SOCHI, Russia — In the entrance to the P&G House just inside the entrance to Olympic Park here, a woman asks, “Are you the family of an athlete or with the media?”
“Both,” I say.
“Both?” she replies, confused.
“Yes, both. I am covering the Olympics on behalf of the Washington Post. But I am also with this group of people in front of me, the family of David Wise. I think you sponsor him.”
“Ah, yes. David. I processed him back home. What a nice young man. Okay, what would you like to enter as – family or media?”
“Uh, the family of an athlete would be cool. I’ve never done that before.”
It is less than 24 hours before David Wise, a medal favorite for the U.S. team, starts his first qualifying run in the inaugural Olympic superpipe competition in the mountains above Sochi. To borrow the inimitable words of Sage Kostenburg, I’m stoked.
And nervous, which is a bit of a surprise.
As much as many of us profess to have no dog in the fight, we journalists have biases – shocker, I know. We have coaches and athletes and teams we want to win, and we have coaches and athletes and teams we want to lose. But not always for the reasons you might think.
In the NBA, the main rooting interest of writers during the playoffs – unless your team winning improves your national Q-rating — is location, location, location. We all love the games of Kevin Durant and Paul George. But the mere thought of spending a week in Oklahoma City or Indianapolis in June is frightening enough to beg LeBron or Kobe or Chris Paul to take their teams to the NBA Finals. We don’t want Marriott points in landlocked America; we want the beach. (I’m in the minority, but I actually love Indiana.) In baseball, the main rooting interest is pitchers who work fast, because that means people get to file stories earlier and go home earlier. That’s why the late Catfish Hunter was beloved like Mark Buehrle is today. And it’s also why Jonathan Papelbon is seen as a preening poser who just needs to get the damn ball out of his glove.
But maybe for the first time, I’m actually rooting openly and religiously for a competitor I’m covering Tuesday. David is the son of my father’s cousin, making him (I think) my second cousin. I’ve never had a relative compete on the world stage.
I’m technically writing about this today, which is probably as close to participatory journalism as I’ll ever get. The Post has a nepotism policy, but it only involves a spouse being hired after you already work there. I have promised the family and my work to be on my best behavior, though the devious part of me would love to grease the skids for my cousin during the mixed zone interviews.
ME TO OTHER POTENTIAL MEDALIST: “Have you ever completely pitched face-first into the snow, where your skis stick upright and you and your bindings are separated from one another and you catapult into a nearby ravine?
TERRIFIED TEENAGER: “N-n-n-no, man.”
ME: “Okay, just checking. Good luck on your last run, kid. Break a leg.”
As some of you who read my column on him before the Olympics know, I don’t really know David. I met him the first time in 1998 during a family reunion in Lake Tahoe when he was 8, and met him for the second time a week before we both left for Sochi in his hometown of Reno, Nev.
He’s an old soul at 23, with a sweet wife named Lexie, who showed up in Sochi Sunday with David’s father Tom, his mother Kathy, and his twin sisters Jessica and Christy. Meeting them for breakfast across town at their hotel connected me even more to the Games. They were staying at the same hotel as the parents of U.S. women’s hockey twins Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux. Jean-Pierre Lamoureux actually told us where to get the bus to Olympic Park.
At the P&G House, someone actually asked Lexie if they could send more diapers and wipies to Reno for Naeli, who didn’t make the trip but nonetheless the couple credits for getting the Procter & Gamble sponsorship. “I mean, look around, what other guy on the circuit my age or younger has a 2-year-old?” David joked when we ate lunch in Reno. “Naeli definitely hooked us up.”
There have been many stories out there about David, but none tell the tale of his grandfather, Bob Wise – my father’s uncle. He was one of the most famous players in University of Colorado history, a two-way lineman who played for the Los Angeles Rams before he broke his collarbone, finished school and went on to greater things, winning championships and building boys into men at Portola High School in Northern California.
The whole town called him “Coach,” and when he died in 1997 the funeral was held on the field, now Bob Wise Field. After eulogies were given, a 7-year-old boy couldn’t take it anymore. He walked up to the microphone and said to the crowd, choked up, “I miss my grandpa,” and walked off stage as a town broke into tears.
Bob’s wife was Mary Wise. She is our oldest living family member and will watch her grandson from the same home that boarded me for a summer when I was 16 in 1980.
A lot of people also don’t know that this is his father’s first time at an Olympic Games since 1960 as a boy in Squaw Valley, when Tom saw the U.S. hockey team beats the Soviets, 3-2 – and how the actual scoreboard left that score on for years until it was torn down.
David’s father was a great skier in his day, too. After so much perceived failure for the U.S. alpine team, Tom put it in perspective yesterday when he said, “I can’t believe Bode got a bronze at 36. That’s incredible. No one medals in that sport at that age.”
The drawback to having a cousin go on with Matt Lauer, of course, is that any illusion of being the shining beacon of familial light as the sports columnist who gets to cover the Olympics is forever shattered.
Take three weeks ago, when three boys of about 10 and 11 came to the door, including the next-door neighbor.
“Hey, you got a fan,” Gavin says.
Ha, you think, about time the young demographic comes around.
“Is David Wise the halfpipe skier your cousin?” asks a kid named Graham, excitedly.
“OhmyGod! OhmyGod, this is so cool!” he squeals. “I’m, like, speechless. I just saw him in the X Games. He’s so awesome.”
Gavin interjects, “You have to tell him that Graham Hopkins, Gavin Fletcher and Nick Gross wish him luck and we will be watching.”
Sure, guys, no problem. Don’t worry about me. My athletic dreams are long dead.
In all sincerity, seeing the name “Wise” on a dais of the Tolstoy Room of the Main Press Center in Sochi nine days ago, realizing someone you share bloodlines with is about to go for the gold 20 feet in the air out of a steeply-graded, manmade halfpipe in the middle of a snow-packed mountain, is about as good as it gets at the Games.
God bless him and keep him safe. Give him the strength and the serenity to have the run of his life. He deserves good things.