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Category: skiing (Page 1 of 6)

#projectfemur: my hip is now missing a couple of bits… for the better

My hip/femur is now a few grams lighter. There’s less pain and more mobility. #projectfemur – for now – feels quite a bit better.

Sixteen days ago, Dr. Faucett removed some of the hardware from my January 2014 reconstructive surgery. As I wrote about in my previous post, the screws that bound my femoral head to the rod that aligned my broken femur had made their way into my hip capsule, playing bundles of nerves like a guitar pick on a string.

It was painful, to say the least. Standing up, sitting down, lifting my leg, walking, running, skiing – it all hurt. In the weeks leading into this most recent surgery, even riding my bike was painful. The nerves were so aggravated on a ride one week prior to my surgery that my entire right leg went numb, and I had to ride 25 miles back to DC more-or-less on one leg’s worth of power.

No more screws

Look ma: no more screws!

The surgery was a laparoscopic procedure, minimally invasive. One screw came out without a hitch, while the other brought a bit of dead bone with it on the way out so I wasn’t able to keep it. There was a ton of post-operative swelling: laparoscopy requires a lot of fluid to be flushed through the working area to provide a view for the camera, so the incisions drained for the better part of 30 hours. It was painful at first, and awkward.

But the pain soon subsided (I was off of the opioids within a couple of days, save for a few nights’ worth to aid sleep comfort during the heat wave), the swelling went down, and mobility returned to my leg rather quickly. I’m on a prescription NSAID (Celebrex, FWIW) that’s keeping any latent pain in check, but there isn’t a lot of pain to be found. I was cleared to bear full weight on the leg from the get-go, and graduated from two crutches to one within a week.

So things are better, much better.

However, the nerve pain being greatly reduced shows me how much biomechanical compensation I’ve introduced into my walking over the past year. My right hip flexor, gluteus, adductors, and hamstrings are very weak, and my right abductor is smaller than its left counterpart. In fact, my upper leg is one inch smaller in diameter than the left, and both legs are very lean right now. Below the knee, things are just about equal.

Two legs, two sizes

My legs as of August 31, 2016: one is smaller than the other…

So I know what work I need to do in the next two months: get the right leg back into shape and try to get back some of the flexibility it had before necrosis set in. I know not to expect 100 percent pre-injury mobility, and that even 100 percent pre-injury strength is tough given the femur is still eroding. But getting things into shape, and closer to equilibrium, is key, whether I’m heading into a full ski season this winter or a total hip replacement just after Halloween (the timeline depends on how pain levels even out over the next 4-6 weeks, but I’m optimistic).

Dr. Faucett says it’s now entirely my own timeline to write, and I have a prescription for physical therapy to help along the problem areas. The muscles are already saying “thank you” to me in anticipation.

I’ll be researching orthopedists to do my total hip replacement. I have two primary parameters: the orthopedist must be well versed in revisions of previous hip replacements (i.e. compensating for already-compromised and rebuilt joints), and must be good at rebuilding the hips of impact sport athletes. I will leave no stone unturned in finding the right surgeon and the right replacement hardware for my needs.

Until then, I’m back on the bike, starting tonight at the penultimate “Downtown Breakaway” for the year. It’s a ride I organize every year, and I’ve missed the last two weeks due to the surgery. While I won’t be at 100 percent, it’ll be good to be back out there on two wheels with my friends.

Stay tuned…

#projectfemur turns 2.0: osteonecrosis

I know, I know: it’s been a long while since my last update on… well, anything. For this, I apologize.

Heck, two years ago this week, I went on one of my first club bike rides after my surgery.

First club ride after surgery, August 9, 2014.

It was awesome – as was the 2015 riding season!

During the 2015-16 winter season, I had a really successful alpine ski coaching experience, helping my athletes qualify for elite regional championship competitions.

Coach Rudi at Sunday River, March 2016

That rocked!

But there was a specter lurking in the background. It is a single word:

osteonecrosis

Also known as avascular necrosis, it’s a condition where blood supply gets cut off within a bone, causing the bone to die. It is caused by any number of things, and I’m not sure how I happened to develop it, but it’s there, clear as day, in my femoral head.

Avascular necrosis has taken over my femoral head - not good.

