Episode 24: Don't Cheer For Me Argentina

Sam won’t tell you this, but he’s a really great athlete. He has another secret, too. There’s this photo of him leading a ski race, and it’s plastered on the side of a city bus in Argentina. So, how did Sam wind up on the side of a bus? This story explains. 

Hey, Is That Sam...On the Side of a Bus?

A couple of months ago, I got a surprise blast from the past, in the form of a Facebook post. One of my coworkers captured the moment on her phone.

If you’ve been listening to the show, it won’t surprise you to hear that I participate in a variety of  endurance sports. But it might surprise you to know that my participation caused me  to be plastered all over the side of a bus in Argentina.

So today, I’m going to tell the story of how I wound up on that bus, but I’m also going to tell the story of the man who got second place. A racer named Martin Bianchi, who made a split second decision in that race that would change the course of his athletic career–and his outlook on life.

Martin Bianchi Goes to Torino

Martin grew up in Ushuaia, Argentina which bills itself as the southernmost city in the world. It's so far south, it's one of the cities that scientific voyages to Antarctica depart from. He started skiing young, and during his teenage years he chased the snow. He would spend part of the year in Spain, racing the mountains of the Pyrenees. Then travel back to his  home in Argentina, go to school and have another winter ski season in the Southern Hemisphere, racing in Ushuaia.

After missing out on the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics due to a knee injury, he went to the winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, when he was 24. He only qualified for one race, “and out of about 100 competitors, I finished 86th,” he recalls, “So, I was pretty close to last place.”

All too often, this is the fate of skiers from countries without any real national teams, coaches, support networks, or competitive race circuits. They spend their whole life training, and then wind up in 86th.

But when he returned home after the Olympics, there were no Argentine athletes preparing to take up the mantle in four years, ensuring a continuous line of Olympians. So even though he’d gotten married right before the Olympics, and was thinking about having kids, he kept training.

“There’s always something that’s calling you back to the trails. At that time it was that there weren’t many athletes behind me. It was like if I quit, there wouldn’t be anybody.”

He got a job teaching part-time phys-ed to kindergartners. It wasn’t enough to support a family, but it allowed him to keep training.

Sam Goes to Ushuaia

When I was 22, I was obsessed with cross-country ski racing. I never seriously thought I was good enough to go  to the Olympics, but I was pretty into it and at one point was ranked pretty well nationally.

 

In the summer of 2008, I flew to Ushuaia to train. Remember, it’s the southern hemisphere so it was their winter. I found a gig helping out at a restaurant next to the ski trails. I slept above the kitchen, even though the building had no heat or electricity once its power generator shut off for the day. I washed dishes for a few hours in the afternoon, helped with any tourists who stayed for snowshoe tours in the evening, but the rest of the time, I skied. Hours of skiing every day.

All of that training led up to the big event in Ushuaia, a race called the Marchablanca. Historically, back before competitive cross country skiing was all about lycra and lightweight, narrow skis that require carefully groomed snow, the race used to cross over the spine of the Andes. Today it’s a pretty standard 13 mile race that has turned into a festival.

“Maybe the best way to understand our cross-country skiing culture, in Tierra del Fuego is to go to the Marchablanca,” says Martin.

Hundreds of people show up to race and watch the Marchablanca, including many who show up to compete wearing goofy costumes, but there are a few competitive racers in the pack.

And that is how I found myself on a starting line with Martin Bianchi.

Race Day

The race immediately separated out into a pack of five skiers, and then four, and then after just a few minutes, there were only three of us: Martin Bianchi; a skier who would later go on to race in the Sochi Olympics, Federico Cichero; and me.

The course of the Marchablanca is a single, 21 kilometer loop. It weaves in and out of the forest, but the majority of it travels over big open plains of frozen peat moss. And all throughout those forests and frozen bogs there’s a secret hazard lurking beneath the snow.

“In particular, in those years, we were experiencing a plague: the beaver,” Martin explains. Beavers were brought here in 1946, for fur hats and clothing. Later, when that didn’t work out, they had the bright idea of just letting them go. And when they released the 10 pairs of beavers that there were at that time, they bred and populated the entire island, and now they estimate there are more than 90,000 beavers.”

Beavers, in Tierra del Fuego, are an invasive species. How about that?

“And it has an impact on the ski trails. Often, they simply build up a dam and flood the trail. So we have to do a lot of beaver control, and back then they weren’t doing it!” says Martin.

The start of the race. Marchablanca 2008

The start of the race. Marchablanca 2008

This lack of beaver control led to a crucial moment in our ski race, and as it turns out, in Martin’s life. Though I had no idea about any of this until I called him back up to ask him about his memories of this day. Here’s what he remembers from that moment:

“Well, if I remember right, we were trading off who was leading, as we went. And I knew that in that moment I could win because we were about on par with each other. And I had faith that in the final big climb, I could get some distance on you.

“But I got a surprise, and I’m being sincere, here, Sam. That before that climb, which they call the subida de los hacheros, I couldn’t pass you. And so I climbed the hill behind you, without being able to pass you, going a maybe a little slower than I would have liked to go, because generally I’m good at going uphill.

