At St. Scholastica, Chad Salmela is known as the College's Nordic skiing coach, but outside of Duluth, he is known as the voice of ski events in the United States. This winter, he will again join the NBC broadcast team as color commentator for Nordic events at the 2010 Olympics.
Q: Where did you commentary career start? How did you first get involved with the broadcast side of skiing?
A: I started out doing [public address] announcing at events, doing stadium production, in college. The first time I did it, I was at Middlebury [College in Vermont] in 1998, and they were looking for someone to announce the World Championship team trials and the U.S. events in biathlon. They asked me to come out and do the announcing since I wasn't competing anymore and I knew all the athletes. I did, and they thought I was great. I just kind of did what I thought I could do.
Then in 2000, I moved to Salt Lake City and took a job putting on the Olympics. In that process, they were looking for someone to do the biathlon color commentary in the stadium, and since my organizing job was done when the games started, I got to do the Olympics.
The producer for NBC for biathlon and cross country obviously heard me over the P.A. system and loved biathlon. He thought it would be a great TV event for here in the United States. In 2003, he independently started working with the US Biathlon Association to try and get the Biathlon on cable, and at this time, he was a five-time Emmy award winning TV producer, so it's pretty cool that he wanted to get it on TV. And he tells the US Biathlon committee that they need to get "that guy from Salt Lake" because he's really good.
So, I started doing TV in 2003 on the Outdoor Live network [now Versus], and that producer and I became friends. He sent the tapes to NBC/Universal, and they hired me to do Torino in 2006 based on the highlight reel.
Q: A ski race isn't exactly like, for instance, a basketball game where there is constant action. How do you, as a color commentator, fill the time for a broadcast?
A: Actually, I'd say that in biathlon in particular, there isn't a lot of time to fill. Unlike cross country skiing, it's a very nonlinear storyline. Individual-start events always have something going on. On television, you are always watching shooting range coverage, because there will always be someone on the range. That's pretty easy. It's less about filling the time than it is getting to everything. It's not like the speed of basketball, it's more like the speed of hockey. It IS really quick
The reason it's the top winter sport in Europe, and has been for the past eight years is that it's very akin to NASCAR. The lead changes a lot. There's "wrecks." There are really dramatic changes in the course of a 30-minute race. The individual start races probably wouldn't be good for American television because it's too esoteric for people to wrap their minds around, but in head-to-head races, you can really see the lead changes happen. I think that's why the sport lends itself so well to good commentary if you understand what's going on.
Being a former athlete and being somewhat verbal, I don't have any trouble filling time. It always helps if you have a good play-by-play guy, because he's always asking the good questions to help inform the American viewer. In Vancouver, I'm doing cross country and Nordic combined as well, but biathlon is the easiest to call because there is so much action.
Q: When calling events with American athletes, or even people you knew, did you have trouble staying neutral? Or, given that NBC is broadcasting to America, do they give you leniency with that?
A: They actually don't. Clearly, on cable, the sport was being put on TV by the efforts of the U.S. Biathlon association. When we could highlight Aemrican performances, which wasn't very often, we did, and we did so robustly. At the Olympic games, NBC tries to approach it in the commentary aspect as a neutral call. Their policy is that it's not "us," it's "the Americans." In fact, in the first show of Torino, I said "we're doing really well today," and the producer came through the headset to say "knock it off." I did it again later in the show, and he got really mad.
The guys who are going into these Olympic games have the most medal potential of any biathlon team in the history of the sport. We have four guys who have a shot at winning the medal, and they have a shot at winning the relay. And they're all guys my brother coached. So, I've known these kids since they were 14 years old, and now, they're world class athletes. So, it is hard to stay unbiased. I have to work at it. I tell myself before I go into the booth "it's the Americans, it's not us."
Q: As for the coaching aspect of your life, what happens to your team while you are gone?
A: Well, I'm fortunate enough to have a really good paid and volunteer staff. I have two assistant coaches and two volunteer assistant coaches. In that respect, I will be missing two events and three weeks of my normal job. My assistant Josh Tesh will take over for those weeks, and my other assistant Scott Conner-Johnson will come over from the development team as well. I also have a hired gun from the Twin Cities, a very good wax technician, who I'm going to pay to cover me.
Most people don't understand this, but most of the coaching is done in the plans I write over the summer and in the fall. Once we get to the snow and the events, I could almost coach by phone -- making the coaching decisions, when to rest, when to go hard, and when to get recover and get ready to race. I can do that from anywhere. What I really become in the winter is the wax technician. I become the guy who is out there to trying to find the fastest possible combination of structure, under-layers of wax, and making skis as fast as possible. It's difficult, and that's why I've hired someone who has done it professionally.
Q: Both coaching and commentary are both things you have excelled at, but would you ever consider going into commentary full-time sometime down the line?
A: This is a job that I really love to do. This school is in a really exciting place, and if the circumstances weren't what they are, I would be trying right now to work full-time. Right now, Universal sports and the U.S. Olympic committee are competing for the Olympic sport market, and there's probably going to be some more work coming up. Not just in my sport, but in summer sports as well. Now, I don't know if I would ever be offered a contract, and I don't plan on doing that right now. It would have to be a really good contract -- maybe double what I'm making here.
There's more to things than just money, and I love coaching. While commentary sounds sexy and exciting, it's a lot of work and tiring. By comparison to coaching, it's not nearly the challenge. All things considered, I like announcing, but I love coaching. It's going to take me being tired of the rigors of coaching to look at doing something else. Going into my fourth year coaching [at CSS], I could see myself being here for at least five more years. Even if I got a contract in announcing, I would work with the school to have a hand in this program and be a volunteer. I love the program. I started it. I don't want to leave it.
Q: What needs to be done to make Nordic events more popular to an American audience?
A: Let's start with biathlon because I know that. It would take a commitment by one of these networks to get behind it and put it on the air. I think that if people understood biathlon, people would dig it. People will say "it's weird" or "it's boring," but if you look at it, it's a matter of education. If you don't understand baseball, it's really, really boring. A two-hour cross country ski race can be boring, but if you understand it, it's just as fun as watching baseball. What biathlon probably needs is informed commentary and regular television presence -- every World Cup event being on television.
The reason that biathlon is so popular in Europe is because it is so exciting. The people watching biathlon in central Europe are not athletes. They are literally the NASCAR fan of Europe; it's beer-drinking, partying people eating Bratwurst. It's not people who are really into endurance sport. The reason they are following is because A. Germans are really good at it, and B. it really lends itself to television.
Cross country is doing more mass-start races and team events where it's like cycling and there's strategy involved like drafting. That will help them in the U.S. television market because it becomes much more understandable.
Nordic combined will always be tough. They are ski-jumping first and then later, doing the cross country skiing. The sport itself sees huge lead changes because of the difference between the skill of the jumpers and the skiers, but it's still probably more exciting than most cross country ski events. They jump, and that score transfers over to time, and everyone chases the winner of the jump and the first person across the line wins. These head-to-head events are probably the savior of modern Nordic skiing.
So, I think they've done everything they need to do. It's something that needs to be done universally with Olympic sport in this country, and make it accessible. Somebody should be committed to the Olympic sports more than once every four years, and I think it's something that is happening. As a media entity, I think Olympic sport is going to play a bigger role than it has in the past.