Monday, October 21, 2013

Tribute to My Posse

It’s 8:10am in Moscow and they’re just out the door. It will be two years, maybe four, until I see them again.

Pete and Tammy, Bruce and Grace, Kevin and Mary.

I’ve known Pete and Tammy, Bruce, and Kevin since the 1999 Sevilla World Championships when we met on the last evening. Kevin saw me walk by their restaurant and recognized me from the Track and Field News tour. His grace in taking a moment to come outside and invite me in altered my track and field life.

A few minutes later, World and Olympic javelin champ Trine Hattestad showed up and I thought to myself, “These guys are good.” Her pic with our posse - one Kevin sent me - still graces a bureau in my house.

The posse preceded me; they first met in Goteborg in’95 and have been gathering at these championships ever since.

This group is a slice of American life. Pete and Tammy are from Ohio; Pete inherited his family’s door company, and Tammy retired - but not for long - as a public schools facilities manager. Bruce hails from Michigan and runs the human resources department of a company of 2500 employees, and Grace is a retired nurse. Kevin is an orthopedic surgeon from upstate New York and Mary is a retired pediatrician. I am a teacher and coach from Seattle, and a former athletics director as well. We all work hard and love what we do.

I arrive in Moscow on Monday, delayed by my elderly father’s summer-long illness. As seems to happen every time, I run into one of the gang almost immediately. Bruce sees me in the lobby and greets me with his usual enthusiastic energy. In Edmonton in 2001, I drove all day and half the night and ran into the posse as they returned from a first-night reconnoitering expedition.

“How far did you drive?” they ask.

I have two answers.

For non-track and field fans: 800 miles.

“791.2 miles.”

They smile.

Bruce guides me to Luzhniki Stadium, and after the morning session we gather for lunch. Only an hour into it, Pete observes, “We’re talking about things we’ve never discussed before. Look at us! Retirement, benefits, Social Security…” This generates knowing laughs. I met them when I was 47 and now I’m 61.

On that first day, as we fall into seamless conversation, picking up right where we’d left off in Berlin in ‘09, I realize I’ve never once asked any one of the posse how old they are, and realize it doesn’t matter.

We share a history and a common language. On Friday morning, Russia’s women’s 4x400m relay splits 1:41.49 on their way to qualifying for the final and their golden destiny. I turn to Pete and say, “Rudisha ran faster by himself.” Pete nods.

No explanation needed.

When Amantle Montsho (Bot) eases up at the 400m finish line and loses by .004 to Christine Ohuruogu (GB), I say to Tammy at that evening’s gathering, “Merlene Ottey all over again.” She nods.

No explanation needed.

This restaurant/bar near the Luzhniki Stadium Metro stop becomes our adopted meeting place and hangout every evening after the meet. These places live with me - the engaging places that invite us to stay. In Berlin, the stadium exit area was surrounded by food and beverage stands, and numerous picnic tables invited us to gather. We accepted, almost every night. Here, the fan zone directly outside the stadium is modest in size and appeal, but this restaurant draws us back.

The owner comes to recognize us and every night he pulls out a bottle of sparkling water for me, insisting, “Water with gas from the Caucasus Mountains – this is the best!”

Regardless of label.

Bruce is my Metro coach and Tammy, who is one of the most steadfast and reliable people you’ll ever know, is rightly the head official. Bruce gets me to the stadium on Tuesday, and in future trips Tammy counts subway stops, “Four, then three,” to assure we’ll get back to our hotel without diverting to Siberia. I know I have the right transfer station when I see what I’ve nicknamed the “Tree of Life” sculpture, and it provides me with more occasions for relief than the sculptor might ever have imagined. The subway trips become another focal point for our gatherings, and our relief at finding our hotel every night is, at least initially, palpable.

On Friday we search for late-night dinner and plunge down the steep steps of an Irish restaurant near our hotel. I have gone far too long without food and am feeling the effects. A gracious man translates all of our orders for the server who does not speak English – and we do not speak Russian.

Little on the menu meshes with the way I eat, and I am self-conscious about specifying a healthy meal. The man was an effective translator, and a gleaming piece of salmon arrives surrounded by veggies – no cream, no butter. A Seattleite, I have one of my best salmon dinners in an Irish pub in Moscow.

I feel I should do something helpful in return. “Separate checks in a different language and alphabet would be madness,” I say, and the group jumps at my offer to pay upfront; the rest we work out among ourselves. It all happens very quickly, an indicator of the trust built up over the years.

