Andrew: “I made a New Year’s resolution.”
Me: “It’s April.”
Andrew: “I’ve decided to train for the 2014 Winter Olympics.”
Me: “That’s less than a year away. And in Sochi, Russia.”
Andrew: “Yes, so I need to start training immediately. And I’ll need a big coat.”
Me: “OK…which sport?”
Andrew: “Since I like jumping trucks, I’m thinking ski jump. I’ve been watching YouTube videos and all you really have to do is to get down low, explode up, and land. I can do that. I’ve become inspired by the British sensation Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards. He came out of nowhere and made Olympic history. Also, he was farsighted and wore glasses on the slope. That’s what makes a Real Man to me, someone who can beat the odds—all while his glasses are fogging up under his goggles.”
Me: “You don’t wear glasses. Or ski.”
Me: “I’m googling him, and it says he placed dead last in the 1988 Olympics. Plus, the International Olympic Committee had to create the ‘Eddie the Eagle’ rule that forced future Olympic competitors to meet specific criteria so as to not make a mockery of the Olympics again like they felt he had.”
Andrew: “But he was a serious athlete, and all he wanted to do was compete in the Olympics, so he entered. And that’s the true Olympic dream. He was the underdog, and people called him the best of the worst. But to me, he’s the worst of the best, and I love that. What do you think it’ll take for me to be the worst of the best?”
Me: “Oh, I don’t know, Russia and a ski jump?”
Andrew: “See, that’s why I need to learn from the best of the best right away. And like ‘The Eagle’, I’ll need a cool nickname. While you’re googling, look for a skilled bird that starts with an A.”
Me: “There’s the Arctic Loon.”
Andrew: “Sweet. I’m Andrew ‘The Arctic Loon.’ Now, let’s go get me a coat, glasses, and a Russian dictionary.”
At this point, I wasn’t sure whether we were at the start of our next Real Man journey or I was about to become an accessory in some kind of international incident. I wondered aloud whether he might consider something a little more practical for his Olympic dream.
Andrew: “You mean like bobsled? That shouldn’t be an Olympic sport. They’re sitting down. It would be like calling four-wheeling a sport. They’re also sitting down.”
Me: “Wait, you don’t think four-wheeling is a sport?”
Andrew: “Are you kidding? It’s people driving. If there’s a motor, it’s not athletic. If your heart is the motor, you’re an athlete. Except for golf, of course. Sorry, Tiger.”
Me: “What about competitive rockcrawling? What about NASCAR?”
Andrew: “Again, those are just a bunch of guys driving. And NASCAR is about going to the left. Boring. Sure, there’s reaction time and endurance for both, but anything with horsepower isn’t a sport. It’s got to be a real horse. I mean, look at that racehorse, Secretariat. He’s a better athlete than four wheelers by a long shot. Four-wheeling is fun, but my point is, it will never become an Olympic sport.”
(Send those letters c/o Andrew Schuth, Four Wheeler magazine, 831 S. Douglas…)
He was calling this Olympic pursuit a New Year’s resolution, but was the underlying reason less about having a new challenge and more about a new calendar year causing him to examine where he is in life and how much time he has left to do certain things? I also wondered whether this stemmed from how he strives to be the best of the best at everything he does, and being the best of the best in sports eluded him due to a soccer injury in high school, and maybe now he felt he had something to prove before it was too late.
Other things concerned me more, though. I had doubts that a self-described perfectionist would allow himself to be called the worst anything. I’ve witnessed moments in which he deemed himself a failure—what others would call the steep learning curve. While I’ve never seen him give up, I have seen him become somewhat frustrated by not being able to master things on the first try. Also, I can tell he doesn’t want to train to become the best; rather, he wants it to just happen. And while he has always approached life and relationships with the goal of being the best anyone has experienced in every capacity, I think this mentality is both his strength and his weakness and is becoming exhausting for him to maintain.
Perhaps the greatest concern was, does he understand that being called the best doesn’t mean he’s perfect?
