Debbie Becker has been a sportswriter for 21 years, for the
last 19 years at USA Today and previously at The Washington
Post. The Salt Lake City Olympics will be her fifth Olympic
assignment. Ms. Becker is a founding member of USA Today and
has served in a variety of positions including copy editor,
reporter and assignment editor. Her assignments have included
four World Figure Skating Championships, 11 NCAA Final Four
basketball tournaments, two Tours de France and numerous golf
tournaments. She has covered everything from college basketball
and football, to the NFL, to cycling, gymnastics and figure
skating. Ms. Becker is a 1982 graduate of American University
in Washington, D.C.
Reflections on the Olympics
February 25, 2002
Well, 19 days after we've arrived, the USA TODAY contingent of editors, reporters and photographers is heading home today. We had fun, but we're anxious to get back home after being away so long.
I spent Sunday morning interviewing short track speedskating star Apolo Anton Ohno, the 19-year-old from Seattle. He said he's been sleeping with his gold and silver medals under his pillow. He's going to be on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno Tuesday before he heads off to New York City for all the talk shows there.
The USA Olympic team did better than they ever had before. Americans had never won more than 13 medals in the Winter Games. In Salt Lake City, USA athletes won 34. It was also a great showing for minority athletes. Bobsled pusher Vonetta Flowers became the first black ever to win a gold medal in the Winter Games, and speedskaters Derrick Parra and Jennifer Rodriguez, Hispanic, won medals in speedskating. It was fun to be a part of USA TODAY's coverage and have the opportunity to get to know some amazing athletes. It's interesting because we cover them throughout the year and then we get to see in person how it all turns out. Only a small percentage of the athletes who competed leave with medals, but everyone will leave with a lifetime of memories, including the media who followed the athletes the last three weeks.
The next Olympics take place in two years in Athens. There are some concerns the city won't be ready but still, who wouldn't want to be there. Two years after that, in 2006, the Winter Olympics take place in Italy. Many of the athletes we covered here in Salt Lake City will be competing again, and once again we'll get to tell their stories.
'No cheering in the press box'
February 22, 2002
Well, short track speedskating justs gets more and more interesting. One of the biggest stars to emerge from the U.S. team is Seattle teenager Apolo Anton Ohno. Ohno first gained attention when he crashed last week, crawled to the finish line for a silver medal and then needed six stitches to sew up a gash in his leg. Wednesday night was no less controversial. When Ohno tried to pass a Korean skater, the Korean skaters leaned into his lane meaning Ohno couldn't get past and had to settle for what looked like the silver medal. But then, the Korean was disqualifed and Ohno got the gold medal he's dreamed of. The disqualification was very controversial. The Korean skater threw his country's flag down on the ice and Korean journalists were openly booing the decision. That was shocking to the American journalists because we like to consider ourselves impartial. The last thing we would do is cheer for or against an athlete. You've heard the expression: "No cheering in the pressbox," that's very true with the Americans.
I was among a group of 10 writers invited to interview Ohno Thursday morning. He's very upbeat and a very classy guy. When he lost a chance to get the gold medal when he crashed, he did not criticize the skater who took him down, instead was thrilled with his silver medal. Ohno has two more chances to win medals on Saturday. Thursday he told us he's a little worried that his leg injury might slow him down. We'll find out soon enough, but whatever happens, he's really enjoyed his first Winter Olympics. And, it's been fun for us journalists to write about him.
Students asked, Debbie answered!
February 22, 2002
Kelly Clark won the gold medal in the halfpipe . She did an impromptu stunt that she had only landed successfully once before. Where did she get the courage to attempt this stunt during her final run?
She did it because she was listening to her favorite mini disc on headphones when started her run. Just when she started, Blink 182's "So this is growing up" began playing. This inspired Clark, because she had won once before at X Games when this song came up on her mini disc. It gave her the courage and energy to attempt this risky jump.
In light of September 11th, how does all the extra security in this Winter Olympics affect you?
This has been the highest level of security at a Winter Olympics. We are constantly being checked to make sure we have the right credentials to go where we're going. Everytime we enter an Olympic building, whether it's the Main Press Center or somewhere where the athletes are competing, we have all our bags x-rayed and we walk through a metal detector. We have to turn on anything electronic so they know they aren't disguised bombs. We even have to take a sip of whatever drink we bring in to make sure that's safe also. It's a bit frustrating and takes a lot of time but the journalists understand why it is necessary, given the tragedy of Sept. 11. And it's not just the media. The athletes go through the same routine, although they have special entrances to buildings so they don't have to wait so long.
