Thursday, March 18, 2010

mid-paralympic update

We're more than halfway through the Games, but I'm exactly halfway through my race schedule, so it's a good time for an update.

I was the top American in both the slalom, held last Sunday, and Tuesday's GS, finishing 9th and 14th respectively. This was a nice surprise for me; I hadn't expected to do so well in the technical events. The GS was particularly tough, since we ran the race in a steady rain and deteriorating snow conditions that probably would have forced the cancellation of the race if it weren't for the incredible army of volunteer course workers and slippers on hand here in Whistler.

I got to spend some time with all my assembled family and friends on Tuesday night, and on Wednesday Mary and I drove down to Vancouver to visit the University of British Columbia. I was accepted to the UBC's graduate School of Library, Archival and Information Studies last week, and I wanted to check out the campus and meet people there. I came away with a very favorable impression of the program and the campus, and it's quite possible that Mary and I will end up there later this year.

After my interview and tour at SLAIS, we met up with Mashi Shinoda, a monoskiing friend from Winter Park who is an undergrad at UBC. The three of us had dinner at an authentic-seeming Chinese restaurant (they even had shark fin soup!) and caught a Paralympic sled hockey game. Korea beat Sweden 2–1.

Today was the downhill, rescheduled from last Saturday when it was cancelled due to fog. The conditions today were pretty much ideal: clear and sunny, and cold enough last night that the track froze and set up nicely. That meant that the women had a pretty bumpy and fast ride, while the course had softened up a little (and gotten even bumpier) by the time the men went.

We Americans had a stellar day in three classes. In the women's visually impaired class, my Winter Park teammate Danelle Umstead and her husband Rob took the bronze, their first Paralympic medal. In the men's VI class, Mark Bathum won his first medal too, a silver. His guide is Slater Storey, brother of fellow Paralympian Elitsa Storey. And in the women's sitting class, we went 1-2 again, with Alana Nichols winning her second gold of these games and Laurie Stephens in silver. Bravo USA!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

revised Paralympic race schedule

Fog and bad weather cancelled the downhill today, and it will affect the race schedule here for the whole week. For now, the schedule is as follows, with my races in bold:

Sunday March 14 Slalom VI- Sit, 10:00 & 13:30 (I'll be running with bib #74)
Monday March 15 Slalom Standing, 10:00 & 13:30
Tuesday March 16 Giant slalom VI-Sit, 10:00 & 13:30
Wednesday March 17 Giant slalom Standing, 10:00 & 13:30
Thursday March 18 DH All, time TBA
Friday March 19 Super-G VI-Sit, time TBA
Saturday March 20 Super-G Standing, time TBA
Sunday March 21 Super-combined All, times TBA

VI-Sit = Visually Impaired and Sitting classes
All times are Pacific Daylight Time (and don't forget to spring forward).

You can watch the races live on !

I am told that tickets will be honored for the date printed on them, not the race printed on them. If you now have tickets for the "wrong" event, you can exchange them at a Paralympic ticket office in Whistler or Vancouver.

paralympic blog, day 5

Oh well, so much for the "daily blogging" thing.

One quick word before I go to bed tonight, post-Opening Ceremonies: the weather has forced a schedule change. They will still try to get the downhill off Saturday at 11:30, but Sunday will be either the super G for ALL classes or slalom for sitting & VI. That means my first race of the Games will definitely be Sunday, not Monday.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

paralympic blog, day 3

Oh no! I was just about to go to sleep, but I realized I forgot to write anything today. I better make this quick.

The first day of downhill training was long. Fog and snow rolled in and out all day, and after starting on time, there were many holds and delays. I didn't run until around 4:00 p.m., and the standing men didn't get to run at all. My run was a bit round and not too fast, with a couple of mistakes. But I made it through the course at speed, which was the goal. I will run tomorrow's training run unless we get hit by bad weather again (which is the current forecast), in which case I may skip it and get some rest and some exercise on the bike. As I've said, I'm not set to race the downhill anyway, but I'm now qualified to run it if I'm called upon to fill someone's spot.

Oh, also I just found out that I've been admitted to the library science program at UBC in Vancouver — hooray!

Only two days until opening ceremonies...

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

paralympic blog, day 2

We got up to Whistler Creekside this morning and did some freeskiing, though not on the race hill. That slope, Franz's, was closed a few days ago so the Paralympic downhill course could be set. Our head coach, Ray Watkins, set it. It's very similar to the course we ran here a year ago for World Cup Finals. Tomorrow is the first downhill training run, and I'll be inspecting and running the course even though I'm not scheduled to run the downhill race on Saturday. The downhill is the only event I'm not going to be racing, even though it's probably my best race. This is because the United States has a lot of strong downhillers in the sitting men's class, and we're only allotted three start positions. I'm ranked #4.

