You may not recognize the name Chad Salmela, but if you live in the United States and watched any of the biathlon, nordic combined, or cross-country ski races at the 2010 Olympics, you’ve heard his voice. Along with play-by-play man Al Trautwig, Salmela spent the month of February holed up in a 50-square-foot room above the stadium in Whistler, doing the color commentary for NBC at the Games in Vancouver.
Salmela started announcing over ten years ago, and he did the color for the biathlon races at the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy. Last year, NBC approached him about calling all three sports at the 2010 Games, and after a tryout in Los Angeles, he landed the job.
Announcing isn’t his only talent; in addition to his work for NBC, Salmela is the head coach of the cross-country ski team at the College of St. Scholastica in Minnesota. He’s also the lead singer and guitarist for the band A M Herculis.
Now that the dust has settled, we caught up with Salmela to hear what it was like behind the scenes at the Games. Given that it’s his job to talk, it probably goes without saying, but one thing’s for sure: Salmela is not a tough guy to interview.
FasterSkier: So, you told me you couldn’t do an interview last week because your rock band was performing. I did a little Google sleuthing and listened to some of your guys’ tunes—so are these coaching and announcing things just side gigs?
Chad Salmela: I was ready to fold the band after this last gig, because I don’t have time. We really hadn’t played since this same music festival last year. Recording the CD—we did two days in November of ’08, and we finished the album. You know, making albums these days—it’s pretty much a joke, because everybody can do it. It’s like spending money on paint and painting. I’ve done three solo albums—this is definitely the most fun, because it’s the first time I’ve collaborated with people.
I’m not a very great guitar player—I can play, but if you listen to it, there’s not a lot of guitar virtuosity on the album. It’s a lot of white boy power chords. I honestly don’t listen to that much music, but I do compose. I’ve been married for almost two years, and these songs are pretty much songs from my last girlfriend. It’s good angry music, but the great thing is, when you’re kind of pissed off, you write your best stuff.
FS: Do you have any cross-country related tunes? Power ballads dedicated to Kris Freeman, or something like that?
CS: You have this cheesy effect that you kind of hold at bay—I think to write a song, you have to be…there are some parameters you set for yourself naturally, and I can’t express what those are, but I guess I know cheesy when I hear it or when I write it.
If it’s something I think has some merit and has something interesting going on in it, that’s kind of what I do. And I like it and I enjoy it. It’s a really nice diversion from all the other things I do. If I was single, I’d probably try to do it a little more, but I honestly don’t have time. We’re going to Finland in mid-July, and from there I’m taking my team to Oslo and the Torsby ski tunnel.
FS: Okay, so on to the serious stuff—so aside from being an NBC announcer, you’re also a ski coach at St. Scholastica? If you’re spending a month at the Olympics, how do you make that work?
CS: Around the time I got the job, my part-time assistant coach Brad Nelson quit—he just couldn’t do it any more. I got Josh Tesch, who skied for Green Bay. He’s helped Bryan Fish [with CXC] on and off. For me, the winter is all about waxing—the training is done, and you’re just reacting to what people’s form is giving them. It’s better to be there, but you can do that by e-mail almost. I was gone a lot—I was doing a lot of the International Ski Federation [FIS] World Cups prior to the Olympics, for Universal Sports, as warm-up.
A typical week was wax, test skis, and pack up; test skis all day Friday, make the team’s dinner, wax for first race; race, test for next race; wake up Sunday, test, send ’em out to race. Then I’d fly to L.A., call events sometimes on Monday and Tuesday, get on a flight and go to New York to call a biathlon race. In January, I was home seven days the entire month. That was actually worse than the Olympic month. I was there for every race for the team that was important—all the NCAA qualifiers. The only events I missed were the final events for the team in January. But I always focused on the team’s performance on those two weekends, and they rocked.
FS: And the announcing gig—your first event was at Middlebury, for trials for World Championships and U.S. Biathlon events?
CS: As a junior, I’d quit the season previous as an athlete. I got into Middlebury, started going to school, and Max Cobb [with the U.S. Biathlon Association] asked me to come over to Lake Placid and call the trials. It was nothing—I had a start list and a CD. There was no production at all. I just kind of announced the event.
