Armchair Olympian

“So, have you been watching the Olympics?” my father asked expectantly. “Did you catch any of the skiing?”

Nervous that he would find me out, I began waffling.

“Well, I’ve really been working a lot lately … haven’t had much time …,” I stammered while thinking of ways to change the subject. But it was a losing battle.

“What do you mean? You haven’t watched any of it?” he returned, appalled and skeptical.

See, as I often mention on these pages, I grew up in the Great White North. No, not Canada, but close enough that we still share the same goobery accent and long, dark winter nights. Thus, television figured prominently in the winter entertainment schedule. When it was 40 below, you could always rely on your pick of activities through which to live vicariously, from football and hockey to golf, in truly desperate times. And every four years, we hit the motherlode: the Winter Olympics. I was front and center for the miracle on ice and flew across the finish line with Eric Heiden. I was riveted as bad boy Bill Johnson beat the Swiss, wearing pink no less, and watched with morbid curiosity as the notorious Jamaican bobsledders made their debut.

But since those glory days of televised sports, I had moved out on my own. Forced to work two, sometimes three jobs, there was no time for TV, let alone money to buy one. In the interim, I had missed all those Olympiads of yore – Albertville, Lillehammer, Nagano.

But as a young person trying to make it in the world, to admit this to my father would be to admit failure. Admitting that I had no TV was akin to admitting that I was living in squalor, unable to provide even the basic necessities – food, water, 400 channels – thus reaffirming what he had always suspected.

With a line of cross-examining that only a litigating father can muster, he chipped away at my defense. “You do have a TV, don’t you?” he asked incredulously.

Finally, I cracked. No, I didn’t have a TV, I told him. And no, I hadn’t seen any of this year’s Olympics, not to mention those of the last decade.

He hung up in disbelief but resolute. The next day I received a phone call from Sears – there was a brand new, 19-inch RCA color television with my name on it. And to this day, some 10 years later, that American-made cathode is still kicking. In fact, I’ll admit that this Olympic season, it has received more use than usual. What with four channels to choose from, it’s been a veritable athletic cornucopia, offering everything from women’s hockey to ski jumping. This year’s Games also happened to coincide with the cold and flu season at my household, providing ample entertainment for a more-than captive audience.

OK, you could say I’ve become a bit obsessed, hooked like some sort of hopeless addict living for the next medal ceremony or athlete bio. But it’s all in the Olympic spirit, right?

I finally came to grips with the fact that I had a problem when I wasted an entire afternoon watching curling – and liked it. Before this could lead to bigger problems – namely ice dancing and god forbid, boarder cross – I knew I had to get out, and fast. I decided a jaunt around the skate track, miles away from the tube and Olympic fever, would be just the thing.

With fresh snow under foot, I set about pumping air into my atrophied lungs. As I embarked on the Practice Loop, I tested an old groin injury that had plagued me earlier in the season. Luckily, it felt strong, and I decided to continue on.

After the initial warm up, I began to pick up speed, the Olympic couch marathon nothing but a distant memory. Halfway up the first climb, I came upon my first competitors, er, fellow skiers – probably Eastern European judging by the matching red jackets. They had stopped to sightsee, a fatal mistake, and I passed them with ease.

Feeling confident, I hit Dead Man’s with some serious speed, and closed in on the lead. At the Fruit Loop junction, I passed another couple, in apparent disagreement, further ensuring my lead. But as I began the arduous climb to the North Loop, I hit the wall. Knowing I was vulnerable to attack, I glanced over my shoulder and that’s when I saw her: the Norwegian. She was trying to pass me on the uphill, an unthinkable feat. I tried to take her out with my pole, but she was no pushover. I thought I heard her laughing as passed with ease. Not ready to relinquish my lead, I followed in hot pursuit. I was gaining on the straightaway and when disaster struck. I went for a power pole plant and my handle became dislodged from the pole, turning my V1 into a V-none. I had no choice but to turn around and retrieve the errant pole, wasting valuable seconds. I watched as the Norwegian faded out of sight, knowing she was probably gone forever. With my hopes for a gold crushed, I now had to focus on finishing with dignity. Nearing the end of the course, I spotted the German, who threatened to thwart my speedy descent. We exchanged determined looks before I cranked it to 11 and cut him off at the pass. With medal contention once again in my grasp, I went into a low tuck.

And that’s when I nearly lost it all.

Maybe it was inexperience, or maybe I was getting too big for my Bourés. But as I entered into the hairpin curve, I was overcome by the urge to throw in a turn, you know, go method. But squaring up my skis, I found I was going way too fast. I went into a sideways skid, only managing to put in a life-saving slow plow at the last minute. Knowing the German was fast on my tail, I had to pull it together for the final climb. Exhausted, I came into view of another skier. Judging by his camouflage, I knew in an instant he was a fellow American, some cocky upstart. He was already halfway up the climb, and I knew I had to really pour it on, or finish in disgrace. I went from aerobic to anaerobic to ralphaerobic. And in what can only be called a stunning come-from-behind finish, I resisted the urge to puke, overtaking him in the final seconds of the race. He acted like he didn’t care, but I could see the pain in his eyes.

Once back at the staging area, I took a victory lap and congratulated the Norwegian, assuring her that the pole thing was purely accidental.

And as I walked away, I had a feeling of accomplishment for breaking free of Olympic mania – if only for a while. But for some reason, the taste of gold still lingered.

As for the Norwegian, I’ll see her in 2010.

– Missy Votel