U.S. Winter Olympic Athletes Cool Down with Six Strings - GuitarPlayer.com
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U.S. Winter Olympic Athletes Cool Down with Six Strings

For many an athlete, the Olympics are, as U.S. speed skater J.R. Celski says, “the biggest stage in the world to play on.” But while the competition is intense both leading up to and during the games, the six exceptional men and women gathered here, all of whom are looking to make a mark at the XXII Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, also manage to find time for a different sort of play.
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This is an excerpt from the all-new March/April 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, not to mention profiles of five other guitar-playing Olympians, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.

Winter Dreams: In the heat of competition they wear skis or skates, but in their free time these six U.S. Winter Olympics athletes cool down with six strings.

By Richard Bienstock | Photos by Matt Nager (above) and Rayon Richards (cover)

For many an athlete, the Olympics are, as U.S. speed skater J.R. Celski says, “the biggest stage in the world to play on.” But while the competition is intense both leading up to and during the games, the six exceptional men and women gathered here, all of whom are looking to make a mark at the XXII Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, also manage to find time for a different sort of play.

These athletes may hail from different locales across North America and excel in everything from downhill and cross-country alpine skiing to biathlon to speed skating, but one thing they all have in common is a love for the guitar. Some, like cross-country skier Andy Newell and biathlete Lowell Bailey, are dedicated players who jam with bands and friends in their free time and write and record their own original material (Bailey even helped compose the U.S. biathlon team theme song).

Others, like Celski and alpine skier Tim Jitloff, look to the instrument as a respite from the mental and physical rigors of competition. And then there are U.S. Ski Team members Laurenne Ross and Stacey Cook, who spend their days racing against one another on the slopes and then sit down and play music together afterward on a pair of Little Martin acoustics, often conspiring to pull in their teammates to sing a cover song or two along with them.

While each athlete’s individual skill level and relationship to the instrument varies, they are all, in their own personal way, dedicated to the guitar. The Olympics might be their big stage, but it is in local bars and clubs, at training camps and in hotel rooms around the world, and at home in their individual towns, that they really get down to playing. Says Newell, “No matter where you are or what you’re doing, if you pull out an instrument and start in on a song, it makes you and everyone around you feel good. There’s a real power in music.”

Stacey Cook and Laurenne Ross: Downhill Skiing

They’re both members of the U.S. Ski Team, but more recently Laurenne Ross and Stacey Cook have also become something resembling bandmates. When not competing on the slopes, the two athletes like to jam together on a pair of Little Martin acoustics, often drafting fellow team members into singing along on covers of pop hits like Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” and Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” Says Ross, who recently notched a second-place World Cup finish in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, “One of my favorite things about playing guitar is that communal aspect. There’s something about music that just brings people together.”

The 25-year-old Ross, who grew up in Bend, Oregon, by way of Edmonton, Alberta, has played music all her life, first on piano and violin and then, about four years ago, picking up guitar. She points to artists like singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and harpist Joanna Newsom as favorites, and she also composes her own original songs. In contrast, Cook, an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Ski Team who counts two World Cup podiums and two Olympics (Turin and Vancouver) among her accomplishments, never had much in interest in playing music. That changed when Ross joined the team a few years back.

“She would play her violin and guitar late at night in our adjoining hotel rooms, and I’d be like, ‘Laurenne, shut up—I’m trying to sleep!’ ” the 29-year-old native of Truckee, California, recalls. “But she never really stopped. So I had an epiphany: if I wasn’t going to beat her, I might as well join her. I bought a guitar, and Laurenne started teaching me things.”

Playing music together, Ross says, helps to ease what can often be a “stressful and really intense environment, and one that’s hard to distance yourself from mentally. It makes competing easier and more enjoyable.”

That stress-relief tool will come in handy this winter, as Ross and Cook are both focused on competing in the downhill discipline in Sochi. “We have this interesting dynamic where we’re 100 percent a team, but we work in what is really an individual sport,” Cook observes. “That can get really hard sometimes, but the music gives us an avenue to come together as friends. It’s something fun that the whole team can take part in, and it takes away the negative, competitive side of what we do.”

This is an excerpt from the all-new March/April 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, not to mention profiles of five other guitar-playing Olympians, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.

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