Wine & Olympics


Fine wine and Olympic sport . . . does something seem out of place here? To most people, the two are as distant as Australia and America. The only time wine seems to land in the sports headlines is when athletes’ post-race antics get them in rather unflattering situations. For me, wine was something far different; the perfect balance to my life as a highly competitive racer for the United States national skeleton team.

Beyond the initial impressions that one gets while watching skeleton — where athletes ride a small sled lying on their stomach at speeds over 90 mph down an ice chute with nothing more than a helmet and speed suit — it is a very cerebral sport dominated by the left side of the brain. Engineering, biomechanics, physics, physiology and psychology are all at play. On the contrary, wine is a highly creative, emotional and ethereal subject. Feeling and intuition play a role in experimentation, whether in the winery, vineyard or restaurant. Sure, wine has absolutes; but there’s an equal amount of subjectivity. At the end of the day, there’s no clock to race against.

My discovery of wine came while supporting myself as an athlete by working at the Lake Placid Lodge restaurant from 2002-2004. With a wine list of over 1,500 selections, the allure of learning about so many different wines, producers, styles and grapes was immense. As with everything I do, I dove in headfirst. I quickly built my knowledge through sommelier courses and travel through my skeleton schedule. By piggybacking wine region visits to race stops, I was able to visit Piedmont, Burgundy, the Rhône Valley, Mosel, Alto Adige, Alsace and many other wine regions. In addition, our summers of off-season training were spent at the Olympic Training Center near San Diego, which provided easy access to California’s wine regions. Uniquely, my sport had placed me in a position to learn about wine not just through a book, but firsthand.

Throughout my career I pursued wine education as a balance to my athletic lifestyle, but eventually my passion for wine outgrew my desire to be the fastest person down the hill. I decided to put away the sled in 2011 and head to Italy to work a vintage with Elio Altare in Barolo.

It was at that time the Italian national skeleton team lost their head coach and suddenly I was there to step into the role. The timing couldn’t have been better. When the grapes come off the vine, the ice is about to be laid on the world’s skeleton tracks. I remained with the Italians for the 2012 season and then in 2013 began coaching the Australian national team, (conveniently, another country that knows a bit about wine!). I will coach this February at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and hopefully some of you will add Team Australia to your rooting allegiances!

Since retiring as an athlete, I have dabbled in all ends of the wine world, including my own home vineyard in Jay, New York, where I grow 10 varietals in small, experimental sections. My long-term focus is on obtaining my Masters of Wine and importing wines. Through my years of travel I have made many great friends in the world of wine. I have such admiration for my friends’ stories, which are told through the wines they produce.

Wine is a subject that rewards engagement. The more you ask, the more you find. It’s an endless subject that can provide a lifetime of engagement, curiosity and learning. Many athletes struggle with their identities as they leave the sport and have to redefine themselves. I was blessed to have two passions that quite naturally interweave and work hand in hand.