Behind the podium
SARANAC LAKE – Fifteen minutes earlier, Doug Haney was feeding his 2-year-old daughter breakfast at their house on Old Lake Colby Road.
Now the chief press officer for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association sits in front of his laptop computer in a first-floor office in the Keough building on Academy Street. He’s watching a men’s World Cup slalom race live from Bormio, Italy, and the voice of British ski commentator Nick Fellows fills the room.
Ted Ligety, a two-time Olympian who won three gold medals at last seasons World Championships, is about to take his first run. Haney is toggling back and forth between the race and a long list of emails.
“You’re sending an email to Bode Miller?” I ask after peeking over his shoulder. Miller is a four-time Olympian and two-time overall World Cup champion.
“Lauer’s trying to book a live interview with him on Thursday.”
“Matt Lauer, like of the ‘Today Show?'” I ask.
“Yeah,” Haney says nonchalantly. “I’m trying to get Bode to say whether he wants to do it or not.”
Traveling the world
A native of Michigan, Haney moved to the Adirondacks in 2001 to work for then-Lake Placid-based USA Canoe/Kayak. He later sold radio advertising before getting a job as USSA’s nordic press officer for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He’s been working full time for USSA’s alpine program since 2007, the last three as its chief press officer. Next month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, will be Haney’s fourth.
Half the winter, Haney travels across Europe, or the western U.S. or Canada, following the men’s and women’s World Cup circuit. It’s a job that takes him to some of the most beautiful mountain resorts in the world, places like Lake Louise, Alberta; St. Moritz, Switzerland; Lienz, Austria; and Cortina d’ Ampezzo, Italy, to name a few.
When he isn’t on the road, you can find Haney doing his job from Saranac Lake: either in his office on Academy Street, or more likely in the living room of his home, sometimes while entertaining his daughters: Gwen, who turns 3 next month, and 9-month-old Liesl.
“I’ll have a blanket out in front of the wood stove, and I’ll be playing with Liesl and watching the race at the same time, talking on the phone and emailing and texting,” he said.
“When Gwen’s up, she’s a whole lot more active. I’ll try to explain the race to her. She knows the U.S. athletes, too. Like, Ted (Ligety)’s coming up right now. If Gwen was watching with me, she’d cheer, ‘Go Ted! Go Ted!'”
Telling a story
As we watch the world’s best skiers carve through the gates of the Bormio slalom course, Haney sends emails to reporters on the ground. He also touches base with the press chief at Bormio, who will help connect the U.S. athletes with reporters after the race, since Haney is not there to do it himself.
During the three-hour break between the first and second slalom runs, Haney puts together a string of notes about the U.S. ski team athletes that are racing today. He sends it to a long list of news media.
“It just gives them context to help them tell or write a better story about our team,” Haney said. “I send them to the television commentators, too. I sent Nick (Fellows) a note this morning to give him a head’s up that Ted Ligety was doing some slalom training and smashed his face (on a gate), so he’s got a big ol’ cut across his nose. It’s funny, a lot of times those notes that I send, I’ll hear almost verbatim (on the air).”
Haney says he spends a lot of time trying to create a presence at these races, “even though I’m sitting in a former funeral home in Saranac Lake, New York.” The key to his job, he said, is cultivating personal connections between journalists and the athletes.
“If I feel like these writers know our athletes on a personal level, they’ll tell a better story,” Haney said. “Rather than just reporting, ‘So and so finished the race in third,’ they know about their character, they know about what they did prior to the race to get ready for it. That way, when Ted (Ligety) finishes a race, they can actually ask an educated question, which is going to allow the athlete to open up more and tell a better story.”
In addition to working a race, Haney spends tons of time fielding interview requests for athletes, setting up photo shoots with magazines and newspapers, coordinating television productions about the athletes and working with USSA’s other press officers.
He said he’s been fortunate to work during “a very cool time” in U.S. alpine history. Ligety and Lindsey Vonn won their first World Cup titles, and Miller won the overall title, during his first season, the winter of 2007-08.
Asked what he’s most proud of during his tenure, Haney points to the wall, where there’s a framed, blown up cover of the March 1, 2010 edition of Sports Illustrated magazine. Pictured, from left to right, are Lake Placid’s Andrew Weibrecht, Vonn, Miller and Julia Mancuso, wearing the medals they won at the Vancouver games.
Haney said he already knew his friend, writer Tim Layden, was working on a story for SI about the ski team’s success in Vancouver, so he made a big pitch to put the four medal winners on the cover.
“I said, ‘This is big. This is the best Olympics the alpine team has ever had,’ and we made it happen,” he said.
Another highlight came just a few weeks later, when Haney helped bring some of the U.S. ski team’s members, including Ligety and Weibrecht, to Mount Pisgah Ski Center in Saranac Lake.
“That was special for sure because it was here,” he said. “To have Ted, Andrew and some of the other athletes here and skiing laps with little kids, it was awesome.”
As next month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia get closer, the demand for interviews with the ski team’s athletes has been nonstop. Haney estimates he gets 35 to 40 emails a day each for Miller, Ligety, Vonn, Mancuso and Mikaela Shiffrin.
Asked what he thinks the big storylines will be in Sochi, Haney names some of the skiers who may have the best chance at bringing home medals.
“You’ve got athletes who are proven, like Ted (Ligety), who won three world championship gold medals last year. People are going to be expecting a lot from him. The same thing with Mikaela Shiffrin. Here’s an 18-year-old girl who won the world championship slalom title and won the World Cup slalom title. There’s been a lot of focus on her.
“And there’s these heroes that just pop out of nowhere. Andrew Weibrecht is a good example. Here’s a guy who’s never been on a World Cup podium. He comes into the Olympics in Vancouver and, bam, bronze medalist.”
In the leadup to the Sochi games, perhaps no U.S. athlete has been getting as much attention as Vonn. The 29-year-old dominated her sport after winning a gold medal in Vancouver and was expected to be a top medal contender in Sochi.
But Vonn blew out her knee last year and had to have reconstructive surgery. She tried to come back this season but reinjured her knee during a training run in November. For weeks, speculation was rampant about whether she’d be able to compete in Sochi.
Little did I know that when we spoke on Monday, Haney already knew the answer to that question. Tuesday morning, Vonn posted on her Facebook page that she has decided not to compete in Sochi because of her knee injury. The story made headlines around the world.
“Couldn’t tell you this yesterday,” Haney told me later in a text message.
On the road again
On Wednesday, Haney left for Switzerland, the site of a pair of World Cup races this weekend. Monday morning, he’ll drive to Flachau, Austria for a Tuesday night women’s slalom race. The next day, he’s headed to Cortina, Italy, for a women’s speed series before heading back home for a short pre-Olympic break.
It’s a lot of travel, and a lot of time away from his family. That’s why Haney says this will be his last season on the road.
“I have an awesome job, but Gwen will be 3 in February, Liesl will be 1 in April,” he said. “They change so fast. I go away for two weeks and come back and they seem like different kids. Ideally, I’d like to be home more.”
Before he left town on Tuesday, Haney dropped me an email.
“Just locked the interview with Lauer for Bode,” he wrote. “Not sure if it will be live on Thursday’s TODAY show or taped for Friday.”
The seven-minute interview aired live Thursday morning.
“All in a day’s work from Saranac Lake,” Haney added.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.