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USA-1 Currently Leads Field In Women’s Bobsled February 19, 2014

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Elana+Meyers+Winter+Olympics+Previews+waBn81zK5QHlElana Meyers and Lauryn Williams of the U.S.A. currently lead the field in women’s bobsled after two of four runs.  The third and fourth runs will commence tomorrow (Wed., Feb. 19).  But that is only part of the story.  The other part of the story what happened to their sled during a training run.  Reportedly, Williams pulled the brakes too late, causing the sled to crash into a wall, sustaining serious damage, as in, damage-too-serious-for-the-sled-to-be-serviceable-type of damage.  One can see this damage in the photo below.

Olympics: Bobsleigh-Women's Official Training

There is no way that a sled can be aerodynamically viable for Olympic competition after sustaining such damage!

(Here is the source for the above photo.)

So, how do we explain Meyers’ and Williams’ two solid runs?  Leave it to the support staff of the U.S. Bobsled Team to save the day.  They went down to the USA House of the Olympic village, where they just so happened to have a spare sled on display.

It also just so happens that they sneaked into the place to commandeer this spare sled with nobody noticing, because most people were glued to the thrilling hockey game between the United States and Russia — the same competitive game where the Americans ended up beating the Russians on the latter’s home ice in a shoot-out!

This writer visualizes but one scenario when the folks at NBC reported how the U.S. Bobsled team staff managed to sneak in and smuggle out the sled:  the “Minnie The Moocher” scene from “Blue Brothers”!

All kidding aside, though, the team mechanics worked long into the night, end even “In[to] The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” to transfer key, undamaged parts from the broken sled to the spare, unblemished one.  It obviously worked, given that these two ladies are poised to win the gold medal in their sport for Team USA, which would be the first time for this feat since the sport’s Olympic debut for women in 2002 at Salt Lake.  Go Team USA!

Epilogue, Feb. 19, 2014:  Meyers and Williams ended up winning the Silver medal at these Winter Olympic Games at Sochi, while their teammates Jamie Gruebel and Aja Evans won the Bronze.  Winning two out of three medals in Bobsled is always awesome!  Moreover, Williams becomes one of the select few athletes to win both medals in the Summer and Winter Olympics.  Indeed, one can count on a single hand how many athletes have achieved that rare feat.  Go Team USA!

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American Pride Sliding Down the Track at Sochi February 16, 2014

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The author with the United States bobsled team after they won the 4-man world championship at Lake Placid in 2012. I was so elated to have my picture taken with these fine fellows, my grin distorted my smile! L-R: Steve Holcomb, Steve Langton, Patrick Murray, Justin Olsen, and Curt Tomasevicz.

With a full week of the Winter Olympic Games at Sochi now in the books, it is finally time for my personal favorite winter sport to commence, that of bobsled (“bobsleigh” being the preferred international, i.e., non-American term).  With recent success in the sport over the past 12 years, surely the bobsled events are to gather some decent attention here in the United States, and with good reason.  We stand good chances of winning medals in all three events (2-man, women’s, and 4-man), but more importantly, we have great athletes who are also outstanding individuals representing the U.S.A.

When I first started watching the Olympics in earnest as a youngster (Calgary 1988 to be exact), I’ll never forget the first time I saw a sled fly down the track on TV.  I thought to myself, “Oh my, that was so cool!  What is that?”  Needless to say, I got hooked on bobsledding, and eagerly anticipated watching those events above all others during every Winter Olympics cycle.

If you are a football and track & field guy like I am, this is the winter sport for you.  It combines the strength, speed and power aspects of football and track, as well as the team coordination of football.  Make no mistake about it; bobsledders are the biggest, fastest, strongest athletes in all of the Winter Olympic events.  Don’t believe me?  Just look at how Johnny Quinn (a pusher for USA-2) managed to escape being trapped inside a bathroom.

