Running All The Way To The O.R.

Players in a glass-backed squash court
Image via Wikipedia

For some of us, movement is life. Running, biking, playing competitive sports, winning medals or trophies or beating our personal bests. When my dearly beloved red convertible was stolen, pillaged for parts and ditched on a nearby road, I went to the police lot to retrieve what was left of value — all my sports gear in the trunk: a winch handle for sail racing, softball gear and my squash raquets.

In a country plagued by obesity, it’s hard to remember that for every 350-pound person unable to maneuver easily, or those for whom exercise and sports are anathema, there’s someone eagerly lacing up their sneakers or sliding into their canoe or kayak.

Writes Gina Kolata in The New York Times:

Our behavior, said the expert, Dr. Jon L. Schriner, an osteopath at the Michigan Center for Athletic Medicine, is “compulsive”: we let our egos get in the way, persisting beyond all reason.

But another expert recommended by the college, David B. Coppel, a clinical and sports psychologist at the University of Washington, has another perspective. There are several reasons some people find it hard to switch sports, he told me. Often, their friends do that sport, too; it is how these people identify themselves, part of their social life. And then there is another, more elusive factor.

“There is something about the experience — be it figure skating or running or cycling — that really produces a pleasurable experience,” Dr. Coppel said. “That connection is probably not only at a psychological level but probably also something physiological that potentially makes it harder for these people to transition to other sports.”

Jennifer Davis, a physical chemist who is my cycling, running and weight-lifting partner, adds another reason. Often we stubborn athletes — and Jen, an ultra runner who competes in races longer than marathons, includes herself in that group — have found that we do well, get trophies, win at least our age group in races. That makes it hard to stop.

I think about this a lot. I normally bike, walk, do a jazz dance class, swim, skate, ski, play softball (second base) and almost anything that doesn’t involve heights. I had to give up squash after blowing out both my knees and now, with severe osteoarthritis in one hip, am losing almost all my other sports. In so doing, I’m losing myself.

What people who hate to exercise don’t get are all the many pleasures it provides, from my pals on my softball team to my fistful of fencing medals. Being athletic and strong, flexible and quick, skilled and competent is a core piece of my identity and has been for my entire life.

I don’t have kids or pets or hobbies or any deep political or religious affiliations, some of the things to which many people tie their identity and self-worth. I do live for the pleasure of knowing my body remains strong and flexible.

Today’s doctor, the fifth specialist I’ve seen since March, told me, reassuringly, that after my (eventual) hip replacement, I can play tennis. I appreciated his sentiment — that I’ll regain some of my sports — but we choose our activities for all sorts of reasons.

I hate tennis!

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We Kicked Your (Hockey) Butt! The Rare Canadian Pleasure Of Actually Being Noticed

Live in the U.S. as a Canadian and you/we so often remain invisible.

Even our entire nation seems to be off the radar most of the time.

Not anymore!

For me, the cool thing wasn’t the total medal count. It’s not the dangerous track and the awful luger’s death or Joanie Rochette’s astonishing grace (and bronze).

It’s just…being noticed.

Canadians, whatever the 2010 Games’ glitches and disasters, are about to slide once more off the world stage. We’re probably OK with that.

In fact, probably relieved. Much as some nations thrive on attention and celebrity, others find the whole idea of constant gaze and criticism and analysis about as much fun as gum surgery.

But, for now, woo-hoo!

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I Am Olympic'ed Out! No More Whiners (Hello, Plushenko) Or On-Podium Air Guitar (Yes, Shaun White)

WANAKA, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 26:  Shaun White ...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I’m done. One more week to go. Feh.

No more Bob Costas — nestled so deep into that plush armchair of his he looks like Pee Wee Herman, no more weepy/fist-pumping athletes (it’s binary, kids, you will win or you will lose,) no more tight close-ups of athletes and their coaches indulging in last-minute whatevers.

I’ve loved what I’ve seen. As someone who’s competed at the national level and who knows a few Olympians, (and one who missed making his team by one spot), I get it. I deeply value and believe in the challenge, joy, pain and tremendous focus it takes to achieve Olympic-level athletic excellence. Today’s Wall Street Journal profiles a bob-sledder who lost his home due to the financial strain of getting to the 2010 Games.

The hype, the lack of helpful commentary or insight on most of it, is leaving me disengaged and bored right now.

If I have to watch 14 men skate their 5-minute programs [or however long it is] how about something as basic as — what music did they choose? How hard would it be to sub-title it or announce at the beginning what each of them has chosen to skate to? I recognized some of the warhorses, the theme from ‘Out of Africa’ and the much-beloved Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo. But stuff like that is much more relatable and interesting to me, and I bet to thousands of other non figure-skaters, than “OMG, he blew the triple salchow!” muttered for the umpteenth time by Scott Hamilton.

I found the Lycasek-Plushenko drama tedious and rude. The American won. He beat a gold medalist without a quadruple jump. Get over it! Pardon the mixed metaphor, but this is inside baseball, endless petty bickering over points of style and content that very, very few spectators even give a damn about.

Nor was I impressed by Shaun White playing air guitar on the podium. Ho-hum, another gold medal. Rude. You’re 24, dude, not 14.

So, tonight, it’s back to Netflix for me. What about you?

