Barquisimeto ’03

It all started when it was decided that the 2003 world inline speedskating championships was going to be held in China. China, being geographically close to Hong Kong, was an ideal location for the first world championships to be attended by skaters from Hong Kong. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, a golden window of opportunity was being opened for me. I was in the throes of planning the inaugural Amnesty International comedy night in Melbourne, Australia – “Stand Up For Your Rights” which would be held in late October, well after world championships. Besides, I had little concern for the business of the Hong Kong team, as I was training up to make a bid for my first Australian world championships team jacket. As far as I was concerned 2003 was well and truly planned out.

If I was asked then to use one word to describe 2003, I would have said “planned”. If you asked me now, based on the events which have transpired between then and now, I would say “uncontrollable”. The frustration over watching the “fit hit the shan” so to speak, and being powerless to do anything about it is one of the lingering feelings of the year so far. To kick things off, the SARS virus cast a shadow of uncertainty over any and all things in the South East Asian region, and as if that wasn’t enough to earn this year the label of “uncertain times”, the United States of America decided to go to war with Iraq, again. First and foremost was my concern for my parents living in Hong Kong – one of the regions most significantly affected by the SARS “epidemic”. Of course, one of the follow-on effects of this was that world championships could no longer be held in China, due to the fact that it was not a country famous for its administrative transparency, and it was impossible to gauge the severity of spread of the disease there.

Around the middle of the year, my life appeared to come apart at the seams. While doing laps of Calder Park raceway in a formula ford (don’t ask) my rear-end became unstuck at the considerable velocity of 200km/h. The result was a 160km/h impact with an immovable object (concrete barrier) and me waking up in a confused state in an ambulance with a broken shoulder, a stiff neck, minor lacerations all over myself and a $20,000 bill for one totaled formula ford racing car. On getting out of hospital, I checked my university results for the semester to find that I had failed one of my core subjects, meaning that I had to do a major overhaul of my course plan for the next two years. Meanwhile, the comedy night which I was planning was also dying a slow death. All this, a week out from Australian national inline speedskating nationals. Any chance of me making the team this year were looking very slim.

World championships was moved to the little-known city of Barquisimeto, Venezuela. The date was moved to the 1st to the 9th of November, which was perilously close to the date of my proposed comedy night – the 25th of October. Luckily, even though world championships was no longer in China, Hong Kong had already committed to sending a delegation which would have, at the very least, consisted of a single official. To pull out would have constituted a “loss of face”. Using the diplomatic skills I had acquired in my many years of dealing with student union bureaucracy, I managed to convince the Hong Kong skating federation, the members of whom I knew well from the years I lived in Hong Kong, to send some athletes to the world championships. It was those very years living in Hong Kong (14 in all) which enabled me to have Hong Kong citizenship, thus enabling me to represent either Hong Kong or Australia. Getting to the world championships, however, would not be easy. Literally on the other side of the known world, Barquisimeto was four flights and several stopovers away from Melbourne, Australia. Coordinating flights and accommodation was quite tricky, but that was the least of my worries. Having taken two months off all physical activity due to the aforementioned motor vehicle accident, I was not in any physical condition for a skating competition, much less my first world championships.

So it began, six weeks out from my first worlds, I embarked on an ambitious plan to prepare myself for the biggest skating competition in my life. With weight training out of the question at this late stage of the competition preparation phase, skating and plyometrics were my only options. Good diet and regular sleeping habits were crucial in getting the most out of my ridiculously short lead-time. Stressing less would have been nice too, but that particular luxury was one which I could ill afford with my comedy night, mid-semester assignments and end of year exams looming on the horizon. Life, which I had imagined for a university student to be laid-back and easy going, had suddenly stepped up a good few gears to an intensity which I, in all honestly, wasn’t sure I could handle. On October 10th, two mid-semester essays of 2000 words each were due, one of which I planned to finish on the 17th, on October 24th, an end of year essay of 4000 words was due, on October 25th I had to run the single biggest stand-alone event in Amnesty International Australia’s history, on October 27th I had to write 1500 words of take-home-exam to hand in on the 28th, so that in the early hours of the morning of the 29th I could embark on my 50 hour journey (26 hours of which were actually spent in the air) to the other side of the world. It was starting to look like the “get lots of regular sleep” step to a successful worlds preparation was quickly going out the window with the “stress less” item. The Daniel Yeow roller coaster ride was starting to pick up the pace.

