I’ve been meaning to post this for most of the last week, while the Olympics were still in swing. Now, the closing ceremonies have concluded, and it will be four years before the next “good time” to post this. Here goes.
Backstory: I wrote this for a class four years ago (while the Vancouver Olympics were going on). It’s one of the few straight literary-ish stories (as opposed to genre) I wrote while getting my MA. It has it’s issues, likewise, it has it’s merits, but it’s also a capsule of appreciation for what athletes and their families go through.
It’s about 2500 words, full story below the break.
By J. L. Evans
Johnny Harris was something else. I’m not sure if “natural” is the right word – that’s always struck me as a corny label anyway. Sometimes there’s nothing really natural about what a guy like that could do, you know, on the ice. But when you consider how hard he pushed himself? If you keep that in mind then no shit, he’s going to look like a natural. Naturally.
We grew up together. I went with him to most of his races, and he would drag me all over Seattle with him on his workouts, especially if his dad was working late. That guy gave up a lot for Johnny, and it was hard for him. I look back on it all and I’m surprised the guy didn’t check-out solely from the strain of single parenthood.
I was also there when Johnny got that call that shook him to his skates. Officially, I was there as his equipment manager and assistant coach. Unofficially, I was there as family, even though we weren’t, really, but we were close enough.
We had flown in to [town] a few days before the games were scheduled to start, to check into the village and register at the venues. Once we had all arrived and gotten our badges we were given a tour of the race facilities – locker room location, press room set-up, and the ice.
The ice. That magical, sparkling surface that holds equal parts dream fulfillment and dream destruction, depending on how your skate blade slices it.
We were in the area of center ice, the matted surface where waiting skaters, coaches, photographers and time-keepers could prowl with relative safety while the long distance events were taking place, when our tour ended. We stood there, Johnny and me, our hands tucked into our jacket pockets and visible puffs of air billowed from our mouth as we breathed. Johnny and his coach had gone over their training schedule – when our team’s allotted ice times were – and we were just hanging out, soaking in to moment, and the experience of being in an Olympic venue. “Can you believe we’re here, Steve?” I looked at him, and he was grinning like that damned Cheshire cat.
“Come on,” he said, striding across the mats to the racing lanes.
“I don’t know, Johnny. They may not appreciate us getting footprints on their ice. They may have more tours going on. He looked at me like I was crazy. “You heard the guy,” he said, referring to our under-enthusiastic tour guide. His voice could have bored the comatose. “They’ve been resurfacing it in the mornings, and in the early evenings, until the team schedules start.”
“Which is tomorrow,” I reminded him.
He turned, held his hands out and shrugged. “I just want to smell the ice.” He took a few more steps, backwards. “A moment with the ice. To introduce myself to it. Show it some respect before I cut the hell out of it.” He smiled, then turned and continued walking. He always liked looking for those Zen-type moments.
“Can’t you smell it from here?” I asked, following him. We were indoors, but there was the permeating odor of snow – the nip of cold in the air and the sugary sweet smell that’s there right before it snows.
“It’s not the same,” he said, stepping gracefully onto the ice, even though he was only wearing sneakers. He walked full of purpose, towards one of the sublimated images of the Olympic rings in the center of a straight-away, floating between the center of both lanes where skaters would glide right over it during lane changes or during a sprint to the finish. I paused to watch how fluidly he slid over the ice. I thought about how Johnny got onto ice in the first place.
Johnny had just turned eleven when he first saw speed skating, his dad told me. That much I know. The Winter Olympics were on the television and his father was cooking a late dinner in their Seattle apartment. The first race Johnny watched was a qualifying heat, six racers vying for the first two positions in order to advance. Jonathan let out a whoop during the second grouping of skaters when two skaters slid out of the race, slamming into the barriers surrounding the circle.
“Dad, you gotta see this.”
His father looked across the island that separated the kitchen from the living room as the crash was replayed. On the straightaway leading into the last curve of the race a Canadian skater had tried passing on the inside of a Korean, but the space was too tight. When the Korean leaned into the curve his cross-steps caught one of the Canadian’s skates. They bobbled and seconds later were sliding across the ice, eliminated. “Pretty cool, huh?”