How does angling skis outward affect the performance of a ski jumper in the K90 ski jump?
Angling the skis is similar to the curve of an airplane wing. The curve of the body in relation to the flat ski creates an imbalance of pressure and lifts the athlete up in the air. That pushes them farther up in the air and increases their chance of winning.
February 21, 2002
What is the difference between the pairs ice skating and ice dancing?
Pairs skating and ice dancing are very different. In pairs skating, the two skaters are allowed to do lifts and throws. That's not permitted in ice dancing. Some minor lifts are permitted, but definitely no throws. Ice dancing is more about mirroring your partner. Pairs skating is considered much more athletic with spectacular throws and lifts. The judging is often different. Ice dancing judging is considered by many to be somewhat predetermined with the results quite predictable ahead of time.
U.S. speedskaters a true success story
February 21, 2002
With just a few days left in the Winter Olympics, the U.S. speedskating team is the great success story of these Games. On Wednesday, Jennifer Rodriguez became the second double medalist for the U.S. Rodriguez is an unlikely Winter Olympian. Her father is Cuban and she grew up in Miami. Rodriguez is the one of a very few athletes from Florida to compete in a Winter Olympics. She's a former inline skater who came to speedskating later than most, when she was 20. The other double medalist for the USA is Derek Parra, the first Mexican-American to win Winter Olympic gold. And yesterday, Vonetta Flowers became the first black athlete to win a gold medal in the Winter Games. This just shows that anyone, no matter where they grow up or their background, can become an Olympic athlete. These athletes overcame a lot but always believed they could win, and this week they did just that.
Americans having stellar Olympics
February 20, 2002
The speedskating competitions continue with the American having one of their best Olympics ever. American skater Derek Parra, who is one of the nicest guys you could ever meet, won the gold medal Tuesday in the 1,500 meters. He'd already won a silver medal. Parra, 31, from San Bernardino, Calif., gave the USA its third gold medal and seventh medal overall in long-track speedskating. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was among the sell-out crowd at the Utah Olympic Oval. Parra had 40 family members and friends in the stands to cheer him on.
We've got five more days here before we all head home. As much fun as it is to cover an Olympics, at some point you can't help but want to get home and see your family, friends and dogs and cats! Wednesday night should be interesting with Apolo Anton Ohno trying to get a medal after his big crash a few days ago.
Skater makes comeback; Skating controversy continues
February 19, 2002
The big news at the Olympics still involves skaters, figure skaters and long and short track speedskaters. Sunday, Chris Witty made a remarkable comeback by winning the gold medal despite being diagnosed with mononucleosis a month earlier. There were many days leading up to the Olympics that she couldn't skate at all. Not only did she win the gold medal in an incredibly talented field of skaters, she also broke the world record. On Monday afternnon, I watched short track speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno practice. He's the one that was involved in a four-skater crash Saturday night right in the final turn before the finish line. He crawled his way to the silver medal. He looked great in practice Monday and is expected to be able to race again Wednesday. That's when he gets another chance to win a gold medal. Also Monday, the head of the International Skating Union proposed some drastic changes on how figure skating should be judged. He's doing this to avoid another scandal that initially had the Canadian pairs team getting silver instead of gold. That was rectified when the Canadians were also awarded gold medals, but the controversy continues.
Ohno embodies Olympic spirit
February 18, 2002
The big news Saturday night at the Olympics was the crash of Seattle teenager Apolo Anton Ohno in the short track speedskating competition. Ohno got a lot of media attention because he had a chance at winning four gold medals. Saturday night was his first chance to get a gold medal and he appeared on track to get it when he was involved in a four-skater crash just before the finish line. Instead, he had to crawl to the finish line for the silver medal. In the crash, he cut his thigh and needed six stitches to sew it up. You might think he would be upset with the silver medal and be mad at the skater from Korea that knocked him down, but in a real show of class, Ohno didn't blame anyone for the crash and was thrilled to get the silver medal. He has three races left, the next one is Wednesday and he says he will skate despite the injury. It's too early to say if the cut will be a factor in Ohno's attempt to win a gold medal in his next races. He really embodied the Olympic spirit with the way he handled the crash.
More answers to students' questions
February 18, 2002
Why do they call it skeleton?