A Woman Adds 10 Pounds — To Better Compete In The Olympics

Photo of figure skater w:Tanith Belbin.
Tanith Belbin. Image via Wikipedia

Now there’s a twist — a young woman being ordered to gain weight in order to better compete as an Olympic athlete.

Great story in The New York Times about American ice dancer Tanith Belbin, by reporter Juliet Macur:

Heading into their second Games, Belbin and Agosto, the Olympic silver medalists in 2006, are once again among the favorites to win a medal in the competition, which begins Friday with the compulsory dance. What should give them an edge this time, Belbin said, is something she would have never dreamed could help them: her newly found muscles and curves.

She can thank one of her coaches, Natalia Linichuk, for that.

Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov, who were the 1980 Olympic ice dancing champions, began coaching Belbin and Agosto in the summer of 2008, when Belbin and Agosto left suburban Detroit for a fresh start.

Linichuk took one look at the 5-foot-6, 105-pound Belbin and said, “You need to gain 10 pounds.” She said more muscle would help Belbin skate faster and more fluidly.

“At first, I said no way, but then I started to understand that it needed to be done,” said Belbin, who is from Kirkland, Quebec, but holds dual citizenship. “I don’t feel like I had a safe, well-thought-out or well-researched diet until the past few years, until Natalia gave me that ultimatum.”

As it turned out, Linichuk also ended up saving Belbin from a problem that has long plagued figure skaters: disordered eating. Often not as severe as eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, disordered eating involves irregular eating habits that can be fueled by a distorted body image. Belbin said she had struggled with those issues since puberty….

Belbin began marveling at her new body. She had gained 10 pounds. Her waist size increased two inches because her core was so much stronger.

Agosto could see a huge difference in Belbin’s skating. During lifts, she was no longer a sack of potatoes, holding on for dear life. She could hold her positions much better, and that made it easier for Agosto because she did not move around as much.

Belbin says she wishes she had learned the importance of nutrition long ago. She said U.S. Figure Skating officials would have provided a nutritional counselor if she had asked them for one. But that phone call “never fit into her busy day,” Belbin said. In the end, she preferred educating herself.

“The message shouldn’t be, go consult a nutritionist; we need more education,” she said. “Skaters always sit there and wait to be told what to do, but in this case, they need to take the initiative and find out how to eat healthy.”

What Coaches Teach Their Olympic Competitors

Yao Bin at the boards at the 2007-2008 Grand P...
Yao Bin, Chinese skating coach. Image via Wikipedia

One of the aspects of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics I most enjoy is watching athletes with their coaches, just before an event or afterwards. It was moving indeed last night, watching Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao (the oldest skater, at 36, competing this year) win gold and  Qing Pang and Jian Tong take silver in pairs figure skating. If you’d have named China as a figure skating powerhouse even a decade ago, who would have agreed?

It’s due to Yao Bin, their coach, who was profiled in a lovely NBC item last night that made clear how much he, too, personally sacrificed along the way, rarely seeing his own son as he helped others perfect their athletic skills to international standards. It was moving, as cameras moved off-rink, to see him and the skaters openly weeping with pride and joy at their collective achievement.

Reports the Times‘ Jere Longman:

The three Olympic Chinese pairs come from the country’s winter sports capital of Harbin in Heilongjiang Province, and are all tutored by the same coach, Yao Bin. Only one Chinese female singles skater, and no male singles skater, qualified for the Vancouver Games.

Juliet Macur’s New York Times profile of skater Evan Lysacek today offers a taste of what coaches do to keep their athletes going:

Lysacek said the key to winning a medal here was staying calm. At the 2008 nationals, when he was trying to successfully defend his title, he was so nervous that he nearly hyperventilated before his short program.

To refocus him, Carroll told Lysacek to remember all the hard work he had put in. Then he slapped Lysacek, leaving a mark on his face as he took the ice. Lysacek said he did not mind it.

“You have to believe in yourself and realize that you’ve done the work; I think about that a lot,” Lysacek said. “I let it all sink in after a practice where no one is cheering, no one is watching. It’s just me in a cold, stinky locker room, all by myself, exhausted.”

A coach able to help his or her athletes reach Olympic-level skill must combine tremendous skills — both emotional and physical.

I was coached, in saber fencing, by Steve Mormando, a two-time Olympian. He took a bunch of raggedy-ass mid-30s New York women, back when women just didn’t fence saber (and certainly not at the Olympics) and turned us into ferocious competitors. He pushed us in every way he knew how, sometimes much harder than we had ever pushed ourselves.

One night, worn out and fed up, I sat in  a stairwell and cried. I didn’t come to practice for about a month, deciding whether any of this was worth my time and effort. We all knew that, if anyone knew what it took to become excellent, to compete effectively through injury and pain and fatigue, Steve did. He’d been there and done that. Trusting his judgment of us meant seeing ourselves in new and unfamiliar ways.

If you take up a sport late(r) in life as an amateur, especially, you need someone who truly, madly and deeply believes in you. Not just what your body can do, but what your spirit will do to push past your limitations.

I came back, determined to get as good as I possibly could, and qualified for, and competed at, nationals four years in a row.

He knew how to push us, and when to back off.

You have to want it more than anything. A coach can only get you so far.