In Whistler and Vancouver, what drives Olympic athletes?
The lessons I learned from my Russian cross-country ski coach – a 1956 Soviet gold medalist – taught me about the gold in the heart of many Olympic athletes.
Whistler, BC, Canada — Here in Whistler – where the highest peak is 2,284 meters above sea level, compared with Vancouver’s 1 meter – the feeling is intimate, probably more akin to what people experienced in Lake Placid in 1980. I step off the bus that is emblazoned with five interlocked rings that represent one of my favorite phenomena: the Olympic Games.
Growing up, I was allowed to watch TV only once every four years. I stayed up past my bedtime to lie in front of our tiny black-and-white TV and watched East Germans, Soviets, and Americans battle each other for winter sport glory.
It must have been during the 1984 Sarajevo Games that I first got the idea in my five-year-old head that I wanted to be an Olympian. That become more of a reality when I was at a training camp as a college freshman and heard the coach – Nikolai Petrovich Anikin, a Soviet legend – talk about his love for cross-country skiing and competing at a high level. He won the Soviet Union’s first gold medal by skiing the anchor leg of the team relay in the 1956 Games in Cortina, Italy. It was a big deal for the nascent communist power.
One of Nikolai’s athletes, John Bauer, who was on something like his eighth year of part-time college study, followed, sharing the feeling of walking into the Opening Ceremony with the US team. About why he was willing to live like a vagabond in his late 20s and not be able to pay his bills or finish school so that he could pursue his Olympic dream.
I was sold. I called my college, told them I wouldn’t be coming back until the following spring, and started my full-time training for the 2002 Games. It was 1997.
Ready to be intimidated
I didn’t know much about Nikolai when my dad shipped me out to Duluth, Minn., where I found a short man with gold teeth who favored track suits and badly translated Russian proverbs. But I was ready to be intimidated.
Instead, he opened his porch door and invited me into his life, telling me there would be many tears, but that I could make the Olympics. I didn’t, but I learned what it meant to live the Olympic spirit – to strive every day for a higher level of discipline, devotion, and patience.
I particularly remember a story Nikolai told from his university days in Moscow.
"My friends, they go in the movies, they go in the dance, they go out with girls," he would start, with an air of feigned frivolity. "But I," he would continue, lowering his voice, "I am practice, practice, practice in the stadium. And next year, I have 1-1/2 minute advantage 15-kilometer race!
"My friends say for me, 'Nikolai, what has happened?' And I say for them, 'You go in the movies, you go in the dance, you go out with girls, but I am practice, practice, practice in the stadium.' "
But his example wasn’t just about what you did in practice or competition. Last fall, when Nikolai passed on, I tracked down people who had known him for decades. His friend Dennis Kruse, in Cable, Wisc., told me about a time when he had to tell Nikolai that a young employee of his smashed into Nikolai’s beloved Jeep – a car that he kept immaculate and rarely drove, because he planned to sell it back in Russia, where it would fetch enough money to retire on. It was the equivalent of someone taking all the money out of your IRA and flushing it down the toilet.
His response? “No problem, Dennis. It’s no problem. These things happen.”
I’m here in Vancouver because I want to tell you about the breadth of character behind Olympic endeavors. The people like Nikolai, who have gold in their heart – as well as around their neck.