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The Deep End: The History of Pool Access for Black Americans & What U.S. Olympians are Doing to Get More Kids of Color Into the Pool
I’m really honored to receive Vermont Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame’s 2019 Paul Robbins Award. Until Paul died suddenly in 2008, he was a mentor, friend, sounding board, guiding light, and non-stop source of comic relief for me. I still miss him (sniff).
From the Vermont Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame’s site:
Paul Robbins started writing about ski racing in the 1960s. His work appeared in many magazines, including Skiing, SKI and Ski Racing. Robbins worked at eight Winter Olympics, every one since 1980 in Lake Placid. He had served as a press officer for the U.S. Ski Team, as well as a commentator on Nordic sports for CBS and NBC. He was a friend to athletes, coaches, administrators, writers and readers. He died unexpectedly at age 68 in 2008.
The award recognizes ski and snowboard journalists who, with the same commitment as Paul Robbins, perform their skill in written, broadcast or photo journalism with ethics, humor, good taste, and always with the promotion of Vermont skiing and snowboarding and the larger communities in mind. The recipient is selected not solely on the basis of one story, but rather, on a lifetime of service to the ski and snowboard community.
Peggy Shinn grew up and learned to ski in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom but did not start writing about the sport until after she moved back to Vermont in 1997. She began by covering local skiing for the Rutland Herald and soon was contributing to just about every ski publication in North America, including Ski Racing, Skiing, SKI, and Ski Press, as well as several other newspapers and websites. In 2008, she became a founding writer for TeamUSA.org and since then, has covered five Olympic Games. For her feature writing, she is a four-time winner of the Harold S. Hirsch Award, presented annually by the North American Snowsports Journalists Association.
On February 6, 2018, her second book, World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team, hit the shelves. Two weeks later, Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins won the U.S.’s first Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing. The book chronicles the history of women’s Nordic skiing in the U.S. and how the women built a team that could compete on the world stage. In spring 2019, World Class received the International Skiing History Association’s Ullr Award and NASJA’s Harold S. Hirsch Award. Her first book, Deluge, chronicled Tropical Storm Irene, flash floods in Vermont, and how the state saved itself.
Until he passed away in 2008, Paul Robbins was a mentor, a friend, a guiding light, and non-stop source of comic relief for Peggy in this crazy world of ski writing. In World Class, she titled a chapter “Onward” in honor of Paul, as that was how he signed off on his emails. She keeps a picture of Paul, in his trademark tam, on her desk.
Peggy lives in Rutland with her husband, daughter, and hopefully one day soon, another cat.
As I sit here in Seoul’s Incheon Airport, I’m at the same gate/on the same flight as the U.S.’s gold-medal-winning curling team. Earlier, one of them watched my bags while I ran to the bathroom during the insanely long check-in process at the Delta counter.
I’d been sitting on a bus for three hours, I explained to Tyler George, who stood ahead of me in line. Would he watch my bags while I ran to pee?
“Of course,” he said, as I ran off in search of the loo.
This summed up my experience covering the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games: long waits punctuated by the kinds of moments that make us remember why we cover sports. Every so often, we catch an unscripted glimpse inside what makes these inspirational athletes tick.
Like Lindsey Vonn reflecting on her many injuries and comebacks after she finished third in the downhill.
“When you’re young, you ski and you win and you don’t appreciate things,” she told us, after we stood in the mixed zone (where athletes talk to the media) for 3 hours, 2 minutes waiting for her to tell us what winning an Olympic bronze medal felt like. (Because every TV station from NBC to the Serbians wanted to interview her, and TV is higher on the Olympic food chain.)
“I’ve been in the fences so many times, I know so many doctors on a first name basis,” she told us. “It’s ridiculous. If you need any medical care, I can hook you up with the right doctor.”
As if we were her friends. In previous Olympics and world championships, she has provided more rehearsed answers and not spent more than a minute or two with us in the mixed zone.
Or finding David Wise’s sisters in the crowd at the ski halfpipe competition, and them telling me that their little brother — who had just won his second Olympic gold medal — began freeskiing “in the era when they were doing one trick multiple times.”
“He’s been the one to be like, no, we need to spin both ways, we need to have variation in our tricks and grabs are important,” his sister Jessica said, which helped explain David’s role in the freeskiing world. And why he had just won his second gold medal.