Needless to say, the ride was not without a few bumps. To cut a long story short, I did get all the essays in, although not necessarily on the dates that I had intended. Luckily, when I needed to lift for the running of my comedy event, I did. The event was a spectacular success with audience, performers and crew all having a ball of a time. The effort of running the show took its toll, and try as I might to get work done on the Sunday after, I could not stay awake for much longer than the time it took me to eat a meal, or go to the toilet. That meant that from when I woke up early on Monday morning, until my 6am flight on Wednesday, I slept all of two hours. With that all out of the way, I was packed and ready (well, sort of) for my second first in as many months – world championships.

South America is a continent which I have never been to before. Having been brought up in a British colony, attending a British school (and retaining something of a British accent), I was still deep in the (British) ignorance that everyone in the world either spoke English, or was learning how to. Interestingly, although I would consider myself well-traveled, I have honesty never been to any place where this wasn’t the case. The “South American experience” was a sharp kick in the proverbial and quite a wake up call to the fact that many people all over the world get along just fine without the Queen’s English. In a somewhat depressed, distressed and deeply lonely state, I arrived in Santiago Chile for a two night stopover. Luckily the hotel I was staying at (the Ritz-Carlton, no less) had a 24 hour concierge who spoke reasonable English and was able to direct me to a nearby Irish pub. There I met a waitress named Lucy who was from New Zealand who, not surprisingly, spoke fluent English. From her I obtained directions to the sights of Santiago and a bit of advice on how to get around. For this, I was more grateful that I could have possibly expressed in words. Later that night, not being able to sleep due to some acute jet-lag, I trudged back to the pub for a pint of Guinness, firstly to try and get myself to sleep (remember that point about getting sleep) and secondly, just to see a familiar face which was, given my mental state at the time, all that there was between myself and the brink of insanity. The next day saw me walking around the beautiful city of Santiago and seeing the many sights there, that evening, I dined at a lovely New Zealand restaurant (no prizes for guessing who recommended it) and I went to bed that night happy and relaxed.

Next, it was off to Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. If there was ever a place which would drive me insane, it would be the airport at Caracas. Crowded, disorganized, poorly lit, poorly run, poorly bloody everything. In a word, mayhem doesn’t even do it justice. When I approached the desk to check in for my domestic flight, I was told the flight from Caracas to Barquisimeto for that day was full, which was not what I needed to hear. Luckily, Venezuela is a country where the rules are “flexible” and a two hundred US dollar “present” was enough to find a seat on a full flight. Waiting at the gate at Caracas was heartening though, as time went by, more and more fellow speed skaters began to gather. Why, of course… why else would anyone want to go to Barquisimeto?

Arriving at Barquisimeto was far less traumatic than I had anticipated. Upon arrival I was greeted by friendly, attractive translators which was assuring. Along with the official staff, there were a plethora of security personnel which was assuring, although it begged the question as to the reasons for their necessity. I was later to learn that one of the Americans was robbed at gunpoint by a thief posing as a policeman. At that stage in the night, I was too exhausted to think about my security, and as such I purged all thoughts from my head of kidnappings, hostage-taking and border hostilities with nearby neighbour Columbia. All I needed now was some sleep, and maybe some company – in that order. I shared the bus to the athlete’s village with some friendly juniors from team Mexico. Here I learned my first lesson about road rules in Venezuela – there aren’t any (the second one is something along the lines of “if you have a police motorcycle escort, then you have right of way”). On arriving at the village, I was greeted by the rest of my Hong Kong team comrades who, I quickly realized, had even less of an idea of what was going on than I had, which, given the circumstances, is saying a lot.

