We work in rhythm. Two passes down the ski with a scraper, two passes with the brass brush and then continued passes with the nylon brush until the white powder is removed. When I finish with one brush, I pass it to Isaiah. When he finishes, he passes back to me. There is something unusually synchronous about our motions. I have been coaching for more than twenty years; rarely do I find someone with whom I can wax tech without becoming frustrated. I am a perfectionist; I have hyper-focus and I struggle when trying to talk and tech at the same time. Isaiah and I seem to have little need for words and yet we seem to be communicating. I wonder if he feels the same way? I wonder if he trusts me? The fact that I wonder is a deep sign of respect for him.
We hit the snow. There are three pairs of skis. I take the skis labeled 5 and 6. Duncan is on 1 and 2 and Isaiah on 3 and 4. As we walk to the course, Isaiah just says, “Let’s take one full lap before we make any decisions.” I just nod my head.
And we ski; we ski as the sun rises; we ski the men’s sprint loop. It is just slightly longer than the women’s sprint loop. How do I allow myself to be so madly, deeply and passionately in love with such a sexist sport?
The course is wide, approximately 30 feet across. The corners are mostly swooping. After a flat that leads away from the stadium, there is a short downhill and then a quick up. The women’s course takes an early left and the men’s climbs a bit higher and then also takes a left. Arguably, this makes the men’s course easier. It affords a downhill rest after the climb. Both courses then take a right and climb for about 200 meters. I experience the first 30 meters of the hill as the most difficult on the course. They are too steep for me to double dance (what I call V2). A left turn allows the course to double back on itself and then the final downhill into the stadium has a fast but not highly technical righthand turn. At the bottom, there is ample time to sit in a tuck. To me, this section of the course, right after the turn and moments before I leave my tuck, is heaven. From the tuck position, one gazes directly into the sun rise. The huge TV screen is to the right and the stadium is to the left. The wind is cleansing and surprisingly clean.
After one full lap, we silently switch skis; I put 5 on my right foot and 6 on my left. We take another lap. About half way up the long climb, I switch. Six now goes on my right foot. Christi always says that it is immediately after the switch that you can really feel the difference. I always close my eyes for the first four strides. I feel 6 accelerate a bit faster than 5.
Down the fast downhill and into the sunrise; we switch pairs. I now take 1 and 2. We take another lap. Ski 2 accelerates faster and stays faster. A clear winner.
Into the sunrise once again. Isaiah now speaks for the first time since we began testing. He asks for our choice; I note that 2 is a clear winner. I say that on the other pair, 6 would have been my choice (but it was less discernable). Duncan agrees. We switch full pairs. We take another lap. My body is fully warm now; I feel like I can better float on the snow. Part of the pleasure of skiing is the transience of each moment. I know that 30 minutes from now, this course will be a very different place. The number of people skiing will more than triple as athletes from across the globe begin to warm up. With each additional person who skis the snow; the snow will also change. We call this ‘transforming’ for the very simple reason that if the snow is natural, with repeated mechanical disruption, the intricate patterns of the flakes begin to flatten, morph and, eventually the sharp edges are lost. Even natural snowflakes can take on a great many different shapes. The most quintessential are the dendrites: radiating dendrites, stellar dendrites, ferne-like stellar dendrites. Dendrites have exquisite hexagonal symmetry. They mirror the perfection of the hexagonal packing of water molecules when they are perfectly frozen. And natural snow flakes can be hexagonal, triangle, needles, bullets, arrowheads, columns, rozettes, stars and even cups. Much the way that urban environments have geometric rather than fractal patterns, Manmade snow lacks the hexagonal snowflake shapes of natural snow. Despite this, it still morphs and changes as hundreds of skiers push it down and churn it up.
