Dalton W. Williams
I started helping at local ski races in Vail during the winter of 1985-86 because I was such a poor student in ski school that they kicked me out and told me to go watch the kid's races and perhaps I could see how to make my skis turn! It must have helped as I skied a total of 87 days that winter and earned my first United States Ski Association accreditation as a Gate Keeper. Over the next few years I progressed earning first my Referee accreditation and then in 1989 accreditation in Timing and Calculation which allowed me to work as Assistant Starter for the 1989 World Championships. That was when I set a goal for myself to somehow, somewhere, work at the Winter Olympics!
I continued my work as a United States Ski Association Official and continued progressing in my accreditation. Over 16 years I worked numerous World Cup races in Vail, Alaska, Vermont and Canada, as well as two World Championships. Someone here mentioned to me that I have started more world cup races than anyone else in the U.S. I find that hard to believe... but possibly so.
Friday Night - Opening Ceremonies
I would have told you that yes, it is a big deal working at the Olympics, but... when sitting at the opening ceremonies last night and the Parade of Athletes started, my eyes filled with tears and a huge lump swelled in my throat ... was I really here? Really AT the Olympic Games?
I pinched my self just to make sure that I was not dreaming. YES!! I REALLY WAS HERE! -- I was sitting among 65,000 people in the Olympic Stadium and this was the real thing!
It was beautiful to see in person, and in my mind's eye very similar in many ways but with a definite American them to what I think was the best Olympic Opening Ceremonies ever in Lillehammer, Norway. There were the spirits of the winter in wispy white floating and dancing in the night air. The spirits of the wild horses, coyotes, and western animals dancing to Copland's music in the center of the stadium along with the symbol of the American west the buffalo. As the spirits gave way to the four tribes of American Indians who lived in Utah the stadium became a sea of color as over a thousand native American's took up the drum beat of Indian life and culture before each of the tribal chief's blessed the games and the athletes. Then came the settlers with their covered wagons and square dancing followed by the meeting of the east and west railroad in Ogden and the driving of the "Golden Spike" that united America, just as the Salt Lake Olympics are uniting the world here this week.
What is it like working at the Olympics? In a word; Fantastic!
I am assigned as part of the Timing and Scoring group at Snowbasin, the site of the Alpine Speed events; Men's and Women's Downhill Ski Races, SuperG Ski Races, and Combined Ski Races. These are the true speed events of ski racing with the athletes skiing in excess of 80 miles per hour down a steep and winding course.
My job during the races is as the finish spotter responsible for confirming the bib number of each racer to the timing and scoring building as they cross the finish line. My immediate "boss" is Anna McIntire, a lady I have known since the 1989 World Championships and for whom I have worked World Cup races in Vermont. Allen Church is the Chief of Timing and Scoring for the Salt Lake Olympic Games. I have known Allen and worked with him for many years. If you watched the Opening Ceremonies, Allen was the Official to took the Official's Oath representing all of the Officials and Volunteers working through out the Olympics.
Most of us arrived here on Sunday, February 2nd and after picking up our uniforms, attended our first training class which was a review of the two inch binder of material we had each received to study the week before by mail. Monday was another day of training and introduction to the Snowbasin Olympic Facilities. I had been here the year before working the Olympic and Para-Olympic test events and I was truly amazed at how much work had been done. Where last year there were limited facilities, this year there are beautiful day lodges that rival anything we have in Vail and Beaver Creek!
Tuesday we were up at 6:00 and through "Mag & Bag" by 7:00 AM. Our job for the day was to run test races confirming the timing equipment on both the Men's and Women's courses. This filled the day as we worked the bugs out of the timing systems and the officials responsible for the course worked out minor changes to make certain we would have fair races.
Talk about security... There are Army Blackhawk helicopters flying around constantly, well over 500 army troops with guns, and hundreds of FBI and Police everywhere. The radio reported that there are more military people guarding us here than fought the war in Afghanistan! And I believe it! Then came the line at "Mag & Bag" -- Each day we have to pass through metal detectors similar to what you see at the airport "Mag" and have our clothes and back packs searched "Bag" before entering the Olympic facilities. Think about 1,500 volunteers with ski's, ski boots, and ski clothes with all those metal zippers... That line at the airport is nothing!
The real work started on Wednesday. Each day the Timing Crew's alarm clocks came early at 4:30 as we had to be on the busses at 5:30. The sleepy crews mostly slept on the busses as they wound their way up to the race headquarters fifteen minutes away. After clearing "Mag & Bag" we check in, pick up our breakfast and lunch tickets in one tent and proceed to the breakfast tent where we have the choice of one bag of instant oatmeal or one Pop Tart; a choice of a bottle of water, can of Coke, or a bottle of Power Drink; and then we can pick up an apple or an orange before walking across to pick up our frozen sack lunch out of the back of a truck. We then follow the path to the "FOP" tent where we can mix our oatmeal with hot water during the morning briefing.
