miércoles, 23 de noviembre de 2011

All Saints Day

Author’s Note: This incident happened a few months ago, but I feel that it’s still relevant and worth sharing. Like the rest of my posts, this one was crafted according to detailed notes. Please enjoy.

This is madness. I’m at least half blind and it feels like there’s a fork in my hamstrings. This is not good. Fridays are generally welcomed by the average American. It’s the end of the work week, an open door to the weekend, and usually a casual, relaxed weekday. Fridays in Dana Land are met each week with a strange mix of anticipation and dread – and this one was no exception. The end of Team USA’s work week is graced by three different workouts, and I had just finished my last set of the day’s third session: lactic 500-meter repeats; it put the aaaaack in lactic. Pain was radiating up from my legs, through my ass and abs and out across my shoulders. My left eye was involuntarily clenched shut and my arms were seizing in spirals of acidic agony. I slumped over my bike as I rolled around the track apron. I would have thrown up, but my stomach was empty; the last meal I had eaten was at 10 a.m. and it was now 3:30 p.m. I could die right now. I could flop down and pass out and that would be fine. Dear God, just make the pain stop. Why do I do this?
                He was there when my vision cleared: a man in white painter’s pants and a white t-shirt standing at the top of the bleachers, smiling and waving. I glanced and waved back with my still-tingling arm. What the hell?

Ben is a barrel-chested man of medium height in his late fifties to early sixties – no one is quite sure of his age. His shining hazel eyes are encircled by a round, leather-tanned face that nearly always wears a smile; his long salt-n-pepper hair hangs past his shoulders in unkempt strings. He likes to dress in white. And he loves track cycling, as well as the athletes that race and train for it.
                On this particular day Ben had been in the stands watching our team work out. We had all seen him around the track from time to time, but none of us really knew much about him. Today he would have seen every painful pedal stroke, had he not slipped out for a few moments. He arrived back at the track with two platters of Subway sandwiches – along with ten Bank of America envelopes, each with a twenty-dollar bill inside; one for every rider at training.
                We ate and were merry for the fact that someone cared enough to do this for us. I looked down at the envelope in my hand. Twenty bucks. I’m going to go to Sprouts and buy as many mangoes as I can. Or maybe I’ll save it for when I need it. Something.  
It didn't really matter after such a hellish workout. The mere gesture was cool by itself. Who would do this for a bunch of rag-tag American cyclists?

I saw Ben as I made my way to the door after the post-training festivities. I smiled and gave him a real wave, along with a handshake and a formal introduction.
                “That was so wonderful, what you did for us today. Really, we can’t thank you enough,” I said.
                “It was my pleasure. You guys train so hard, it’s beautiful to watch. So inspiring,” he replied. “We should help you any way possible. And I have the means. It’s just right.”
                “Well, it was awesome. It means so much to us as athletes to know that people care about us. I dunno, maybe sometimes we forget.” People like this made training worth every ounce of lactic acid. I looked straight at him and grinned. “I’m going to call you Saint Ben. Because you are!”
                Ben laughed and shook his Wild Man of Borneo locks. “Okay.”
                Yeah, I know why I do this.


martes, 22 de noviembre de 2011

Back to School

I breathed in the scent of drywall and polished hardwood as I walked into the empty gymnasium; each footstep made its own resounding echo across the basketball court and out to the bleachers. “The Den of the Lobos” was painted in black and orange along each white wall, accompanied by banners and plaques displaying the school’s sports records.
                It was the first time I had set foot in a high school since graduating from own in 2008. I was preparing to present to all of the sports teams of Los Amigos High School on my experience as an elite athlete – I had to take a moment to get my bearings as to what it was like to be in a high school again. The gym in particular here in was very similar to the one I had used myself three years ago in Pennsylvania. Everything looked smaller and older and more worn than I remembered.

This plan to present had been hatched just a few days before I left for Kazakhstan. My friend and housemate, Lori, is a physical education teacher at Los Amigos; Lori herself is an Olympian who went to Barcelona in’92 for team handball. We had gotten to talking about the plight of athletics in public schools – and how that tends to carry over into other areas. She told me how sports aren’t available at the middle school level for Los Amigos.
“The kids aren’t encouraged to do sports” she explained. “And once they can play in high school, it’s difficult to keep that fire to play alive. No one tells them what they can achieve, that they can achieve.” Lori stressed the trickle down from athletics to academics, and how students’ ability to focus on sports tends to go hand in hand with focusing on school. Those that see the value in both with excel in both.
My aim was to impress upon these kids, by way of example, not just how awesome sports can be (everybody knows that, right?) but how important it is set goals.

