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Thursday, February 23, 2006
The longest day in Torino

By Jim Caple
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TORINO -- The identification photo on my Olympic press credential makes any driver's license resemble the work of Annie Leibowitz.

Jim Caple
OK Jim -- you've got a point.
The credential identifies me as an ESPN employee, but it might as well say "lifelong resident of Chernobyl." It looks like I posed by pressing my face against the glass of a photocopier. I might as well have my junior high yearbook photo dangling from my lanyard.

I don't mind the photo, though. Because my credential has one magic word printed in big capital letters: ALL. This is my password to the Olympics, granting me access past its velvet ropes. I can go to any event that interests me, with free transportation included. It is the journalistic equivalent of being a made man.

Some athletes have sacrificed for years to reach the Olympics, living in cars and sleeping in tents. I know of one family that refinanced its mortgage to come here. With such inspiration, the least I can do is wake early one morning to go everywhere my credential can take me and learn what "ALL" means at the Olympics.

10 a.m., Bardonecchia, men's parallel giant slalom snowboard, qualifying heats
Bardonecchia is a small mountain resort 2½ hours and three buses from my media village, past 14th-century churches set atop lonely peaks, through tunnels miles in length, tucked alongside mountains that stretch toward the majestic blue skies. So few of my colleagues have made this journey today that when I arrive, I see nearly as many correspondents from Pravda as the United States.

Torino 2006
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There is just one American competing in the event, Boston's Tyler Jewell, and I see only three other reporters from the U.S. Our country will little note nor long remember how its official representative races down this slope.

Which is just fine with Jewell.

Like most U.S. Olympians, he does not earn much money from his sport. Jewell has one sponsor; his sponsorship pays so little of his bills that he lived in a tent last summer so he could afford to train. He and his brother, Myles, also shared rooms in budget hotels when they traveled together for the winter season.

The Tyler Jewell fan club
Tyler Jewell had to feel good to have some support over in Italy.
"I'm not like a snowboard bum, more like someone living his dreams," Jewell tells reporters. "[Living in a tent] was great. I didn't watch any TV, I just watched the stars and the sunset, went to the public library, ate my meals at the hospital for $2.50 -- for me, that's what makes it worth it -- the struggles."

Jewell's father, Ed, is a vascular surgeon. An older brother, Ryan, is a neurosurgeon. Naturally, there were many discussions about Tyler's quitting snowboarding to get a real job.

"He said, 'Dad, I have a real job already,'" Ed said from the bleachers after the morning runs. "And then he said, 'Dad, if you don't get going, you'll be too old to do all the things you want to do. You're not going to be able to do all the stuff you want.'"

After I leave, Swiss brothers Philipp and Simon Schoch win the GS in the afternoon, while America's lone representative here finishes 11th, wearing a red bandana to honor a friend who died rescuing others from the World Trade Center.

1:30 p.m., Pragelato Plan, men's and women's cross-country sprint finals
Just about 90 minutes up staggering switchbacks and back down more switchbacks is where the cross-country course is located. America may be awful at cross-country -- Bill Koch won our only medal 30 years ago -- and we may ignore it more than a new Ben Affleck movie, but the sport is very popular in parts of Europe. This point is driven home as I'm watching from the media center when, during one of the final heats, a mighty roar rises from the dozens of European reporters when a skier goes down.

These reporters care passionately about who wins and loses this event, which is something to bear in mind the next time we think the world revolves around football or baseball.

Canada's Chandra Crawford wins the women's sprint, and Sweden's Bjoern Lind takes the men's. Crawford used to ski in the biathlon, but switched to cross-country, she says, "because I turned out to be a terrible shooter." Which should provide Olympic hope for all of us, especially the vice president.

2:45 p.m., Sestriere, women's slalom, first run
The U.S. ski team was supposed to be the best in American history, with predictions of multiple gold medals. Instead, there has been only Ted Ligety's gold in the men's combined, while the women have yet to win any medals at all. Women's gold medal hopeful Lindsey Kildow crashed painfully during a practice run on the downhill and has fought simply to compete in her events, having her knee drained daily so she can get down the hills.

"The frustrating thing is we're capable of so much more," Kristina Koznick says as clouds sweep over the slalom course following the first of the two scheduled runs. "Sometimes things fall into place and sometimes, things fall to pieces."

Lindsey Kildow
Lindsey Kildow has shown a lot of grit in continuing to compete. (AP Photo/Claudio Scaccini)
Like Kildow, Koznick learned to ski on the 300-foot vertical drop of Buck Hill, in a Twin Cities suburb. From such humble beginnings in Minnesota, she rose to win six World Cup events and stand on the podium 20 times. But the Olympics have never been kind to her. She missed a gate in 1998 and failed to finish in 2002. She sacrificed much to reach the Olympics a third time, only to tear ligaments in her right knee just before these games started. "It's hanging on by a piece of my hair," Koznick said of her knee.