Or watching the women’s XC team sprint in the stands with the American skiers’ friends and families. Before the race, I had been chatting with Jessie Diggins’s grandmother. At least I think it was her grandmother. It was hard to hear about the crowd noise. As we all hugged and screamed after Jessie and Kikkan Randall won the U.S.’s first Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing, I saw tears in her eyes — streaming through the American flags painted on her cheeks.
Or Ester Ledecka coming into the press conference after she won the women’s super-G gold medal — beating the likes of world and Olympic champions Anna (Fenninger) Veith and Lindsey Vonn. Ledecka wore her goggles on stage and joked that she couldn’t take them off because she had to represent her sponsor. Then when pressed, she confessed that she had not expected to win a medal that day, so had not brought any eye make-up.
And what’s not to like about a champion who confesses that chocolate is her form of doping?
These are moments we journalists live for, through the grueling hours and sleep deprivation, long (hot!) bus rides, and lack of decent nutrition. It’s a MASH-like experience, where we forge friendships or at least kinship with those who are also freezing in the Siberian wind, waiting for hours for the American who finished sixth in moguls to tell us how he feels, and who also haven’t eaten a real meal in the past 15 hours. Korean Oreos, anyone?
But there are also moments that don’t make it to press. And it’s these moments, as much as the gold-medal-winning performances, that keep us coming back.
Here are a few of mine — in no particular order:
- Eating Korean BBQ with friends Elliott Almond, Christa Case Bryant, and Amy Donaldson. Is that salad? Or grass clippings?
- Coming home at night to my roommate, Karen Rosen, who often had me doubled over laughing. Was there a conspiracy to slowly bake us to death in our flat on the 13th floor of the Gangneung Media Village?
- Getting to know countless journalists — like Jason Albert and Gabby Naranja at Fasterskier, and Christa, Amy, Elliott, and all the others with whom I shared mixed zones and bus rides.
- Having dinner at USA House and realizing that 8 of the 10 people at our table were Vermonters.
- Playing miniature hockey “foosball” with my friend Aimee outside Sweden House in PyeongChang. Could they make the handles any bigger?!
- Joking with other journalists in the mixed zone as we waited for Mikaela Shiffrin after her GS win. Would Shiffrin make it to us before the sun went down? … Nope!
- Taking a tour of the DMZ. In the four other Olympics I’ve covered, I haven’t taken time to soak in the host country’s culture, other than an occasional meal. The Koreans bussed us to the DMZ, showed us the North Korean border, and talked about their hope for a unified Korea and for peace. And they fed us lunch, a soup made of what looked like primordial fish. It was delicious. As long as you avoided the floating eyeballs and fish organs.
- Reading the stories written by other journalists. They managed to weave two-minute snippets of quotes into lovely prose. And they did it with frozen fingers and minds as numb with fatigue as mine. Then we would laugh and remember that we’d get to do it all over again the next morning, on four hours of sleep.
It was, for me, as inspirational as any athletic performance in PyeongChang.
My book is now available for purchase. Click here to order a copy from the publisher.
Coming to a book store near you in January 2018.
As sports journalists, we are not supposed to have favorites. We aim to give all athletes the same coverage. But sometimes, we can’t help it. Certain athletes just become our favorites. They’re the type of people who don’t just give rote answers that sound practiced and insincere. They open themselves up to us, share their ups and downs, let us see the struggles that come in route to their victories, and thus let us portray them to their fans as not just champions but humans as well.
Steve Holcomb was one of these athletes. I first met him in November 2009 at a IBSF World Cup in Lake Placid, where he drove USA I to first in the four-man race and second to teammate John Napier in the two-man. Holcomb was by then a world champion and overall World Cup leader, and he joked with the media about what to do with the bouquet of flowers that he had just received on the podium. Then he mostly talked about Napier’s win, and how he had told the younger bobsled pilot between runs (of the two-run race) to hang out, chill out, and pretend it’s a practice run. Holcomb had the drive and talent to win, but he seemed to care about his teammates as much as himself.
In the lead-up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games, Holcomb had more and more media demands, which he handled patiently and with humor and grace. With his world championship title from 2009 and the story of the blindness that he had overcome in 2007, he was suddenly on the radar of press members who don’t normally cover bobsled. Who was this guy who had once driven a bobsled while blind? He talked about keratoconus and the corneal collagen cross-linking surgery that returned his sight for as long as reporters asked questions.
