<
>

Growing, learning, living as an Olympian

2/5/2010

Feb. 7, 1998: Team USA, nearly last of the 72 countries to be introduced alphabetically at the opening ceremonies of the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, enters the Minami Stadium under overcast skies, dressed in knee-length blue down parkas and black cowboy hats.

In the crowd, waving and grinning, are 18-year-old high school senior Angela Ruggiero, a California-born, Michigan-raised defenseman on the U.S. hockey team set to play for the first medals awarded on the women's side of the sport, and 21-year-old Jennifer Rodriguez, a Cuban-American roller skating champion from Miami who had switched to speedskating less than two years before. More than 400 miles away in Osaka, 17-year-old Nordic combined skier Billy Demong, who grew up steeped in the Olympic lore of Lake Placid, N.Y., is stuck in team processing and misses the festivities.

Within the next 18 days, Ruggiero's team would win the gold medal. Rodriguez would place a stunning fourth in the 3,000-meter event. Demong, just happy to be there, would slog to a 34th-place finish in the individual Nordic combined event. All three pointed their compasses at Salt Lake City four years hence and didn't think twice about whether they were doing the right thing.


Twelve years ago might as well be eons by many measures. The tech bubble had yet to burst. The sex scandal that would later threaten to undermine then-President Bill Clinton was less than a month old. E-mail and cell phones had only recently come into widespread use, newspapers were still healthy and the first mp3 player wouldn't be on the market for another year. Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls were going for a second NBA title three-peat, and Lance Armstrong had just returned to racing after recovering from cancer treatment. Roger Maris' single-season home run record still stood, and the World Anti-Doping Agency didn't exist.

Many athletic careers rose, peaked and fizzled over that span. Not these. Rodriguez, Ruggiero and Demong are among a select group of Americans poised to compete in a fourth Winter Games. They are 33, 30 and 29 years old, respectively, and they have done most of their growing up as Olympians.

Staying competitive for several Winter Olympic cycles isn't that uncommon anymore, but that doesn't mean it's easy. (The record for participation is six, held jointly by eight men and two women, none of them American and half of them in Nordic events.)

This year's U.S. ski team includes five-time Olympians Todd Lodwick (Nordic combined) and Casey Puckett (skicross) and five more athletes who will log their fourth appearance, including Bode Miller; Sarah Schleper, who has a 2-year-old son; and Demong. The U.S. luge tandem of Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin will slide for the fifth time, biathlon veteran Jay Hakkinen is shooting for a fourth Games, two of Rodriguez's speedskating teammates, Catherine Raney and Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr., are fellow four-timers, as is hockey forward Jenny Potter.

We tend to forget about Olympic athletes between Games, so it's tempting to imagine them in hibernation, emerging with their boots on when the lights go up. They're all tremendously talented, but talent is not all it takes to keep returning to this grand stage every four years. Many don't want to or can't carry on for that long because of finances or lifestyle or both.

Although there is more support from sports federations and sponsors than there was 20 or 30 years ago, being an elite athlete is also more expensive these days. And the seasons that unfold off-radar can be full of doubt, heartache, injury and this recurring question: Why stick with a niche sport when everyone else in your generation is moving on, working jobs with regular paychecks, starting families, building homes, angling toward stability?

Meet a trio of Olympic lifers who are convinced the tradeoff is worth it.

Endurance

"Absolutely not. No way," Billy Demong said, talking about whether he thought he'd last this long.

Demong had a plan in 1998: build stamina and savvy on the World Cup circuit, help the United States win its first Olympic medal in Nordic combined at the home Salt Lake City Games in 2002, then retire "and become an Air Force pilot. Or whatever," Demong said.

And why not? Ever since his dad signed him up for a cross-country ski race at age 5 on Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid, Demong appeared to be following the twin tracks of destiny. Growing up in nearby Saranac Lake, the Olympics were in his spiritual DNA. His mother was eight months pregnant with him when she braved the crowds to watch speedskater Eric Heiden win his fifth gold medal on the quaint outdoor oval at the high school football stadium.

There are only a few places in the country where a kid could get an early start in Nordic combined, where athletes compete as individuals and as a team and must excel in two seemingly antithetical disciplines: flying off a ski jump and grinding over the length of a cross-country course. You have to be simultaneously light and strong, fearless and grounded.

Demong, a top junior, was quickly promoted to a team led by the pioneering and equally precocious Todd Lodwick, who already had one Olympics under his belt. The two of them, joined by Johnny Spillane in the 1999 season, took aim at Salt Lake and moved to Steamboat Springs, Colo., for the duration.

It wasn't a lucrative existence. Demong made an average of about $15,000 and had to rely on his parents for help. He took out a loan to buy a Chevy Blazer with 100,000 miles on it and drove it for the next five years. He ate a lot of ramen noodles.