Despite the clouds and light snow falling, the view from the Creekside Gondola this morning was prettier than any mountain vista: a world-class, race-ready downhill track, all dyed and prepped for a few forerunners to test out today. At the finish is a good-sized temporary stadium for spectators, as well as a dozen or so temporary buildings for media, timing, logistics, concessions, doping control, et cetera. Everything is spangled in VANOC blue and green and looks just as splendid as it did on TV during the Olympics. The only thing out of place is the giant green Olympic rings erected slopeside, next to the final pitch of the downhill. The Paralympics don't have permission to use the five-ring logo, so they have been covered with a giant white tarp in hopes that no one will notice them, I suppose. All that was missing today was spectators. They'll begin filling in the stands tomorrow, and Saturday's race is sold out. I'll be sitting there watching then, but for the next few days — weather-dependent, of course — I'll be out there maching down that white ribbon.

Monday, March 08, 2010

paralympic blog, day 1

Well, I'm here. I mean, we're here. The Games are here.

I'm pretty comfortably settled into the Whistler Paralympic Village, watching old Dylan clips on YouTube with my roommate Nick and getting ready to freeski a bit tomorrow on super-G skis.

This morning Nick and I took a bus up the Whistler Creekside base to retrieve a few things from our ski bags, which had been delivered to the ski preparation area. Each team has a wax cabin in the Creekside parking garage, and the U.S. room is huge, with plenty of room for our four technicians to do their job and even maintain a small office. After getting home we spent the day traipsing around the Village and getting the lay of the land. There's a big old dining tent with much better food than we had at Sestriere in '06, and many athlete lounges filled with TVs, video games, pool tables and the like. Pretty much everything an athlete needs is here, within a quarter-mile radius: medical attention, massage, fitness facilities, even meditation and prayer rooms. All our needs are attended to by a phalanx of U.S. Paralympic Team staffers and an army of "Smurfs," as the blue-jacketed Vancouver 2010 volunteers call themselves. These people come from all over the world and spend their own money to get here, just to serve us food, drive us around, inspect our credentials, answer our questions, and do the million other things that need doing around here. It's an impressive sight and a pretty well-oiled machine.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

paralympic blog, day -1

I’m on the Team USA bus from Vancouver Airport up to Whistler. Skies are gray and it’s cold and rainy outside, but spirits are high and someone has a DVD of Dumb & Dumber playing on the bus’s TVs. The Sea-To-Sky Highway provides some ridiculously dramatic views of B.C.’s coastal inlets, mountains, straits, fjords and whatnot before we turn inland and start climbing uphill.

The flight from Denver was easy enough — I even managed to finagle a seat in First — but loading and unloading 10 or 12 wheelies on one plane took a good while. (We traveled with the curling team.) As soon as we cleared passport control, Vancouver 2010 staff were waiting to issue us our athlete credentials. The credential is a laminated, hologrammed card as big as a DVD case that you have to wear around your neck for just about every waking moment at the Games. Security is generally as tight as you might expect for a big international event. Some people even wear their credentials underneath their race suits while competing, so as not to be caught without it if selected for doping control in the finish area. When we had our head shots taken for our credentials a month or two ago, we were told we couldn’t smile, so all of us look deadly serious in the photos.

Joe Tompkins has convinced the bus driver to stop at a roadside Subway, and everyone is chowing down on sandwiches. Soon we’ll arrive at the Whistler Paralympic Village and begin settling into our dorm rooms, learning our way around the place, getting dinner and inevitably convening for the first of many alpine team meetings. I don’t know yet who my roommate or roommates will be for the duration of the Games, but I do know it will be someone I’ve shared with before — I think I’ve probably roomed with every U.S. male disabled skier that’s skied a World Cup race in the last 10 years. Who I’m assigned could have a big effect on my mental state for the next 15 days.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

paralympic blog, day -2

We received all our Paralympic kit today at team processing. I'm not exaggerating when I say you could clothe a small village in one athlete's allotment of Ralph Lauren and Nike. We're in Denver tonight. I can't tell you which hotel we're staying at, but it does involve two trees.

Tomorrow we take off for Vancouver and then bus it straight up to Whistler. We'll have two days to acclimated to Paralympic Village life and freeski the hill a bit before downhill training runs begin on Wednesday. Although I won't be racing in the downhill, I've been informed that I will be starting the downhill training runs so that I can be available to race if one of the three U.S. sitting men should be unable to start because of injury or illness. That will also give me some valuable experience running the speed hill, which ought to help me in the super-G and super-combi races.

Look for an announcement from U.S. Paralympics on Monday re: U.S. broadcast coverage of the Games. Amazing awaits!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

paralympic blog, day -3

We left the hotel for the mountain around 7:30 this morning. We made it home at 6:30 p.m. That's an IPC World Cup super-combined race for you. One run of super-G and one of slalom somehow adds up to a very, very long day on the hill. It was capped off with some delicious fish tacos from Dos Gringos in Carbondale.

I actually had a pretty good day today. My super-G run was lackluster and I finished 11th, but I had the day's third-fastest slalom run to move up to 6th place. The slalom was so choppy and rutted that it took out a lot of my competition, but I'm pleased that I made it down the run without any major errors.

