RAY SUAREZ: Athletes from 78 countries will participate in tonight's opening ceremonies at the salt lake city winter Olympics. After they enter the stadium, a special honor guard of athletes will carry in the tattered American flag that flew over the remains of the World Trade Center after the September 11 attacks. The flag was to be hoisted and flown throughout the games, but today officials said it is too delicate to withstand the expected high winds.
Several days ago, I had a chance to talk with three members of the U.S. Olympic team about their sports and the games. Here is that conversation:
RAY SUAREZ: Michael Weiss is a second time Olympian; he's a member of the men's figure skating team; he lives in northern Virginia. Leanne Parsley's sport is skeleton, a sledding event, the sport makes a return to the Olympics this year. It was last contested in the 1948 games. This is Miss Parsley's first Olympics. She is a nurse and firefighter in Ohio. Ann Swisshelm is say first time Olympian; she's a member of the U.S. curling team. Until recently, she worked in sales and marketing in Chicago. Well Michael Weiss, since you're the old veteran of our panel, you're going to your second Olympics. How is that different from the first time?
MICHAEL WEISS: Well, the first time I was going into the Olympic games, I was mainly fresh on the scene. I was a very young athlete at the time. I was just happy to even make the team, let alone try and medal. At this event, going into this Olympic games, I have medals at the world championships already, so I'm looking to get a medal at this game. So my mindset is very different from the last time. Last time I was just happy to be there; now I'm going to be happy if I win a medal.
RAY SUAREZ: So not only your own expectations, but pressure from outside is different this time.
MICHAEL WEISS: Right. Oh, yes, the pressure is different, but also you just, you learn to deal with that pressure. I mean, last time I hadn't dealt with it at all because I hadn't been at the world level before. So it really didn't... You know, it wasn't, it wasn't something that I was comfortable with, but now I've medalled at world championships, I've been the national champion twice already. So I've kind of learned to deal with the pressure as I've gotten more and more successful in the sport.
RAY SUAREZ: Leanne Parsley, being named to the Olympic team is not only an affirmation of you as an athlete, but an affirmation of your sport. This is the first time women will compete in skeleton. What is skeleton?
LEA ANN PARSLEY: Well, the sport of skeleton is really best described as one of three sliding sports. We're kind of a sister sport to bobsled and luge. All three sports take place on the same track. We all use a sled. Bobsled's a little bit bigger. Our sled looks a little bit more like a luge sled-- it's small, and it's flat. A lot of people describe us as head-first luge.
RAY SUAREZ: So going head first and really fast on ice.
LEA ANN PARSLEY: Well, we hope really fast, yeah.
RAY SUAREZ: But... So, is it that much more dangerous?
LEA ANN PARSLEY: Well, actually I think if you are a bystander and you're watching the sport, it really does look like the most dangerous of the three, but in reality, it's probably the safest of the three. Believe it or not, we don't have as much control as luge or bobsled, and even though you would think that would make it more dangerous, it actually makes it a little safer. Luge athletes can get the harder, faster line, and they go a little bit faster than we do, so when they make a mistake, it becomes quite critical. We don't have as much ability to steer, and so therefore we can't get into trouble as fast. It's a little bit of an irony there to our sport.
RAY SUAREZ: And Ann Swisshelm, from speed to finesse, what's curling?
ANN SWISSHELM: Well, curling is a contest played between two teams on ice where the essential goal is to outscore your opponent.
RAY SUAREZ: Okay. It sounds really simple, but it looks really complicated. What's going on with those big heavy stones down on the ice?
ANN SWISSHELM: Well, basically you're sliding stones down about a 140- foot sheet of ice towards the center of a bull's-eye, and the object is to be closer than your opponents, and thereby outscore them, and the sweeping comes in to help control the trajectory of the stone and the distance it's traveling.
RAY SUAREZ: So what are those brooms really doing to the ice though?
ANN SWISSHELM: Basically it's creating a hydroplane. With friction and pressure, you're subtly melting the ice and holding the path of the stone straighter and carrying it further in distance.
RAY SUAREZ: Is being on the world stage of your sport kind of fun after laboring in less marquee circumstances for much of the time you compete?
ANN SWISSHELM: Yeah, it's very exciting to finally have the world see this most spectacular sport that I truly love, and once you know what's going on, it's quite exciting.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, how do you fit training and getting ready to compete into a world of work, living and making a living the rest of the year?
ANN SWISSHELM: Well, it's like juggling anything. I think Michael has a family, and, you know, Leanne has several jobs. I think most athletes are juggling multiple careers as well as their sport. It just comes to managing your time well.
RAY SUAREZ: Leanne?