A couple who lived on a ranch outside Steamboat let him live rent-free in a 60-year-old renovated bunkhouse on their property called "The Coop" in honor of its chicken-related history. In return, Demong did odd jobs like cutting down trees and splitting wood, some of it to stoke the stove that was his only heat source. He caught brook trout for dinner in season and had a steady supply of game from bow-hunting expeditions with Lodwick and Spillane.

They had the ideal setup -- amicable internal competition that made each of them better and made their team greater than the sum of its parts.

"We know that as a small sport in a big country, we need to be together to push each other," Demong said late one recent night from a hotel room in France. "As long as somebody is doing well, it brings the level of the group up. There are usually no more than eight guys on the team at any given time. We usually locate ourselves in one town, now Park City [Utah], and we spend upwards of 250 days a year together.

"It started with Todd being able to break the mold and say, 'You know what, Americans can be good at this sport.' And then Johnny and I learning from him. I think we all truly view and value this as a team effort all the way, even the individual results."

In Salt Lake, Lodwick, Demong, Spillane and teammate Matt Dayton jumped well enough to put themselves in the medals mix with traditional powers Finland and Austria, but the Germans surged past them in the relay race and the U.S. team finished fourth. The podium breakthrough would have to wait.

"That youthful goal of, 'I'm gonna get my medal and go away' -- honestly, I didn't believe it wouldn't happen until it didn't happen," Demong said. "I kind of reeled for months."

He wasn't looking too far ahead that summer when, at a training camp in Germany, he took an ill-advised plunge into a 4-foot-deep hotel pool and fractured his skull. The resulting brain injury forced him to take a year off from jumping. For a glimpse into Demong's sense of humor, look no further than his torso, where he sports a "no diving" tattoo -- the circle-and-diagonal-slash you might see on any dock or pool where danger lurks.

Demong said he's indebted to Dave and Lorraine MacDonald, his rancher landlords, for giving him contracting work and setting him up as a carpenter's apprentice while he recuperated. It proved to be excellent exercise for his body and his cognitive skills. "I'd pull out my tape measure and measure something, and then by the time I put it down, I would have forgotten," Demong said. "I had to play a lot of memory games."

He now regards the near-catastrophic accident as a positive catalyst. Before it happened, "I lived for my results," Demong said. "If I had a good day, I was a good person. If I had a bad day, I was a horrible person. From that year forward, I've trained a little bit differently, I've pushed limits, but the good days go with me and the bad days are forgotten about immediately. [The injury] gave me time to breathe and refocus."

The Torino Games didn't pan out the way the team had hoped. Lodwick, now 33 and a father of two, retired after finishing eighth in the individual event and seventh with the team, but he came back two years later for another try and won two gold medals at the 2009 World Championships. Demong continued to improve, landing on 10 World Cup podiums in 2008-09 and finishing third overall on the circuit for the second straight season. He, Lodwick and Spillane have competed in a dozen previous Olympics among them and have an impressive stash of world championship and World Cup medals. Sticking around often breeds more success on the long learning arc of Nordic combined, and Demong said his greatest satisfaction has been in having the staying power to help build an obscure sport in his home country, just as he once helped build a house from scratch.

"We've become an everyday podium team," Demong said. "We're not sitting around trying to believe it, or try to figure out how we're gonna do it. For sure there's more pressure in that, but there's also confidence in that."

Hunger

Angela Ruggiero calls what she's been up to for the last 12 years her "first career." It's an ironic turn of phrase only if you know how many other jobs she's tried on for size; put back on the rack; and once, famously, been rejected for on national television.

What do you do with yourself when you're an Olympic gold medalist right out of the box at age 18? Well, Ruggiero went to Harvard, won an NCAA championship, majored in government and graduated cum laude. She was already so well-respected by the time the 2002 Games rolled around, she was one of eight athletes selected to help with the somber task of carrying the tattered flag from the ruins of the World Trade Center into a hushed stadium during the opening ceremonies in Salt Lake City. Two weeks later, the U.S. team -- undefeated in 31 games in a pre-Olympic tour, including eight wins over Canada -- lost the gold medal game 3-2 to its archrival from the north in what remains arguably the toughest defeat in the program's history. Ruggiero watched the Canadians celebrate their first hockey gold in 50 years on U.S. ice -- her ice -- and knew she wasn't done yet.

That's when things started to get complicated, not because Ruggiero had no options but because she had so many.

In the absence of a U.S. professional league, one of the biggest challenges women hockey players have faced is staying sharp between major international events, not to mention making ends meet. Like most of her teammates, Ruggiero improvised, trying to mesh hockey with her other career interests.

