Graves on Nordic
See You at the Start Line This Winters
Not long ago, a young ski racer came up to me at a Holiday race and waited politely for me to stop talking into the mic. Then, without a hint of mean-spiritedness, he looked me in the eye and said, “Hey, why do you do this – really, what is this announcing at a ski race all about?”
It was a good, fair and well-timed question, given that I was out in the middle of a snowstorm and was more than a little cold. I tried to give a thoughtful answer in the time allotted. I said that an announcer helps get people to the start line on time, calls off the finish times, does a bit of play-by-play and, oh yes, and tells the people gathered about the great sponsors of the event. He seemed satisfied with my answer, and went on his way to race in the Bill Koch League category.
The one thing I wished I had added for the lad, who was, maybe, 10 years of age, was “And by the way, it really helps if you love it. That it moves you is an important thing.”
The truth is, this goes back to my early days on skis, falling in love with the sport and surrounding myself with both a loving family and also incredible role models such as Mike Elliott, Bob Gray, Mike Gallagher, Jimmy and Pat Miller, and many more.
My first Nordic-skiing public-announcing (PA) gig, was, as best as I can recall, in Durango, Colo. around 1973 doing the Fort Lewis College (FLC) Rocky Mountain College Carnival's ski-jumping meet at Purgatory. Dolph Kuss, my FLC coach, had always supported and encouraged me, and he gave the go-ahead for me to handle the PA duties. It was cool, it was fun and it gave me a purpose beyond my own racing.
From those most humble days, I worked in radio in Durango, in TV in New Mexico, and finally was offered a job in Wisconsin's Northwoods at the famed Telemark Lodge in Cable by Tony Wise. He was a bundle of energy, creativity and kinetic pacing, the likes of which, to this day, I have never witnessed in anyone else. One of a kind, he was. One of Wise's greatest gifts was that he was a dreamer; he simply saw things others didn't. Along the way, he made so many of us, touched by him, dreamers too.
First hired as the Telemark public-relations director, Wise let me announce pretty much every event he had: from the early days of the Birkie, to Hayward's Lumberjack World Championships, to the first World Cup at Telemark and, yes, even Fourth of July fireworks. It was a wonderful training ground and I just learned by doing, and by enjoying. When I left Telemark to go to Nortur, Inc. in Minneapolis, Minn., my dear friend Tom Kelly took my position, while Wise and I maintained a warm friendship that still included my announcing his events.
It was in November 1979 that in my Minneapolis office I got an unexpected phone call from legendary ABC Sports producer Chuck Howard. “Might you be interested,” he said, “in working for us in Lake Placid.” It took me about a nanosecond to reply “Yes, of course.” Following an interview in the Big Apple, I was on my way to Lake Placid and the 1980 Olympic Winter Games.
Thrilled, ebullient and very much on top of the world, I went into the tiny village in the Adirondacks. I quickly discovered how tough network television sports really were and how many announcers would fight and claw their way for more face time on the tube during an Olympic Games. I wasn't cut out for that kind of “behind-the-scenes action,” but I did my thing and it went okay. That led to a longtime gig with the upstart ESPN in Bristol, Conn., not many hours south of my home.
The building was not even finished when I went on the air with the late Jim Simpson, a talented and kindly gentleman in the latter stages of his career. We were doing voiceovers of ski events from Holmenkollen to Lake Placid. Our monitors were placed high on cardboard boxes. There were no working toilets yet either; we had to use the porta potty out front. The rest, as they say, is history. Now having wrapped up my 10th Olympic Games PA assignment in Rio, Brazil, I can look back with a sweet sense of joy and humbleness on just what a ride it's been.
With a bad knee now, I can't cross-country ski much anymore, but I can alpine ski and I love it. Being outdoors, with the smell of fresh air and the sun on the face imparts to me a truly timeless quality.
I love announcing and being around athletes and coaches. I don't care if it's an Olympic announcer's suite or if I'm out on the porch. I don't care if it's an Olympic trial or a NENSA qualifier. I love being at the start of the Birkie and helping encourage, inspire and prepare racers for their own personal challenge. I am so impressed and deeply moved by the efforts of athletes, athletes of any age. I thank you – you give me a reason to be, and I love you for that.
Maybe it's a feeling you could spend your life looking for. For me, I've found it at ski races, with a chair and holding a wireless mic.
And it's all because of you! What a gift. I'll see you at the start line this winter.