That was ’98—and then we had a World Cup in January or February of 1999. I was still in college. I got called in—I did it with Peter Graves. He showed me a few tricks of how to set the tone with music. Peter was by no means doing sport production, where you’re actually choreographing the day in your mind with music choices that will fit the mood. Sport production was still pretty new in the U.S. But Peter and I did the World Cup, and I I have to credit Peter a lot with getting me to realize how to do it. And, from there, I got hired to do Junior Olympics in my last year at Middlebury. I think they paid me $500 for the week. But it was outdoors—there was no indoor announcing facility. The stadium moved twice; I was sick as a dog the entire time. But we had some great races with Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey and Ethan Foster and Sean Gallagher—there were some really great rivalry races. I got excited, and from that point on, people took notice. After the Junior Olympics I started realizing I kind of had something.
I ended up doing more biathlon events, did Junior Olympics one more time—I went out and did Nationals at Soldier Hollow, and [former biathlete] Lyle Nelson said “you’ve got to do this for the Olympics!” Then they were looking for announcers in the stadium for the Olympics, and there was a lot of uproar, because I was already working for the organization as sport manager. To have me switch gears and do sport production, everyone was freaked out. But Max Cobb said, “this is our chance to showcase the sport—let him do it.”
FS: And then from there?
CS: Everything snowballed. I sat in a production truck at the Pre-Olympic World Cups and met [producer] Kent Gordis—this was my first touch with TV. I was a spotter, some things went wrong—there was all kinds of interesting stuff that opened my eyes.
With the [biathlon races on the] Outdoor Life Network (OLN), they said, “we want you to do it, with Bob Papa.” Bob was just a great commentator—I think we did ten and 15 shows a year, for three years, on OLN. Not a lot, but it was enough for me to really work with a pro. You start realizing that those guys are guys that [make you] look good. You can have a lot of things to say and not say them, because the guy next to you isn’t giving you time to say them.
If you look at what we did for [this] Games, it was the best job I’d ever done. It was because Al is so good at what he does. And it doesn’t come across that way, but if you go back and you watch the tape and see our train of thought, Al was always directing it—he was just setting us up for me to say what was in the back of my mind. It takes a real skilled professional to do that. If you look at the difference between—[Universal Sport announcer] Steve Schlanger’s new to the sport, he’s good and talented, but he’s not as seasoned as Al. I worked with Steve on the FIS competitions.
Looking at Al, he’s been doing this for 39 years. He’s just amazing—it was amazing how he understood. Even not being a complete expert on the sport, he understands enough about it just to set things up—and it’s much harder to do if we’re going live-to-tape like we were in Vancouver. I’m in awe of Al Trautwig.
FS: So, can you tell me about the tryout for the Vancouver job?
CS: Officially, they had a few shows left in the ’08-’09 season. They had the cross-country World Cup final in Sweden, and it’s not Universal Sports that does it. I’m basically getting booked by an [NBC] Vice President in New York, and I show up in L.A. with a bunch of guys who don’t know I am. I got called in to do real shows. We’re voicing over tape, so we’re not doing anything super-critical that they can’t fix. They brought me in, and I did the events in Stockholm and Falun. I got a call a month later and they said “we like you, we want to book you for the whole thing.”
I didn’t know if they were trying anybody else out. That’s how I got cross-country, nordic combined, and biathlon. Ironically, I didn’t call a [single] nordic combined race ever before the race [Johnny] Spillane and [Jason] Lamy-Chappuis sprinted for the line—that was my first nordic combined call. Which isn’t that hard. All you gotta do is know what [announcers] Jeff Hastings and Matt Vasgersian said on the lead-in—it’s still just a cross-country ski race, essentially.
FS: In your mind, what’s key to a good call?
CS: Trying to boil [it] down, at least for an American audience. A good call in Norway is very different than a good call in the U.S. Maybe I could have gotten much more technical than I ever did during Vancouver. I look at Kjell Erik Kristiansen, who does a lot of P.A. announcing—he’s amazing. He’s got a very mathematical mind, which I do not—I can’t look at a split time and get to the tenth of a second. I have to do the count. He gets it to the tenth of a second—the Norwegians expect that. If you say two seconds down, Kjell Erik will correct you, and say, “he’s 1.8 seconds down.” The race can be won by a tenth of a second.