Skeleton, where athletes race down an ice chute on a sled, originally got that name in 1892 when an Englishman made a sled out of metal. It looked a lot like a human body, so it got the name skeleton.
What's an Olympics without a bit of shopping?
February 15, 2002
The hottest selling item at the Salt Lake City Olympics is the USA Olympic team's beret. You may have seen it when the eight American athletes carried the World Trade Center flag in Opening Ceremonies. Fans are waiting in line for hours for the hat which costs $19.95. Fans also spend a lot of time trading pins. On the streets of downtown Salt Lake City people have set up tables with all the pins they want to trade. Some journalists also spend time scouting for hard to find pins. There's quite a science to this whole pin trading scene. Reporters also like to give pins to the Olympic volunteers and the people who are driving us in buses all over the place. We like to thank them for all they're doing to make our lives easier here the 18 days that we're here.
Got questions? Debbie's got answers!
February 15, 2002
How do USA bobsledders train during the off season when there is no snow?
When there is no snow, athletes do what is called dry land training. Their main focus is strength and speed. The key in bobsled is getting off to a strong, explosive start so athletes need powerful legs to get going. Athletes can also practice their starts in places like Calgary which has something called an ice house. It's not a full bobsled run, but it has an actual bobsled start inside, so they can practice their starts over and over again. It's all timed, so the athletes can see how they're progressing. An athlete has to stay in shape throughtout the year to keep up with the competition.
How do you think winning a medal in the Olympics would affect your future?
There are some immediate financial rewards for winning a medal. The U.S. Olympic Committee gives $15,000 for a gold medal, $10,000 for a silver and $5,000 for a bronze. Also, each federation, the organization that runs that particular sport, may also give bonuses for medals. For example, Olympic swimmers get $50,000 for a gold medal. But what's far more important than money is the prestige that you will forever be known as an Olympic medal winner. You also know that when it really mattered you did your best and all the years of hard work paid off when everything was on the line. Not only are you proud, but so is your family who sacrificed to help you get your dream.
February 14, 2002
What are some of the odd things that athletes do for good luck before competing?
Mrs. Duda’s sixth grade class
Louise Archer Elementary School
Athletes can be very superstitious - from eating the same meal before they compete to wearing lucky charms. Figure skater Michele Kwan always wears a necklace with a Chinese symbol that her grandmother gave her years ago. When you watch her on TV, see if you can see Michele’s necklace. U.S. speedskater Derek Parra eats a box of fig newtons the night before each race. It must have worked because he’s already won a silver medal. Most athletes try to keep their routine exactly the same as if it were just another competition so they don’t get so nervous.
Covering the athletes and the controversies
February 14, 2002
What would the Winter Olympics be without a figure skating controversy? It's happening again, this time over the decision to give the gold medal to the Russian pairs team instead of the Canadian team, which many believe to be the clear champions. Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia won the gold medal by the tiniest of margins over Canada's Jamie Sale and David Pelletier on Monday night, even though they made mistakes. This is what all the journalists are talking about this week, and the head of the international federation - which handles figure skating - hinted that the judging system could be changed in the future so something like this doesn't happen again. What it means this week for journalists is that we're doing a lot of extra reporting to try and find out what really happened. What you do is talk to as many people as possible to try to get the best story. That's not always easy at the Olympics where it is difficult to get access to the athletes and coaches. The only place you can really talk to them at is in something called a mixed zone. That's the area where the athletes and coaches walk past to get from the arena to the locker room. In this stretch, on the opposite side of a barrier, are hundreds of reporters trying to interview the Olympians. It's an absolute madhouse and difficult to get to talk to who you need. When the competition is over, the medallists - the gold, silver and bronze winners - go to a press conference which is much more civilized. But if the athlete you want to talk to didn't medal, you're in for a tough job. If the athlete knows you, you can sometimes get their cell phone number and call them. But the bigger the star the athlete is, the less chance that will happen.
Got questions? Debbie's got answers!
February 13, 2002
Does the Mormon influence in Salt Lake City make it unique from other cities that have hosted the Olympics?
Though 70% of the people in the state of Utah are Mormon and 50% in Salt Lake City, it really does not seem to be much of a factor here. It seems like the people here are the nicest I’ve ever met at an Olympics. Everyone has a kind word and a smile and that’s not always easy to do because there is a fair amount of tension because of all the security.
