The Art of Being a Spectator

I’m just gonna lay this out on the table right away: I’m not a good spectator.

I’ve known this for a while. I’d be surprised if you don’t know this about me already, but I am a rather big fan of the US Women’s National Soccer Team. For over half my life, fifteen years to be exact, I’ve been following the USWNT. I’ve seen legends retire, new players come and go, and once superwoman Christie Rampone retires, I’ll have seen an entire generation of players cycle through. I’ve been witness to a World Cup win, two Olympic gold medals, one Olympic heartbreak, and three devastating World Cup losses. The thing I’m getting at here is, I’ve experienced every imaginable emotion that a spectator might go through in their lives.

Or so I thought.

Now a member of the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation and an Emerging Elite skeleton slider, I’m part of a national sports program myself, and I have my eye on an Olympic dream I’ve had since I was able to hit a baseball off a tee. I watch the Olympics religiously, day and night, often times waking up at ungodly hours to do so. When the 2012 London Olympics were happening, I took off work in order to cheer the USWNT to a Gold Medal. Now, during Sochi, I’ve been watching whenever I can, including waking up at 0230 to watch the first two heats of the women’s skeleton race.

The problem is, now that I can call myself teammates to the likes of Noelle Pikus-Pace, Katie Uhleander, John Daly, Matt Antoine and Kyle Tress, my stress level as a spectator rose exponentially. I knew that I would be emotionally invested in their races, but I had no idea of the physical toll it would take on my body.

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One of the hardest days in my life as a spectator came on February 12, 2014, the day when the final two heats for women’s skeleton decided the medalists, and the beginning of the men’s skeleton race just an hour later.

I’ve sat through some pretty emotional stuff: the USWNT’s agonizing World Cup semifinal loss to Germany in 2003, the unimaginable loss to Brazil in the 2007 World Cup semifinals, the redemption against Brazil in the gold medal game in Beijing 2008, and who will forget in a hurry the heart-pounding, narrow, last-minute defeat of Canada to advance to the 2012 Olympic gold medal game?

The USWNT celebrate their semifinal win over Canada in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

The USWNT celebrate their semifinal win over Canada in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Notice how all of those moments came with the soccer team? I thought I had seen it all. And then I watched the women’s skeleton races in Sochi 2014.

It’s one thing to be a dedicated fan of a team for half your life. It’s another to personally know the competitors. That’s exactly what made the Sochi 2014 skeleton races so difficult to watch. People have asked me if it’s hard to watch my teammates compete in an Olympic Games, when I failed to make the team.

Here’s the thing: I wasn’t even close to making that team. I had been sliding only three years when trials took place in October 2013. I well and truly knew I wasn’t going to Sochi. That’s not why I was so emotional.

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Noelle starts her comeback with a win in Park City NAC (2012).

Noelle has been an incredible role model and mentor for me from the moment she came out of retirement. I’m not the bravest of people, nor am I outgoing enough to approach someone I don’t know, particularly someone I admire, and introduce myself. It didn’t matter with Noelle, who approached me first to say hello. I slid with, and competed against Noelle in the North American Cup races in 2012-2013 as she worked to qualify again for the World Cup tour.

Perhaps the most memorable event coming to mind is the NAC race in Calgary. Noelle’s sled was deemed illegal by the jury just one day before the races. In a tight spot, Noelle needed a sled. Me and a fellow teammate offered ours up for a training run. Being the champ she is, Noelle took both, one each run. My sled isn’t the fastest in the world by any means. It was built to be a good development sled: tough as nails so it wouldn’t damage when I hit walls (which happened a lot as a beginner), but not very responsive, so I had the freedom to wiggle and move on it down the track, a bad habit I’ve now begun to clear away. But Noelle took it down anyway. She posted a fairly descent time, but when she came back to the top of the track, she found me. I was expecting to hear a word of gratitude or something, which I got, but which was also followed immediately by, “You should look into getting a new sled. You’ve got a second and a half in you just in equipment.”

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Noelle could have just said thanks, and not said anything else. But she offered her advice, and continued to do so through the tour. She shared her race notes, her lines, her tips. She was our competition, but first and foremost, she was our mentor and teammate. She was willing to split her attention from her own races to make sure we did our best.

Noelle even let me borrow her old sled for the Park City races during Team Trials. Here I am supporting the USWNT before a training run.

Noelle even let me borrow her old sled for the Park City races during Team Trials. Here I am supporting the USWNT before a training run.

Katie is the type of athlete I’ve never met before. She is tough as nails, driven and determined, and not just on the track. She has a go-get-’em attitude that I had only heard about, but never actually witnessed before. Our personalities are so different that it is actually intimidating for me to talk to her. But as the years go on, I’ve realized that Katie is an excellent example of a leader by example. I see how hard she works in the gym and on the track. I see what dedication she puts into sliding. She wears her goals proudly on her sleeve, and doesn’t give a @#!*% to what other people may think. She marches to the beat of her own drummer, and she’s incredibly successful.

I’ve never been quite as nervous as I was watching the final two heats of the 2014 Olympic women’s skeleton runs. With both Katie and Noelle challenging for medals, I knew the impact it would have on our program. I knew how badly both of them wanted that medal. I can’t begin to describe my emotions watching Katie’s final run. What was even more intense was watching the two sliders after her. Sitting in 5th, Katie had to watch and wait. After Olga Potylitsina’s run was slower, Katie moved up a spot. Elena Nikitina was next. She bled time down the track, and the green clock was getting closer and closer to the red. Katie’s got it, I thought with each split. She’s got it. She’s got the bronze! When Nikitina crossed the line, a -.04 was next to her name. By less than a blink of an eye, Katie’s medal hopes were dashed.

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There was barely enough time to process this heartbreak before it was Noelle’s turn. Each curve, I waited, holding my breath. I couldn’t think about anything else. I kept an eye on the clock. She was in the green. Still in the green. She was crossing the finish line, and still in the green. She had won a silver medal.

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Noelle has a tearful celebration during the flower ceremony.

Emotions erupted. Noelle jumped up and down, vaulted a barricade and kissed her husband tearfully in the stands while her kids crowded around her. Even after Lizzy Yarnold of Great Britain easily won the gold medal, Noelle still celebrated. And there was Katie, clearly heartbroken, having barely missed a bronze.

It took me hours to calm down after the races. Even at work that night, I had to avoid watching the NBC prime time rebroadcast, because the emotions were so raw that I knew I’d break down again if someone asked me about it. Still, they asked. My coworkers know what I do, and the reactions of our patrons in the restaurant made it impossible to avoid. Only one table of the night could claim they knew what I went through: their son was an alpine skier who competed against the Olympians once.

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It’s been an incredible experience watching my USBSF teammates compete in Sochi, but after the skeleton races, I’ve determined that I am a horrible spectator. I don’t want to sit through that again. Watching my teammates and cheering them on is, of course, something I want to do. But the next time the Games roll around, I want it to be me on that track. I’ve never been as nervous to slide as I was to watch. I have control over the results when I slide. I don’t when I’m thousands of miles away watching coverage on TV.

So, the fire is stoked within me again, more powerfully than before. I intend on being a serious contender for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. I intend to be the one representing the United States.

I’m well aware that the chance is just that: chance. But I’m determined to make the best shot for myself possible.

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