Snowbasin has done an impressive job of preparing and hosting such an event as the Olympics with no prior experience. All of us working here think that Snowbasin is doing an exceptional job! Having expert assistance in the form of experienced course crews and snowcat operators from other areas who have hosted World Cup and World Championship races at Aspen, Vail and Beaver Creek for over 17 years has certainly helped.
The real hero's of Snowbasin are the 3,300 volunteers who arrive one and a half hours before anyone else and who work until dark preparing and maintaining the men's and women's courses. The photo shows just a few of the course workers on the final section of the course doing the final preparation just before a race. Those of us on the timing crews have it relatively easy compared to the course workers who shovel and rake the course to perfection. We take our hats off and salute them!
While working here is absolutely fantastic, the meals at best are not. Breakfast is a very small package of instant oatmeal and a Pop Tart, your choice of a Coke, Diet Coke or Power Drink and an apple or orange. There were several diabetics like myself that were not able to eat the breakfast and under the rules, we could not bring any food with us. The sack lunch contains one sandwich, two packages of cheese or peanut butter crackers, an container of soup which by the time lunch comes is completely frozen into a solid block from being out in the below freezing weather all morning, and oh yes... a very small bottle of water which by the time lunch rolls around is also frozen solid.
Each day we held two Training Runs, one on the Men's course and a second on the Women's course. With the speed that the Downhill Racers travel at, they are required to have at least one training run on the course before racing. We planned on having several for both the Men and the Women racers. We got one off on Wednesday and another two on Thursday, then of Friday the wind was blowing 80 MPH on the top and it was snowing so all training runs were canceled that day. But they held most of the volunteers to help deal with removing the snow from the course. It was a tired and weary crew that got home after 9:30 that evening.
The Olympic venue that was the most fun during our off hours was Main Street at Park City. This was the hub of pen-trading and socializing. It was a huge street party with tens of thousands of people dancing in the streets to live bands through out the day and night. And of course, everyone wanted to have their picture made with the official Olympic Mascots! Each of the crews also had parties such that there was always a fun party to attend, that is if you could find the energy! No party was ever short of happy people having a great time.
At each training race things run more and more smoothly. This is not to say that there are not glitches, but we are ready for the Men's race on Sunday.
Race Day! -- Men's Olympic Downhill Race
Sunday dawns a beautiful day. It is about 11 Fahrenheit during our morning meeting standing out side the timing building. Looking up on the mountain, the sun first begins to light the top with its glow. The Men's Downhill Race will be on schedule at 10:00AM. At 7:00AM, everyone packs their sandwich bags in their backpacks and loads the lifts to get in position hours before the race starts.
The crowd of 26,000 in the stadium behind us roars... It is the largest crowd to ever watch a ski race in American history... the sound is defining... the sun is shining... the racers are flying down the course... the race is on! First pace and Olympic Gold Medal go to Fritz Strobl of Austria, Silver goes to Lasse Kjus of Norway, and the Bronze to Stephan Eberharter. The best American racer is Daron Rahlves who finishes in 16th place.
Women's Olympic Downhill Race
Monday we are not so lucky, a weak snow storm has passed overnight leaving high winds on the top of the course. After delaying the start of the race twice, the race is rescheduled for Tuesday morning at 10:00 AM.
Tuesday it is a clear and sunny morning, but the winds are still with us! Having learned the day before that the winds died off after 12:00 Noon, today they postpone the race start time until Noon to give the winds a chance to die down. Even with the race being run a day late the stadium is once again full. This is fantastic. With all of my experience working ski races around the US, I have never seen crowds like these!
The first racer is on course at 12:10 after a short delay to repair a section of the "B" safety netting that was damaged when one of the forerunner's fell taking the "B" netting down with her. The race at that point on was flawless with Carole Montillet from France taking the Gold Medal, Isolde Kostner of Italy the Silver and Renate Goetschl of Austria the Bronze. Jonna Mendes and Kirsten Clark of the USA finished 11th and 12th.
America's sweetheart Picabo Street finished a disappointing 16th with a time that was slower than her training runs two days before. I have learned from officiating at downhill races for 17 years, that who wins on any given day is as much a factor of who is on the top of their game that day as anything. Having worked her way back from extremely serious injuries only two years before, it is a real tribute to her self discipline and drive that she was here today. The pressure to repeat as Olympic Champion was tremendous and that kind of pressure certainly has a negative effect for any athlete on race day!