Even after he became an Olympic gold medalist — the first USA bobsled pilot in 62 years to win a four-man race at the Olympic Games — he remained a humble guy who always had time to chat with reporters. When he began his quest to win gold in the two-man in Sochi, he explained clearly and concisely the difference between driving a four-man versus a two-man sled—like driving a Greyhound bus versus driving a sports car, he said. He might have answered this exact same question for the hundredth time — while standing at the finish in Lake Placid with temperatures hovering near zero degrees. But he never sounded impatient or exasperated. He loved his sport and shared that passion with anyone who showed interest.
I met up with him at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid in August 2013 to talk about the upcoming Sochi Olympic Winter Games, and he talked in as much detail as he could about the endless effort that goes into developing state-of-the-art sleds. He seemed to put as much time into helping Bo-Dyne, then BMW perfect bobsleds as he did into training. And he conveyed the trials of developing new sleds in terms that his audience could grasp — describing to me what it’s like to tweak a sled as if it were an alpine ski. He understood bobsleds the way a scientist understands an experiment he’s been working on for his entire career.
Holcomb shared his quiet sense of humor too. During the 2014 season, he wore a Superman shirt under his speedsuit and would dramatically and hilariously rip off his speedsuit on the finish deck after a good run. Or sometimes he’d do the Holc-y dance for a reporter if asked (though this lighter side of him seemed mostly reserved for his friends and teammates; in front of reporters, he was more bashful).
But where he showed his true champion side was when things weren’t going well. After the Sochi Olympics, where he had torn his Achilles tendon, he struggled with a quadriceps injury while simultaneously trying to break in new push athletes. The results didn’t come, the one-time champion finishing races far from the podium. Yet he persevered and was always gracious, praising the guys for pushing the sled well off the line and saying how far they had come.
In December, just five months ago, after he finished on the podium in a World Cup for the first time since Sochi, I asked if he still had his Superman shirt. He said yes, it was in his bag. He kept forgetting it was there.
“It’s hard,” he said. “That was such a great season. It’s kind of a good luck charm, but I don’t want to wear it off.”
Maybe just having it in his bag was enough. He finished on the podium five times this season, despite struggling with his hormone levels — a condition that he confessed in a very long email that he took time to write to me mid-season. The medications that he took to treat depression that he battled in the mid-2000s had wreaked havoc on his brain, causing his testosterone levels to drop, he said. In a sport as violent as bobsled, with the need for explosive power, Holcomb was having trouble recovering from injuries (like the torn Achilles and strained quad).
“Injuries are not uncommon in bobsledding, or any sport for that matter,” he wrote. “It happens, I dealt with it, overcame, and moved on the next challenge.”
The fact that he was blindsided by a challenge that he never saw coming — pulmonary congestion — is so unfair. For an athlete with such heart, it’s cruel that his heart is what gave out on him. He had the heart of a champion. But most importantly, he had the heart of a friend. He was a true ambassador not just for bobsled but for all of sport.
The track at PyeongChang next February during the 2018 Olympic Winter Games will seem lonely without him. And so will Lake Placid. Perhaps someone will name a curve after him — a curve that takes patience and insight to describe to the media, and one with just a little bit of a fun wiggle.
I spent 10 days in Finland this winter covering the 2017 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships. With three different skiers winning medals, it was one of the most successful world championships ever for the U.S. women’s cross-country ski team. And with a silver in the sprint and bronze in the team sprint, Jessie Diggins now has four world championship medals (more than almost all the American alpine skiers except Lindsey Vonn, Ted Ligety, Bode Miller, and Julia Mancuso, and tied with Mikaela Shiffrin). The U.s. women’s cross-country ski team has now won medals in the past three world championships and in four of the past five (2009, 2013, 2015, and 2017). It’s a testament to their strength as a team.
Here’s my coverage of the team sprint and the relay.
“Jessie Diggins & Sadie Bjornsen Win Bronze in Team Sprint; Fourth Worlds Medal for Diggins,” TeamUSA.org, February 26, 2017.
Photo: Jessie Diggins and Sadie Bjornsen celebrate their bronze medal in the team sprint at the 2017 world championships (photo credit: Andrew Shinn)
“U.S. Women’s XC Relay Team Finishes 4th for Third Consecutive Time,” TeamUSA.org, March 2, 2017.