"I'm such a firm believer that things happen for a reason, which makes this so hard to understand," Koznick says. "I don't have any answer for what happened. Maybe I never will. … I definitely spent a lot of time crying and asking 'Why?' but there is no answer, and at some point, you have to get back up."

So she did. She traveled to Switzerland, where doctors fitted her with a knee brace that Edgar Martinez would have rejected as too bulky and involved. But Koznick wears it everywhere, and pulled down her racing suit in the starting house to tighten the brace just before the first run. "Everybody up on the top of the hill has seen me in my underwear."

She skied the run in 45.72, more than three seconds behind eventual gold medalist Anja Paerson of Sweden. She will undergo surgery on the knee next week.

"I don't know if this is the end of my career, but I'll have plenty of time to think it over," she says after her first run. "I just have to figure out what I want for the rest of my life. It would be a shame to walk away now, but I can't really make a rational decision now."

Koznick walks off the course with a pronounced limp, and decides not to risk the knee with a second run in the evening race. She is among the world's best skiers, yet she has never finished an Olympic event. But that doesn't seem terribly important right now, nor does her slow time in the first run. She has skied in three Olympics, and that's far more than than most can say.

"I don't know if I'm lucky that I'm here, but I'm here," she says.

6:45 p.m., Torino Oval Lingotto, women's speedskating, 1,500 meters
I fall asleep in a light snow flurry in the mountains, and wake an hour later to a light drizzle falling over rush-hour Torino, the aging industrial city of one million. I've come to appreciate Torino's charms, but I also appreciate a colleague's assessment that there is such a lack of overall energy, he deemed Torino "the city that ate the Olympics."

"It's totally different from Salt Lake and even from Nagano," speedskater Catherine Raney says of the atmosphere. "At times, it doesn't feel like the Olympics. At times, it's almost dead. The men's 1,500 had a great atmosphere, but overall, it just doesn't seem to have the same zip and vibe."

Thank God for the Dutch.

If it weren't for them, the speedskating oval might be empty. They are everywhere, filling the arena with a sea of orange. The Dutch love speedskating, and a race is their answer to American tailgaters. They shout and whistle and blow horns and drink and dance to the music of an oompah band, called Kilntje Pils.

We've seen three American skaters win gold medals on this oval, heard Joey Cheek donate his Olympic bonus to charity and watched Enrico Fabris delight the Italian fans by beating both Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick in the 1,500. But perhaps the finest performance in Torino was by the Dutch fans, who booed the lame official Torino cheerleaders out of the building one day because their dance music was drowning out the oompah band.

"I'm just happy they got the band in here. God, they needed Kleintje Pils [little beers] in here," Raney says after the 1,500. "It's a good thing the Dutch fans are here. It gets a little quiet when there's not a Dutch skater going, but that's OK. They still respect all the athletes. They love the sport of speedskating, and they want to see good times on the board."

8:17 p.m., Piazza Castello, nightly medals presentation
It isn't exactly "Brokeback Mountain," but when Davis and Hedrick receive their silver and bronze medals for the men's 1,500 in front of hundreds of cheering fans, Chad leans over and finally shakes Shani's hand to congratulate him on his performances. Shani's reaction is a little like Judi Dench's in "Shakespeare in Love," when, as Queen Elizabeth, she comes to a mud puddle outside of the theater. Dench looks around in anticipation, while the various lords and dukes do nothing. After an awkward moment, they all begin to lay their cloaks over the puddle, only to have Dench brush them aside and step into the puddle with a disgusted look.

"Too late," she says. "Too late."

The Schoch brothers show a little more enthusiasm when they receive their medals for the snowboard giant slalom, repeatedly grinning at each other with smiles nearly as bright as the fireworks that light up the night sky. "We enjoy the race," Philipp says. "We talk and say, 'The best will win' and today I won -- sorry, Simon."

8:57 p.m., Palavela ice arena, Torino
Apolo Anton Ohno
Apolo Ohno is trying to savor the last few days of these Games. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)
After a frantic taxi ride through Torino's congested streets, I dash into the arena just before Korea wins the women's 3,000 meter relay and just after Apolo Anton Ohno wins his heat in the men's 500.

