For US athletes, an extra role: missionaries for their sports
American Olympians competing in less-familiar events hope they can stir excitement back home.
TURIN, ITALY — There was a clear moment when Andy Newell realized just what he had gotten himself into. He was 17, and what he saw at his first European cross-country skiing competition changed the trajectory of his athletic life.
Growing up in Vermont, he had skied cross-country because that was a perfectly normal thing to do - and he was good at it. Yet his idols had always been surfers or skateboarders, not the endurance racers of his own sport.
"I didn't know about any of them," he acknowledges.
Then, in that trip across the Atlantic, he got his first glimpse of a world where hordes of Slovenians will brave the dead of winter for a World Cup race, and where Norwegians will plow under entire city blocks so that 80,000 frosty-nosed fans can watch skiers turn city streets into a white herringbone of V-shaped tracks.
Since then, Newell has been not only an athlete, but also a missionary for his sport. It is the story told by so many US Winter Olympians: Their performance in these Games is about more than just personal achievement, it is about rousing interest among the many Americans who normally view their sports as a sort of athletic opera - utterly foreign and more than a little weird.
Newell and others have seen how, in far-flung locales of Laplanders and lederhosen, their events can be transformed into Super Bowls without the million- dollar commercials. And they are insistent that their success could begin to stir some of that excitement back home.
"It only takes one guy to make something popular in this country," says Kris Freeman, who is a member of the US cross-country ski team with Newell. "Look at what [Lance Armstrong] has done for road bicycling in the country, and he did it by winning."
Armstrong's rate of success - winning the Tour de France seven times consecutively - is admittedly beyond the wildest hopes of most American Winter Olympians. In cross-country, for instance, the United States has never won any Olympic race, and it has only one medal - a 1976 silver - in 19 winter Games.
Freeman and Newell are working on that, with Newell placing a career-best fourth in a recent World Cup event. But both say their best chance to join Bill Koch as the only American cross- country Olympic medalist is in 2010, not 2006. Newell, however, isn't content to wait around.
At a time when halfpipe snowboarding and freestyle moguls have brought a bit of attitude to the Games' understated Scandinavian roots, Newell has started www.xskifilms.com. In the films, he and friends ride halfpipes and terrain parks on needle-thin cross-country skis - something akin to performing a balance-beam routine on ice skates.
Between the footage of flips and tricks, though, Newell also weaves in a different story: what it is like to compete on the World Cup tour. "The US never gets a glimpse of international racing," he says. Before he went abroad, he adds, "I knew what cross-country skiing was, but I had no idea what it meant to be a racer."
It is pushing oneself past the limits of mental and physical endurance in temperatures fit for a musk ox. It is a sprint to the finish amid a tangle of elbows and flying poles. "It is insane over there," he says.
The website was the best way to convey the experience to folks back home. "People said, 'You've got to have something wrong with you to go off this big jump,' " says Newell. "But cross-country skiing is equally crazy. You've got to have a screw loose to go through that much pain."
For biathletes and lugers and cross-country skiers alike, though, the Olympics marks that one moment when Americans let the remote control linger on men in tights without so much as a snigger. So this time of year is almost like a revival meeting, with winter athletes preaching the promised land.
It can be a difficult sell. "I've talked to everybody [back home] by this point, trying to convince them that we can bobsled as well as anyone else," says Todd Hays, a 2002 silver medalist in the four-man and a favorite this year.
His results are beyond dispute. But this is Texas he is talking about. The nearest bobsled track is in Utah, and the nearest ice is in the freezer. Even in Minnesota, where ice is outside every doorstep, US curler Cassie Johnson grew up watching her sport on Canadian television broadcast across the border.
With his website, Newell's intent is to build a broader winter sports tradition in the US. "My goal from the get-go [has been] to get more kids involved in the sport," he says. But the real conversion, he knows, will only come with medals: "The No. 1 thing we can do is get results."
This Olympics, Todd Lodwick will try to break the biggest medal drought in American winter sports. The Nordic combined - involving cross-country skiing and ski jumping - has been a part of all 19 winter Games, yet the United States has never won a medal of any color. Lodwick finished fifth in the large-hill event in the 2002 Games. And he has already reached the podium three times in World Cup races this season.
In Salt Lake, the men and women of skeleton became America's sliding sweethearts, careening to two golds, a silver, and national notoriety as luge's crazy cousins. This Sunday, Tony Benshoof is looking to take back the track for American luge. America has never won a medal in singles luge, but Benshoof comes in as a favorite. This season, he finished third overall on the World Cup circuit, piling up four second-place finishes as well as one third-place finish on Turin's Olympic track. He's looking to make up for a poor showing in Salt Lake, where he finished 17th. "That's been my greatest motivation the past three years," he says.