Plus, it’s racing on ice, and in a country that enjoys auto racing as much as we do, that should seriously count for something as well.  And yes, our 4-man sleds are built with NASCAR technology, which is why they’re the best!

In any event, the Games in 1992, 1994, and 1998 all ticked by, and every time I watched in frustration as a medal in the sport continued to elude us.  It therefore goes without saying that one of my favorite moments of the 2002 Winter Games at Salt Lake was witnessing on TV USA-2 break a 46-year* medal drought by winning a bronze medal in the 4-man event, only to be bolstered further by USA-1 winning the silver.  America was “back” in the sport, and it felt great.  The fact that women’s bobsled was introduced as an Olympic event that year, with America winning the gold, was the icing on the proverbial cake.

Several years later, I started following the US bobsled team during the regular seasons (yes, there are such things in these relatively obscure Olympic sports), and started to learn the names of the fine fellows pushing and driving our American-designed and built sleds, courtesy of a project spearheaded by NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine.  The 2008-2009 season particularly grabbed my attention, as I found ways to watch the races online, and pay close attention to the news of Team USA winning the 2009 World Championship, the first time America won such a distinction in literally 50 years (1959).  The following year, we won the gold medal in the Vancouver Winter Games, the first time we achieved that since 1948 at St. Moritz.

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With my good friend and fellow Purdue Boilermaker Doug Sharp, who was part of the USA-2 4-man team that ended America’s 46-year medal drought in bobsled by winning the bronze at Salt Lake in 2002. Behind us is the “NightTrain” sled that our American boys used to win the gold medal at Vancouver in 2010.

I had the blessed opportunity to travel up to Lake Placid, New York (as in, the holy grail of Winter Olympics in the Western Hemisphere) to photograph the 4-man world championships there in late Feb. of 2012 (photography being my main hobby these days).  There, I met up with a friend of mine and fellow Purdue Boilermaker, Doug Sharp, who was on the USA-2 team that won bronze at Salt Lake in ’02.  During the races, I managed to take some decent sports shots, despite my learning curve.  In between the races, though, my friend Doug introduced me to a number of bobsledders, both past and present.

After runs 1 and 2, for example, I was invited into the team garage — it was like being in the dugout with the Yankees!   There, I was able to meet John Napier, a fine younger driver who was at the time the driver for USA-2.  I also met Chris Fogt, who earned a spot on the USA-1 team at the start of this season.  Moreover, I met both Adam Clark and Dallas Robinson, both from the Louisville, Ky., area (my native city and still current area of residence).  Robinson, interestingly enough, is now the brakeman for USA-2 at Sochi, both 2-man and 4-man.

During the VIP luncheon, I had the opportunity to thank a number of ladies and gentlemen for representing America so well with their accomplishments over the decade, but even after the part was over – several hours later – and the sun had already gone done, the day was not over yet.

When we left the track that evening, Doug took me over to the Olympic Training Center, where, in a most unexpected turn of events, I was able to meet three of the four current men of Team NightTrain** (such is the nickname for the USA-1 crew; they dubbed their sled “The NightTrain” during the 2008-’09 season for its fearsome black color scheme).  They were polishing their sled’s runners for runs three and four the next morning, and at this surprising opportunity, I once again was able to relay by heartfelt thanks for their efforts and for honoring our great nation in winning gold.

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USA-1 as they race down the track at Lake Placid, N.Y., during second of four runs, and en route to winning the 2012 4-Man Bobsled World Championship. Photo taken by the author.

Meeting and befriending these fine fellows was truly a pleasure.  Unlike the prominent athletes in major professional sports here in America (say, the NFL, MLB or NBA), these guys don’t get much attention for what they do.  In countries like Germany, or especially Switzerland, bobsled drivers garner as much fame as quarterbacks do here in the NFL.  How many people here in the States, who don’t follow the Olympics, know who Steve Holcomb is, let alone his push athlete teammates?

