsister of the Olympics. They’re holding the tournament in Ogden, 37 miles north of Salt Lake City. And it’s not easy to keep track of what’s going on – each of the 10 men’s and women’s teams plays a round-robin tournament to determine which four teams reach the medal round. The International Olympic Committee seems to be doing its best to hide curling under the radar of the Olympics, but the sport is making such a clatter. People who just a week ago didn’t know curling existed are talking about it in glowing terms. In the Knight Ridder bureau, from which I do most of my work, the television is most often turned to curling. Not skiing, snowboarding, skating or hockey. Curling. “I know there are so many other things for kids to do in this country,” Erickson said. “They have so much to choose from and there just isn’t much free time.” But wouldn’t it be great, she said, if the Olympics provided a kick-start for her sport? How amazing would it be if there was a groundswell of enthusia sm for curling? People coming out of the woodwork, demanding the construction of curling rinks? People throwing away their footballs and basketballs and buying brooms and stones? John Madden analyzing curling? A curling World Series? Do you feel what I feel?

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