This is Ohno's second Olympics, and he has one day of racing left in his quest to cross the finish line first in an Olympic final (his 2002 gold medal was the result of a Korean disqualification). Asked in the mixed zone why he seemed a little wistful, Ohno says, with a hint of sadness, "It's the last week of the Olympics. Basically, I just want to enjoy every race I have. I don't know [whether I'll try for another Olympics]. This is my last week, you know? That's how I'm thinking about it. I love sports so much."

I've been living in a spartan dorm for two weeks, working 16-hour days and getting as little as three hours sleep a night, but I know just how he feels.

11 p.m., Torino Esposizioni, men's hockey, Canada vs. Russia
Quick. Someone take the sharp blades away from Don Cherry. Like the United States, its opponent in the gold medal game in Salt Lake, Canada is out of the Olympic tournament following a 2-0 loss to Russia in a terrific, emotionally-charged game.

"We did it, and we beat a great team," Russia's splendid young forward Alexander Ovechkin says to reporters in the mixed zone. "Everybody in my country is jumping up and down and drinking lots of vodka."

Undoubtedly, the reaction will be somewhat different in Canada. "Nobody could make me feel worse that I do right now," Canadian coach Pat Quinn says at a postgame press conference.

The Canadian media and fans will try, though.

"I'm sure the reaction won't be good," Chris Pronger, a Canadian defenseman, says. "But people have to realize that there are a lot of good teams out there and a lot of good young talent."

It's a different world since Lake Placid. Everyone on the American and Canadian teams play in the NHL. And so do all but seven on the Russian team. Herb Brooks coached the French team in Nagano.

Whether you like NHL players in the Olympics depends on whether you want to watch the world's best athletes in each sport or you prefer to root for amateurs untainted by million-dollar salaries and shoe contracts. Most of us want it both ways. We want to see the best, and we also want the feel-good moment of the 1980 U.S. hockey team.

Unfortunately, under the current setup, we will never see another Miracle on Ice, or snow, or any other surface for that matter. We are such a dominant force in so many sports that we can never play the underdog again. In fact, to many countries, we represent the big bad evil empire -- in the same way many fans regard the Yankees, Notre Dame and Duke.

Like it or not, from now on, the only announcer shouting "Do you believe in miracles?" at a U.S. Olympic hockey game will speak those words in a different language. And now that the Soviet Union is no more, there isn't even a decent villain we can root against. Perhaps that accounts for some of NBC's poor ratings.

We need to look for something else.

Midnight, Polytechnico Media Village dining room
My day is done. I've covered seven events in one Olympian day, logging 6½ hours on buses. I have chased after buses through snow and mud, argued my way past guards, and set off alarms dashing through exits to catch buses. I am so exhausted, my head almost falls into a plate of spaghetti.

Jim Caple
Eat up Jim. You've got to keep up your strength!
I fear the photo on my credential now looks better than I do.

After 17 hours and seven events, I realize that despite my universal credential, it is impossible to touch all that the Olympics offer as a reporter. I can't do it unless I'm actually one of the 2,500 athletes. I can't completely feel it unless I compete like Jewell and Koznick and Raney.

And Neha Ahuja. She is India's first-ever female Winter Olympic athlete.

Ahuja grew up in New Delhi and learned to ski at Himalayan resorts where the slopes were so gradual that, she says, "You could walk down them faster than you could ski." A lack of chair lifts meant, "After two runs, that was it. You were exhausted," she says.

During high school, Ahuja was a foreign exchange student in Vail, Colo., where she honed her skiing skills. She even skied for the University of Colorado's team.

And on Wednesday, she finished 53rd in the slalom. Dead last among all finishers, more than 27 seconds behind Paerson. But as with Koznick, the important thing is that she was here.

"I'm so thrilled," she says. "I looked around me at all the great women skiers, and I can't believe I'm here. … Hopefully, next time I won't be last."

This, then, is the day's lesson. To experience all that the Olympics are, you can't simply flash the guards a credential with the word "ALL" stamped on it. You have to earn your own credential as an athlete. Although I have very little chance to ever do so at my advanced age of 44, at least I have the necessary role models. There is a 49-year-old cross-country skier from Costa Rica, a 50-something luger from the Virgin Islands, a 54-year-old curler from Minnesota.

There is no excuse for any of us not to at least try. We live in the world's richest country, where there are Target stores selling tents, and talented surgeons to repair the most damaged knees. And ski lifts.

So turn off "American Idol," get off the couch and get out there. Vancouver is only four years away.

And like Tyler Jewell told his father: If you don't get going now, then you'll be too old to do all of the things you want.

Jim Caple is a senior writer at His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is on sale at bookstores nationwide. It also can be ordered through his Web site, Sound off to Page 2 here.