Avascular necrosis has taken over my femoral head – not good.

How did my discovery of this come about?

Let’s do a quick recap:

After my one year surgery anniversary, things were good:

My femoral head, one year after its repair.

My femoral head, one year after its repair.

See that nice, round femoral head? See the clean mending of where I was once broken in two? All good!

I skied in 2014-15. I rode my bike a lot once I was free to ride outdoors. I hiked. I ran.

But then things went off the rails.

Back around Thanksgiving of 2015, I started to feel a bit of pain and catching in my right hip. It was here-and-gone stuff, and while my hip had always been a bit stiff in the morning, until then it had been able to get into the swing of things rather quickly on most days.

But by late November, the pain was more intense, sharper, and sustained. Sure, it would go away after a little while, but sometimes it would just stay there all day. Ibuprofen would calm the pain most of the time, but not all of the time. And I’d get a real nerve pinch down my adductor (I believed this to be a lingering side-effect of tearing said adductor a few years before my femur break).

As the ski season commenced, the pain continued to intensify. When I flew out to Utah for a USSA certification clinic, some of the on-snow exercises were tough to pull off. I noticed a decreasing ability to lift my right leg laterally. Every afternoon after the skiing was over, I’d spend time in the hot tub at my hotel, then stretch to try and loosen my hip, often to only semi-successful levels.

During a bike ride over the Christmas holidays in Connecticut, my right adductor would lock up in a painful way, and my hip would mis-track, causing my entire pedal stroke to degrade into spasmodic chaos – no fun. And a ski camp that occurred immediately thereafter was equally pain-laden, though skiing wasn’t too difficult to pull off without pain.

However, as the ski season continued (I was coaching four days per week all season long, sometimes more during intense racing times, from January through mid-March), the pain grew, the pain medications were less effective, and certain activities required in my work (e.g. having to drive long-ish distances to racing venues, skiing with large, heavy bundles of slalom gates, etc.) became downright excruciating. I’d demonstrate skills to my racers, trying to mask the pain in my expression. I even fell on the screws that attached my femoral head during the initial healing time, which was not pleasant at all, smarting for weeks.

Every day was masked in hip pain that would, at times, radiate down my leg. My walking gait became so labored and awkward that everybody could tell something was wrong. At least on a bike, I could be more-or-less normal, my December pain eventually subsiding as I began to ride more in the spring. But my range of motion in my right leg was compromised, catching in painful ways and making me feel like an old, helpless man.

Eventually, I had to clear things up with my orthopedist. X-rays happened, finding that one of the screws in the femoral head had been knocked through the head, the tip impinging my hip socket and possibly dragging over nerve bundles that travel down my leg. My doctor thought this could be part of the cause of the pain, and said that the screws should come out – a simple outpatient procedure.

My femoral head as of June 2016.

My femoral head as of June 2016.

Worrying both my doctor and me, though, was a random bone fragment that showed itself on another X-ray. As X-rays don’t show things in three dimensions, he ordered a CT scan for my right hip. I had it performed at GW Hospital, in their latest CT scanner (a very quiet machine).

When my doctor called me two days later from an out-of-town conference, I knew things were not good.

He kept it simple: I had osteonecrosis, and am facing total hip replacement.

Fuck. Damn. Shit. Why? How? Fuuuuuuuuck!

I received this news a few days before departing for a week long family vacation at Cape Cod, which left me plenty of time to digest this news and start researching my options. There is a lot to learn about hip replacement, that’s for sure!

The long and short: I’ll get back my leg length and range of motion with any hip replacement method, which is a big plus. The minus is that anything other than basic cruising on alpine skis is highly discouraged, as it can displace, dislocate, or fully break the replacement hip. I hope to speak with some elite ski coaches who have had THR to get their perspectives on living with a replacement hip as a high-level skier.

I’ve since seen a second orthopedist to get a second opinion – major medical things like this should get a second opinion – and he confirmed the same diagnosis as my original doctor. He did, however, recommend having the hardware from #projectfemur removed first (the same thing my original orthopedist recommended), allowing the femur to adjust to a non-titanium-enhanced state and to prevent possible infection of the marrow channel if I get a total hip replacement during the same surgery.