We continue our conversations: now, the hot dogs, which are only half-covered by the buns; now, the striking fitness of Muscovites and the paucity of paunches – no obesity epidemic here; now, the excessive security and the parlor game of trying to get a soldier to blink; now, the best names of the games - I nominate Trotski of Belarus in the 50k walk. And now, have you ever seen a country drink this much tomato juice?

By Saturday I’m feeling the pangs. At this time in 48 hours, I’ll be into a countdown that will last from 2-4 years, and I note the melancholy moments that indicate that separation is near. We’re not sure who can make it to Beijing in 2015, and upon my return home I learn that those championship dates have been picked for the first week of teaching.


OK, then: London – 2017.

Saturday evening’s post-meet gathering proves to be our last as a group… on Sunday I’m fortunate to have breakfast with Grace and to have the opportunity to sing the praises of the nurses who have helped our family so much the past year.

I’m dismayed to miss the group on Sunday evening - my section in the stadium was held for release far longer than theirs - but I know it’s the accumulation of our time together this week that counts, not one visit. I’ll see all but Kevin and Mary, who are at a different hotel, before they leave Monday morning.

I’ve been to the World Championships seven times now. Twice I’ve been very unsure of whether or not I’d come, once due to the funeral of an elderly family friend I’d known since 7th grade, and this time due to my father’s illness. Both times I’ve made it, even for part of it, as I can’t imagine a six or eight year gap. Not on the championships, mind you, but on seeing my friends.

In Paris ’03, when I was delayed due to the funeral, I got there on Thursday and knew my group had to be at one of the Track and Field News hotels, but did not initially know which one. When I finally located it in the early evening, I set out to find them and started walking down nearby streets and looking for them in restaurants. I came down one avenue to a triangular street corner that divided the main street in two. I hesitated, and something told me to take a closer look.

There they were, the whole damn posse.

That I got to sit next to Track and Field News co-founder Cordner Nelson for dinner that night didn’t hurt a bit. Kevin is the ringleader and seemingly knows everyone. I ask Nelson, who has attended every Olympics starting in 1936, what his single favorite moment is.

“Cathy Freeman.”

No explanation needed.

In Helsinki, the fan zone was extensive and there was always something new and interesting to do. The Finnish postal service staffed a booth in which you could have your photo taken and placed on a stamp, a technology that then was brand new.

They’re about to take my picture when I hold up a finger to indicate a pause. I’ve been too embarrassed to take my goofy blue and white Viking horns hat out of its sack, but I figure you only live once, and besides, how many people will ever see my picture on a stamp? When I take the hat out and put it on, the staff goes crazy.

I sign a release for placing my stamp in the Finnish national postal museum.

Cards arrive home with this stamp.

Explanation needed.

On the day of the men’s marathon the hotel elevator - famous for mystery stops - stops at the 6th floor and Pete and Tammy get on. Pete is wearing his Detroit Tigers insignia cap - a trademark for him - a treasured item. I had been on my way to watch the entire race on the course, but this decision is easy for me. We watch most of the marathon at the hotel bar and leave in time to see the finish at the stadium.

On the subway Pete sees a young man wearing a CCCP shirt and non-verbal trade negotiations commence. First goes the hat – Pete, the hat! - and soon Pete’s t-shirt becomes part of the bargain as well. The deal is concluded with a t-shirt exchange outside the Metro stop, and Pete is going to be telling this story for many championships to come, pics and all, with editing interruptions from us.

I can’t wait.

*     *     *

Explanations of “no explanation needed.”

  1. David Rudisha’s 800m world record of 1:40.91 is faster than the combined efforts of the first two legs on Russia’s women’s 4x400m relay in Moscow.
  1. Merlene Ottey was known as the ‘bronze queen’ for the 13 times she won bronze medals in World and Olympic competitions – not to mention the seven silvers. When at last she appeared to have won gold in the 100m in Stuttgart in ’93, she looked to her right at the finish line – and was passed by Gail Devers, who won gold by 1/1000th of a second. Fortunately, Ottey came back to win gold in the 200m in the same championships.
  1. Cathy Freeman – Australia’s Freeman was the heavy favorite to win gold in the 400m at home in Sydney in the 2000 Olympics. Burdened by excessive expectations attached to the fact that she would be the first person of Aboriginal descent to win, Freeman stormed to victory in front of delirious fans. It is the single performance in my lifetime I most wish I had seen in person.
  1. The stamp with the goofy guy in the blue and white Viking hat – do I really need to explain this?! Just imagine receiving a post card from me with this stamp. Never were more double takes taken.

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