The kids began to file in – over 200 of them – and take their seats on the floor. I had made sure to wear my garb from the PanAmerican Games – it’s the only stuff I own with the Olympic rings on it, and I figured it would make a statement. I sat on the floor among the students as Lori welcomed them in and introduced the “special guest.” I popped up when she said my name and pointed in my direction. I probably would have felt more impressive if I wasn’t about a foot shorter than everyone else in the audience.
                We kicked off with a video called Dare to Dream which Lori got a while back as courtesy of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Cue dramatic soundtrack and inspiring sports cinematography.  We used about three minutes of this to set the mood. Bingo.
                I introduced myself and briefly explained track cycling. It’s Nascar for bikes except we don’t have brakes. We chase motorcycles and beat the crap out of each other as well as ourselves. I then proceeded to share my own story: how I got started; my journey over the past four years; recent competitions; a typical training day.
                My God, there are a lot of kids here. I’ll be lucky if what I’m saying gets through to half of them.
                The natural flow of the presentation went nicely into a question-and-answer session.  Thank goodness; oddly enough, I hate talking about myself and was starting to get uncomfortable. Cool. Let’s see who’s been paying attention and who’s still curious. Hands crept up and bunches of questions bubbled out.
                “What do you do to prepare for a competition? How do you get ready?”
                Well, I try to keep calm and relaxed for as long as possible. Then, once at the line, I get really intense and ready to commit murders. “I’m a big fan of visualization. Study videos, get a mental plan of how you’re going to execute during race time or game time. Once you have a plan, just relax, maybe zone out to your ipod, and keep focused on what you’re going to do.”
                “How did you manage to go to school and do cycling full-time?”
                Dude, it was hard. It was 5 a.m.-to-11 p.m., two-workouts-and-eight-hours-of-classes kind of hard. Days-in-the-hurt-box, no-sleep kind of hard. But it was worth it. “It was all about time management. You work it out in your schedule, on a spreadsheet, how you’re going to fit in both. There’s not as much social time as you might want, but that’s part of the deal. And it’s important, that whole ‘school’ thing. No matter what happens, a degree is something that no one can take from you once you have it.”
                “How do you stay motivated through all your training?”
                Blind faith, sir, blind faith. I have to keep believing that if I put in the work now that I’m going to get where I want to be – whether that’s right now or four or five years from now.  “It’s one part faith and one part toughness. You have to know that your training is going to pay off. That payoff is largely dependent on how you train. For every one day of practice that you feel good – fast, strong, fresh, whatever – there are going to be ten more practices where you just feel like crap. They hurt, but you need to get through them. You have to know that it’s those days, the hurt days, that make you accomplished. They make you better.”

About fifty kids lingered after I finished my presentation – the soccer, water polo, cross country, and track teams hung out and continued to ask me questions. I took photos, signed notebooks, and gave out hugs and high-fives.
                Sweet, I made an impression! About fifty kids’ worth, actually. I should go back to school more often.


sábado, 12 de noviembre de 2011

Borat Was Wrong

In 2006, Sacha Baron Cohen released the mockumentary and comedic sensation that was Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The satirical story follows a Kazakh journalist along his journey through America. A master of stereotypical characters, Cohen enlightened the American public to the socioeconomic plight of Kazakhstan through his (in)famous role.
                I was a junior in high school that year – and hoping to have a better grip on my future by the time the following year rolled around. College sounded like a good idea; the tricky part was nailing down where to go and what to go for. I had good grades, hometown friends, track and field, and no immediate plans. Fabulous. Too bad I wasted eight bucks on that damn movie. It wasn’t even that funny and I could have used that cash for other things – like lip gloss or something.
                Four years later, I found myself in Astana, Kazakhstan for my first-ever UCI World Cup. I never thought I would find myself here, of all places – and as a member of the US national team, with an Olympic goal, for all reasons.  
                Holy hell.