And that’s what I’m going to do this coming Monday, August 15th, with my original doctor, Dr. Faucett, doing the honors. It’s a short, outpatient procedure, and recovery should be fairly quick. Hopefully, getting the screws out of my hip socket will alleviate much of the leg pain I have these days – and it is a lot of pain, lemme tell ‘ya!

But I look forward to this next chapter of #projectfemur – and yes, it’ll need a new hashtag. I’ll figure that out sometime soon.

Once the incisions heal and swelling subsides from this upcoming surgery, I’ll assess my pain levels. And I’m going to keep riding my bike – something that’s encouraged by both doctors to maintain strength and cardiovascular health (trust me, I don’t want another pulmonary embolism or similar issue). I’ll be on crutches for a few days, then a cane, then just plain walking again.

And then the bike – definitely the bike.

It’ll be a minimum of two months before I dive into the more major procedure of total hip replacement. Hopefully I’ll get enough pain relief to delay this until spring of 2017 – and thus will be able to ski and perform my coaching duties more-or-less as usual. If not, surgery will likely happen later in the fall, and I’ll be coaching from a lawn chair. I’m up to the challenge, either way.

But right now my focus is on Monday’s surgery. And I apologize in advance to the ski team’s board of directors: I may be a bit groggy during the evening conference call that evening. Heheheheh…

bringing it all back home: #projectfemur hits the slopes

Well, it was bound to happen: last Saturday, I donned my trusty Lange boots, clicked into a well-worn pair of skis, and got on a chairlift.

Destination: to ski again, this time at Mount Snow, Vermont.

I happened to be up north for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, staying with sprite’s folks in north-central Connecticut. We drove up to Connecticut in a winter storm that produced much rain, freezing rain, sleet, graupel, and snow, arriving to a wet, 5-inch accumulation in Connecticut. But that same storm dumped 12-14 inches of fresh, fluffy snow on top of a very good man-made base at Mount Snow, so my choice of venue made sense. Also, it’s only 90-or-so minutes from sprite’s folks’ place, so the drive isn’t an all-day time suck.

I arrived at the resort about 20 minutes before the lifts started turning, and there was already a large queue at the Bluebird Express lift, the only chair serving the summit of the mountain. That was fine by me, as I wanted to start my day on something a bit less of a full commitment. So, after picking up my lift ticket (pro tip: buy online in advance, it saves a decent amount of money), I donned my skis, tightened the strap on my new Briko helmet, and proceeded to the Canyon Express lift, which serves the lower half of Mount Snow’s front face.

As I rode solo on the lift (all of the crowd – and I mean all of it – was heading toward the summit on Bluebird), I surveyed the open terrain: two rolling intermediate-level slopes, recently groomed, with excellent snow cover. I assessed my legs, and both seemed up to the task. I did have a little trepidation, as I wasn’t able to get a needed shim installed on my right boot to compensate for the loss of femoral length (1.5 cm) on #projectfemur. But this was going to be a low-key, low-speed day, so being a little bit out of balance wasn’t a big deal.

Most of all: I was elated to be back on skis!

As I promised myself and friends, I took it easy. The lack of shims on my right boot meant that turns involving said foot would be awkward, and that flat-footed gliding would be nigh-on-impossible. But, just like riding a bike, the feel came back. My back wasn’t in the best of shape (strained it a week prior), so I decided to mete out my runs in small chunks. Eventually, I waded into the crowd to catch a ride to the summit, where I snapped the panorama you see at the top of this post – it was a beautiful day, ideal for skiing and being outdoors.

After three runs of short-swing, slow GS turns, and stance drills, I retreated to the base lodge for coffee and some light stretching while I waited for the lunch spot to open. I figured that taking an early lunch would allow me to enjoy shorter queues as the crowds ate.

As you can see, the queue for Bluebird Express was quite large while I ate my chili and enjoyed a local microbrew (and Canyon Express was handling the overflow, and had a decently long queue, as well):

After lunch, I decided to explore more of the open terrain at the mountain, heading over to the Carinthia area. Yes, it’s technically a terrain park, but this early in the season most of the runs are groomed, without the rails, jumps, and other trappings of the park crowd. The snow was soft and easy on my legs and back, and I was able to enjoy a slow ride up one of the few old-school, fixed grip lifts remaining at Mount Snow.

