Paul Robbins is still proud
Four years ago, after the U.S. Nordic combined team won an Olympic silver medal in the team competition, Bill Demong posted a picture on Twitter. The photo showed Todd Lodwick, Brett Camerota, Johnny Spillane, and Bill holding their Olympic silver medals as well as a rainbow-striped Scottish tam-o-shanter. Along with the picture, Billy tweeted, "Paul Robbins is proud."
Paul was a prolific ski writer, long-time U.S. Ski Team press officer, and Nordic skiing fan. He lived in Weathersfield, Vt., and after discovering a Scottish store in nearby Woodstock, he bought that Scottish tam. It became his trademark.
An all-around great guy, Paul was one of the most prolific ski writers I've ever met. He would find out where a skier lived and the name of his or her hometown newspaper, then pepper the sports editor for that paper until he or she ran his story. Everyone, he believed, deserved his or her 15 minutes of fame, particularly athletes who toiled away far from the limelight.
Plus, he was just plain funny. We would fight to sit next to him in the pressroom just better hear his witticisms and ski knowledge. He wouldn't just make you laugh. He would make you laugh all the time. Samuel B. who?
He was also good at taking people under his wing and making us feel as if we were his most important friend. When our hard work was not justly rewarded, he would listen to our woes. And when it was rewarded, he would cheer our triumphs as if he were family. To many of us, Paul was family - a father figure, a much-loved brother, an impish cousin.
Over the years, Paul became especially close to the guys on the Nordic combined team - a team that trained and competed for over 20 years far without making headlines. If anyone was not rewarded for their hard work, it was these guys. Until 2010, Olympic medals eluded them.
Paul died six years ago this month - exactly two years too early to witness the U.S. Nordic combined team's five-medal haul in Vancouver. At age 68, he suffered a heart attack at his desk in Vermont while covering that weekend's ski races.
But Paul still made it to Vancouver. His son DC - who works for NBC - brought Paul's ashes in a Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup to the Nordic combined races. After the team event, a group of us walked down one of the cross-country ski trails and said a few words after DC sprinkled Paul's ashes under a giant hemlock tree. Paul might have rather had his ashes laid to rest at a Dunkin Donuts drive-thru (it was his favorite fast-food franchise). But there he was, lying where his Nordic combined boys finally made headlines. He would have been proud, and Billy Demong knew it when he tweeted the picture with the medals and Paul's tam.
The Nordic combined guys had far less to tweet about at these Olympic Games. Lodwick, Demong, and Bryan and Taylor Fletcher couldn't find the same magic that the team had in Vancouver in 2010. As they flew off the ski jumps in Sochi, they mostly fell short, as if an unseen force were pulling them to the ground, gravity overcoming aerodynamic lift. Taylor Fletcher's 20th place finish in the large hill competition was the team's best result at the Sochi Olympics.
Before they competed in the team event on Thursday - a competition where they each jump, then ski in a 4x5km relay - Todd Lodwick brought out Paul's tam. DC had brought it to Sochi.
"We rubbed it all around," said Lodwick, who was competing in his sixth and final Winter Olympics with a bum shoulder. "It's floating around here somewhere in an undisclosed location."
Paul's tam didn't bring the guys the luck that they hoped for. They finished sixth in the team event, far from their silver-medal performance in Vancouver and their world championship bronze medal earned last February.
But Paul was still with them in spirit. He was never a fair-weather friend, and he knew that we all needed a hug even more in defeat than in victory.
"He's a guy that he's looking at us," said Lodwick. "He's patting me on the back saying good job."
And up in heaven, while guarding the supply of bacon (burned bacon), I know that Paul is still proud of the U.S. Nordic combined team - even without any hardware to show for their effort.