She took a job in commercial real estate in Boston and spent early mornings and late nights working out with a local club. She moved to Canada for a year. She played for the Tulsa Oilers of the Central Hockey League alongside her brother Bill, earning a citation in the Hockey Hall of Fame as the first brother-sister teammates in professional hockey. She wrote a book. She ran charitable endeavors for the New York Islanders. She started a summer hockey camp. And she rode out the highs and lows with the national team, scoring the winning goal in the 2005 World Championships against Canada, surviving an Olympic roster overhaul that saw other familiar names cut, and suffering through the team's semifinal loss to Sweden and deflating third-place finish at the 2006 Winter Games.

The team entered a transition period after Torino. Ben Smith, who had coached all three Olympic teams, announced he would step down. USA Hockey shuffled its administrative deck. Several experienced players elected to move on with their lives. Ruggiero took six months off, pondered her commitment to the sport and restlessly cast about for what to do next. Her answer came from an unlikely source: reality TV.

Fans voting in an online poll nominated Ruggiero to be a candidate for employment on Donald Trump's corporate soap opera, "The Apprentice." Ruggiero very nearly made it to the end before she was "fired," but in an off-camera plot twist, Trump offered her a real job. She gave it serious thought. She wasn't starving but wasn't saving money, either, and wasn't giving her Harvard degree much of a workout.

In the end, the billionaire's proposition pushed Ruggiero back out onto the ice.

"I've had people on the outside, just looking at a dollar figure, say, 'What are you still playing for? You've won three medals, you've won the NCAA [title], what is your motivation?'" Ruggiero said, leaning back in a chair in a coach's office at the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minn., where she and the other players in the national team pool have been based for the past two years.

"But there's something about the trajectory," she said, her voice trailing off, tracing a line downward in the air to indicate the passage from gold to bronze. "I think you can be OK with it if you've given everything and it didn't come out the way you wanted, then you can walk away. But if you feel there's something left in the tank and you could have done more -- that's how I felt."

So Ruggiero packed her professional hobo's bags once more, moved to suburban Minneapolis where she knew no one, and settled into the team's new residency program. Simultaneously, she started working toward a master's degree in sports management at the University of Minnesota.

"I find that I've tried to become a better hockey player every year and not just hold on," she says. "At the same time, I've also made it a point to increase or grow in some other area of my life outside of hockey. If I were just playing hockey, I would probably be done with the sport. It's too much."

Ruggiero was the baby of the 1998 Olympic team. She'll be the second oldest on the 2010 roster; the only other holdover from the first team is forward Jenny Potter, a 31-year-old mother of two. One of the benefits of hanging in there is Ruggiero has some modest name recognition now, and that brings sponsors -- Coke, Visa, Nike, Qwest -- that allow her the small luxury of feeling that she's doing more than just scraping by.

Most of the time, Ruggiero acts as a mentor on a team that's trending young, but last summer, she spent time in Los Angeles training with NHL players and some guys she'd grown up with in the days when she was the only girl on the ice. It made her feel a childlike delight. This season, she said, is "dramatically different for me in my head -- purely for the love of the sport and nothing else. I want everyone else to have these experiences I had when I was younger."

Love

Jennifer Rodriguez knew something had gone haywire in the months leading up to the 2006 Olympics.

She had chronic insomnia for the first time in her life and resorted to sleeping pills to shut herself down at night. Numbness radiated from her left shoulder blade all the way down her arm and into her ring and pinky finger, which didn't have much feeling at all. She convinced herself it was a pinched nerve and tried to shrug it off.

Most jarringly, the perpetually upbeat Rodriguez just didn't want to be at the rink.

"And who in their right mind doesn't want to be competing at the Olympic Games?" she asked rhetorically nearly four years later, gesticulating, in her typically animated fashion, in the living room of a home she rents with one of her coaches and his wife. Spread out below are the picturesque facades and rooftops of historic downtown Park City.

Rodriguez was used to having her body comply with whatever she demanded of it. When she was a girl in Miami, nothing stopped her from training on roller skates, not even a case of chicken pox, and she became a world champion in both artistic and speed events. When she crossed over to the ice at the behest of her fellow skater and future husband, KC Boutiette, her progress was swift and rewarding. After the podium near-miss in Nagano, Rodriguez became a perennial contender on the world scene, winning bronze medals in the 1,000- and 1,500-meter events in Salt Lake, and she and Boutiette, an equally feisty, articulate long-distance specialist, became speedskating's power couple.

So no one could have been more surprised than Rodriguez when hairline cracks began to appear on the ice beneath her. Too late, she and her coaches realized she had overtrained by ramping up both the intensity and volume of her workouts to try to top her 2002 showing. Rodriguez is now an expert in the power of denial and the consequences of habit.