Combined Downhill / Slalom Races
Wednesday was the combined. This is a downhill race followed by a two run slalom race on the same day. It is a true test of a skier's ability and the story of the race was the tremendous race run by Bode Miller of the USA. After a spectacular recovery from a fall, he finished in 15th place in the downhill portion followed by two truly outstanding runs in the slalom to capture the Silver Medal. Watching the replays on TV show his two slalom runs were flawless, and what a recovery from the fall in the downhill! First place and the Gold Medal were earned by Kjetil Andre Aamodt of Norway with the Bronze going to Benjamin Raich of Austria.
The Women's race was scheduled for 10:00 AM Thursday, but once again the weather was impacting our ability to run a high speed downhill race. The Race Jury decided to flip the schedule and run the slalom race first in the morning as that could be run on the bottom part of the mountain while waiting for the weather to clear on the top. To the delight of the 26,000 people in attendance this worked out perfectly, even though it did cause headaches for the Timing and Scoring Group who had to figure out how to do this in their computer programs.
As it worked out it made for a much better spectator race! The difference being that after the first slalom race, the top 15 racers race in reverse order of their finish in the preceding race. This means that as each racer comes down the second run of the slalom, each usually takes over first place by a fraction of a second which keeps the spectators cheering wildly as each successive racer takes over in the top three. What was unusual about the Women's Combined Downhill was that having it come after the Slalom, the timing computers that compute the start order again reversed the racers previous finish results from the Slalom starting the 15 finisher first and the first place finisher in the Slalom in the 15th starting position. This meant that as each racer completed the Downhill, they were again competing for first place. The spectators loved it and cheered on their feet for each successive racer. It was spectacular as were the results when Janica Kostelic from Croatia won the Gold Medal and was in tears in the finish area with the joy of being the first person to win a Gold Medal for her country. Renate Goetschl of Austria finished second capturing the Silver Medal and Martina Ertl of Germany the Bronze
Salt Lake Paralympics - March 2002
March started with me back in Salt Lake, this time working as a volunteer at the Paralympics Games. For those of you who have not heard of the Paralympics, they are the equivalent of the Olympics for athletes with physical disabilities. These Men, Women, Girls and Boys (yes all ages from 15 to 52) all have physical disabilities including blind skiers, skiers with Palsy, and skiers missing one or more limbs due to accident, injury or from birth. They compete under the same conditions and on the same race courses as the Olympic athletes just a week before. The difference being that they ski with adaptive equipment or guides in the case of the blind skiers.
This was to be much more fun! The security was more relaxed and the volunteers could actually meet and talk with the athletes in the afternoons after competition. I have been lucky enough to have worked with disabled skiers before as a volunteer helper at Breckenridge and as an official at the World Disabled Ski Championships at Beaver Creek in 1993. From these experiences I learned that though the racers are disabled, they have the spirit of champions.
The Paralympics events are actually more exciting and more fun than the Olympics! These athletes are not the international superstars with well know names, they are individuals from 57countries who love skiing and racing for fun with one big difference - that special competitive drive to be the best in the world! And compete they do! Sara Will in winning the Paralympics Downhill Gold Medal, did so on a "sit-ski" monoski down the same Downhill Race Course as the Olympics competitors raced on and actually beat the Olympic time. I have know Sara for many years as she lives in Vail and she is one tough young lady of 34 years. She was paralyzed from the waste down in a ski racing accident when she was 14, and as you can see it has not slowed her down.
The most amazing skiers to me are the blind skiers who ski with a guide in front of them telling them to go left, straight, or right as they go down the course. Though his time was not up to the Olympians, a totally blind skier and his guide from Australia skied the Downhill course in under three minutes. They are the two in the yellow jackets in the picture, and yes, both the blind skier and his guide get medals. A young lady from Canada accepted a Bronze Medal with her left hand while standing on her two prosthesis legs and her right arm prosthesis balancing her ski beside her. A TV reporter who ask her what it was like to be so disabled; "Normal, this is the way I was born. One hand, one arm, no legs."
I like the term differently-abled, as there is nothing about these individuals that makes them disabled. My friend Cato likes to say "I'm possible" rather than "impossible." The Cato Scenter rehabilitation center in Norway bears his name and his "I'm possible" slogan. Cato is one of several wonderful friends who are disabled skiers from around the world as well as home in Vail. It was great to see them here competing and winning during the games. A very special treat for me was to see Cato carry the Paralympics Flame into the stadium during the Opening Ceremonies. I have know Cato and his family for over 10 years and often visit them in Norway. Two other personal friends, Muffy and Chris, together light the Paralympics caldron. This for me was much more moving than the Olympics Opening Ceremony as they were my friends.
After two weeks of fun and competition, there I was driving home to Vail and then on to Denver to catch my flight to Florida and my sailboat Quietly. My sailing adventure was about to begin! What strikes me as very surreal about all of this is that after leaving snow and arriving in Florida, my mind can not comprehend the difference and thus just says the snow must have been imagined...