I skied until 1:45pm or so, as my lower back started to ache and impede my skiing motions. I managed nine runs for the day, soaking in each one as I did my first outdoor bike rides back in August. There was a lot of smiling, laughing, and joyful yodeling easily traced back to me.

Yes, there’s work to be done – namely, getting my right boot shimmed and re-aligned to the new reality of #projectfemur. But it was skiing, it was brilliant, I was back in my element – home, again.

starting re-entry… slowly… (#projectfemur)

It’s less than a month until I’m back to riding full-time on the road. I’m keeping busy during that time.

The workouts continue, with increasing intensity and focus. My time in the gym is spent mostly either in the weight room, where I’m building leg and arm strength, or in the stretching area, where I can work on core strength and flexibility. The latter is something I’m working on a lot in PT, where Scott and Megan have been working diligently to make my repaired leg every bit as capable as its healthy neighbor.

Next challenge for that: rotational flexibility. To visualize what that is: I can’t sit cross-legged on the floor right now, as my right leg can’t rotate and lie flat just yet. Soon – just another goal in my sight.

This morning I started the next step in my bike training with Matt at District Cycle Works: morning workouts on a Wahoo Kickr. This is a major step up from the Star Trac eSpinner I’ve been using at the gym, as it allows me to use my own bike for the workouts. It also pairs with my Garmin Edge 500 and my iPhone to record my rides and the associated data, including power output. This opens a whole world of possibilities for my workouts as I head into the home stretch.

Most of all, though, it’s fun to be able to workout with friends who will actually converse with me.

Wahoo!!!

That’s something that’s sorely lacking at the gym, where folks tend to fold into the insular shells provided by the ever-present earbuds.

Just so you don’t think it’s all about the bike (do I owe that Armstrong guy a royalty for trotting out that phrase?), I’ve also spent some time on the beach, where I tested out my run.

Running!

It was awesome!

I’ve also been dipping my toe back into local government – very local, as in the Advisory Neighborhood Commission’s Transportation and Public Infrastructure Committee. Basically, this committee advises the ANC (which is a step below the District Council) in all matters walking, cycling, parking, and parks. While I was brought into the fold because of cycling, as a pedestrian during my convalescence, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge of mode share issues that affect this committee. I’ve already penned a letter to DDOT, asking for follow-through on motions passed by the ANC back in 2012, and look forward to doing – and learning – more as my tenure grows.

And I’ve been working with some of my fellow ski coaches to come up with a fitness plan for our junior racers. I’d like to see all of the athletes come into the ski season in peak physical shape, not only to allow them a great chance of meeting (and exceeding) their goals, but also to provide them more safety against injury. Hopefully this will get some traction within the team – I know similar plans helped me achieve my skiing goals when I was younger.

What else is there to say? Sometimes you need to look at the details to see where you need to go…

Shados in surf

Maybe Jimi Hendrix said it best, regarding the impending next steps of my #projectfemur recovery:

“And so castles made of sand, fall in the sea, eventually.”

Sandcastle at Bethany Beach

project femur (or how my ski season ended with a bang)

There’s no way to keep this brief, so here goes:

Last Saturday, I was skiing at Liberty Mountain, Pennsylvania, coaching their alpine race team. The weather had been foggy and rainy all day, a once hard-as-rock snow surface turned into a slushy, peeling mess.

On our penultimate run of the day, the kids, my fellow coach, Tyler, and I were taking a run on Lower Ultra, making giant slalom turns. The snow, by this point (12:40pm), was really soupy. About 3/4 way down the run, I caught the edge of my right ski in the snow. I was going approximately 40 miles per hour, and was now hurtling, with little control, toward a stand of trees and rocks.

My instinct was to avoid hitting the tree, so I tried to self-arrest, stopping myself before going off the trail and into the woods. I tumbled and tried to stop. My left ski released. My right ski planted itself perpendicular to the fall line, sank into the snow, and stuck, while my body kept rotating counter-clockwise. The ski didn’t release.

Something snapped. I tumbled one more time, and my right leg whipped around and landed in an awkward way, rotated out of a normal position.