I need to ski tomorrow's super-G a bit more dynamically than I did today.

Sorry for the brief post tonight. I'm already past my intended bedtime, but I needed to stick to the plan and write something.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

paralympic blog, day -4

Yesterday I ran the Buttermilk downhill course in a factored time of 1:16.06. Today my time was 1:18.02 — a full two seconds slower. Many other skiers skied faster today, or about the same. I didn't make any major mistakes in my run. The coaches had nothing but good things to say about my skiing.

And yet I was slow. Not just a little bit slow, but 11th-place slow. 5.7-seconds-out-of-first-place slow. Who knows how these things happen? Did we miss the wax? Is the structure of my downhill ski's base no good for this type of snow? Did I make some big mistakes that weren't immediately obvious?

The answer to all three of these questions is probably yes. (In fact, video analysis confirms the third answer.) Now it's a question of addressing each issue and trying to reclaim some of the speed I so rightfully (self-righteously?) deserve, in time for tomorrow's super-combined and Friday's super-G.

Speed is a weird, elusive thing. That's about as profound a statement as it's possible to make about ski racing sometimes.

p.s. Congratulations to teammate Alana Nichols on winning her first of many World Cup downhill overall globes today.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

paralympic blog, day -5

First off today, a link. (I guess you need to be logged into a Facebook account in order to view this.) Susan Burgstiner, who as a steering committee member of SkiTAM is one of our team's biggest supporters, shot and posted this nice little glimpse into a U.S. Adaptive Team training session at Vail last week. Here it is.

We raced downhill today under the fierce Colorado sun, a very springlike day. The organizers decided not to groom the race hill last night after two days of training on the same track. This is how it's normally done — one doesn't want the snow softening up too much at night; it's better to let the track get firmer with each day of racing. In this case, it led to a pretty bumpy track that the standing skiers didn't have much trouble with but some of the sitting skiers found pretty difficult. There were lots of DNFs. I managed to power through the bumps and ripples and finish six or seven tenths faster than in yesterday's training run, good enough for sixth place. Joe absolutely killed it today, winning by almost two seconds over Germany's Thomas Nolte and Frenchman Yohann Taberlet. I was just two hundredths behind my teammate CDY. We'll do it all again tomorrow at 11 a.m., and who knows where the top skiers will end up with another roll of the dice?

Monday, March 01, 2010

paralympic blog, day -6

Some of you reading this have been checking my blog weekly or even daily, hoping I would finally get my act together and write something (hi, Grandma & Grandpa!). More likely, you're catching this on an RSS reader, Facebook, or Google Buzz.

I am going to try something here. I'm going to attempt to write something in this space every single day from now through the end of the Vancouver Paralympic Games, on March 21. It will be good for my head, and some of you might even be interested to hear about my experiences, opinions, &c.

So. The Paralympic Opening Ceremony isn't until March 12, but we will arrive at the Village in Whistler on March 6 to begin settling in and do a little last-minute training. So that makes today six days out from the beginning of the Paralympic experience, and a good day to start the daily blogging for two other reasons, as well.

To wit: (1), Last night was the Closing Ceremony of the Olympics. People have put that warmup competition behind them and are ready to start thinking about the main event. (Ha ha.) And (2), this is the eve of the final World Cup race series of our season.

We're staying in Carbondale, Colorado this week, racing downhill, super-G and super-combi half an hour away at Aspen's little sister mountain, Buttermilk. (No working people in the Aspen area can afford to live in Aspen itself anymore, so they all live in these peripheral towns that are named after minerals, like Basalt, Carbondale, Marble or Redstone.)

Yesterday and today at Buttermilk we have had what's called "downhill training." But don't let the name fool you: this is really more like a race than anything else. We get to inspect the race course — the same one we will be racing tomorrow and Wednesday, when it counts — and then run it, with everything exactly the same as it will be on race day: timing, race bibs, blue dye, the whole shebang. Only one run per athlete per day, just like race day.

At least, that's the idea. But of course, how can one day really be exactly like another day? That's not how the world works. The weather changes. The track changes, gets bumpier or icier or softer. People get sick, or well. People wake up on different sides of the bed.

For those reasons, training run results can be a pretty poor predictor of the actual race results. Who knows whether someone is holding back in training, or whether someone who crashed in both training runs will keep it together on race day and be the fastest one down the hill?

All this said, my training runs have gone well. Yesterday I was sixth, a little over two seconds slower than the leader, my teammate Joe Tompkins. And today I was second, just 0.11 seconds behind today's leader, Germany's Martin Braxenthaler. Downhill is a game of hundredths of a second, and that's particularly true on this course, which is so easy that there's no room for error. Lose half a second, and you might find yourself five places back.

The plan for tomorrow's race, then, is this: try to do exactly what I did today, and try not to make any mistakes. (And maybe try to beat some of those people with Wikipedia articles about them.) Easy, right?