The transience of the ski testing moments is what makes them both special and also so uncertain. We must make a decision about what top fluorocarbon to apply before the snow has fully transformed. After four full loops, we have narrowed our selection to ski 6 and 2. Isaiah asks me to take another full loop with this final pair so that they can get a girl’s perspective. I tell him that I will give him a woman’s perspective and I double dance out of the stadium. As I take the women’s course cutoff, I realize that I am the only female coach/technician on the trails right now. However, shortly after I cut right into the long uphill, I overtake a female skier. Her bib, unlike mine, is marked ‘Jury’. I realize that it is Sophia, the head of FISU (Universiade International Sports Federation). A consummate leader, I have seen Sophia repeatedly take charge in coach’s meetings where she is one of only four women in the room. She has a quiet and gentle way of convincing even the grouchiest coaches to behave in a sportsmanlike way. In fact, I will never forget the days when the Universiade was in Italy and the Ukrainian coaches repeatedly violated course closure rules. She simply calmly fined them 200 Euros per day and noted in the coaches meeting that youth skiing would be getting large donations that week!
As I ski by Sophia, say good morning and express my thanks to her, I do not realize that the next day is National Women’s day in Russia. I also did not know that later than night I would come to find out that Sophia also goes home each night after a long day at the venue to try to catch up with her own work as a professor! I simply continue my loop, select 6 as the fastest ski, and know that if I am one of only two women on the ski trail this early morning, I am honored to share it with her!
Today is the anniversary of the Poetry Out Loud Competition. A year ago, today, I was introduced to one of my all-time favorite poems. Maybe the themes of acceptable variation and beautiful imperfection make it feel relevant now. Maybe it’s just the concept of spring in Paris on a day with a low of 20 below. Regardless, I first heard “Monet Refuses the Operation” performed by Lauren Haiar, who is now a two-time state champion. The poem is beautiful, but in the context of the project I’m doing on cultural acceptability of blindness and Eli Clare’s novel, it is deeply appropriate.
“Monet Refuses the Operation” by Lisel Mueller
Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
As if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
And white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
And change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
And how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.
This poem is based on historical fact. Monet refused the operation to remove his cataracts. He produced some of his best-known pieces during this time. This is cure culture in poetry. Imagine the exasperation of Monsieur Monet’s doctor: No, Monet, the street lamps do not have haloes. You are old and the cataracts have affected your vision. We must remove them at once! Monet, fearing the operation, said: “I prefer to make the most of my poor sight, and even give up painting if necessary, but at least be able to see a little of these things that I love” (Gruener 254).
Although Monet eventually did undergo the operation, and after much trial and error, return his vision to ‘normal,’ who is to say that his paintings from the pre-operative period aren’t just as captivating as those after? There are countless artists who have dealt with vision issues: Honoré Daumier and Mary Cassatt specifically were friends of Monet’s whose cataract operations had been unsuccessful (Gruener 254). After Monet’s vision was restored, he is said to have shredded canvases from before the operation and edited others. I wonder what we’re left with. How much of Monet’s way of seeing is lost because he felt it wasn’t worth sharing? My heart expands to wonder what a world without fixed notions of top and bottom, seeing and not seeing, disability and ability, would look like.
Gruener, Anna. “The effect of cataracts and cataract surgery on Claude Monet”British journal of
general practice : the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners vol. 65,634 (2015): 254-5.
Mueller, Lisel. “Monet Refuses the Operation by Lisel Mueller.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry
Jean Piaget described the development of a learner as a cycle in which, through a series of actions and effects of those actions on objects, learners come to recognize complex patterns. One might describe Piaget’s cycle as being a spiral, for as the learner comes to recognize more and more complex patterns, she is also able to achieve more complex actions.
My fingers trace spirals around his scapula and at the center of the spiral is the pressure point that relieves the trapezius and terus muscles. Perhaps part of the calm that I feel when massaging athletes derives of the familiar patterns. Scraping, releasing, passing three times in line with the muscle fiber. I recognize patterns that I can feel but not see.
