“Balance. Just stay on your feet!” That’s the mantra that echoed in my head as I skated alongside gold medalist Shani Davis, threw curling stones with the American women’s curling team, and traversed a beginner’s hill on a snowboard with American snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg rooting me on.
That is not to say there weren’t a few spills and tumbles along the way. But the opportunity to step into the shoes of these incredible athletes was worth every wobble, tumble and fall.
Most of the young people we’ll see on the snow and ice in Sochi over the next two weeks compete in fairly obscure events that don’t get much attention year in and year out. So when the Olympics finally come around, they are eager for the world to take deeper notice of what they do and the sacrifice that got them here. That's why I got to try my hand at three of their sports:
Long-track speedskating: I have ice-skated since I was a kid, but speedskating's exceptionally long blade changes the experience dramatically. You can easily trip while “crossing over” as you negotiate the curves. I surprised myself, however; I was able to stay on my feet without a single fall. The biggest surprise was that I had no fear and found myself wanting to go faster. Speedskating takeaway: I could get hooked on this sport.
Curling: I had tried this before, in the lead-ups to the previous two Olympics, and so I knew — despite the jokes — that curling requires true athleticism. It’s often compared to shuffleboard on ice: You attach “sliders” to the bottoms of your shoes and push off from a “hack,” much like a sprinter’s starting block. One leg extends behind you as you grip the handle of the 42-pound curling stone with one hand, while the other hand clutches a “broom” to balance. The goal is to release the stone so that it slides right toward a big circle called the "House." OK, there were a few tumbles on this one, but I did successfully send the stone on its way a couple of times. Curling takeaway: It requires real concentration and good core strength.
Snowboarding: I learned to ski in my mid-30s and took to it on the very first day. No such luck with snowboarding. In preparation for interviewing Sage Kotsenburg, I took a full-day private lesson on Snowmass Mountain near Aspen, Colo. It was humbling. It was also painful. I fell backwards. I fell forwards. I fell off the chairlift. Oh I understood what my very patient teacher was telling me, but I just couldn’t make my body do it! But a good night’s sleep helped ingrain the principles in my head, and by the time I met up with Sage the next day, I was actually able to make a few gentle turns and even build up a little speed and earn his praise! (Before falling again.) Snowboarding takeaway: I’ve come too far to turn back. I’m getting back on that horse soon!
As I watch these Olympians here in Sochi, I’ll be telling myself that they, too, were once beginners. At least we have that much in common.