Olympians wait for medals
February 13, 2002
Tuesday was a big day for the American Olympic team. Casey FitzRandolph and Kip Carpenter each won medals for the U.S. in the 500-meters of speedskating. When events take place earlier in the day, the athletes don't get their medals right away. There is a flower ceremony where the athletes are honored before the crowd that cheered them on, but the real thing doesn't happen until later that night at a concert downtown. There is a band that plays every night: Dave Matthews Band, Lifehouse, Foo Fighters, Macy Gray, Barenaked Ladies,Sheryl Crow, Smash Mouth, Brooks & Dunn, Train,Nelly Furtado, Creed, Marc Anthony, Alanis Morissette. Goo Goo Dolls, 'NSYNC and Martina McBride, Many of the spectators that attend are more interested in the bands than in the athletes getting their medals.Tickets are very difficult to get. So that's where FitzRandolph and Carpenter will get their medals tonight.
What it's like to cover the Salt Lake Olympics
February 12, 2002
There are over 8,000 journalists covering the Salt Lake City Olympics from all over the world. The center of our world for the next two weeks is the Main Press Center. That's where editors, reporters and photographers base their operations. Each person has a special credential which determines where they can go. Reporters can get almost anywhere. The main press center takes care of most of our needs. There is a cafeteria, but the food isn't too good, so we usually try to go out to eat or fill the fridge in our hotel rooms with bread, peanut butter and jelly. There's a place to send mail and post cards. There's also a small general store to buy newspapers at (to see what our competition is writing about!), and basics like shampoo and snacks. That's also where you get the buses that take us everywhere. We start the day by taking a bus to the main press center, where we wait to take another bus to the arenas. About 7 or 8 hours later when we're finished writing, it's back to get another bus to the press center, then another bus to the hotel. Covering the Olympics isn't the most glamorous job, but it's still the place to be.
Among the World's Greatest
February 11, 2002
One of things that's most fun about being a sportswriter is getting to meet the greatest athletes in the world. But not everyone will win a gold medal, and that doesn't make them any less interesting. One fun person I talked to today is Catherine Raney, a 21-year-old speedskater from Elm Grove, Wisconsin. She told me about what it's like to be a U.S. Olympic athlete and how much fun it was attending Opening Ceremonies. When she raced Sunday in the 3,000 meters, Raney wore a bracelet honoring one of the fallen firefighters from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Hers read: Capt. Timothy M. Stackpole, Fire Dept., Division 11. Raney met President Bush at Opening Ceremonies, sitting one row behind him. She passed him her cell phone so he could talk to one of her friends.
“He was really cool,” she said.
Security in Salt Lake
February 8, 2002
The last wave of USA Today staff writers, editors, photographers and computer personnel arrived in Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics Thursday night. We began covering our beats Friday amid the tightest security ever for an Olympic Games. The security plan includes 59 agencies and employees and nearly 16,000 security workers to keep the athletes, media and spectators safe. There are sharp shooters at each of the Olympic venues, the sites where the competition will take place. I took a bus Friday afternoon to Park City, where bobsled, luge and skeleton is taking place. When we were about 20 minutes from Park City, our bus was stopped at a check point where Army officers thoroughly searched the vehicle. They used mirrors which were held under the bus to make sure there were no explosives. Another officer, climbed a ladder to inspect the roof. Another officer came onboard to check each of our credentials to make sure we were authorized to be there. Once we cleared that checkpoint, we were stopped again about five minutes later before finally disembarking. Whenever reporters enter an arena, we go through metal detectors, like you do in the airport. The bottom line is anywhere you go during the Olympics, security is of utmost concern so we're allowing plenty of extra time to get where we need to be. Opening Ceremonies take place tonight and everyone is bundling up with warm clothes because it is very cold here at night, about 10 degrees. Let the Games begin!
Out of the Blocks With Speedskating
February 9, 2002
The action has finally begun at the Salt Lake City Olympics. I spent the day at the speedskating oval in Kearns, Utah, about 15 miles from downtown. We caught the bus from the main press center at 10 a.m. for the trip the opening day of speedskating, the men's 5,000 meters. Security remains very tight. We're not even allowed to bring our own bottled water into the press center because Coke is the sponsor. The big news is that American Derek Parra won a silver medal. It was a very patriotic moment, with fans chanting "USA, USA." Parra is one of the nicest athletes I've ever met and it was nice to see him do well. It's now 6:30 and we're going to catch the bus back downtown and get some long-awaited dinner. Another long day, but a great experience.
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