In the U.S., people aren’t going to worry. You just have to tell a story. With a call in the U.S., you’re setting up a bunch of people—who don’t know who these [athletes] are—to like somebody. You have to tell a backstory. If you see a bunch of people with wacky foreign names, and all you’re talking about is the action, there’s no draw to any individual—you’re going to lose the viewer. That’s what drives people nuts, for the sports fan. We’re talking about the red army, we’re talking about Petter Northug over and over again—it sounds redundant to me and everyone else who knows who Petter Northug is.
Every time the Olympics come on, you’re seeing new viewers who haven’t seen the race yet. They don’t know who Charlotte Kalla is, or who Marit Bjoergen is. You have to be building the story. The great thing about it is that Al has great instincts for that. The true sports fans are like, “Al Trautwig doesn’t do anything.” But that stuff is the bulk of what’s going to get people to stick. If I can deliver the drama while the race is going on, and get those people drawn in to the Swedes working together [in the
men’s 30 k pursuit], that’s why that race worked well even on American television. Because there’s all of a sudden a story to tell about people. You start building up the Anders Soedergren story: He’s a huge name but has not done anything all year. He’s a team player. All of a sudden, he’s a bit of a hero, and all of a sudden [bronze-medal winner] Johan Olsson is a hero. All of a sudden there’s all the competitors’ stories going on. When you can see the backstory within the call of the race, the American viewer will stay in tune—they won’t switch the channel. They have to say, “We have to see what happens to these Swedish guys!” All of a sudden, you’ve created a compelling story. That’s what a good call is—I can’t say that it’s the same thing from race to race.
One thing that really worked for nordic skiing overall was that every race had a great story to tell the American people. That’s not always the case, to have that many races unfold the way they did. The men’s relay, when Northug went nuts, and…there was something compelling going on during the entire 50 k—and then the finish was spectacular.
It’s not as if there is a universal [way to make] a good call, but for the Olympics, making the sport more accessible to the American people—it takes that long-term professionalism to set things up, work together on telling the stories, and finishing—if the race is great—with a great call in the finish. And then having Al gift-wrap it, put a bow on it, and kick that down the hall—and he does that better than everybody. The recap, he’s doing it off the cuff, and he gets these almost poetic endings. When you can close an event with a pro like that, you leave the booth feeling really good about what you just did.
FS: What did you feel like was your best call of the Games?
CS: I think if you look at the setup—at the being the first guesser, so to speak, when things were going down that actually happened, I have to say that the men’s pursuit was the best. I made the call that when Johan Olsson gets 20 to 25 seconds, the person who chases him down won’t get a medal. And that happened—it was Legkov, and Legkov got fourth. That, as far as being on top of something that could draw people into the event and actually have it play out, that was totally the best. My worst job of doing that was Aino-Kaisa Saarinen—I completely second guessed her changing skis in the final leg [of the 30 k classic], and it was completely the right choice.
To me, my favorite call was probably the first nordic combined medal with Spillane. We did a few things wrong there—first of all, Al and I didn’t go over the fact that there’s a ten-meter line, and he just about called Spillane gold. And I jumped it, and my enthusiasm was completely genuine. You can call it over the top, but it was such a great race. Spillane went for broke, and you gotta love that confidence. He didn’t win, but it was a spectacular effort, and for me it was great, because that call got on the Today Show, it got on a Coke commercial. For me, I think I’ll always cherish as an announcer for the rest of my life the fact that I got the chance to call Spillane’s silver, the team’s first silver, and the gold of Demong. He’s a friend, and I wanted that to be a spectacular day for him. I feel lucky that I got to try to do that. I get to be the voice of those guys’ memories—that’s pretty cool.
FS: What about the other way around? Were there any calls you screwed up?
I would say that the biggest…the moment of the games was the Spillane and Lamy-Chappuis sprint (the call starts at 1:02:00). I didn’t even remember it, because when you’re in that situation, your mind is racing. The format is this—and this was the first exciting call of the games between me and Al, we’re still getting used to each other: I’ll call anything exciting that happens on the big climb, because that makes sense. I’ll analyze who’s going to go when, and basically, a lot of moves happen on that final climb. Essentially my cut-out point, no matter what, is to let the play-by-play call the race to the line from basically 100 meters. I cut out at the turn.
