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In Pursuit

February 28, 2010
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The only Olympic event I ever showed any interest in as a girl was ice skating – mostly for the glittering leotards, the cheesy pop music, and the grace I would never possess. Interest quickly chilled to resentment (damn those ice ballerinas and their triple salchows), and it wasn’t long before the Olympics was just some program that interrupted my primetime schedule for a month every couple of years.

Last week I visited my great-aunt in Irvine, and before we went out to dinner she went to finish the laundry, leaving the Olympics on in the living room. Since I had nothing better to do while I waited, I sat down in front of the T.V. – and found myself sucked into the Men’s Cross-Country Pursuit, or ‘NASCAR in slow motion on cross-country skis.’ The competitors looked like drunk ducks struggling uphill against a strong breeze. It was riveting; I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

Completely ignorant of the rules, I was forced to rely on the overly-caffeinated commentators, whose manic glee for the tortoise race was infectious, even if I had no idea what was going on. At first I thought it was some sort of tag-team sport, where three players from each country moved as if they were riding in an invisible bobsled. Occasionally the skiers came to a slight slope, which gave them enough momentum to pass one another on the curve – if they had the stones.

Watching the men waddle through the melting snow, I tried to figure out why I was so intrigued. They trekked in a mostly straight line, weren’t allowed to knock one another into the ravine, and never seemed to collide in a fiery blaze. Why didn’t the men in the back spare themselves the burning calves, the aching arms, the frostbite, and go home – or at least back to the lodge for a mug of hot chocolate with mini-marshmallows?

Then I realized: it was a metaphor for life. Like these men, the rest of us toil circuitously for ages, trailing pack leaders, looking for any opportunity to break out and go for the gold, and regardless of our position in the line, we just keep plodding forward. Johan Olsson of Sweden, one white spandex suit among many, found his opportunity in the changeover from “classic” skiing to its virtually identical counterpart “freestyle” skiing, and grabbed a vital ten second lead.

And suddenly, I was Johan Olsson. Struggling through the snowdrift of school, and work, and ceaseless adult responsibility, I, too, was just waiting for my moment in the sun. As Olsson increased his lead to a dazzling twenty-five seconds, so far ahead of the others that it was a foregone conclusion, I thought, ‘Maybe there’s hope for me after all.’

Then with only (only?) five kilometers to go, Olsson’s incredible lead started to melt. The Russian was gaining on him. Olsson’s fellow Swedes had been holding back the pack in order to give Olsson a fighting chance for the gold, but they couldn’t keep the Russian down. Then it was the German. And then, out of nowhere, Olsson was robbed by Marcus Hellner, his wingman and fellow Swede, who put in a last minute burst of speed to win!

What was the point of going through all that torment only to have some 24-year-old upstart come out of nowhere to take the glory? The commentators kept saying that bronze-medal-or-no-bronze-medal, this was the best run of Olsson’s career, as if that were some sort of consolation prize. ‘But he lost!’ I wanted to shout. ‘He came in third! And he was so damn close, it was his! How dare Hellner take this victory from us?’

But, of course, Olsson was all smiles, triumphant and celebratory. And maybe he was right to be beaming. Coming in third out of some fifty-odd skiers – not to mention qualifying for the Olympics in the first place – is a triumph, no matter what color your medal.

It would be nice to think Johan Olsson taught me something about being a gracious loser, about trying your hardest no matter what, even if it means settling for third place. About taking opportunities where they come, even if they don’t take you where you want to go.  Also, to stop kvetching about my life when there are people out there who strap planks to their feet and trudge in a circle for 30 kilometers.

But secretly I imagine he’s plotting Hellner’s downfall like the second runner up in a Miss America pageant, and I am right there with him.

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