Yesterday and today mark the first full race of the Games. The race unfolded over two days because it was pursuit style. Today the racers began where they left off yesterday only in the skate rather than the classic technique. Throughout these two days, I have been thinking deeply about patterns. In yesterday’s classic race, Nate had the race of his life; Trevor, Anna, Ana and Rya skied well. By contrast, Mason, Becky, Kevin and Mitch had tough days. What was the pattern? Did the skiers who skied well all do a morning run before breakfast? Did I have a chance to give all the high performers a massage? Was it the wax? The answer to the latter question seemed easier to systematically address so I started there. Isaiah, our head wax technician, had applied the same kick and glide to all athlete’s skis and all had a chance to test before the race. Mitch, Trevor and Nate all wanted their kick made faster and I made the same adjustment to their skis. Not the wax. Mitch did a morning run; Trevor did not. Not the morning run. I had massaged Trevor, Nate and Anna. Maybe?
The pattern could also be the literal pattern of the ski. When a ski is manufactured it is given a pattern on the base, called a grind. There a grinds for cold, dry snow and grinds for warm, wet snow. Sometimes in addition to the existing pattern on a ski, we also overlay another set of reels. We use a tool, called a structure tool. Today, Isaiah selected a particular pattern that he expertly pressed into each ski. This was the final ski manipulation in a series. The skis are first base waxed with a paraffin, then topped with a full fluorocarbon powder. Only moments before Isaiah pressed the structure pattern into the skies, Christi and I had ironed on the full fluorocarbon. The pattern of my breath through the respirator seemed to mirror the pull of the iron across the ski. To say that full fluorocarbon ‘melts’ would fail to represent the chemistry. It simply seems to morph from powder to an oily film that adheres to the ski base enough so that when excess is brushed away, the film repels water more expertly than any other known chemical. This allows skis to glide across the pattern on the snow (called corduroy) without experiencing any suction.
Perhaps instead, the pattern is the varying learner development spirals. As compared to most races at home, the World University Games is filled with new images, objects and experiences that, for some learners, extend beyond the patterns with which they are familiar, beyond the comfort of their existing empirical abstractions. Every day we ride a bus from the athlete village to the venue. It is a 12-minute bus ride if everything goes smoothly. In order to get onto the bus, we must show our credential. Once on the bus, a security guard seals the bus door. It is a literal seal of colored tape. If this seal is broken at any point during the drive than security is considered breeched. Once we arrive at the venue, before we can enter the gated compound, the bus is searched on all of its external crevices. A special camera is used to view the underside, to peer into any hiding place. Once we pass security and enter the building where the wax cabinets and changing rooms are located, we must again wear our credential. Inside our changing room, we store our bibs. The athletes wear bibs labeled ‘athlete’ and the coaches wear bibs labeled ‘team’. These bibs are required in order to be on the course.
For many athletes, this style of venue seems a world away from the quiet, snowy trails of Wyoming, Minnesota, Colorado, Vermont, Alaska… Does the pattern lie in the struggle to perform familiar actions in such an unfamiliar environment? Mitch and Kevin came to the 2017 World University Games in Kazakhstan. Trevor, Ana, Anna, Nate and Rya did not. Perhaps then, the answer is ‘no’.
Half-way through the race on the first day, as I walked back to the wax cabinet in the brief quiet period between the women’s and men’s races, I looked up and, as I tried to cross the street, was nearly hit by a cavalcade of white and black Mercedes Sprinters, SUVs and a limousine. I thought this to be out of the ordinary but not so much as to cause my focus to waiver. It wasn’t until half-way through the men’s race that I realized that the limousine had carried President Putin. He had come to watch the men’s race.
In the quiet after both races were complete I sat on the windowsill outside of our wax cabinet. I stared at the cavalcade of black and white vehicles. I felt that this pattern should cause dissonance at the venue of a sport that, in the United States, many do not even understand. Yet somehow, it did not. My eyes fell to the black and white letters on my Madshus boots; they were a perfect reflection of the vehicle pattern.