First of all, Borat was wrong, at least in part. The capital city of Astana is exceptionally nice – almost too nice. Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and designated the small city as the new capital in 1995. Development began and the capital was officially moved from Almaty to Astana in 1997. The result was an ultra-modern city so new that there appears to be very little remnants of true Kazakh culture. High-tech office buildings, hotels, apartment complexes, and shopping malls make up most of the cityscape; it’s unclear as to whether there are even enough people in the area to fill up this created space. 

                This is Kazakhstan’s huge stores of oil money at work. The locals that mill about the city are polite, pretty, and well dressed; a sizeable chunk of the population knows English. The young ones seemed friendly. However, we were cautioned that the older population still harbors icky feelings towards Americans from the Cold War – and we were therefore advised to pretend to be Canadians or Brits when out and about. Awesome.
                Our four-star hotel , the Dumont, had 15 stories and was occupied by most of the teams in town for the World Cup – only a handful of teams were in the Radisson across town. It was like a dorm, or quite possibly the world’s largest international locker room, but classy – complete with high ceilings and granite walls and floors. I was out of my element in that regard, sure enough, but the poor hotel staff was probably worse off. Cram 100-plus track cyclists into one building and see what happens.
                Actually, what happens is just a lot of odd meals, bike traffic, and roller noise – at least until after racing. Then a bit of beer happens. Enough said.

It’s 80 degrees in here and yet there’s still a cold spot in turn one. What the hell? Focus. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is going fast.
                I made my way up from the blue line and to the rail, just like always. The track felt almost exactly like the home track in Los Angeles – the difference was it was only six months old and looked clean enough to eat off of. We had been in town for a week, mostly getting over the 23 hours of travel required to get there. I was now beginning the wind-up for my 200-meter qualifier, and my biggest concern was simply that I would have enough legs just to keep me from looking like a goober on the world stage.
                First lap, second lap, it’s just like home, it’s just like home. Pressure on the pedals. Goose it here. Omigod, stand! Stand now!
                Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!
                I rolled a personal best for a sea level track, but it wasn’t fast enough to make the tournament. I was a little dismayed, but not surprised. After all, this was a World Cup. Plus, it was Baby’s First World Cup; I was just happy to be there at that point – we all have to start somewhere, right?

I swallowed hard as I waited in the buffet line. It was 6:30 p.m., a.k.a feeding time, on Friday night and a handful of Brits had just walked into the dining room.
                Oh God. That’s him.
                Chris Hoy filed in line directly behind me – I was now in fact standing next to track cycling royalty. I let out a whoosh of air.
                Don’t panic. He’s just a bike racer, just like you. Don’t panic. Actually, he’s shorter in person than I thought. Don’t panic.
                We shuffled down the row of food, bypassing the buttered vegetables and mystery meat. Hoy leaned over for the tongs, looked at me, and said “Nice that the food’s actually hot today, eh?”
                Yes, you are. Very. Um . . . what? Shut up, brain, shut up.“Hm. Um. Er. Uh, yeah, totally!” I stammered.
Good work. A moment of silence, please, for our dear friend, Conversation. I scuttled to the Team USA table before I could blurt out anything else.  

Sitting up squarely on my seat, I leaned over to Jamie and blinked. “Any last nuggets of advice?”
                “Get second or third. Be patient. And do not panic.”
                Hm. I wish I had thought of that. We were lined up for the keirin repechage – Sandie Claire of France, Daniela Larreal of Venezuela, the Ukrainian, the Korean, and I comprised heat four. 
                 Don’t panic. Don’t panic. It’s a keirin and you’re riding a big gear. Don’t panic, just race. I tipped down into my bars and got set.
                I settled into fourth position and waited, controlling my speed and making space behind the Ukrainian. Five laps, four laps, three laps to go. The motor swung off on the back. With two laps to go I rose from seat and made as if to sprint, hoping to spook the three riders in front into action. Panic, panic, panic. For God’s sake, will you people go already?
Oh, they went – fast. I was trailing the Venezuelan, the Frenchwoman and the Ukrainian going into the bell lap. I swept up the Venezuelan in between turns three and four, but couldn’t catch the other two before hitting the line. It was hard not to feel a bit disappointed – I am a bike racer, after all, and this was my favorite type of bike race. But this was the international stage, and this was a World Cup for a reason.
I’ll take that for Baby’s First World Cup. Eat your heart out, Borat. Kazakhstan rocks.