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Direction (12/4/12)

You are either born with a sense of direction or you aren’t.  I was always amazed as a kid that no matter where we travelled, my dad just somehow knew where to go.  Even in places where you drive on the left side and sit on the right (shifting with your left hand), two turns out of the rental car agency and Ken was good to go.  My dad’s athleticism, tenacity and confidence I inherited. When it comes to direction, however, I apply that confidence to completely faulty sense, as his admirable inner GPS must be skipping a generation.

The last Olympic season (2009-2010), my cohort Emily Azevedo and I combined the world’s most comical senses of direction to make the dream team of fossil fuel consumption.  In just the first half of the World Cup tour, we calculated a total of nine hours gone in the wrong direction.  Before you hate, let me set this up:

In North America we get our sleds from track to track by shipping them in crates, packing and unpacking at each stop.  Europe involves just as much heavy lifting, but instead of meeting our sleds at each track, we have to drive them there ourselves in huge sled trucks.  If there was ever a bubble of glamorous European travels and sleigh riding, let’s burst it now. 

When you race every weekend on a different track in a different country, you only have a day to get where you need to go before doing it all over again. What that means for a World Cup bobsled tour is unpack and unload, train train train, race, pack and load, drive, arrive, and unload all over again.  So every time you climb into a vehicle, you are post-race exhausted.  Most tracks in Europe are on average a six-hour drive apart in good weather.  So now factor in the inevitable snowstorms that come with winter sports, two-wheel drive, and a bench seat, and you can see why people shy away from truck duty.

 BMW cars for USA Bobsled and Skeleton
Thanks, BMW, for the fleet of X5's!

Since teaming up with BMW, we get a fleet of X5’s that provide unparalleled luxury on those long aforementioned European treks from track to track.  After a solid 10 minutes spent every year figuring out how to change the dashboard navigation system to English, we’re in business.  In business if you’re in a BMW, that is.  The sled trucks, on the other hand, are the bane of our travel existence. 

Nowadays we have mandatory stick driving school as well as chain school, because for years people sat in the warmth while others put chains on, or slept in the back as the small group of manually skilled drivers put in long hours.  There have been a few instances of waking someone up for their shift, only to find out they can’t drive.  Last year was inspiringly refreshing in that we had a particularly tenacious group of newbies, eager to learn as well as gutsy to venture forth on their own. 

And now to account for those nine hours lost in the Olympic season.  Back then, none of us really traveled with an international GPS, so our team manager Lenny Kasten would pass out multiple page MapQuest directions that would often leave us saying “Look kids – Big Ben” even when followed correctly.  And anyone who remembers life before the GPS knows that once you make one wrong turn, if you can’t go back and figure out where you went wrong that lovingly stapled packet is toast. Now factor in foreign countries with unfamiliar signage in an unfamiliar language, and you are already set for an adventure.

What always amazed me is how positive Emily and I managed to remain, even in the middle of the night snowstorm gas station language-barrier scenes.  Each of us knew that we were just as little help to the cause, co-pilot or driver, but would be as supportive as we could.  In my case, despite knowing full well I have the directional intuition of George Costanza and should always do the opposite of what I think, I am confidently decisive about my wrong directions.  Time after time, Emily would ask which way and I always had an immediate and confident answer, which was later followed by a confidently apologetic “I was wrong, definitely wrong.”

Those European back roads are no joke to navigate, as we later learned that even with a GPS things would get unclear and wrong choices still made, but the error rate was cut by at least 85-percent.  There is something to be said, though, for going wherever you’re going with confidence.  Do what you’re going to do, and be bold about it – so long as you can admit with equal confidence and humility when you are wrong and what you learned.

Luckily for me a bobsled track is one way.