In addition to meeting Holcomb that evening, I was also able to meet Justin Olsen, who was part of the team that won gold in Vancouver.  Steve Langton took over for Steve Mesler after the latter retired, and the former is considered one of the finest push athletes in the world.  Watch for Langton as the brakeman for Holcomb in the 2-man event.  Nick Cunningham was also on hand to polish the runners for his sled.  Watch for him as the driver for USA-2 in both the 2-man and 4-man events.

They hail from all over this great land.  Holcomb comes from Park City, Utah, and was originally an alpine skier before taking up bobsled (interestingly enough, the legendary Italian driver Eugenio Monti was first a skier before he himself took up bobsleigh).  Nick Cunningham is from Monterey, Calif., home to one of the finest public aquariums in the world.  Justin Olsen is from San Antonio, home of the Alamo and the beacon of liberty that it represents to Texans and many Americans elsewhere.  Steve Langton is from the Boston area (and was a track star for Northeastern University).  The brakeman for Team NightTrain, Curt Tomasevicz – who will reportedly retire at the conclusion of these Games – hails from a small town in Nebraska, and was a linebacker for the Cornhuskers before taking up this sport.  Honestly, part of the fun of getting to know these guys was just talking to them about their native towns.

Suffice it to say these guys did not get into the sport for the fame, for there is relatively little (that is, on this side of the Atlantic, at least).  These guys compete for love of the sport and love of country.  In fact, many of these men support themselves as part of the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program, and have been, or still are, active in the National Guard.  Chris Fogt even served a tour of duty in Iraq.

But one thing that really struck me positively as I got to know these outstanding fellows is how much they appreciate their fans.  Many prominent professional athletes seem to wall themselves off from the majority of fans – given all the crazies out there, one can surely sympathize – and hard-core fans to them are a turn-off (here’s a tip:  want to ingratiate yourself to prominent professional athletes?  Be a fan who has perspective).  But to our American bobsledders, passionate fans are not a turn-off; in fact, they feed off their energy.

For the record, the ladies who represent America in the women’s bobsled events are no less gracious or appreciative of their fans as well.  Like their gentlemen counterparts, they are educated, industrious, dedicated, and down-to-earth.  In other words, they are every bit the embodiment of how we would ideally envision an Olympic athlete to be.

They, both the men and women, are also incredibly approachable.  They put on no airs of being “above it all,” and are always glad to meet new fans and supporters.  The fact that fans here in the States are relatively few and far between compared to the big money sports might be a factor in this, but that does not detract one iota from this positive trait.

What is even more amazing about what these talented, dedicated men and women achieve is that they do so on a relative shoestring budget compared to prominent programs in other countries.  Germany, Switzerland, and recently, Russia, lavish massive funds on their respective programs, albeit with mixed results.  Germany is never to be counted out, and the Swiss have performed decently in the 2-man as of late, having to earn back their dominant spot that they kept throughout the 1980s and ‘90s.  Russia is a constant threat to medal in the 4-man as well (Canada’s not too shabby either, fyi).  But this season, Team USA has been in contention to win almost the entire time, winning enough races for USA-1 to win the overall World Cup trophy in the 2-man event and finish second overall in the 4-man (the latter alone is impressive when you consider the crash they had at Winterberg, Germany in early January).  When one considers that these good fellows of ours achieve this with far less funding than other countries’ programs, it makes this momentous feat all the more incredible.

In short, the dedicated men and women that make up the U.S. Bobsled Team embody everything that we as fans ought to admire in world-class athletes.  You could not ask for more outstanding individuals representing the United States of America, and I for one cannot wait to cheer on my friends as they race down the ice at the Sanki Sliding Centre.  Go Team USA!

*Prior to 2002, the last time that the USA won a medal in bobsled was bronze in the 4-man event at the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina D’Ampezzo.  Moreover, we have not won the gold in the 2-man event since 1936 (!) and have not medaled at all in it since 1952.  That could very well change come Monday.

