Olympic commentary is nothing new for Chad Salmela, head coach at the College of Saint Scholastica in Duluth, Minn. In February, he’s headed to Sochi, Russia, where he’ll be one of NBC’s main commentators for the 2014 Winter Games.
Because the Olympics’ official broadcast network hasn’t given him a production schedule yet, Salmela was unsure which sports he’d be covering. Regardless, the former US Biathlon member and national-team coach is looking forward to working alongside NBC’s long-time legend Al Trautwig.
“For what NBC is looking for, Al is beyond great,” Salmela says of his colleague. “For the most part, I think he’s brilliant.”
Salmela, who got his commentary starts as an in-stadium color commentator at the 2002 Olympics, says working with Trautwig sets his mind at ease. He lets Trautwig drive the storytelling when it comes to interpreting races.
“He’s definitely the most experienced guy I have ever worked with,” Salmela says.
The 2014 Olympics will be Salmela’s fourth time covering the Games, but he hasn’t always had a seat in the booth at the finish line. Long before NBC tapped him, he was the voice behind a PA system. In 1998, he was asked to announce the US Biathlon Team trials, just a year after he retired from the sport.
“Everyone was like ‘Wow! You’re really good at this,’ he recalls. ” I was just kind of like a hack.”
Salmela worked the Junior Olympics the next year, “for, like, a few hundred bucks a week,” he says. But word gets around and that’s how he ended up at the Olympics.
“My reputation as a commentator had kind of grown within the small community of nordic skiing,” he says.
His big break came in Salt Lake City in 2002, where he commentated biathlon as well as the women’s 30-kilometer cross-country race.
“I’m genuinely excited when I see the defining moves in an event, and other sports have plenty of people who do the same thing,” Salmela says. “John Madden or Cris Collinsworth is doing it with the NFL right now. One things that [they’re] very adept at is having a very conversational analysis and identifying things that some people might miss in the way a game is unfolding.”
It helps that Salmela is well-connected, working alongside Emmy award-winning producers and others who have produced sports shows for cable television for years. But he says his connections have only gotten him so far, adding that he has natural skill. And he doesn’t practice out of fear it might get in his way.
“I feel like my strength is that I have a genuine delivery,” he says. “I’ve always been obviously a talker. I’ve always been very analytical, which is what makes me a strong coach, and I’ve been involved in the sport as an athlete and coach at a very high level and you put all those pieces together and that’s what John Madden had.”
Salmela was first told he would only call biathlon, but it looks like he may also work the cross country races and nordic combined as well. He commentated all three sports at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics in British Columbia, and in 2006, he worked as a biathlon analyst at the Torino Winter Games.
This time around, he asked a few friends and contacts to join him in Sochi, including former teammate Stacey Wooley, a 1998 Olympic biathlete.
“She’s going to be kind of learning to do it on the fly as the back-up color commentator for biathlon,” Salmela says.
He may be biased, after eight years on the national team and several more coaching and developing biathlon, but he says it’s one of the better sports to call.
“Biathlon inherently has a lot of pieces to it that are very dramatic on television,” he says. “I would say it’s like golf tournament on speed,” he laughs. “A golf tournament has these very poignant moments that are high pressure, but they’re very slow in coming and it takes four days … If you compress a golf tournament into a half hour, you’ve got biathlon. Everything is intensified.”
While Salmela is in the driver’s seat, former U.S. Ski Team member Rob Whitney will work behind the scenes. Whitney describes himself as the “stats guy.”
“I’m the guy that is the extra ears, watching other screens, sliding them sticky pads with quick facts, sending one-liners to Facebook,” Whitney says of his rookie gig.
Married to U.S. Ski Team member and Olympic hopeful Holly Brooks, Whitney isn’t worried about being stuck in a booth.
“I’m going to have the best seat in the house!” he exclaims. “[It’s] like front row seats at the hockey game here.”
Solely committed to the cross-country races in Sochi, he’s not exactly sure what will happen if his wife is racing. “If it looks like Chad and Al have it under control, maybe I’ll be out there roaming around,” he says.
Whitney admits he’s nervous when it comes to his position, but even more so, the mystery of Russia has him wondering what exactly might go down.
“Russia is kind of a mysterious place, I think,” he says, adding that his opinion could stem from his American roots and a continued memory of the Cold War, or maybe just the distance. “It’s really far away.”
But that seems ironic, coming from an Alaskan native.
“It’s not like we just be-bop over!” he jokes. “You know, go to Sarah Palin’s place and see where it is and get in an airplane and fly straight there!”
But overall, Whitney’s pretty excited, knowing that he’ll look back in a decade or two and think the experience was “rad!”
“I mean, I could be helping announce history,” he says. “Kikkan Randall might win a gold medal!”