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After triumph in Sochi, where will Andrew Weibrecht's journey take him next?  Photo:  © Nancie Battaglia
After triumph in Sochi, where will Andrew Weibrecht's journey take him next? Photo: © Nancie Battaglia

Andrew Weibrecht's remarkable journey to Sochi

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Over the last couple of months, our Adironadack bureau chief Brian Mann has been focusing a lot of his attention on the Winter Olympics in Sochi. He's interviewed remarkable athletes and seen amazing feats of strength and speed and courage.

Through all of that reporting, Brian says Sunday's remarkable silver medal win for Andrew Weibrecht stands out. Weibrecht's trip to the podium came after years of struggle and illness and defeat.

Brian talked again with the alpine skier from Lake Placid yesterday, following Weibrecht's triumph in Sochi, and sends this reporter's notebook.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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***

There's a quote from novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald: "Action is character." It's an idea that goes back to Aristotle, that we see ourselves revealed most clearly, most truly in moments of trial and challenge. But over the last few months, watching and reporting on ski racer Andrew Weibrecht, I found myself questioning this idea.

Before I go on, I want to remind you of the stakes for Weibrecht in this week's Olympic races: he wasn't just fighting for a medal. He was fighting for a sign, some evidence that his life was on the right path. Here he is speaking to reporters after his race.

"I try not to focus on results, but I really needed a result to remind me that I'm capable of this, and that I belong."

Now, by Fitzgerald's formulation, the answer to Weibrecht's question came in that one minute and 18 seconds that he spent on the snow Sunday. It came in the form of a silver medal.

But here's where my doubt comes in: When I interviewed Andrew Weibrecht before he went to Sochi, I would have bet solid money that he didn't have a chance. His confidence and focus seemed so fractured that I just thought, no way.

This is going to keep me going for a while, this really simplifies a lot of questions and doubts that I had about whether I was able to do it, and that's the biggest thing, just having that belief that not only you can do it, but I have done it.
Andrew called me yesterday after his win and I asked him about this. He said he's been training, "and I've been working with a couple of sports psychologists, trying to address the issues I've been having with the mental side of my skiing. It was a tough period for a while so I think that getting that help and getting that type of mental coaching has really made a difference for me. I started feeling good two weeks ago, where I felt like things were really starting to come together."

I want to nod once at the fact that most athletes, most top-tier athletes anyway, won't talk much about this inner fight, the conflict and struggle that happen away from public competition. They're surrounded by handlers and publicists. The hard-edged worlds of professional sport and professional celebrity force people to grow thick skins.

Weibrecht is different. He's been willing to talk openly about the part of his character that isn't expressed in action on the ski slope, that isn't captured in those 80 seconds of speed and torque.

I asked him on the phone yesterday how he was able to distill all that mental work, all the lonely training and the days of self-doubt, into a single, all-or-nothing run.

"When you're really feeling it, I think it's easy. When I was younger there are times when everything was really simple and then all of a sudden you have a little bit of self-doubt, and things get quite a bit more complicated…It's not a very easy thing, and it's a lot tougher when you've got other issues with doubt and things like that going on. That makes it 10 times more challenging."

So I guess I would argue that the quality of Andrew Weibrecht's character wasn't expressed in that one sustained burst of speed or in that moment on the podium. It wasn't in action that we saw this 28 year old articulate his finest self. Instead, it was in the months of struggle, against illness, injury, and profound doubt. It was also in the discipline that kept him going, kept him training, kept him looking honestly and painfully inside himself.

I would also argue also that the most precious thing Andrew Weibrecht won this week wasn't silver; what he won was a sense that this calling, this passion for mountains and snow and speed, is something that he owns now, that he's claimed with new confidence.

"This is going to keep me going for a while, this really simplifies a lot of questions and doubts that I had about whether I was able to do it, and that's the biggest thing, just having that belief that not only you can do it, but I have done it."

Another famous saying of Fitzgerald's is that there are no second acts in American lives. People still wrangle over what Fitzgerald meant by that. But as Andrew Weibrecht leaves Sochi, I think it's fair to say that he's proved he has the character to shape his own next act, his next chapter.

And what happens away from the ski slope will be just as interesting – maybe far more interesting – than those handful of seconds spent on snow. I know I'll be fascinated to see where Weibrecht's journey takes him after these Winter Games.

Follow the progress of all the North Country's Olympians on NCPR's The North Country at Sochi page, and find even more on Twitter at #NCPROlympics.

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