“Yeah, that was a pretty neat crash,” Jonathan said.
Johnny’s dad went back to making dinner.
“Can we watch the rest of the races while we eat?”
“Sure we can.” His father smiled at him, nodding. “Sure we can.”
They watched the remaining heats, the semi-final races, and finally the race for the medals. Jonathan watched, fascinated, interjecting commentary as the races progressed. (“Wow, dad, did you see that? He went from last to third in one move.” “Oh, man,” he said later as another skater slipped out of the grouping.) During the medal race, they watched a US skater start in last place. Three laps later, he passed four skaters on the outside before cutting into the curve to pass two more. Last to first in a matter of seconds. Then came the jockeying to maintain that position until a Canadian finally managed to pass him in the last curve of the last lap to take the gold.
“That’s pretty awesome,” Jonathan repeated as the broadcast changed from speed skating to women’s moguls.
“A good racer can make it look easy. And that was only one event. There’s four or five more, just like it, only different lengths.”
“What do you mean?”
“That was the 1500 meter. They hold races from as short as 500 meters up to around 5000 meters.”
Two months after watching the Olympics with his father, Johnny got a surprise.
“You need to go to bed early tonight,” his dad told him one Friday night.
“Aw, dad, why?”
“You’ve been after me since we saw the Olympics, wanting to learn to skate.”
“I do, but…”
“But… It’s a two hour drive up to Vancouver. I’ve been on the phone with a coach up there for the last two weeks and there’s a session for new skaters starting tomorrow. We’ll have to leave pretty early…”
Johnny didn’t give him a chance to say anything else; he leapt from his chair at the table and gave his father a bear hug that knocked the words from his mouth.
At six o’clock the next morning, a brisk April day, while I was still in bed a few hours away from starting my own Saturday antics, Johnny’s father loaded his sleepy son into their old Toyota sedan and drove north on their to Vancouver. The coach had said the training started around ten, but they should allow plenty of time for their first trip. Johnny slept most of the way up.
His father said that that first time on skates, Johnny’s ankles seemed to fold over. Other kids snickered at the boy whose first day on the ice looked like a newborn calf trying to find its legs. Johnny spent most of that day next to the wall around the outside of the rink where he could catch himself when he fell. On the ride home, Johnny sniffled and cried. A lot.
“It’s okay champ. It was only your first time on the ice. Most of the other kids have probably been ice skating for years. You’ll get better. Think of it like learning to ride a bike.”
And that’s the approach he took, too. It was difficult at first, but Johnny improved. After a year of skating he had become good enough that his coach suggested entering a few races. Johnny always finished near the bottom in any of the heats when he skated in the short distances, but he was showing promise in the medium distances, like his favorite, the 1500 meter. That’s when I started riding along. Johnny got it in his head that he wanted to tape his races. Like all of the collegiate and pro teams, he wanted to watch tapes to analyze his form. And as he began facing some of the same skaters, he was able to figure them out. He became a clinician, learning to read other skaters like a poker player that’s figured out an opponent’s tells. After the first race where Johnny had managed to advance past the first heat, this was a couple of weeks after he started watching tapes, his father took us out to a fancy restaurant to celebrate. That’s when we formed our own funky family.
Everything was going great. Jonathan had improved considerably, and was regularly placing in races. He earned an invitation to compete at the US Nationals, qualifying for the Olympic team in the 1500 meter event. Then there was an accident. Disaster struck during a qualifying heat in the 500 meter.
It was the last curve. Johnny was in third when someone leaned into him, trying to pass on the outside. Jonathan leaned a little harder and the rear of his left skate lost grip. He rolled backwards and as he bounced off of the barrier his right skate cut into his left leg. Bright red blood began to pool on the ice, spreading slowly, congealing as it spread over the ice. He was rushed to the emergency room, where the doctors mentioned that the pressure of his skin suit may have been a blessing. His dad had stayed with him in the hospital, holding Johnny’s hand and fighting back tears.