“Fuck,” I thought, “I’m really hurt – and nobody knows I’m here.”

I didn’t move, not wanting to injure myself further. Adrenaline masked the pain. Two lift attendants saw the crash and called the ski patrol. Patrol arrived within 5 minutes, as did some of my fellow coaches. I was put on a backboard, my right leg rotated 45 degrees outward from its normal position. Had I dislocated my hip? Had I broken my hip or leg?

This would not be known until I could get to a hospital. The ski patrol loaded me on the backboard onto a sled and took me to the resort base, where I was transferred to an ambulance (the EMT with the ambulance recognized me from the Civil War Century – the ambulance was based in Fairfield, PA). Having had no pain medication, this really hurt, but I pushed through the pain.

30-or-so minutes later, we arrived at Gettysburg Hospital, where I was whisked into an exam room. I was given an IV drip of pain meds, which helped blunt the searing pain. I was given X-rays, which showed a dislocated (i.e. spiral) fracture of my right femur, a couple inches below the femoral head, and other damage that may have been pelvis fractures.

No wonder I hurt!

Given I was skiing so fast at the time of the fall, the orthopedist at Gettysburg wanted me to be transferred to a level one trauma center for my next steps. So I was given another ambulance ride, this time to George Washington University Hospital. Ativan helped me sleep through the whole ride (save for the last two miles, where I helped the drivers find the hospital).

New X-rays determined that only my femur was broken (very good news), and a CT scan showed no internal injuries. Early Sunday morning, I had surgery to repair my femur: four pins and a rod are my latest additions. Four hours of surgery produced a repaired, but very sore and tired, me.

Since then, I’ve been working to heal. It’s not easy. I can’t currently bear weight on the repaired leg. My upper body strength isn’t great, so standing up and using a walker is very difficult.

But I’m carrying on. I’ll be transferred to an outpatient physical therapy facility in the next day or two, where I’ll likely spend two weeks. I hope to be back on my bike by late spring, and skiing again next winter.

today’s adventure: strap ’em on!

First day of skiing for the 2013-14 season is in the books.

It was a great day to ski in Vermont: cold, dry, sunny, calm wind, and no crowds for the first two hours.

I actually took 17 runs - a bug in the software, tho the other data is OK.

I actually took 4 17 runs – a bug in the software, tho the other data is OK.

This was my first time using Ski Tracks, a smartphone app that tracks ski data. It separates uphill data from the descents, which is really cool. It’s not without problems, though. When I paused the app for lunch, it lost count of my total runs – or at least reset the run count. I had 8 11 runs before lunch, 6 after. It did retain the rest of my data, though, so… a bug.

My runs and lift rides at Okemo, in nifty map-track format!

My runs and lift rides at Okemo, in nifty map-track format!

It was nice to get some time on skis before my coaching gig starts in two weeks.

transitions (or trading shoes for boots)

This morning, I woke up and brewed coffee. I washed my face, brushed my teeth, and toasted an English muffin. I then donned my cycling togs (longer layers, as it’s chilly outside, with wind in the forecast), packed a bag, topped off the bike’s tires, lubed the chain, loaded up the car, drove to Bowie to meet my friends.

In other words: it was a typical Saturday morning.

We rolled out from Allen Pond Park: Jonathan, Chris, Mark, Ed, and me. Our plan was to ride a smooth, off-season pace, no county line sprints, on a route that gently rolled down to Chesapeake Bay and back. The sky was streaked with cirrus and cirrostratus clouds, with a cool breeze from the northwest – it was a perfect day to ride.

As we rode, the conversation was fun, and everybody seemed to be in a fine mood. Our bikes all wheeled along quietly. We passed farms with horses, cattle, sheep, and weary farmers. One pasture had a girl flying a kite.

 Girl flying a kite

The halfway point was Sweet Sue’s, our usual break spot. The hot drinks were just so-so (the folks behind the counter just couldn’t pull a quality espresso shot), but the baked goods were up to their usual yummy standard.

Rolling north along the Chesapeake, we were spared the bad wind, and treated to myriad lovely views. The wind that was there was increasingly chilly, and the cloud cover became thicker the closer we got to our cars.

