Just before we were about to go live on air for the Mono Skier X competition at the 2010 X Games in Aspen, Colo., the play-by-play announcer's finger scrolled down the athlete list and stopped.
"How do you say this?" he asked me, pointing to the last name Knudsen. "Is it Newtson?"
So it is at my X Games.
This year was my fifth year working behind the scenes for ESPN's winter games in Aspen. I've learned a lot since my first year in 2010. As a researcher, it's my job to make sure that the ESPN announcers, producers and reporters have appropriate background information and statistics on the athletes — and that they know how to pronounce tricky names.
I work in a department of seven people. This year we created background dossiers for about 220 athletes. When the first round of athlete invitations go out in November, we start to contact each athlete for an extensive interview. For this X Games, which took place Jan. 21-25, my responsibility was researching 64 snowmobilers.
Of course, the X Games are a huge undertaking for ESPN. Preparations are year-round, with events and course layouts in the planning stages well before there is any snow on the ground.
On-site work at the venue, Buttermilk Mountain, takes about a month. There are courses to build (and adjustments based on conditions). There are cables and wires to lay for cameras. There is scaffolding to assemble.
A television nerve center is set up in a parking lot, with numerous windowless semitrailer trucks as production centers. All filled with multiple television screens, computers and buttons that I don't dare to touch.
I also arrive in Aspen four days before the event starts. With the background research mostly completed (there are always last-minute adds and drops from the roster), my next job is to do the internal reporting for the event. I attend each practice and drivers' meeting for my athletes, get the feel for how they're feeling and write reports. Then, when the events go live, I sit behind the on-air talent (this year, the studio was in a storage container) and feed information. There are stats, athlete facts, or even a reminder on pronunciation — when needed.
A lot of people think that I do a bit of work and spend the balance of the day skiing. Or that I spend the games standing on the edge of the super pipe, watching Shaun White in action.
The truth is, other than hustling to and from the snowmobile courses, I spend most of my time in a poorly lit, noisy hotel ballroom that has been cordoned off from other departments by thin trade-show curtains. It's a stressful week for me (eight days, 12-plus hours long), as our department arrives early and works into the wee hours. In five years, the only action I've seen out of White occurred this year: I saw him enter the port-a-potty while I was on my way to the catering tent for a 15-minute lunch break.
However, the job does have benefits. I get to meet some really interesting people. Many of them are from Minnesota. It gives me a great deal of home-state pride to see so many snowmobilers and Minnesota teams well-represented. This year, there were nine Minnesota athletes (only three states send more athletes), but there are even more who live here either year-round or during the winter months.
It's exciting for me to catch up with Tucker Hibbert each year. Hibbert, who is from Pelican Rapids, won his eighth-consecutive gold medal in SnoCross in January. That is the most consecutive medals for any winter athlete. It seemed even sweeter because his childhood friend, Jeff Tweet of Thief River Falls, took a bronze medal in SnoCross Adaptive, just before the SnoCross final.
I also quietly cheered for X Games rookie Colton Sturm of Nisswa. Sturm got out of snowmobile racing two years ago when his dad, also his mechanic, was diagnosed with cancer. When their style of racing, HillCross, returned to X Games this year after an 11-year hiatus, the two gave it a go. It took tremendous effort for them to be there and fulfill their dreams of competing at X Games.
I was bummed, though, when two snowmobilers were injured during the course of the X Games. The multitalented Mike Schultz of St. Cloud, a gold-medal favorite for the SnoCross Adaptive event, broke his ankle in the Snowboarder X Adaptive event earlier in the week. And Levi LaVallee of Longville came up short during practice for Snowmobile Long Jump, severely bruising his heels. I can't watch the replay.
I get a bit attached to "my" athletes. I know their hopes and dreams for this event, I know how hard they work, I know their mothers worry about them. They share tidbits of their lives with me, and I respect that. I also eat crow on occasion, like I did with John Knudsen.
Despite my last-second pronunciation correction to the announcer, at one point during the race, he was called "Newtson." I found John after the event and apologized for the mistake and for being too Minnesotan to realize that Knudsen would be a tricky name for others.
"Newtson? That's it?" the San Francisco-area native said, nonplused. "In California, they call me Nut-son."
Lynn Keillor is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.