There we were, having had our Zen-moment on the long-track, we had had our dinner and were trying to relax in our room for our last few hours before the competitive schedule began. That’s when his cell phone rang. We were playing a video game – a racing game, like a Need for Speed title, probably. We played those a lot at the time. His phone started buzzing on his bed, showing Seattle’s 206 area code.
“Hello?” Johnny said. We paused the game, and I watched the color drain from his face as I caught snippets of the conversation.
“Son,” the doctor said. “There’s been an accident.” Johnny felt numb as the doctor continued. His father wasn’t dead, technically. His father was hit by a drunk driver. His father, the man who had raised him as a single parent, was on his way home from work. His father was supposed to fly with him to the Olympic Games. His father was supposed to be there to celebrate Johnny’s recovery and return to racing. His father was in a Seattle hospital, in a medically induced coma. “We’re hopeful, but there’s still a corner he needs to turn, but he seems like he’s fighting.”
Johnny mumbled through the pleasantries, hung up and dropped his phone on the bed. He grabbed his jacket, his badge, and left. By the time I had grabbed my coat and had my shoes on, he was gone. He was a dot running away. I took off after him, but I didn’t have to work too hard to know where he was headed. I walked into the short-track venue, and he was kneeling on the ice.
Six skaters in their skin suits glided around the oval of ice. Warm-up laps while the pre-race announcements chattered from the sound system. Solemn waves and tight smiles from the racers as their names were called and applause rippled through the stands. One Canadian, two Korean, one French and two US skaters. The crowd cheered, but each skater was lost in their own thoughts. Nineteen year old Johnny Harris looked into the stands, then hung his head.
“Skaters, take your marks,” an official called.
Johnny was the last to take his position, third from the inside, because he was wiping his eyes one more time. He slid into position, taking a couple of deep breaths. He nodded as his teammate that had placed second from the inside gave him a quick pat on the shoulder.
“Skaters… set.” The six men raised their left skates, digging the front corners of the blades into the ice; the blades of their right skates angled against the ice, traction for the initial push-off. They coiled, left arms raised even with their lowered faces, right arms raised behind them. Their eyes stared at the ice before them. They waited.
An electronic bleat from the speakers, and the race began.
Two laps in and Johnny was alternating between fifth and sixth place. He had attempted a couple of passes for fourth, but was held off each time.
After three laps Johnny was trailing, a close fifth, but almost hesitant to push the pack. The crowd was a buzz at the edge of his perception. He rounded the first curve of the fourth lap and felt the chill of the ice through the fingertips of the glove on his left hand. A brief smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
Four laps gone and Johnny tested passing again. He pushed into third, when another attack came again. A Korean and the Frenchman made a counter attack and wedged into second and third respectively. The Frenchman cut so close to Johnny that their right skates almost touched.
By the end of the sixth lap, Johnny had held on to the fourth position for a lap before being passed and falling back to sixth. His legs were starting to itch. Johnny clenched his teeth as his left leg started to throb. His gaze danced around the ice. Five skaters before him, the clap, clap, clap of their blades biting into the ice. The Korean in the lead was tucking into the first turn of lap seven. Racers two and three – a Canadian and the other American – were getting ready to fan to the right to try and pass.
Lap eight. The Canadian was leading, with a Korean and the other US skater close behind. Johnny was holding steady in fifth, staying just ahead of the second Korean. The Frenchman looked tired.
They were on the verge of lap ten, and Johnny saw his chance. A small gap had opened between third and fourth. As the pack came out of the first turn, Johnny moved to the outside, kicking hard along the straight and taking the second turn on the outside. He cut to the inside as they entered lap eleven while skaters two and three (both Koreans) made moves for first. Johnny stayed on the inside through the next lap. As the pack entered the first corner of the thirteenth and final lap, Johnny squeezed into third, and made a move for second when they entered the last back straightaway.
There was still one more corner left to turn.