LEA ANN PARSLEY: I'd have to agree with that. You certainly have to have really good time-management skills when you're trying to do both, especially our sport -- because it's so new, we don't have the history of big sponsorship. We've been really fortunate. We've had some big sponsors come on recently, Verizon and AIT, but in the past we haven't, and so athletes have had to support themselves and their sporting careers. So they've had to learn how to juggle jobs and family and all that together, and still maintain their standings as world-class athletes. So it's a pretty tough job.
RAY SUAREZ: How is it different for you, Michael, in a sport where it really demands that you're always on the ice?
MICHAEL WEISS: Right. In figure skating, I've actually been lucky enough that... I have to balance, obviously, a family-- I have two young kids; a two-year-old and a three-year- old, and I'm married-- but I'm lucky enough that my sport allows me the opportunity to reap financial benefit and to actually support my family and myself while doing my sport. The main area where we make money in figure skating is touring and doing exhibitions. I do a "Champions on Ice" tour throughout the four months after the Olympics, where we travel all around the country and we'll do a different show, an exhibition -- entertainment, basically -- in a different city every night, and we get paid, and we get rewarded for those things. So financially, I've been lucky enough to be in a sport that does have a lot of exposure and a lot of recognition.
RAY SUAREZ: But judges are different from audiences. It's probably easier to wow a crowd that comes in with their kids to a suburban rink to see you skate.
MICHAEL WEISS: It sure is. In that sense, we're allowed a lot more freedom in exhibitions. I go out in a show and I will do back flips and, you know, skate to music that has vocals. I can skate to basically anything I want and wear anything I want, but when performing in the Olympics, it's a very different atmosphere in a very different arena. I'm performing basically for nine judges that are from all over the world, you know, with very different backgrounds, very reserved-type personalities, and I have to wear a certain type of costume, skate to classical music, and I'm not allowed to do back flips and things that are, you know, very out there and outrageous. I just have to stick to the very strict guidelines of figure skating.
RAY SUAREZ: Leanne, this Olympics begins with the country at war, in the shadow of the events of last year. How does that change the experience for you?
LEA ANN PARSLEY: I'm not sure that it changes it so much as maybe just gives it a little bit of a different perspective. This being my first Olympic games, so much of this is new, so there's not a lot of expectation of what I should be feeling or anything like that, but certainly with the events of September 11, I think at least for myself, it allowed me some time to really gain perspective on why I do what I do. As an athlete, sometimes I feel a little selfish, I spend so much time on myself, but my firefighting job and my nursing job give me more of a real-life perspective, and I can kind of turn my attention outward, and I think those things kind of help me balance a little bit, and certainly September 11 gave me more of a reality check of, you know, really thinking about why I'm doing what I'm doing as an athlete-- kind of brought that more into perspective, and certainly, I think, you know, raised the level of patriotism, and of course I think we're going to feel that walking into opening ceremonies here on our home ground here, but I'm excited to feel that, actually, so...
RAY SUAREZ: Ann Swisshelm, same kind of question. You'll be representing your country at a time where people are thinking about the country quite a bit more.
ANN SWISSHELM: Well, I think we're at an extraordinary point in history, and to have the world coming into our house so soon after a tragic event, it's... I mean, it's fairly awesome that we're going to get to be a part of that. As Leanne said, the opening ceremonies and the emotions that go with that I think will be quite intense.
RAY SUAREZ: And have you been given any special instruction regarding security, moving around? Do you expect it's just going to be a lot more difficult than it would have been otherwise?
ANN SWISSHELM: I expect the security to be incredible, that you're not going to be able to get places where you shouldn't be, but as far as any concern over security, I really don't have any. It's a planned event. They know what they're trying to protect; they know who they're trying to protect. I think it's going to be well handled.
RAY SUAREZ: Michael Weiss?
MICHAEL WEISS: Well, actually right after the attacks on September 11, I had a lot of concern as to whether the Olympic games would even be held in the first place, and the security of the athletes, including myself, figure skating being one of the most-watched events, that would obviously be the highest, you know, likely for something to occur there. But recently, all the events that I've participated in recently, including our Olympic trials, our national championships, the security has been great. I mean, they check everybody, go through metal detectors. Everybody, they open up all our skate bags. They almost didn't let me in the venue one time with my skates because they were too dangerous. I mean, that's really kind of the extent that they've gone with this, and it's great. I mean, I'm, I'm glad to see it, I'm happy to see it, but as all the other athletes I'm sure are going to do as well, we can't be concerned about the security. We have a job to do when we get there, and that's to represent the country strong, and that's to win Olympic medals for the United States, and the security is something that is out of our hands. It's something that obviously is in the back of our minds the whole time, but we're maintaining our focus throughout the entire weeks of the Olympic games.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, athletes, thanks for joining us, and good luck.
MICHAEL WEISS: Thank you.
LEA ANN PARSLEY: Thanks, Ray.
ANN SWISSHELM: Thank you very much, Ray.