 

After we were done riding, I went by the local ski shop to pick up my new skis and old boots so I’ll be ready for my coaching duties, which should be starting in mid December (though I hope to ski next weekend while up north for the holiday). The excitement that coursed through my body and mind when I took hold of the new skis for the first time was infectious.

 Redsters

And tonight, there were snow flurries in DC. I went outside, giggled with glee, and danced a little dance of joy (not to worry, DC snow paranoids: it didn’t stick).

sprite in the snow
The transition from my summer sporting love to my winter sporting love is in motion – and today’s transition between the two worlds made it very clear to me. While the cycling shoes won’t be totally hung up for the winter – I’ll still ride a bit, and my bike commute won’t go away – my boots are going to be the go-to footwear for fun when the snow flies.

Winter is coming, and I’m prepared – and elated.

coming this winter: a new (old) hat… er, jacket

Folks who know me are keenly aware that skiing is my first sporting love.

It was the first sport that I actually wanted to pursue, and I took to it quickly. I started racing in 6th grade, my school having just established a non-academy alpine racing team.

Me racing at Snowbird in 1985

I got to be fairly good at racing, and spent my high school years racing for Rowmark Ski Academy, the elite alpine racing program in my school.

Me racing DH at Sun Valley in 1989

Me racing at Snowbird in 1990

I raced in college, as well, with a few years off during that time to recover from injury, transfer schools, and move to the east coast. During my time at Connecticut College, I became a de facto coach to my fellow racers, which was a rewarding experience.

I’ve even coached recreational and masters racers in Colorado – again, a rewarding experience.

My Speed Summit Masters Camp group - 2011

I’ve also done quite a bit of recreational skiing over the years. My skis have been underfoot in 12 states, British Columbia, France, and Austria. And while racing tends to focus on hard snow surfaces on manicured trails, I have a soft spot in my heart for powder and untamed mountains.

Powder in Blue Sky Basin - 11 April 2008

Looking from the top of Baldy

I volunteered at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, which you can read about here. And I criticized how NBC handles their exposure of ski racing to the U.S. viewing public.

Last season, I helped coach the racers at a local junior race team, and found it quite rewarding.

And that all leads to this – coming this winter to a (tiny) mountain near you (if you live in DC, northern Maryland, or south-central Pennsylvania):

My new winter hat... er, jacket

I’m coaching the U16 group – i.e. 14 and 15-year-old racers – and it should be quite the experience. I’m happy to give back to the sport that has brought me much joy over the years.

feeling deflated

Eight days ago I did something that doesn’t happen all too often: I injured myself while skiing.

The morning leading up to the injury was lovely: skiing with friends at Berkshire East ski area, on a bluebird day where the snow was nice and firm at first, and had just hit a bit of a “spring corn” consistency by 11:15am.

And that’s when I went down. I was on a flat traverse back to the base lodge, skiing with my pal, Liam. I turned a bit to the left to see where he was, and my right ski turned sharply and caught the outside edge. It acted like the fulcrum of a lever, and when the edge caught in the softening snow, I went down quickly and hard.

THUD!

I kept twisting through the fall, rolling out the landing on my butt, back and head (thank goodness I wear a helmet every time I ski). My right leg released from the ski binding, but my left leg went up with my momentum in a bit of a cartwheel motion, ski still firmly attached. That momentum was enough to damage the adductor muscles and tendons in my right leg (yup – it’s a groin injury, like you read about with basketball and hockey players).

It didn’t feel like much at first, so I went up for another run. But partway down that run, pain set in, and I couldn’t bear substantial weight on my right leg. It hurt “like a sumbitch,” as they say out west. So I called it a day. Steve, my friend who instructs at Berkshire East, had lunch with me, then helped me get my gear into the car.

The drive back to sprite’s folks’ place in Connecticut wasn’t bad – linear motions of the leg didn’t hurt at all – but the next few days were spent with a lot of ice, handfuls of ibuprofen, and a lot of rest. The drive back to DC was OK, even if getting into and out of the car was tough.

Now it’s been a little over a week, and I’m stir crazy. You see, the healing process for an adductor injury is slow. Rushing back into action often makes the injury chronic, so it’s best to wait out the pain and gradually get back up to speed.

