You might think that it was an Olympic tribute, but it wasn't, though now that I decided to write about it, I guess I will turn it into an Olympic tribute. I spent Friday at Deer Valley trying to ski like Ted Ligety. All day I tried to get my hip as close to the snow as I could, linking clean arc with clean arc. With Ted, it's almost like his hip is a steering wheel. A little more hip angulation means more edge angle and more turn. Often times he gets so much edge angle that his ski is perpendicular to the snow allowing you to see the complete base of his skis. At 45 I'm not going to race again, but the holy grail search for the perfect turn never leaves old ski racers, and Ted is the perfect model to follow. My friend Rob, who grew up ski racing with me back in the North East, said, "He's the best ever isn't he?" When Rob and I raced in the 80's, Ingemar Stenmark made Giant Slalom skiing look like ballet. He was Picasso while everyone else was in art school. Ted does that now, though he started his racing career looking up at everyone.
A couple of months ago I saw an interview with Ted's family during race coverage. His mother said that the older boys beat him, the younger boys beat him, and the girls beat him. Everyone beat him. Skiing, like most everything, is a learned activity. I love that Ted earned every hundredth of a second in victories that are reminiscent of only Stenmark. Last year, in a sport where victory is usually determined by hundredths of seconds, he won a Giant Slalom by 2.75 seconds. The way he skis is a great model, but the way he approached his skiing and earned his place as the best Giant Slalom skier in the world and possibly the best ever is an even better model.
Bode Miller might not be as aesthetically pleasing as Ted, but he's every bit the technical skier. What separates him is that doesn't seem to have the Oh @#$%!! gene that the rest of us have. He blows straight past the self-preservation, or at least perceived self-preservation, signs along the way pulling recovery from deep within horrific crash. Bode's brilliance is that he never stops believing, which keeps his muscles loose and his mind fresh, preserving an infinitesimal opportunity for brilliance in crisis that most of us would never dare approach.
Mastery is about years of practice and faith and it's about showing up at the biggest events. Competing in the Olympics is a lifetime of work for the hope of a moment of brilliance at just the right time. Julia Mancuso has been a master of the big event when it's hard to remember all the work that brought you to the precipice of a life defining moment. It's even harder to have fun when the world is watching because work and struggle seem more appropriate responses for their attention, but joy allows you to create. Genius comes from permission to be the little kid who came to the sport out of blind love. Julia and her tiara seem to have preserved the little kid better than anyone.
I know Ted, Bode and Julia well enough to say hello and have them know who I am. They are great champions, but the athlete who reduces me to a little kid is Mikaela Shiffrin. I ski raced for 30 years and I don't think that I learned half of what she knows at 18. She won a World Championship and season long World Cup Slalom title at seventeen, but it's her approach that blows me away. She seems to have stayed so well within herself. She keeps it simple. Get better each day and each run. No race is any bigger than her progression. If I get to meet the old soul Mikaela Shiffrin I wonder if I'll ask her if she's ever just a silly kid because I hope she is in addition to this amazing adult.
I can't recall my first Olympic memory with any certainty because, what I think are my memories, get replayed so many times. Klammer's crazy downhill in Innsbruck 1976, when I was seven, I know that I knew about it, but I don't remember watching it. Nadia's perfect 10 later that year in Montreal, I can't tell you where I was when it happened. I can tell you that I was at my cousins' house In Beverly, Mass when the streaker interrupted the dancing girls at the closing ceremonies in Montreal.
Maybe the naked guy is a good first memory because the athletes are attempting to strip themselves naked, to let go of the worries from childhood, the desire for self-preservation and the responsibility to the adoring public to just perform like a little kid. Most of us will never get the opportunity to compete on the world stage, but there's something about watching from our couches. When they win, we win. When they struggle, we struggle. From the comfort of our homes, we get to see the best of being human. They remind us of who we are and who we hope to be. For a moment, we get to share their journey and their victory. We owe a debt to those who earned the moment. In tribute, I'll continue to use as I try to ski like Ted.