I feel like a kid tearing through a bucket of Halloween candy. We’re in the final stages of our move back across town to the apartment complex we temporarily left to help a friend in need, and it sure feels good to be back. Once again I have a tennis court mere footsteps away, and a pool is accessible every toasty summertime day. But what really has this Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America excited is simply being tied back into 21st-century technology once more.
If you’ve been following the column regularly over the years, you know I’m no stranger to moving. As long as I have a linkup into the cerebral vortex of cyberspace, home is wherever I can plug in the computer and dial into the global sports networks that have enthralled me for the better part of a lifetime. But for the last four months I have been unplugged, the unwitting victim of internet service that faded away into oblivion and was unable to be replaced through other means at the domicile we formerly occupied.
Yet moving has taken its toll as well, leaving little time to reap the fruits of the new pad. I was able to bask in the glory of all the technology at my fingertips on Sunday, though, catching three soccer matches — Liverpool’s upset of Manchester United, AC Milan pipping Juventus and Inter Milan’s slow come-from-behind dominance over Genoa. I tinkered around on the computer, reacquainting myself with the feeling of a full keyboard after months spent scrambling on a BlackBerry for whatever snippets of news I could snatch over the cellular waves. I enjoyed the on-demand offerings, watching the “Fernando Nation” and “Once Brothers” documentaries of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.
And then I moved some more. So maybe tearing through the candy isn’t quite the correct metaphor. I’m more like the kid just after the trick-or-treat session, right after walking through the door back home and peeling off my monster mask. It’s like I’m in that first overwhelming moment, pouring out the bucket and standing overwhelmed over all the bounty before my eyes. Over the next few weeks I’ll surely get acclimated once again to the rhythms which were stunted over the past few months of going without. And as I adjust back into my natural comfort zone, we’ll get back into all the coverage of this wide wide world full of athletic excellence that has lapsed recently as I’ve battled my own deadline against the zero hour to be completely moved.
So let’s take those first nascent steps back into normalcy. Buckle up, everyone, because I’m back in the driver’s seat of a high-speed universe after living the past few seasons in a pre-dialup existence. Welcome back as we celebrate the quasquicentennial of A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America in style again, fully armed and eager to dive in with renewed vigor for another 125 editions…
It is the perfect time of year to be a sports fan. Spring is just around the corner. Both hockey and basketball are in their stretch drives, on a collision course for another playoff season. Colleges around the country are crossing their fingers hoping to land a lucrative NCAA tournament berth. And while America’s autumn pastime is in danger of seeing its 2011 season die on the vine in a dispute over how to butcher up the cash cow, the national pastime of the sunny seasons sees its franchises heading south for spring training.
But it goes beyond just these American sports. As winter shucks its snowy accoutrements, all those cold-weather sports that took center stage at last February’s Winter Olympics finish up their lower-profile regular seasons. Ivica Kostelic, the 31-year-old Croat who has expanded his talents from his natural slalom success to capture the FIS World Cup overall title for 2011. Kostelic complemented his slalom dominance with his first-ever Super G victory on the vicious slopes of Kitzbühel, building up along the way an absurd points total nearly double that of runner-up Didier Cuche. Despite showing the fastest form in training for the penultimate downhill of the season in Kvitfjell, Norway, Cuche would win every one of the last seven events of the season between Kvitfjell and Lenzerheide, Switzerland, and still be hundreds of points behind Kostelic.
On the women’s side, the battle between American skier Lindsey Vonn and Germany’s Maria Riesch for the overall title comes down to the final two weekends in Špindleruv Mlýn, Czech Republic and Lenzerheide. Just six races are left to determine a champion between the two competitors, each other’s fiercest opponent on the circuit yet the best of friends when they leave the mountain. Vonn has won more races this season — eight (3 downhill, 4 Super G and 1 super combined) against six (3 downhill, 1 slalom, 1 Super G and 1 super combined) for Riesch — yet the German’s consistency has staked her a 96-point lead into the final fortnight of competition. Of course, with the victor of each race earning twenty more points than the runner-up, this is still anything but decided as the women prepare for tomorrow’s action in the Czech Republic.