Day zero, the 31st of October was without significant happenings. Nevertheless, the small things which happened on that day did much to lift my spirits. Two things happened that day, in the morning the official track warm up time for all the countries, and in the evening, the opening ceremony. During the warm up, a feeling of familiarity was beginning to be felt. This was further reinforced with the arrival of the Australian and New Zealand teams at the track, two teams which three years of Oceania championships experience has made me quite familiar with. I was now among friends, and like a warm blanket to a cold body, that gave me comfort and confidence which were two things in desperately short supply at the time. The opening ceremony was an occasion which surpassed my expectations. To march out to a full cheering grandstand of people was something which I had never imagined would happen, especially in Barquisimeto. The fireworks display which concluded the ceremony was a pleasant finish, and one which was of a quality which was unexpected for such a small town. After arriving back at the athletes village at the end of the night, I fell into a deep slumber, easily the most sleep I’ve ever gotten on the night before a time trial.

The first day of track was eye-opening. Although the track’s slipperyness was felt by all, some handled it better than others. I was one of the “others”. Not being a particularly good banked-track skater, my awkwardness was further exacerbated by a complete inability to settle into any kind of form on this unfamiliar and slippery surface. Then end result – 30th with a time which was a touch over 30 seconds, my best ever banked-track time trial to be sure, but certainly not my best skating. Though the rest of the Hong Kong team didn’t fare much better, my comrades on the Australian and New Zealand teams did, although only one would have openly admitted to being satisfied with their time trial (Kalon Dobbin… but only because he won). Later that night, the 15k elimination. Not being a particularly good distance skater either (one wonders why I bother sometimes) I did not expect to do very well. For once, my expectations were met as I was either the first or second eliminated. I was thankful for the fact that I was actually eliminated and not pulled off for being a lap down.

Day two opened with the heats for the 1000m. I’m not sure about anyone else, but when I think of 1000m, I think of drop tests – tests in which one has to go 100% right from the start and splits are taken every 100m or so to determine how quickly one “drops”. I was a base jumper. As usual, my Hong Kong team management didn’t have much of an idea of what was going on, so Australian coach Desley Hill filled me in on which heat I was in and who was in my heat. The kilos, as they were affectionately known, are run in heats, then semis then finals with progression determined by one place and the next fastest times. Me and fellow Eltham club member Michael Byrne, were both in the last heat. For some unknown reason, I derived some comfort in being in a heat with Mick, perhaps the familiarity in an unfamiliar environment. My race instructions were simply sit in, and if the pace is too slow, take off like a “sick chicken”. Right from the gun, the pace was hot and I dropped off, but like a fallen water skier who won’t let go of the tow, I dug my heels in and reeled myself back onto the pack. By the time I had caught them, there was one lap to go, and I was blown (figuratively speaking) so the sick chicken would have to wait. While there was no way I got into the semis, I was strangely pleased with the way I had skated, a very rare feeling for me. That night, persistent rainfall prevented me (oh, and everyone else as well) from skating the 10k points elimination so that would have to wait until day three.

The next day was packed to the brim with events. Starting with the 10k points elimination, an event in which I was not much of a feature. Nonetheless, I consoled myself with the fact that I was getting lots of valuable race experience, even if it usually constituted a mere 5-6 laps of a 10 or 15k. The race which preceded mine, the senior women’s 10k points elimination was a farce, the likes of which I had never witnessed before, and will probably never witness again – a race with more falls and scrapping than I have ever seen. Ten people are supposed to finish these points elim races, ten people didn’t make it that far in the women’s race. Our race was thankfully less eventful, with myself going out in the first double elimination. The 1000m finals revealed to me one of the greatest things about going to worlds, next to skating in them – watching your friends get medals. Watching Josh Lose and Mick Byrne win their silver medals is an experience which rises above all other significant happenings at world championships, and that’s saying something. I suspect that only when I, myself, am standing on the dais, will I understand what its like, and only then, will I have a world’s experience to match. The 500m were, like many of my races, run in such a fashion that people would have scarcely noticed, had I not been in my heat, such was my impact. Still, skating two and a half laps of the track at world championships to the sound of a crowd cheering is a wonderful experience, even if the cheers aren’t necessarily directed at you. Lunch that day was spent with the Australian team. The observant Germans, with whom the Aussies shared a bus, were very friendly, their junior girls pointing out that I might be on the wrong bus. Fortunately, I am able to speak a bit of German, and I was able to assure them that I wasn’t hopelessly lost, but was on this bus by design. The evening’s relay finals and 500m finals brought both excitement and disappointment. Excitement from watching Australia nearly win a gold, but instead settling for a bronze, disappointment from seeing Wayne Begg flat on his face from the start of the 500m final and a brawl nearly resulting at the end of the race. And so concluded my track worlds.