My fingers now trace a figure 8 in which the crossing point is centered at the spine and each lobe encompasses a scapula. This pattern is familiar, comfortable and does not put me outside of my cognitive comfort zone. In fact, in this place of mindfulness, I feel much more than I think. Perhaps this is the pattern. When I massage, I exist as a complete body-mind; I allow my body to meld with my mind and to take the lead. In a ski race, once the gun goes off, the body remembers more than the mind. Even when the mind feels unease, those athletes who can allow their body-minds to become one find familiarity, and a ski race under high security being viewed by the Russian President feels little different than a ski race in the cold, quiet woods of Wyoming.
She wore a red coat and had long dark hair. She was crouched on the tile stairs in front of our dorm-style lodging. A parade of athletes walked by and most did not look down. She scrubbed tirelessly until the ceramic tiles shone. She worked on each tile, meticulously, dipping a rag into the bucket, scrubbing, dipping, scrubbing.
Thousands, maybe millions of hours are invested in an event like the World University Games. The athlete village alone is filled with hundreds of volunteers, each one making a tiny cog in the machine. No detail is left undone. At each security check point, there are at least eight officers and even more attachés. The attachés are students, each one fluent in at least one other language. They are paired with teams to assist them in every aspect of their daily routine. They help us find ski shops where we can purchase wax remover (something we cannot fly with). They translate simple questions like, “where is the bus stop.” They work in the fitness room and help make reservations for trips into the city.
Invisible. She scrubbed each tile. I wondered whether the water in the bucket was warm.
Today, at the Nordic ski venue I heard an attaché tell the Chinese athletes that she had taken six years of Chinese and still felt far from proficient. She told her story as she guided the athletes to their wax cabinet and changing room. At home, in Colorado and Wyoming, we generally wax outdoors, sometimes in blinding snow storms. Here, at the World University Games, we have two large indoor wax rooms. Each one has two wax benches and shiny tile floors. As we unpacked, I tried to figure the value of the equipment and wax that now consumed the space, $60,000? Maybe closer to $100,000.
Her coat looked thin. I wondered how many times each day she had to scrub.
The athlete village is filled with ice sculptures. Each is intricately carved and at night the lights behind them sparkle making it easy to see the minute cracks. They form tiny mountain tops and trees. Last night I walked with our athlete, Emma, and we thought together about the years of planning that made all of this possible. She said, “I believe they started planning in 2012”.
Each year at the end of the Games, athletes from all countries come together for the closing ceremonies. They trade their coats, hats, race suits. Though I know that it is the very act of benevolence that really never changes a system, I think I will just leave my coat for the girl who scrubs the stairs.
The towels in our room are embroidered with Krasnoyarsk 2019, 29th Winter Universiade. The pillows have the same insignia, as do the comforters. Each lodger receives a gift bag that also bears the Universiade name and in each bag is a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner. We dine in an amphitheater where there is a 1200ft spread of food; each is labeled: Halal, Asian, European and Russian. The dining hall is open from 5am to 1am every day. Six to seven student servers fill our dishes at every station. Lines of coolers are filled with bottled water, Fanta and Coke. These coolers are also in every dorm and on each floor of the venue.
Today, I walked down a quiet hall where a volunteer monitored one of the water coolers. She sat there so quietly that at first I did not see her. I knew I didn’t need to ask to get a water bottle but I did because I hoped it would make her feel seen. Last year in Kazakhstan, there was a volunteer who sat next to the front door of our dorms. Throughout the two-week games, he never went home. He fell asleep in his chair sometimes.
The opening ceremonies are tomorrow night. The athlete parade will precede a show that took two years to prepare. It will showcase the history of Siberia and features Olympic figure skating champions. The event will be televised around the world, including by our own NBC Olympic channel. It seems likely that there will be millions of viewers.