**USA-1 won the 2009 World Championship, the gold medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the 2012 World Championship (all in 4-man) using the NightTrain sled.  Geoff Bodine’s “BoDyn” program soon designed a new sled for USA-1, which they immediately dubbed “NightTrain²”, and is the sled they have been using for the entire 2013-2014 season, the Sochi Games included.  USA-2 has thus inherited the original “NightTrain,” so both sleds will be put to good use!

America’s Greatest Music: Artie Shaw’s “Non-Stop Flight” and others September 27, 2013

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As I stated in my previous AGM entry, there are those occasional recording sessions in history where not just one legendary record is cut, but a whole plethora.  Today (Sept. 27) marks the Diamond Anniversary (that’s 75 years, for those of you who are graduates of Indiana University — or the University of Kentucky, for that matter) of one such session undertaken by Artie Shaw and his orchestra.  On Sept. 27, he and his band cut, for one, “Nightmare”, a haunting tune which he used, oddly enough, to open all of his live gigs.

But that is not the half of it.  In addition to “Nightmare” (also used frequently throughout the Martin Scorsese biopic “The Aviator” about Howard Hughes), Artie Shaw also cut the definitive rendition of “Non-Stop Flight,” a popular staple with Lindy Hoppers to this very day!

Things did not stop there, for Artie Shaw and his band also recorded the Jerome Kern hit “Yesterdays” from his musical “Gowns for Roberta” (the same musical in which Kern also wrote the legendary song “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”), and thus we have the triple-whammy of one of the greatest of all songwriters writing a song that belongs in — or at least near — the upper echelons of the Great American Songbook, and the record is performed by one of the greatest legends in American Popular Music in Artie Shaw.  The quality of music does live up to the billing, too!

Next up we have “What Is This Thing Called Love?”  Much like the aforementioned “Yesterdays”, it too is the same sort of “triple-whammy,” except this time it was penned by Cole Porter, not Jerome Kern.  Artie Shaw had an incredible knack for scrapping the wonderful lyrics of Cole Porter tunes and rendering them as instrumentals, yet somehow still doing the songs considerable justice (e.g., “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine,” “What Is This Thing Called Love?”, just to name a few).  No wonder that when Porter finally met Shaw face-to-face in the late 1930s, the first thing he said to the King of the Clarinet was “[H]appy to meet my collaborator”!

For the last two tracks, Shaw brought in Helen Forrest on the vocals to sing a nice little ditty already featured in this blog, “You’re a Sweet Little Headache”.  Part of that song can be heard in a scene in the very-underrated 1991 film “The Rocketeer”.

The other tune for which Helen Forrest sang was “I Have Eyes”.  Much like the previously-mentioned tune, Benny Goodman recorded it around the same time, during the same year, and Martha Tilton provided the vocals for both.  It therefore makes for a fun time for vintage music devotees to compare and contrast the respective merits of both songs and their counterpart recordings!

The Goodman version can be heard below for reference:

While I personally prefer the sound of the reed section in the Goodman rendition, overall I prefer the Artie Shaw version, for its sound is smoother, Shaw’s clarinet is more melodious, Helen Forrest’s vocals “click” a bit more effectively with that tune than Tilton’s for the same song, and the tempo on the Shaw record is much bouncier.  Moreover, I say all of this as a Goodman fan!  Such is miraculous effect that Artie Shaw had on key records, so relatively many of which were produced 75 years ago today.

Why are all these Artie Shaw records such a big deal?  A huge chunk of that answer lies in the fact that he left an indelible impression on our cultural landscape.  To wit, as Mark Steyn pointed out in his fantastic obituary piece on Shaw over nine years ago:

“On the eve of World War II, Time reported that to Germans America meant ‘skyscrapers, Clark Gable and Artie Shaw.'”

America’s Greatest Music: You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby August 15, 2013

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Whenever you meet a girl whom you instantly recognize as a cut above the rest, this tune instantly enters your mind.  You know that even further when this tune pops up on the radio (assuming you’re tuned in to the SiriusXM 40s on 4 channel) and without hesitation you start singing along to the record.  But the question becomes, along with which version do you sing?