The rest day was fun. Pauline Robertson, the Australian team manager, extended to me the kindness of an invitation to spend the day with the Australian team and watch the premiere of Matrix Revolutions. It was a good day, I hung around with my friends on the team and for fleeting moments during my time there, I really felt like I was part of the Australian team which, to this day, remains one of my dreams. While the movie wasn’t great, the experience of the day was and I was physically and mentally refreshed.

The first day of road racing brought with it many expectations. The 200m time trial is an event which seemed almost custom-made for a person of my physical abilities, well, perhaps if good technique wasn’t a requirement for skating fast. Unfortunately it is. Watching times in the mid 17 second range being posted had me telling myself that I had to lift, that I had to take it up just one more notch, from my usual mid 18 second 200m time trials. Whatever I did mentally to lift for my time trial, it did not filter down physically as I hoped it would, in fact, it seemed to do the opposite. My time trial was an underwhelming 19.1 seconds, my start not even living up to my expectations. Watching Duggento set a new world record at 16.999 seconds was surely the highlight of my day, watching a bunch of juniors post times which were faster than mine, was not. The 5k races were not fun to skate in or to watch, and although the idea of having a race where everyone coasts for 4000m and sprints the last k or so should have suited me as a sprinter, the way the races panned out, they were really quite boring. Of course, I was off the pace as soon as it picked up towards the end, my 4k sit-on an interesting but ultimately unexciting experience.

The 500m kicked off the second day of racing. Despite my abysmal performance in all the previous races, I was quite optimistic about my prospects in the 500m race. I’ll explain, the start line was at the start of a straight which was at least 100m long. This would favour people who have a good start in a straight line – people like moi. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the easiest of heats. The Venezuelan skater who won the 500m and Steve Carter from the United States were both in my heat. My plan was simple, nail it off the start get a gap, and try to make it difficult for anyone to pass me. As the gun went off, my plan quickly evapourated as my wheels slipped against the ground causing me to miss a step off the line… and it was all over, before it had even really begun. The 20k eliminations in the evening were fun, watching the juniors before us was nail-biting as Josh and Ryanne both decided to employ the strategy of sprinting at the last possible minute and hoping for a forgiving line judge call. The Hong Kong junior boy was also the source of much amusement when he refused to leave the track when he was eliminated, more from not really having a clue what was going on, than from any malicious intent to cause any trouble. My race was somewhat easier to call from a line judge point of view. I was quite clearly off the back when I was eliminated, although I didn’t do that out of a concern for easing the burden on the line judges.

The Australian Team in solidarity for Shaun Thompson

The Australian Team in solidarity for Shaun Thompson

The final day of road competition was one of my most enjoyable, and not only because I didn’t have to skate. During this day, after the heats and before the finals, there was a photo taken for Shaun Thompson, one of the Australian skaters who was currently suffering from cancer. I was amazed by the amount of support everyone gave him by being a part of the photo, I was also deeply saddened by his situation. I took it as a reminder to cherish every moment of every day, because while we all die, it is what we do when we live which defines us. J.R.R. Tolkien puts it well – “All we have to decide, is what to do with the time that is given us” (Gandalf). The relay heats and finals were run on this day and they were quite exciting to watch. Watching the Australian team narrowly make it into the final was heart stopping, but not quite so much as the events of the final later that evening. There had been something of a question mark over Corey Price’s ability to finish the senior men’s 10k relay. Mick Byrne was unable to compete because he was a bit sick so sprinter Corey was tentatively picked to fill the hole the Mick’s absence had left in the team. He had died towards the end of his heat and it was Peter Currell’s strong anchor-leg which got us into the final. As the end of the final slowly approached, Corey seemed to be holding up quite well. Into the second-last change, Australia was lagging slightly behind the pace, when Corey took his tag. Not only did he not die, he lifted and began to catch up. By the end of the back straight, we were back on the pace (which was, by now, absolutely flat-out), then disaster struck. The Columbian skater decided that he would turn the last corner, with no concern for trivialities such as New Zealander Shane Dobbin, who happened to be in the path between the Columbian and his planned route through the corner. The resulting crash was spectacular, with Shane going down and Corey, who was behind him, going into the barrier. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, but both New Zealand and Australia’s campaigns for a road relay medal were. And so concluded the road competition.