Training to become the best of the best is kind of what this Real Man series is about—Real Men are teaching Andrew to become the best and most real man he can be through their example. Ivan Stewart, soldiers in the U.S. Army, bus and big rig drivers, and other Real Men in our previous installments have been exposing him to their lives and careers to help him get to the heart of what’s real in his own.
And who better to teach him about best of the best than the Real Men who make a career out of trying to be better than anyone else: Olympians.
“Da,” Andrew agreed, as he straightened his new Russian ushanka hat. And don’t forget to tell them they’re also making me a real ski jumper.” With that, we hopped into the vehicle of Real Men, a ’12 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, and headed to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. The facility opened in 1995 and is where Olympic hopefuls and medalists train in archery, BMX cycling, field hockey, rugby, soccer, track and field, and other sports—but not ski jumping. I figured Andrew would find a way to adapt to that challenge, too.
Mike Day competed in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, the first time BMX was a discipline, and he became the sport’s inaugural silver medalist. He would be our first stop at the Olympic Training Center.
“People always ask what I do for a living and I say, ‘I race a bike.’ They think it’s X Games–type stuff, like tricks, but this is more about going as fast as you can and getting to the finish line first. Olympic-style racing is all speed, no tricks.”
His BMX strength is the straightaway (“I’ve never been a great starter,” he revealed), and his training regime typically involves two sessions a day, with about 90 percent of the concentration being from the start ramp to the first jump. That was of particular interest to Andrew, since ski jumping is at its most basic concept a start ramp and a jump. “I do a lot of starts and sprints to help with my starts,” Mike advised. “In this type of racing, everyone’s going so fast on that hill, you have to get a good start. I think we’re hitting that bottom ramp anywhere from 37-40 mph. It gets pretty hairy, pretty fast on a little bike. That’s why you pad up.”
“Da,” Andrew nodded, as he placed the loaner helmet over his ushanka. “I understand that.”
BMX is one of the dominant sports at the Olympic Training Center (BMX is a big deal in Southern California), so there are multiple courses at the facility, including a development track and replicas of the London and Beijing tracks. Andrew had done some BMX riding as a kid, mainly mud jumps and blasting around construction sites.
As “365 Day,” as Mike is called, and “The Arctic Loon” climbed onto their bikes and headed toward the numerous jumps, Mike revealed a few of his riding secrets. “I always try to go out of the straightaway faster than I came in,” and that when it comes to jumps, “it’s more about momentum, so keep your speed.”
Andrew noticed that what was working for him was to land on the back tire and push forward with the handlebars in kind of a sweeping motion to maximize speed into the next jump. “The first jump was a bit scary because I didn’t want to fall, but once I broke through the fear, the adrenaline kicked in and I began to challenge myself over each obstacle,” he observed. “You have to be out of control to be in control.”
I made a mental note to remind him that’s another life lesson.
Mike missed competing in the 2012 London Olympics by four-tenths of a second, “which is depressing,” he admitted. “But I think it takes heart and dedication to really grab your goals. I think if you can reach a goal you’ve set for yourself, you’re a Real Man. And don’t be scared, because this sh*t is scary.”
Mike still races and is hoping to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. Now 28, he’s basically an old man in a sport and hobby that have defined who he is. “The guys I was racing four years ago? Some of them are still racing, some of them are retired, and some of them are on to their next stage.” When we inquired about what his next stage was, he said, “It’s funny you ask that. I was trying to think of that last week or so. I haven’t really stepped into Stage B of life. I’ll set daily goals or certain little things that I’ll kind of try to achieve and then have a big picture.”
As we headed to meet the next group of athletes, Andrew and I couldn’t help but ponder that for most people at 28, life is starting. Yet for Mike and the other young riders, that age is about life starting over.
Mike was injured in 2010, and following the operation had to take a full season off to heal. It also became a time of reflection. He understands the opportunities he’s had are what only a select few will also share. It’s made for a detectable peace heard within his struggle to answer the question, what next? “I’ll be 50 and still have an Olympic medal,” he replied. “That’s a pretty cool deal.”
