NAGANO, Japan — People like us, by that I mean Americans, by that I mean American sports writers, by that I mean sports writers who only drop in on winter sports once every four years, should be eased into it slowly. No shocks. No jolts.
So why does this speedskater have a ring in his tongue?
A ring in his tongue. A ring in his right ear. Two rings in his left ear. Hair dyed a shocking blond. And a brown goatee. This is the guy I’m talking to on the first full day of Olympic competition. He looks like Pearl Jam’s role model. And he is being asked, “How do you feel about the world record being broken in your race?” And he is answering, “Who cares? They skate. I skate. Why should I care?”
Hmm. To paraphrase the Oldsmobile commercial, “This ain’t your father’s speedskater.”
Speedskaters are supposed to mumble and nod, right? Speedskaters are supposed to have big heartland families watching in big heartland living rooms, right?
Eric Heiden? Sheila Young? Dan Jansen? Bonnie Blair? If there’s one thing you could always count on at the Winter Olympics, it was that speedskaters — at least American speedskaters — were as wholesome as the dairy in their home state of Wisconsin. And they all came from Wisconsin, didn’t they? From the Blairs, the Jansens, the Heidens, the Nick Thometzes, speedskaters not only came through the same state, they came through the same town, West Allis, a Norman Rockwell place with a big ice oval where they lived together and trained together and drank whole milk together and sang “Kum Bay Ya” around the campfire …
OK. Maybe the “Kum Bay Ya” is a stretch. But over the years, I have interviewed all of the above-mentioned people, and with all due respect to their enormous accomplishments, they were so bland that, at times, the only way to tell them apart was the size of their thighs.
The man with the ring in his tongue has taken care of that.
Moving up from Rollerblades
“I skated good,” he says. “I could care less if I got a medal.”
This is KC Boutiette, age 27. The KC, he says, stands for nothing special. The hair dye, the earrings, the goatee — as well as the baggy pants and oversize sports jerseys he normally wears — these are not affectations. They are perfectly normal in the world of Rollerbladers, which is where KC comes from.
That’s right. The fastest speedskater America has ever produced cut his teeth not on the oval, not in Wisconsin, but at the RollerBowl in Tacoma, Wash. KC ate corn dogs and ice cream. He washed UPS trucks for cash. He took a job out of high school crushing rocks. I’m not sure when he had his ears and tongue pierced. I do know that the closest he came to ice was the stuff the vending machine dropped in his Coke.
Then one day, five years ago, he took a long bus trip to Wisconsin, at the urging of his Rollerblade manager. His Rollerblade manager? Well, yeah. There’s good money in being top dude on wheels. KC had a sweet thing going, being a two-time national in-line skating champion. Kids thought he was cool. People at the RollerBowl would nod and wave. King of the rink. Not bad, huh? All the corn dogs you can eat.
But when he got off that bus in Wisconsin, well, that’s when KC did something really impressive. In just six weeks, the Grunge Kid went from wheels to blades, and won a spot on the 1994 Olympic speedskating team. Six weeks? And he’s in the Olympics?
“They didn’t like me very much for that,” he now admits. “They saw me as someone taking away their spot.”
Just the same, KC went to Lillehammer — and was overwhelmed. It was his first international competition. He crashed and burned. Finished 39th.
But something had been broken. The notion that American speedskaters were cookie-cut from a Martha Stewart mold. Other in-line skaters began leaving the roller rinks and heading for the parka-land. Wisconsin was invaded by a small army of nose rings and dudespeak.
This year, one fourth of the U.S. Olympic speedskating contingent comes from in-line skating roots. This includes KC’s girlfriend, Jennifer Rodriguez, who hails from that hotbed of speedskating, Miami, Fla.
She also has a pierced navel.
So you can see the attraction.
A quick course in grunge
Anyhow, there was KC on Sunday, taking to the Olympic ice oval and laying out a personal best in the 5,000 meters, breaking his American record by more than a second.
And this wasn’t even his specialty.
“I’m just using this race to get ready for the 1,500 (Thursday),” he said after finishing a respectable 14th. “That’s my race. If I had won a medal in the 5,000, it would have been a fluke.”
I watch him answer, with that ring in his tongue, and I remember the old days, when I asked speedskaters, “Doesn’t that hurt?” and I meant the skating, not the talking. KC’s teammate, David Tamburrino, likes to wear a Spider Man outfit, and as he came around the track Sunday I heard someone yell, “GO TAMBORINE MAN!”
And our best hope on the U.S. women’s team, Chris Witty, rides a motorcycle, plays electric bass and has a tattoo.
Bye-bye, Bonnie Blair. No more Dan Jansen mumbling humbly into his chest. It’s a whole new grungy culture at the big track, a little much for the opening days of the Games. But I’ll get used to it. I’m a trooper.
Besides, when you think about it, the whole thing is still Olympic. I mean, KC has four piercings — three in his ears, one in his tongue — and his girlfriend has one in her navel.
You’ve heard of the five rings, right?
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.