Learning the Olympic standard of love
Nikolai Petrovich Anikin was not half as intimidating as I had imagined he would be. No, this surely was not the ex-Soviet coach my father had shipped me out to meet.
But Nikolai he was, Petrovich and all. He invited me inside and sat down briskly on the couch, patting the crocheted blanket next to him. I joined him, grateful for his hospitality but apprehensive in his presence.
"You are young, you have many possibilities," he began in his thick Russian accent. "If you would like to try for Olympic Games, I guess you will be able to do this. Nagano [Japan, site of the 1998 Winter Games] will be too soon for you, but for 2002 in Salt Lake City, you could be ready."
"Yes, why not?" he said, responding to the shocked look on my face. I was a decent junior skier, but by no means top in the country. "Of course, there will be many hard training sessions, and you will cry sometimes, but step by step you will improve."
To be sure, there were countless agonizing training sessions and not a few tears. But in the five years that followed, I was more than once buoyed by Nikolai's stories and sense of humor. One of my favorite accounts was 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.' "
Here the story usually ended, but on one occasion he stood proudly in a tattered wool sweater before a crowd of high school skiers, his impressive array of gold teeth sparkling, "And I tell you, I am 26 years old before I ever kiss a girl!" (She was the woman he later married.)
Perhaps Nikolai was not a hopeless romantic, and thankfully so. His perspective on things of that nature was interesting, to say the least. "One boy one night, another boy another night, it's OK," he counseled me in his wise-old-man tone.
"But one boy all the time," Nikolai shook his head disapprovingly, "It's not so good."
Romantic or not, Nikolai knew love. His consistent good humor, quiet gratitude, perceptivity, and sincerity set an Olympic standard of love that I continue to strive for, even though my skiing days are over.
Nikolai knew the difference between love and coddling. One gorgeous February day when I was feeling quite under the weather, I came upon him in a clearing after 15 minutes of dizzy striding over the glistening powder.
"Christa, how many percent you are alive today?" he asked.
"Oh, Nikolai," I wailed. "Today, I am like almost dead."
His hand swept through the single-digit air, and he guffawed. "When you are hundred years old, everybody die," he said with emphatic matter-of-factness. "But now," he continued firmly, "Now must be ski, ski, ski."
On skis, I would do anything he said. But on other matters, I was rebellious.
Like the time 10 of us crammed into a Finnish bachelor's 650 square-foot home for a low-budget ski camp (Nikolai's idea). We awoke the first morning to Nikolai stirring a huge pot of simmering oatmeal.
Jostling into makeshift chairs around a tiny card table, we clinked our spoons in steamy silence.
When we were finished, Nikolai stacked the sticky bowls in front of me and my sole female teammate, announcing with great authority and expectation, "Now, girls do dishes!" I refused, and this job was never again foisted on me.
But Nikolai never reacted to such outbursts. After 30 years of coaching in the Soviet Union, he'd probably seen it all. But he was definitely straightforward.
He's famous for telling a budding skier, "Maybe for you, another sport." In the hundreds of video sessions I attended, I never heard him repeat that critique, but I believe the story.
While reviewing video of our skiing form, Nikolai would drone away, his sing-song commentary keeping rhythm with our stride on the screen: "YES, yes, BUM, bum, one-two-three, one-two-three." (A dear lady friend of my grandfather, after viewing a copy of one such video, asked me, "What does 'bum' mean?"
In training, I worked diligently to correct the mistakes Nikolai pointed out on the video, asking him after each pass if it was better.
"Yes, it's OK. But the faster knee down, the better."
"But is it fast enough?" I'd persist.
Finally he would counsel me patiently, "Billion times you fulfill this motion - then it will be perfect," reminding me in an I've-told-you-a-billion times tone, "You must be patient."
I practiced "faster knee down" over endless kilometers and five years of serious training. Nikolai's patience and my hard work earned me a fourth-place national ranking heading into the pre-Olympic season.
Missing the Olympic Team the following year made me pause and reflect on what I had gained - not least of which was a quiet, indissoluble bond with a short man in sandals.
Last summer, I returned to Duluth, Minn., to visit Nikolai. He made me porridge and tea with plenty of sugar, and I did my dishes - and his. We talked about the 2006 Winter Olympics on a different blanket and a different couch. Perhaps there was a tear in my eye, but it was not squeezed out by fatigue or frustration.
Nikolai taught me to have the courage, determination, and discipline to continue persisting - even if it takes a billion tries - until I achieve the excellence that is my goal. He taught me to discover the rhythm of progress and relish the secret definition of "bum"; to be grateful in advance for a century of life on earth, and to remind myself constantly that despite the challenges at hand, "now must be love, love, love."