“When we got to the top of the climb, we had to turn sharply to the right and go down a hill. And this downhill ended by going over a beaver bog. Much to your surprise!

“The ski tracks—which normally you get into the tracks when you go down a hill— the tracks went over the beaver dam, over a part which rose up because of a rock, and the trail groomer had passed over that. So the tracks weren’t level and they sort of threw you into a jump.

“This downhill drop slope was very fast. It was short but very steep. And when we finished the climb and started to go down, we got into the tracks,  I looked ahead  and saw that the tracks went over the rock and I immediately realized there was a jump there.

This is an artist's rendering of what happened at the race. While artistic and historical license has been taken, we believe that this image is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is cherished by millions of people worldwide. Artist: Taylor Quimby

“And there, still ahead of me, you hit the rock, and went off the jump and you were knocked off balance and you went off the trail. And I passed you. I was able to avoid it and go around you.

“And it was in this moment that I said, ‘Well, that’s it, it’s over.’ I passed you with all the speed from this downhill slope. So right there I took fifteen, twenty meters, from you, easy. And you still had to make your way back onto the trail and regain your momentum.

“So I had this fantastic opportunity to go, to keep hammering, and leave you behind.

“But to tell you the truth, something happened in my head that told me this wasn’t right. You had climbed the hill well, you had done the downhill well. The only thing is that you hadn’t noticed that the trail had a jump in it—a thing that shouldn’t have been there—and it was because of that jump that you went off the trail, you lost all your momentum.

“And so, to me, the right thing to do seemed to be to wait for you.”

I didn’t fall, but I was standing way off the trail, with deep, heavy, powdery snow up to my knees or so. And I remember my heart just sinking to my stomach. We weren’t far from the finish, and I was almost positive that the race was over. But then, I looked over and saw Martin had slowed down. And as he glided past, he looked back over his shoulder and I heard him call out:

“Venga, Sam!”

I flailed my way out of the powder, and frantically skied back up the hill trying to catch Martin. Given how slow he was going, it didn’t take long before the racing came back together, and it was nip and tuck again.

The rest of the race was a bit of a blur. Right before the finish, our race merged into the trail being used by the more popular event, with people skiing in costumes.

“We were sprinting,” Martin remembers, “Dodging people left and right, you were shouting, I was shouting. It was a mess. When there were just 500 meters left, this I remember, I was pretty tired, and I saw you with this drive, this energy. That’s when I realized you were going to beat me.”

And I did.

For me, that was the end of the story. I won a race. They gave me a trophy. I went home. And telling people I won the National Ski Championship of Argentina was an eccentric biographical detail I could share at parties.

But then, years later. An email arrived in my inbox from Martin.

The Aftermath

It turns out there was something else that happened that day. Something which I had completely forgotten, but which Martin reminded me of when I spoke with him.

After the race, I came up to him, and asked him why he had waited.

“I said, ‘Yeah, sure Sam, I waited because I wanted us to have a clear winner,’ and we left it at that,” he says.

Later, when we were at the awards ceremony, apparently (again, I forgot all this) I tried to hand him the trophy, which he waved off. A representative from the Argentine Olympic Committee saw this exchange and asked what it was all about, so Martin told him the whole story.

“And for that year, 2008, they decided that the most exemplary gesture of sportsmanship in all of Argentina, was this situation that happened in the Marchablanca,” says Martin, “So they invited me to Buenos Aires for a dinner—a very big deal, a gala banquet—and they gave me a prize, in front of all the Olympic medalists from Argentina.”

This included the Argentine Soccer team, who won the gold medal in Beijing that year. (Messi was not in attendance, sadly.) This would be like being presented to a room full of the most famous athletes in the country. He met his country’s equivalent of Bob Costas, the Olympics host for NBC, and an article about him was featured in the country’s biggest newspaper.

Sam's trophy.

Martin the Tiger | Photo Credit: Facundo Santana

“This is one of my best memories, so this race is going to stay with me for the rest of my life. And after getting this prize, I think it was kind of like a signal, that things were alright, I could retire, that I had done enough, I had left enough of a mark on the sport,” he says.

Now when Martin races, he does it for fun. He wears costumes, he skis with his wife, he doesn’t pressure himself. Today, he has 3 kids, a job in the ministry of tourism, which pays much better than part-time phys-ed teacher. He’s hung up his commitment to ski racing, but not his love for it.

“The next year, just to give you an idea, in 2009, I did the Marchablanca in a tiger costume,” he tells me. “I went from having been on the podium with you, second place, to the next year putting on a tiger costume and skiing the race together with my wife.”

“That was how I ended my racing career.”

And yes, years later, a photo of us together at the front of that race, was plastered all over the side of a city bus.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown and Logan Shannon, with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue and Jimmy Gutierrez.

Special thanks this week to Martin Bianchi for taking the trouble to connect with us from the far end of another continent, and to Luis Antonio Perez for helping out with Spanish translation and being Martin’s voice in English.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

This week’s episode featured tracks from Blue Dot Sessions, Poddington Bear, and Tyler Gibbons. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.