Friday was very fun. We took it easy in the morning at the hotel's gym-less "wellness center" (thanks to the concierge for opening it especially for us, as the normal opening time is 3 p.m. Why be well before 3?). The only event this day was the Men's 4 x 10K relay, historically the granddaddy of all the events at a World Championships. And you could tell as much from the ratcheted-up buzz in the stadium compared to the day before (um, I think European fans are a bit sexist despite their progressive family policies). Luckily we had better than yesterday's general-admission seats, which allowed us to sit in a grandstands around the final bend with a great view of a lot of the course. What could be better than sitting here with one of these?
I offer none of my own pictures from today -- it was only when we'd settled in and I tried to take the first picture of the sun-splashed Dolomites that I realized I'd left my memory card in the universal card reader I'm forced to use because my camera is from 2003. But no worries; this was quickly forgotten during not Dance Time, but Karaoke Time -- to Mama Mia.
The race was unbelievable and exciting and excruciating all at once. (Skip to next paragraph if you don't care about race details.) After Andy Newell kept us in the lead pack on the first leg, veteran Kris Freeman, the second skier, kept with the lead group and actually took the lead leaving the stadium for his final time, two-thirds of the way into his leg (each of the 4 skiers skied 3 x 3.3K). The U.S. women medal regularly nowadays, sure, but the men aren't as good as a whole, so this was a remarkable development. Freeman has not had a good year, and he's not getting any younger, and it was a bit Rocky-esque when the quad-lingual and hilarious announcer calling the race pointed out that he had finished 4th in a race at this same venue during the 2003 World Championships. But unfortunately he then proceeded to blow up rather dramatically the final 3.3K. Frankly, it was hard to watch: Freeman is one of my favorite athletes, and maintaining the lead would have been an especially satisfying moment for all involved -- and put the U.S. in good shape to do something special. After Noah Hoffman maintained our position (about a minute back) with a very solid third leg, anchor Tad Elliott produced what was definitely the most exciting few minutes of the events we went to. Amazingly, like something out of a cheesy, feel-good, Hoosiers-like Nordic movie (if they made Nordic movies), Elliott caught up to the lead pack after his first lap. True, he was aided by the cat and mouse games at the front, which prompted the announcer to note the "holiday train" the leaders were riding, but c'mon, we're talking about the U.S. men being in medal contention with two laps to go. Here's Elliott at the back of the lead back, behind the German skier with the terrible yellow-only-in-the-middle-of-the-legs outfit (photo credit: Fasterskier.com)
I didn't think it could last -- we'd be talking one of the biggest upsets in history, Tom Watson at the 2009 British Open kind of stuff -- but it was still fun as hell, and man I wish we'd had an American flag. Elliott faded, but all in all the U.S. obviously had a fantastic race. We also got to see an iconic moment for the sport: Norway's Peter Northug sprinting past a Swede in the final 200 meters right on cue to win a race, complete with a second to spare for a cocky gesture at the end. If you go to about 1:27 of this video, the camera is capturing our vantage point from the stands right as the skiers round the last bend. Then watch the next 30 seconds ... and notice how the Swede knows he's beat.
After the race we took a city bus up to Tesero from past the parking lots instead of fighting for a shuttle (having learned our lesson about the stadium logistics), but then proceeded to wait 1 hour in Tesero for the bus to Cavalese, where the main events were held this night. The problem was that I was still thinking like an American -- assuming that if the party was in Cavalese, then surely they would run lots of extra buses to Cavalese on this particular night. But luckily we started thinking like Italians, making limoncello out of lemons by making friends at the bus station with the Finnish couple we had seen at breakfast: Kari and Maijastïïna. See you at the 2017 Championships in Lahti, Finland! We all rode together to Cavalese, and then, after a festive couple of Forsts somewhere or other, we watched the fan parade.
Then we headed down to the main square to get ready for the medal ceremony, which meant glüwein and street food served by a woman from Manchester, England of all places -- didn't even make it to the area with all of the food booths from the regions of Italy ... Pictures of the scene at the square to come. Completely exasperated by all the Norwegian ones, the four of us bought Finnish and American flags respectively. So here Jeanine and I are waving a large American flag -- the only American flag -- through a throng of drunk Europeans ... and, about 5 minutes later, the novelty of this landed us on Italian TV (we think), at which point I mumbled something about how the US would win lots of medals in Sochi. We watched one of the medal ceremonies (the painful one for the women's relay that should have included the Americans), the highlight of which was definitely the interpretive dance preceding it, and the stuffed mascot squirrel that the athletes got in lieu of flowers. I was convinced that the guy who told us to lower our flag, claiming that it was blocking a camera, was simply anti-American, but in fairness he did ask other flag-bearers to do the same. Really, if you've seen one medal ceremony at these kind of events, you've seen them all (and we've now seen one), so we called a cab and miraculously it came and the four of us all went back and happily ate touristical food at the hotel. Apparently the cab companies in South Tyrol here understand Finnish better than English.