We then arrived at the field where the rugby team was practicing. The men and women’s teams had taken up residence at the facility earlier in the year to train year-round for top-level competition, such as the World Cup in 2013 and then the Olympics. You could say rugby is new to the Olympics, but you’d be mostly wrong. It was introduced in the 1900 games as the rugby fifteens (named for a team of 15 players), and the U.S. holds the most gold medals for the 1920 and 1924 games. But in 1925 the International Olympic Committee removed it as a discipline. The rugby sevens (for a team comprised of seven) will be what debuts.
“So, we’re defending a title, technically, in 2016,” said player Taylor Mokate. “In a sense, we have more pressure to uphold that tradition than if it were the first time in the Olympics,” noted his teammate, Blaine Scully. The rugby team was deep in practice behind us as we stood on the sidelines talking to Taylor and Blaine; both were recovering from serious injuries.
Rugby players focus on speed endurance in training. “We obviously don’t run at the same pace the entire game, so you need to have endurance, but you can’t play this game if you can only run forever at one speed,” said Blaine. “You have to be quick, you have to be agile, and you have to be fast. Explosive athletes are the most successful at this game.”
The plan was for them to put Andrew through the same drills the team does—tackling, close contact, and blocking, as well as how to work from his knees. He’d played football in school, but one of the most noticeable differences between football and rugby is the lack of body padding. You immediately get a feel for the brute force used in the sport and how exactly they develop tree trunks for legs.
What does it take for them to push themselves in such a violent sport, one in which career-ending injury is extremely possible? “Determination and inability to quit I think really pay off in the end,” said Taylor. “It’s the difference between someone who gave it a shot and earned one jersey or one cap and called it a day versus a guy who gets there and realizes what it’s going to take to make him the very best. ‘Alright I made it as the best in the U.S. Now how am I going to make it to the best in the world?’ And that’s mostly everyone’s goal, especially everyone here.” Said Blaine, “It’s the combination of talent and hard work and commitment, and there’s a willingness to stay with a vision long enough to keep you there for an extended amount of time.”
Andrew contemplated this. “That’s my goal, too, to be the best in the world. I want my Olympic bronze. But, I think I might have second thoughts once I’m in the air. How do loons land?”
“You did good today,” Blaine encouraged. “But the best part about not being perfect is you can always get better. Just keep chasing perfection and you’ll get better every time.”
“And don’t get hung up on not achieving your goal,” added Taylor. “Every time you hit a roadblock, it’s just one more to go through, one more hurdle. And it’s not so much about how big is the game, but how big is the game inside each athlete.”
And then a Real Man first happened: Andrew had an opportunity to learn to become a better Real Man from women. Team Head Coach Ric Suggitt invited us to train with his team, so we headed to a different section of the field and met up with Bui Baravilala, Katie Dowty, and Kelly Griffin. They put him through some of their drills, including three types of passing (scrum half-pass, conventional, and spin pass), and how to make his brain multitask, such as throwing the ball up while also catching another from the side. “A misconception is that rugby is brutish,” explained Katie. “But it’s actually a quick-witted game. It’s not just physical; there’s a mental aspect to it.”
Do they feel like heroes for being both Olympic hopefuls and also women in a male-dominated sport? “I think all of us are too humble to think of ourselves as heroes, especially since the game is pretty unknown right now in the U.S.” explained Kelly. “It’s great that we’re role models; we want to live up to being role models, but we’re here to win games and win World Cups—that’s what our focus is.”
Said Bui, “If anything, I’d like to be an inspiration to any kid playing rugby for the first time. Just to be an inspiration to follow their hearts, to follow their dreams.”
“All of us started playing rugby before the possibility of going to the Olympics was there,” said Katie. “We all play for the game and now we have this awesome opportunity on top of that, so it’s like something you couldn’t have even dreamed of coming true. It’s crazy.”
The interesting thing is, when you tell other Olympic hopefuls about your own Olympic dream, they don’t laugh. Instead, they applaud you and make you feel confident, even when it’s a ski jump in Russia and you’ve never done it before.