Waking up early to come down for the marathon was not my idea of fun, especially because I was in the senior men’s division which is run last. The day was another one of those stinking hot ones which Barquisimeto had become so good at serving up on days when shade was in short supply. So I sat under a tree and waited, and waited and waited… and waited. When the rest of the senior men arrived (they were smart, they slept in and came out later) we learned that there existed a subway sandwiches shop at a nearby petrol station so off we went in search of familiar western food during the junior boy’s marathon. As we neared the subway, we happened to walk by the turnaround point in the marathon course where Steven, the HK junior was approaching for the nth time. As he rounded the corner, something was not quite right with the way he was turning, he wasn’t changing direction quickly enough to make it around the turn, so he basically skated straight into the kerb and fell over. Although we shouldn’t really laugh at the misfortunes of others, this was actually one of the most amusing moments of the entire championships and I simply couldn’t contain myself. Eating a meal as familiar as a subway sandwich was a refreshing experience. So, after standing in the scorching sun for three marathons, it was time for me to do my own. As we approached the first corner, I soon learned why my Hong Kong teammate didn’t quite make it around. The turnarounds were very very slippery, to the point where everybody had to T-stop on the approach to be able to make it around the U-turn. With the pace grinding almost to a halt at every turnaround point, then accelerating back up to speed, combined with the intense heat of the early afternoon sun, people began to drop off like flies. I was one of the first to go, after a mere two laps. New Zealand coach Bill Begg commented on the bus on the way back, “gee, none of the Australians made it to the finish”, this comment was accompanied by the shaking of his head. Later, one of the New Zealand team quietly said “well Bill, only one of the Kiwis actually managed to finish, so I’m not sure what your point is”. Anyway, I for one was relieved that I didn’t complete the distance of the worlds marathon, I think it would’ve killed me, in any case there were more important things to think about, like the dinner later that night.

You know what kind of party you’re in for when an official memo is circulated that says “people will not be admitted drunk and there will be no food fighting of any sort”. As usual, I ended up deserting the rather boring Hong Kong delegation to go and hang around with the Australians. When I came and joined them, they were just introducing Dutch skater Roy Boeve to the world of Tequila, always a fun activity. The night was a blast, with a great atmosphere and good music. Danny Finster was a class clown on the night, getting behind the bar and serving up drinks to everybody in an inebriated state then diving into the swimming pool to rescue somebody’s wallet. All sorts of interesting things happened that night, many of which I will not commit to words in this account to preserve the reputations of those involved. That is not to say that everything that happened was necessarily bad or embarrassing, just that I perhaps shouldn’t mention all of it. The party continued into the early hours of the morning which meant that I could basically go straight to the airport from the party after a quick stopover to pick up my baggage. My journey, or adventure rather, home was about to begin.

Barquisimeto airport was clearly not designed for passengers carrying baggage. Skaters carry a lot of baggage, surely someone would have anticipated this and told the airports and airlines to be ready for this. Clearly, somewhere along the line, there was a breakdown in communication and no one was told. Consequently, a great many skaters found themselves in Caracas “international” (yeah right) airport sans baggage. As the flights came in from Barquisimeto, it quickly became apparent that we were not alone in baggage-less strandedness. My problem was that I had a connecting flight to Santiago, Chile and a bunch of flights which joined the dots between there and Melbourne, and I was quickly coming to the realization that I was going to miss those dots. Along with missing those dots, came the prospect of missing some exams when I got back, which was not something which I wanted to contemplate. By mid-afternoon, I had finally gotten my bags, but I had well-and-truly missed my flight. By mid-afternoon, nearly everyone who had skated at world championships was gathered around the same baggage carousel with a very discontented look on their face. It was at this point in my journey that the kinder side of human nature was once-again revealed to me (i.e. not the side that launches a pre-emptive strike on a nation like, say… Iraq). Susan Currell, Peter Currell, Tanya Dobbin and Shane Dobbin (who had earlier that day, let me go first on the earlier flight so that I could make my connecting flight) ended up adopting me for the next three days or so.