"At first you think, 'Oh, I'm just tired,' or you think, 'I'm tired because I'm not training enough. Maybe I have to work harder,'" she said. "It's like someone who's on drugs. They just don't see the light. It wasn't until November or December that I actually realized what was happening. You're still trying to think positive, but deep inside you know your body isn't responding well. I never really believed it until it happened to me."

Rodriguez pushed on that winter, and predictably, the results were disastrous -- as much psychologically as competitively. The odd, deadened sensation she felt on her left side dampened her desire as well. After finishing 10th and eighth in the two events she'd medaled in four years before, Rodriguez cut her World Cup season short, telling herself she needed a longer-than-usual rest. She detached the blades from her boots, tossed them in a closet and didn't look at them again for nearly two years. "I actually went into a little depression," she said, but her physical symptoms disappeared, along with 10 pounds of muscle.

It wasn't as if Rodriguez had anything to prove to anyone. At least that's what she told herself. She was in her late 20s by then, married and eager to succeed on other fronts. She went to school for sports broadcasting and did an internship at a local station. She and Boutiette opened a bike shop in Miami.

But in early 2008, Boutiette, now retired, persuaded her to touch the ice again. Just for fun. It would be their last joint venture, and it came just in the nick of time.

Rodriguez's passion for the sport awakened, and her skates came out of the closet. Meanwhile, the economy was tanking, the bike shop was struggling and her marriage was unraveling. With her savings depleted, she sold her BMW and some of her skating paraphernalia; bought a Volkswagen Bug; and moved to Utah, where the long-track team trains, alone and broke. Although the team welcomed Rodriguez back, most stipends in the sport are results-based, and she didn't have any to show. She managed with help from a nonprofit foundation called America for Gold.

Far worse than any material tribulations was her mother's terminal illness. Barbara Rodriguez had been fighting cancer for nearly as long as Jennifer had been on speedskates -- 16 years, surviving a double mastectomy, a recurrence in her liver, chemotherapy, the works. Yet she kept supporting her daughter financially and emotionally and attended all three Olympics with her husband. The disease finally got the upper hand as 2008 gave way to 2009 and Barbara went into hospice care. Jennifer returned to Miami and kept vigil at her bedside until her death in June. She was buried in one of Jennifer's Olympic jackets.

If being a top athlete were really the fairy tale it's often made out to be, Jennifer Rodriguez would insist she is stronger for the experience. But she said that wouldn't be the truth.

"I don't think it makes me tougher," she said. "I think it makes me weaker." Tears well up in her eyes, as they did every day for six months after Barbara died. "I don't have her to go to any more. It feels very empty sometimes. I don't think you can be stronger when you feel a piece is missing. But with that being said, skating has been a huge therapy for me. Had I not had the opportunity to come back and skate, I don't even know where I'd be right now, emotionally.

"I thought about quitting. And then I realized she would kill me."

When Rodriguez first decided to come back, her parents questioned her closely. Wasn't this a step backward? Her grim, forced march to Torino was still fresh in their minds. But she'd realized by then that the Olympic movement and its familiar, circadian rhythms was still home, and that her teammates, by busting her chops at the rink and treating her no differently, would provide a certain security in the wake of divorce and loss.

Rodriguez is no longer the slam-dunk top-5 finisher she used to be, but she did win a World Cup event in 2008 and set a new American record in the 1,500 this past December. "I was kind of moving on with life, and skating definitely puts everything on pause again," Rodriguez said. "What am I trying to accomplish with this? I still don't know. But I think in my head, it has something to do with, I don't want to say unfinished business, but to have the chance to finish my career on a good note, or at least a happy note.

"I can't get enough of it. I love it. Even in Torino, as horrible as it was, you could step back and say, 'I can't imagine being anywhere else.' I know I'll be at these Olympics and I'll start thinking about, 'What if I did four more years?'"

Continuity

On the evening of Feb. 12, 2010, the hands of the Olympic clock will strike XXI, and time will seem to fold in on itself like an accordion as the athletes file into Vancouver's BC Place in the customary ritual. No matter what else happens, this will be Ruggiero's favorite moment of the Games. It always is.

Back in 1998, she and her teammates giggled when they tried on the puffy jackets they would wear in the opening ceremonies, joking that they looked like big blue marshmallows. They killed time in the staging area by buying postcards and mingling with athletes from other sports. And then everyone put on their coats and hats, and the 18-year-old suddenly realized she had underestimated the emotion and formality of the occasion.

"Collectively, it was very powerful," Ruggiero said. "There was strength in numbers. We're all on the same page at that point. No medals have been given out. No one's better or worse. And the whole world stops what it's doing and watches."

In an absolute sense, every athlete starts anew at this singular event, which can still make or break a career. Those who have been back more than once know they may be risking as much as they stand to gain. It's not the easiest way to make a living, but in the vast workaday spaces between the extremes of exhilaration and emptiness, it can be a great way to live.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.