We’re midway through the Iditarod, the leading mushers having passed through the eponymous village and checkpoint of the race, and instead of four-time defending champion Lance Mackey at the head of the pack it is instead 40-year-old Trent Herbst. An elementary-school teacher from Ketchum, Idaho, Herbst has raced in and finished each of the last four Iditarods. Each of the past two years have seen him finish 48th, his career best at this point. But with a 14-dog team that is his best yet, Herbst has the potential to end Mackey’s bid at a five-peat and could take a race from such other accomplished mushers as Sebastian Schnuelle and Rick Swenson. The underdog schoolteacher might just be the most pleasant surprise of the fading winter.
But others still have their moments to come out of the woodwork as well. Curlers young and old, male and female, are all preparing for their respective world championships. The juniors kick off the next two months of tournament play with their championships in Perth, Scotland, where Eve Muirhead and the hosts will be looking for her record fourth straight junior title as the skip of the Scottish side. Women’s and men’s teams come next, with senior and mixed play finishing off the festivities in April.
Winter’s wrap-up only means that we’re gaining ground into another season of sports altogether. Two months removed from the Australian Open in Melbourne and two months away from the French Open at Roland Garros in Paris, the men of the ATP and the women of the WTA enjoy a rare non-Grand Slam convergence of their two tours as they currently compete at Indian Wells in California. With the top seeds already earning a bye in the opening stages of each bracket, first-round matches wrap up today as the tournaments begin in earnest. After the big American hardcourt tournaments in California and in Miami, the focus will soon be turning back to the clay as Paris looms close on the horizon.
The traditional start of the European cycling season is also upon us as the peloton hits the French roads along the route of Paris-Nice and the Italian thoroughfares of Tirreno-Adriatico. The first major week-long stage races of the European calendar, these two races always attract the best cyclists of the road between their start lists. In France, Paris-Nice began with a stir when 24-year-old Belgian ProTour neophyte Thomas De Gendt won the breakaway on Stage 1′s uphill finish and spent three of the race’s first four days in the maillot jaune of the leader. Greg Henderson and then Matthew Goss won the sprint finishes in the second and third stages, but in joining in on the Stage 4 breakaway De Gendt took back his yellow jersey until German veteran Andreas Klöden took Stage 5 and vaulted into the leadership because of it.
In Italy, Rabobank won the opening stage, a 16.8-kilometer (10.4-mile) team time trial through the seaside suburb of Marina di Carrara. In the process Lars Boom took over the leader’s jersey after crossing the line first, and teammate Robert Gesink was given an early gap over the other GC contenders. But after the first true road stage of the week, it was American Tyler Farrar who won the sprint finish and the race lead as he beat Alessandro Petacchi and J.J. Haedo to the line. Farrar, sitting on the wheel of rainbow-clad world champion teammate Thor Hushovd, was given the perfect leadout by the Norwegian and easily outkicked his Italian and Argentinian challengers for his third victory of the young 2011 season. While the overall is hardly his goal during Tirreno-Adriatico, Farrar has proven that he will enter the spring classics as one of the odds-on favorites for victory starting with Milano-San Remo a week from Saturday.
And now, with 300 channels staring back at me from the television and the internet piping in hot and fast through the cable, I can watch all of these things once more without resorting to wearing out the keys on my pocket computer further. And once Formula 1 gets over the postponement and/or cancellation of the Bahrain GP and gets on with its season two weekends from now in Australia, we’ll have one more diversion to pull and tug at our attention.
At least I’m back in the game. After 125 columns so far, this experiment in forced asceticism is finally over and I’m back in the current millennium. May the abstinence from technology in the household never again take grip of my life…