Archive for Saturday, February 13, 2010

Olympics Blog: Live (from my living room couch)

February 13, 2010

Most of us have run laps on a track. We’ve played pick-up basketball with our buddies. Most of us played soccer in elementary school.

Whether or not we competed at a high level, there’s a personal relationship to most sports at the Summer Olympics. At least that’s how it is for me.

On the other hand, the Winter Olympics blow my mind.

I spent a large part of Saturday glued to a television set for that very reason.

There’s so much I don’t understand about the winter sports that I find them fascinating. Maybe some of that comes with living my entire life in Kansas where I wasn’t exposed to speed skating, hockey or the luge as a child.

The 2010 Vancouver Games officially began competing today, and with the exception of a late-afternoon trip to cover the Sunflower League wrestling championships, I spent the day watching the Olympics.

The men’s normal hill ski-jumping competition dominated the afternoon coverage, and Switzerland’s Simon Ammann — a sort-of Harry Potter look-alike, gold medalist and rockstar at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City — returned to the top of the awards stand with a sensational final jump.

Later in the men’s 1,500-meter short track speed skating competition, American hero Apolo Ohno rallied to oust Canadian favorite Charles Hamelin in the semifinals.

For some bizarre reason, the Olympics chose to have a consolation final in speed skating. It turned out to be one of the most moving moments of the day. Hamelin — competing for nothing more than pride — stormed to the front of the pack and won the race in front of a raucous Canadian crowd that clearly helped carry Hamelin through his disappointment.

Hamelin’s consolation race simply warmed of the crowd for what was a gut-wrenching final race. Lead changes took place just about every other second before a trio of Koreans found themselves at the front of the pack with one lap to go. Ohno made a final move to crack the top three but was denied until one of the Koreans attempted to make a foolish inside pass on his own teammate. A domino effect ensued. Two Koreans slid into the wall and Ohno nabbed the silver for his record-setting sixth Olympic medal.

Somewhat overshadowed by Ohno’s glory was the bronze medalist, 19-year-old J.R. Celski, who hadn’t raced since a bad spill nearly ended his life.

If that wasn’t enough tugging of the emotions, the men’s luge competition kicked off in the wake of Republic of Georgia competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili’s death after a crash during practice.

While I couldn’t relate to ski-jumping, speed skating or the luge, I found a bit of a comfort zone in the freestyle skiing moguls competition. I’ve been skiing a few times and took my first Colorado ski trip this winter. I even tried a few small moguls, inching my way through them and an embarrassingly slow pace that should’ve gotten me kicked out of Keystone.

Fortunately, the Olympic competition took on a blisteringly fast pace on the slushy slope. There were a few major wipe-outs, as well as some seriously studly runs. Defending gold medalist Jenn Heil of Canada surged into the lead with a near-perfect run, and her bid to become the first Canadian to win a gold medal on the home turf looked to be a done deal — until American Hannah Kearney stepped to the top of the slope to deliver the final run of the night.

Kearney — the pig-tailed 23-year-old from Vermont —ripped the course with an even faster and more flawless run, gave an emphatic fist pump after crossing the finish line and provided a thrilling finish to the opening day of Olympic competition.

Feel-good stories such as Ammann, Ohno, Celski and Kearney as part of what I love about the Olympics, but the difference with the Winter Games is the death-defying determination of the athletes. That’s what sets the winter and summer events apart.

Lay down on a sled and go 90 miles per hour down a chute of ice? Sure.

Do a back flip off a ski jump and land on a field of moguls without slowing down? No problem.

NBC News anchor Brian Williams did a special piece about the insane mentality required of Winter Olympians, and he was right on.

It’s also what makes the Winter Olympics insanely fun to watch.

Men’s freestyle moguls, women’s hockey, more speed skating and more luge are on the slate for Sunday, as well as a few other events. There’s a full day of viewing ahead, and I can’t wait.

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