It was a total instinct—I wasn’t event thinking about it, but as they were coming to the line, Al goes, “Spillane’s got it!” and was going to say something else, and I just knew that Al was thinking that [the ten-meter line] was the finish line. And before he said “gold medal,” I didn’t want the word gold to come out of his mouth, and I just jumped on him and said “No! Lamy-Chappuis is coming on!” And [then] the race is over, and I didn’t think anything of it, and Al said that the producers thought we were all over each other at the finish.
I went home and was like, “I wonder where I stepped on Al?” I thought everything was okay, because I’m pretty much an amateur. I could watch our handiwork on NBC two hours later, and I watched the call and I realized then that that was my mindset. So I called Al up and I said “Al, first I want to apologize for jumping on [you].” He goes, “Don’t worry about it.” He goes, “dude, you saved my butt–that’s all I can say.”
FS: But it worked out, though?
CS: In the end, and I think Al feels the same way, it was the right thing for me to do. It was a learning experience for me. If I had been too timid, there would’ve been a little bit of hell to pay, and it probably would have come down a bit from the top brass at NBC. I didn’t know at the time what kind of possible wrath that would have brought on Al, for calling the gold to Spillane. Already, people are worried about us being too pro-American. If that had happened, it would have been a story in more places than that guy at the [New York] Post who figured out what had happened.
We all went out to dinner, and Al’s wife came. Halfway through she reached across the table and said, “I can tell Al likes working with you.” That was really nice to hear, and I think that in a lot of respects, that Spillane-Lamy-Chappuis call solidified that we got [each other’s] backs in this—from that point on, we were like a team.
FS: So clearly, you’re bringing things to the table as an announcer that you’ve taken from your job as a coach. But does it go the other way, too?
CS: I really think that any time you can touch the world level and see what’s going on, you see things and you learn things, and it gives you access to stuff that is happening. I see the same thing not just announcing, but interacting with the U.S. Ski Team coaches, and interacting with [coach] Bryan Fish at CXC. I’m doing a lot of things with my team in the physiology lab that I got through the channels at the U.S. Ski Team, via CXC. If I’m not out there being a part of the international nordic ski world, I become dated. If I have that access, that gives me an advantage as a coach. I feel I’m doing a really good job with the athletes…they get a higher level of coaching, I believe, because I’m connected at a higher level.
FS: So are you signed up for Sochi in 2014?
CS: I don’t know yet. They’ll probably give me a call a year before. At this point, who knows? Anything could happen. NBC doesn’t even have the rights for Sochi yet; they may not even want them. I think Vancouver was a good thing for them. My hunch is they were doing pretty well with the ratings. As much as you want to bitch at NBC, they’re going to do the best job of anybody. I think [NBC executive Dick] Ebersol is the guy for making the Olympics better. The sports fans hate it, but we’re never going to get a Eurosport kind of Olympics. Not even the European major networks are Eurosport-style production. They’re much more sport-based, but they also have a much more engaged audience in the sports. But still, if you look at the ratings of Eurosport, [they] don’t even touch the ratings of [German broadcasters] ARD and ZDF. They package these things just like Ebersol does, for the mass consumption of the German people.
For ski fans to compare NBC to Eurosport, it’s unrealistic. The best is to have a Eurosport-style [broadcaster] in the U.S. who gets the rights as well, which is never going to happen. But I think Ebersol gets the Olympics. If it goes to ESPN, I don’t know—it’s an unknown of how that’s going to be produced. Maybe they’ll do a great job, maybe they’ll go very sport-level, but can you see SportsCenter doing as good a job as NBC does? I don’t know.
Am I going to do Sochi? I think there’s a fair chance, but it’s impossible to say at this point.
It’s hard to let people know what you’re going through on this side. I love the sport—I think it has all the things it needs. I just think it has to be packaged in a way that Americans beyond the cross-country crowds will enjoy it. Unfortunately, that might mean you alienate some of the superfans, but if you want to make Torin Koos and Andy Newell and Kikkan Randall and these U.S. Ski Team people financially viable, this is worth doing for them for the long term. [If] we can actually fund junior development, it’s gotta be on TV, it’s gotta be exciting, and it can’t be this esoteric stuff. It has to be mainstream America in the way it plays out on TV, otherwise we’re a fart in the wind. So that’s the big picture.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.