February 09, 2006

The Deep Cut and the Free Stuff

Image hosted by CBC.ca I have known Sami Jo Small since my days at Stanford, where she was a scholarship athlete on the track and field team, and played goal for the (men's) hockey club team; and I was a graduate student. Since that time Sami Jo has graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, and has also become a mainstay of Canada's hockey team. She was an alternate in 1998, played as the second goalie in 2002 behind Kim St. Pierre, and has played in numerous world championships as well.

Sami Jo is also part of the 2006 team, and I sent her an e-mail congratulating her for that accomplishment. She replied graciously, informing me that she was going as the alternate again; she won't play, and she isn't even officially an athlete. In many ways, this is worse than not being on the team; if you read Sami Jo's blog posts from January 2 and January 20, you will see exactly how hard it has been for her to face that decision. In her e-mail, though, she shows that she is coping pretty well with the end of her Olympic dream:

It's been a tough pill to swallow, however, I have decided to travel with the team over to Italy. We leave in less than two weeks now and despite knowing that I won't get to play at least I get all the free stuff! Humour will help me get through this!

That reminded me of a story about my own athletic career that I thought was sort of relevant. At the risk of sullying my until-now-pristine image, I'd like to tell a little story about the summer of 1992.

After an early season full of frustration, I was nominated to the COC as an alternate to the 1992 Olympic team. The nomination was rejected, to nobody's surprise; I was in training camp in Ottawa when I found out. With more than a month until the end of my season, I had the choice of staying to train with my friends on the Olympic team, or going home to train alone. There were a number of reasons that I decided to stick around, but the fact was that I just couldn't face going home. You see, my little brother had made the Olympic team where I had failed. To say that I was somewhat ashamed of myself should not diminish the fact that I was very proud of him; I think that this contradiction is something that anybody with siblings can understand, and I won't say more about it.

At any rate, I stayed in Ottawa for a few weeks, and I think I was a valuable addition to the training group. (Well, I am sure that I was occasionally crabby or unpleasant or just plain depressing to be around; I am sure that Sami Jo's brave face has also slipped a few times over the past month.) Just before departing for Spain, the team was scheduled to take part in an Olympic warm-up regatta against the US team in Lake Placid. I was invited to participate, to help fill out the race card, and to keep me motivated. The only hitch was that the team was travelling to Lake Placid via Toronto, stopping to take care of their Olympic staging over the weekend.

Staging, for those of you who don't know, is basically an orientation session for the Olympic team. Canadian athletes, coaches, and staff all have to pass through the COC's staging process to be prepared for the Olympics — and to get a bag full of "free stuff," as Sami Jo puts it. In 1992, staging was set up at a nice hotel in Toronto. So if I was going to travel with the team to Lake Placid, I was going to have to find somewhere to stay for the weekend.

Fortunately, it so happened that my brother was not going to Lake Placid, or to staging, and so I engaged in a small deception. I went to staging, pretending to he him; I stayed in the nice hotel room that he was entitled to, and I ate the nice meals. I collected all of his free stuff, and learned everything that he needed to know about Barcelona. The highlight of the weekend was a trip to a Blue Jays game at the Skydome, where I was announced (as him) on the field with a large group of Olympic athletes. I got autographs from Jeff Kent and Juan Guzman, on a Blue Jays hat that my brother happily let me keep, and although the Blue Jays lost badly, I enjoyed myself immensely.

Of course the entire experience could have been extremely bitter, since I knew it was only a pretense. But my friends and teammates joined in the fun, and saw that I was taking the deep cut of failure with my sense of humour more or less intact; and I think I emerged from the experience healthier than I was when I entered. I raced in Lake Placid, and went home and gave my brother (most of) his free stuff; after that, I saw him off to Barcelona, and cheered heartily for him on TV. Over the years I had many more opportunities to cheer him on, including at the 1996 Olympics, which we went to together.

In some ways, Sami Jo's situation is more difficult, because she knows that this was her last opportunity. She has chosen to be positive about her role in spite of her disappointment, and her questions about the fairness of the decision. She has nothing to gain from this; she is already an Olympic gold medallist, and has been the hero for Canada many times. Although she jokes about her motivation, it is clear that it would have been easier for her to walk away. It is to her great credit that she did not.

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