Not being able to get me on any other flight, I had to settle for the flight two days later to Santiago and, when I got there, they could only manage to get me on the flight two days later again on to Auckland, then Melbourne. Next stop, the Best Western hotel resort and marina with the Currells and Dobbins. They had deliberately stayed an extra two nights in Caracas so that they could go fishing. Now, I may have grown up in Hong Kong (an old fishing island-village), but I have never been a fan of boats, in fact, I can scarcely recall an instance when I have been on a boat and not been sick. Nevertheless, who was I to pass up the opportunity to go deep sea fishing in the Caribbean? The journey out to sea passed by without incident, and not long after we cast our bait, we had already caught a fish – a nice big 4 foot, 30kg… fish. While moving to another location, the motion of the ocean got the better of me, and I emptied myself overboard, much to the amusement of the crew. After that, I felt much better and was able to get on with the fishing. We chanced upon a school of fish swimming around a “lucky log” and, like any self-respecting fisherman of the Caribbean, we fished them out. All of them. I personally hauled in the grand daddy of the school, and even the smallest fish that we caught was at least two feet long. Our haul in was so rapid, that our crew-man didn’t bother killing the fish, once they were safely on board causing Tanya Dobbin much distress as the fresh and lively fish flipped and smacked around on deck, slapping her calves a few times and making sure that she smelt thoroughly of fish. Our efforts to convince Susan Currell (only female member of the CIC) to come down and fish were in vain, Susan saying jokingly “I’m saving myself for the big fish”. Well, her opportunity came knocking, or biting as it happened, when a big fish did happen to bite. Shane Dobbin, fresh from giving the marathon a miss, stepped into the chair and began an epic hour-long struggle with the 8 foot, 100kg monster which we did eventually catch. At the end of the day, 15 fish, the smallest of which was 2 feet and the largest of which was 8, were lying on the ground at the side of the dock, not bad for a day’s fishing. I had never been so glad for missing a plane before that day.

Fruits of a day's fishing

Fruits of a days fishing

By Wednesday, it was time to get on the flight to Santiago, Chile. Had I not missed my connecting flight, I would have been home by then, but I would have also missed out on the wonderful and unique South American experience of deep sea fishing in the Caribbean. While waiting to board the flight, we bumped into some Chilean officials who showed me great kindness in offering to take care of me if I wasn’t able to get onto the connecting flight to Auckland. One of them, a professor in Mathematics no less, even offered to put me up at his home. I, personally, was not so fussed about whether or not I would have to spend two nights in Santiago, I had done it on the way to Venezuela and it would give me a chance to catch up with Lucy, the waitress in the Irish pub, and see if she really had been following my “progress” on the internet as she had said she would. As it happened, I didn’t have to stay those extra two nights. We arrived in Santiago to find that the flight, which was quite full when we left Caracas, was now… not so full, not so full enough that they could squeeze one extra Australian on board.

Arriving in Auckland was a relief beyond description. Even so, I had to rush in a rather ruffled state through immigration, through baggage claim, through customs, back through check-in, through immigration then back onto the plane to Melbourne. My roller coaster, which had many times been diverted in an unknown direction, was finally beginning to slow down. On arriving in Melbourne, my uni lecturers were more than sympathetic to my situation of being stranded halfway across the world and not knowing any Spanish and arranged to have special exams for me to make up for the exams that I missed. Although some would say that completing an exam under the close and watchful eye of one of your lecturers is intimidating, after all that I had been through in the past month, nothing was really going to intimidate me. Not that, not even doing three exams in three days before I was really recovered from jet-lag. Even now, I find amusing the little things that people get stressed over, and I find myself uttering (rather rudely) under my breath things like “you should try driving in South America”, or “have a go at running a comedy night”. With my comedy event officially in the black, exams over and having a break from skating, some might say that my roller-coaster has finally come to a halt. Well, it hasn’t, its just looking for the next blind detour, the next big mountain, the next nail-biting curve… life goes on, as must we all, no matter what. Cherish every moment, every meeting, every fond embrace, because to do otherwise would be to miss the point, we are here to live, not to merely exist. There’s no such thing as bad luck, just bad perspective – remember, the glass is ALWAYS half full. I’m doing my best to really live life to the full, are you?

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