Let the superstition Games begin
By MEGAN K. SCOTT and NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS
Years of training, special diets and elite coaching may not be enough to win an Olympic medal. So athletes turn to special socks, pictures of their kids or fortune cookies.
Superstition runs deep in some jocks hoping to win at the Vancouver Olympics. They're looking for a slight edge, and sometimes they look in some strange places.
"If I have a good race, whatever socks I'm wearing, whatever turtleneck I'm wearing, that tends to be the go-to," said skicrosser Casey Puckett. "It generally is the undergarments."
"I like to believe in the skill and preparedness," Puckett said. "But at the same time, I do recognize that there is a bit of luck that comes into it."
Sometimes it's bad luck, as Puckett's push to make his fifth Olympics is in jeopardy after a shoulder injury in France.
Speed skater Chad Hedrick puts his faith in fortune cookies.
"Before the 2006 games, a fortune said, 'Your golden opportunity is coming soon,' " said Hedrick, who went on to win gold, silver and bronze medals in Turin.
Now he keeps the fortunes he likes, with a supply of 25 to 30 on hand.
Superstition and sport have been linked forever. You have baseball players who refuse to discuss a no-hitter in progress. Some tennis players refuse to hold three balls in one hand. Golfers believe carrying coins in their pockets is good luck.
Skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace keeps a picture of her 2-year-old daughter in her helmet and a tracing in marker of the child's handprints on her sled.
"I always kiss my hand and then slap her hand like I'm giving her five," she said.
Skier Michelle Roark wears the same perfume to each race, and makes the scent herself. That was after her sports psychologist suggested she visualize skiing well with all five of her senses before events. She found she could hear, see, taste and feel success, but not smell it.
"I had no idea what it smelled like to ski well," she said.
Dissatisfied with fragrances she tried, she started her own perfume and cologne manufacturing company, Phinominal. Its products are all-natural.
Sports psychologist Jerry May of Meadow Vista, Calif., said superstitions don't really help performance.
"There is no evidence that shows that perfume makes you a better skater or skier or curler," May said.
Performance coach Jonathan Katz has a different view. He said superstitions can reduce anxiety and give athletes something they can control.
"I don't have a problem with superstitions as long as they don't become too cumbersome to the person," Katz said.
Sports psychologist Sam Maniar of Cleveland said competition routines — such as a baseball player swinging the bat the same number of times before stepping into the box — are more valuable than just as superstitions.
Such routines keep them focused on the moment, rather than wandering to the past or future, he said.
Superstitions can also be a hindrance, Maniar said.
"If your superstition is you only perform well on a sunny day, and it's not a sunny day, that's a problem," he said. "What's the backup plan if there is a hole in their sock?"
Cross-country skier Liz Stephen solves that by rotating a couple of pairs of lucky socks, but wears the same gloves for races.
She realizes that seems silly.
"I think the more superstitious you get, the harder it is to just remember that you are out there to race," she said.
For that reason, cross-country skier Billy Demong "threw superstition out the window a long time ago."
"Rituals always get in the way, whereas routines get you onto the podium," he said. "There are definitely no lucky socks for me."
"I think superstitions and lucky charms are for people that don't have confidence," said freestyle skier Jeret "Speedy" Peterson."
Peterson knows something about how luck can be fickle. In 2006 he took $550,000 he won one night at the blackjack table and sank it into real estate. Then the real estate bubble burst and he filed for bankruptcy in 2007.
But the 28-year-old has made it onto his third U.S. Olympic freestyle skiing team.