It would be safe to say that I never truly excelled at short track speed skating. I used to think I was awesome of course, but if I toss those rose coloured glasses overboard and look back instead with clear, nostalgia-free vision, there is really no doubt about my complete lack of short track talent – it was definitely not my forte. I still did it of course, for many years in fact, while I patiently counted down the days until I could move west and find my true home on the long track.
I was, however, pretty good at speaking French. I grew up in Ottawa and took French immersion in school from day one. I was fully bilingual relatively quickly and followed through with French all the way through high school. I didn’t take math in English until my ill-fated rendezvous with Calculus in grade 13, which surely must explain my poor grade in that class!
After moving to Calgary it became pretty clear that any opportunities to keep up my French were few and far between. This is one English-speaking town. I did my best to practice with the Quebec skaters whenever possible, but over the years it became obvious to me that my French was slipping away.
I still did many interviews in French and got by reasonably well, but I was increasingly bothered that I could not remember if it was ‘le’ or ‘la’ or ‘un’ or ‘une’ or what the right word for ‘________’ was. Mix in a solo trip to Norway where I was forced to put into practice the Norwegian lessons of my youth and eventually much of my French became a mélange of poorly conjugated verbs mixed in with the odd Norwegian word that I was absolutely certain was actually French.
As for the world of television, it’s been a one-way street for me as long as I can remember. Like everyone else I have mostly been a passive viewer, whiling away many an hour on the road or at home, glued mercilessly to the tube. I’ve occasionally been an active participant, through broadcasted races and interviews. But I’ve never been on the other side of the lens, taking part in the making of TV or contributing to content from the opposite vantage point.
And then a call came asking if I’d like to do some commentating for the CBC this speed skating season and I soon found myself sitting next to one of the most iconic voices in Canadian sport, that of Steve Armitage, in a broadcast booth learning the ropes and how to call a race.
So what do these three things have to do with each other? Well, last weekend they all came crashing together in an inexplicably peculiar manner, as I donned my newfound broadcasting hat in the French province of Quebec at a short track World Cup in Saguenay. I was re-immersed into the world of short track speed skating and French speaking Quebec and newly immersed into the world of broadcast television. It was quite an education.
A few short weeks to brush up on my admittedly weak short track knowledge seemed barely adequate to become the new voice of the sport to the Canadian public. And did I mention that we were going live? It turns out when they tell you they’re going to show only the 500m’s live, what it actually means is that the server in Toronto might go down and you also need to call the 1500m’s live, now, GO! Say wha?
It would have been funny to see me on camera while calling races as I often finished saying something on the fly, possibly incorrect, followed by shaking my head and wringing my hands in silence as I tried to think of the next right thing to say. Not surprisingly, there were a few flubs. Like when I said ‘oh geez’ on air after a multiple skater crash, or when I referred to a skater as ‘that Japanese guy’. I also took to making up words: when trying to describe the new team-skating rule, I brilliantly announced that it is no longer ‘unallowed’, followed by, ‘uhh, I don’t think that is a word.’ Steve Armitage saved me by deciding that he would ‘allow it.’
I was definitely limited by my lack of in-depth expertise on the finer technical aspects of short track speed skating, but I will learn. I was however, not limited at all by my well-earned ability to instantly become fodder for teasing by any new group of people I encounter, in this case the CBC crew. It didn’t take long for me to acquire, much to my dismay, the nickname “Poutine” which I will most certainly never shake. Long story. It’s a good thing I have thick skin.
I am quite certain that as I kid I raced at least once or twice in the Georges Vezina arena in Saguenay. While passing through its hallowed halls, adorned with tributes to legendary short track speed skaters like Marc Gagnon, some twenty years later, a plethora of long-lost short track memories arose from the cobwebby corners of my mind. Happily, my ability to speak French returned in much the same way. I was in the same place again, but also not. How curious it was to experience old and new, past and present, as one and the same.
It was immersion, cubed. The collision of memory, language and media became a new, layered experience unto itself. It was fun, exciting, challenging and a little bit stressful. I’m not quite sure about this but I think this phenomenon, this blending of varying dimensions, degrees and directions is generally something people refer to as ‘Life’.
Oh, hello Life.