Such is a valid question.  After all, like many legendary tunes in the Great American Songbook, it has been recorded by many a legendary artist throughout the ages.  At different times, Artie Shaw, Lee Wiley, Perry Como (1946), Rosemary Clooney, The Crew Cuts — who made their mark on the business by doing cover versions of early ’50s R&B and doo-wop hits — Vic Damone, Joni James, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra have all taken their individual cracks at this song.  Let us also not forget Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin (1961), The Dave Clark Five (1967), or Michael Bublé (2001, which, compared to the years of the previous records, might as well be literally yesterday).

But this does not even acknowledge the spate or recordings made of this song when it was written (1938) by Harry Warren (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics — figures!).  That year, Tommy Dorsey recorded his version with Edythe Wright on the vocals.  Chick Bullock — who provided the vocals for some of Bunny Berigan’s small group recordings on the Vocalion label in 1936 — also rendered his version that same year, as did Russ Morgan.

Yet the version that clearly stands out above all others was also recorded the same year the song in question was written (1938, in case you skipped the previous paragraph), and it was sung by none other than Bing Crosby (recorded on the Decca label, of course!).  It is this version that sticks out in one’s mind when a guy meets a girl that stands out from all the rest; it is this version that you joyous sing along with in your car when it comes on the radio….and it swings!

For anybody who doubts that Crosby owns the definitive version of this song, take a moment to notice its reference elsewhere in popular culture.  In the Looney Tunes cartoon “What’s Up Doc?” (1950) featuring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, an obvious reference to this record surfaces in the middle of the show.

A scene depicts Elmer Fudd coming across, by happenstance, a down-and-out Bugs.  Of the four characters that Fudd passes up before reaching Bugs, the first is a caricature of Al Jolson (“mammy” being a lyric often found in some of his songs), the third is a caricature of Eddie Cantor, and the fourth is obviously a satirical depiction of Der Bingle himself, singing a line of from the featured recording of this very article.  Watch for yourself!

Such humorous references to contemporary pop culture were a hallmark, and indeed, a distinctive competency (to borrow a business term) of the Warner Brothers’ Merrie Melodies cartoons!  But as hinted previously, this very reference also demonstrates that Crosby’s version stands apart from all others, much like that special lady.

America’s Greatest Music, entry 08-06-13 August 6, 2013

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Yes, no doubt many readers are thinking that of all the outstanding Benny Goodman records that the King of Swing cut in his prime years, I chose “Thanks for the Memory” as the first to highlight on my blog.  Suffice it to say, I have my [undisclosed] reasons.  Adding further irony to the situation is that Goodman’s take on the tune is not considered its definitive version — Bob Hope is commonly thought to ‘own’ the song, along with Shirley Ross.  The two did render, perhaps, the definitive version of the song, and is no doubt closest to the original intent of the songwriters and of the storyline.

What is interesting is the contrast in tones that the two renditions set.  Whereas Hope and Ross version strike a very poignant chord of a long-time couple now splitting up, and they reminisce together right before going their separate ways, the Goodman version is far more upbeat.  Withholding the later verses about the lamentation of what has come to an end, Martha Tilton’s vocal talent instead concentrates on the fond memory of good times of two apparent travel companions.  All this is to say nothing of the contrast in key and tempo.  The Hope and Ross version has a strong tinge of melancholy and poignancy throughout the song, making you feel it, and feel for the soon-to-be-ex-couple.  All well and good, but that is far from Goodman’s style; thus, the song — recorded on Dec. 2, 1937 — is arranged in typical “businessman’s bounce” fashion, as only the King could deliver.

Moreover, this version does a better job of celebrating those ultra-special moments with very special people.

To all those with whom I’ve had special moments over the years — particularly this past weekend — thanks, for the memory.