As we left the training facility, I asked Andrew what he learned from spending the day with the best of the best. “They don’t see themselves as anything special. But I know they’re thinking that they can’t be the best of the best without trying to be the best of the best. They don’t want to let anybody down, especially themselves,” he replied. “I also learned we need to find a colder environment.”
We headed next to the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California, to learn from the best of the best on ice: the Los Angeles Kings. Problem was, we remembered once we got there that the NHL was in a lockout, so the team wouldn’t be doing its usual practice session (the labor dispute was resolved as we went to press). But we did spot Jerry Galicia heading to where they kept the Zamboni® ice resurfacer. “Zamboni!” yelled Andrew. “Let’s learn to drive it!” Before I knew it, he took off running after Jerry like a kid watching an ice-resurfacing machine between hockey periods. I asked how exactly driving one would prepare him for ski jumping. “Well, I’m definitely getting the bronze if I jump the Zamboni. In fact, I bet they give me the gold! Loon, Loon, Loon!” He then flapped his arms.
“How many people do you know who drive a Zamboni?” Jerry excitedly asked. “This is a lot different from any other job. You have the capability of making great ice, or with one mistake burning a hole that’s 72 inches long.”
It took Jerry nearly six months to master the machine, “because when you start off, you don’t know how much ice to cut. You don’t know if you’re cutting too much or too little or if you’re laying down too much water, and sometimes you don’t know until you get a complaint from a coach. The way you get fired is if the ice looks worse after you go out there than it did before.” And it’s not like driving a car or truck—there are more levers and buttons to twist and push and pull at the same time and in various directions than you can imagine.
Although his job is stressful, he revels in being surrounded by the best-of-the-best athletes every day. “This place is just amazing. I get to resurface the ice for the L.A. Kings! And we’ve got Evan Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic gold medalist in figure skating, and the 2012 Stanley Cup champions practice here.” When we told him that because he does his job well, he contributes to their athlete success, he downplayed his role. “I enjoy watching the athletes. It’s fun because it takes talent for them to do that. I mean, they’ve worked hard for that. I’m not saying that what I do isn’t a real talent as well. It’s a skill, but compared to them…it’s amazing what they do.”
But fans cheer as enthusiastically for him as they do for the athletes. “It’s because this is what every kid wants to do. Being here, you see all these kids with big smiles and they enjoy watching this,” he replied. “Everybody loves it because it’s a fun thing to do and it’s very different. And it makes it about more than getting a beer at intermission for the adults, too.”
What qualities does it take to be the best of the best in this line of work? “You don’t want to be too much of a jerk or too snobby. You want to be able to admit your mistakes. You’ve got to know what you can do and what you can’t and you have to open to criticism. You can’t not accept criticism.”
“I can’t stop thinking about things Jerry, Taylor, Blaine, Bui, Katie, and Kelly said, and how they stay real men and women in these extraordinary situations,” Andrew said, as he put his ushanka in the glovebox on the drive home. “They showed me that being the best of the best requires practicing all the time to get better. Not only for athletics, but as a way of life.”
That was true. The rugby players taught us that every day you have the option of going out there and achieving what you want; as you do, you will find support around you and strength from within. Mike taught us that you should do what you love and love what you do, and never give up on that—at any age. Jerry taught us that although you will always have flaws, there will be moments in which you are flawless. Eddie “The Eagle” taught us that even when you can’t see through the fog, you should still soar, then land where you do with pride. While others may get there quicker, real men and women will still be an inspiration for trying to get there at all.
Maybe the ability to do any of that is what truly makes us perfect.
After I dropped off Andrew, I stopped by Trader Joe’s. While at the register, I noticed a box of wine from Smoking Loon Wine Company. Perhaps its slogan teaches the most valuable Real Man lesson: “Be Your Own Loon.”
Back inside the Wrangler, I reached into the glovebox for the ushanka. I, too, was ready to be my own loon. And Andrew had been the best-of-the-best teacher.
Just keep chasing perfection and you’ll get better every time. —Blaine Scully, 2016 U.s. Rugby Olympian