And as much as I try to be patient with these things, I’m really not that kind of guy. It’s very tough. It makes me bitter, restless, and a bit of a grump. Sure, I can channel my anger into rebuilding my one bike, upgrading the other, or doing other things that need to be done.

But I really want to ride my bikes – after all, I have a big ride that requires training. I would love to ski, even if all the good powder is falling hundreds of miles from DC. I’d like to be able to walk more than a mile without having to ice my adductors afterward.

So bear with me while I vent. This, too, shall pass.

citius, altius, fortius (10 years ago)

Ten years ago, this month, I stood on a hill at 4:30 in the morning, wearing my skis and uniform, carrying a shovel over my shoulder, and pushed off down a slope lit only by moonlight and the occasional spark that shot off one of my friend’s ski edges.

Yup: I volunteered at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Utah.

My official position there was FIELD-OF-PLAY | SPORT | ALPINE SKIING | SNOWBASIN – quite a mouthful. What it meant is that I was part of the course crew at the Alpine Skiing speed venue at Snowbasin, Utah, about an hour north-northeast of Salt Lake City (my hometown). My job was to help keep a section of the women’s downhill, super-G and combined slalom course as fair as can be from racer to racer. It involved buffing snow, setting up and maintaining safety fencing, and making sure that my colleagues were all on the same page, and that we, in turn, were on the same page as the chief-of-race.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And there were hundreds of us on the mountain for these events.

It meant getting up at 2:30 in the morning on event days (3:30 on training days), meeting my carpool to drive up to a remote parking lot around 10 miles from Snowbasin, hopping on a bus (often a loaner WMATA MetroBus) still bleary eyed, getting off at the resort, going through “mag-and-bag” supervised by the National Guard, meeting my crew chief and fellow crew members in the base lodge, putting on my ski boots, grabbing my skis from overnight storage, hopping on the lift at 4:20am (5:20 on training days), getting to the summit, grabbing a shovel or rake (or sometimes 2 or 3), and skiing in the dark to my section of course.

As my course section was smack dab in the middle of the mountain, my crew didn’t have the luxury of skiing under the floodlights that covered the venue. We skied “by feel” down to our section and immediately got to work on the day’s task. We moved fences. We shoveled snow. We boot-packed loose snow, then raked and shoveled it into a smooth consistency. We talked with coaches and officials from all over the world (I had a “side business” of trading official start lists with coaches, in exchange for unique and rare pins). We would occasionally get to talk with athletes (including Picabo Street, an old mate from junior racing days).

And we had a TON of fun.

We did this for two weeks straight, as our events vied for time with the figure skating, hockey, bobsled, luge, curling, nordic skiing, jumping, biathlon and other events. Our work day was usually wrapped up by 3pm, so the volunteers could take advantage of what the Olympics had to offer from an entertainment standpoint.

And there was a lot to do during this “downtime!”

Downtown Salt Lake City was transformed into a 24-7 party. Concerts were held in conjunction with the medal ceremonies. Each Olympic committee from each participating nation had its own “house” with food, drink and festivities. The locals were almost all in good spirits (even those who fought, tooth and nail, to prevent the Games from coming to SLC), and the out-of-towners each brought their own enthusiasm to the mix.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been looking at my box of memorabilia from the Games. I still have the uniform, even if it’s a bit too big these days (I discovered long-distance road cycling in the intervening years). I have a large pin collection, populated not only with team pins but also pins that refer to Utah’s quirks, as well as ones that were only issued to the volunteers. I still have the commemorative watch, though I need to get its band repaired. I have a stack of newspapers from the Games and the previous year’s World Cup, where I also volunteered. I have a couple of “spectator kits” from the opening and closing ceremonies (neither of which I attended, though I was at the dress rehearsal for the opening ceremony). There’s a pile of ticket stubs from various events and concerts I attended. And I have a lovely bronze medallion, minted by the same jeweler who made the athletes’ medals – it’s lovely.

You can see pictures snapped by my fellow volunteer, John Risley, here (I’ll also be posting pictures of other memorabilia in this set – keep checking for that). And just to show that I still have (and occasionally wear) the uniform, click here.

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