After cross-country crash in Sochi, a lesson in crying


OCHI — Here’s a tricky one: Why do people cry when they are happy? This comes up a lot at the Olympics, as my wife Margo will break into tears at pretty much any point, including during the commercials. A couple of weeks ago, after watching figure skater Jason Brown pull off a near-flawless program at the trials, she broke down in tears. The best part was that when telling us about it later, she broke down in tears again.

This column will lead, by the way, to a story that definitely will make Margo cry again.

Why do we cry when we are happy? It turns out this is actually quite an involved question. I have an emigo — an email friend — named Indre Viskontas, who is both a neuroscientist and an opera singer, which makes her, more or less, the most amazing person on Earth. She is also a new mother, so she was up in the middle of the night to offer a pretty involved answer to this question.

The neurological reason we cry when happy, she says, relates to the “parasympathetic nervous system — the part of the autonomic nervous system that calms us down.” Which is exactly what I was thinking? One theory is that the system cannot really differentiate between different emotions; it only knows when it is emotionally overloaded. So the emotion could be fear, sadness, anger, pain or joy and if that emotion is intense enough it can trigger tears as a release.

“Usually, crying from joy comes after a stressful event – and signals the switch from fight or flight to relief and relaxation,” Viskontas says. “The more stressful the event, the greater the opposite response when the stress is relieved.”

That explains why everyone cried at the end of “Toy Story 3.” You know (spoiler alert), the toys were almost incinerated and then they were destined for the attic and instead they ended up at that little girls house, and Woody was going to go with Andy to college but instead … Okay, I have to stop now.

VIDEO: Broken ski doesn’t stop Gafarov from finishing

The more fascinating question is the psychological one. Why do we cry at all? There are disagreements. Viskontas says one theory is that crying is our body’s response to a perception of helplessness. You have to stretch a bit, though, to connect that with happy crying. A second theory is that crying is tied to other variable personality traits. This makes a lot of sense, since different people are more or less likely to cry.

But I think the most interesting theory is that crying connects us with each other. In this theory, we cry as a way to bond, a way to link our sadness or anger or fear or joy with the world. This idea speaks to me. Happy crying seems to me to come from a deep connection with someone or something, whether it’s Woody and Buzz getting a new child to play with at the end of “Toy Story 3,” or Dan Jansen winning that speed skating gold medal after a career of heartbreak, or that “Thank You Mom” commercial that shows mothers raising children who become Olympians. It’s as if simple happiness is not big enough to express the connection with something graceful or kind or plainly decent. So people cry.

That connection is particularly powerful for many at the Olympics. Everyone knows that the Olympic Games overflow with all sorts of negative things — corruption, waste, greed, on and on — but there is a strain of innocence and wonder, too. This is why so many people around the world care. The athletes, mostly, are not millionaires. They are regular people you know, people who have real jobs, people who sacrifice because they truly love their sports and deeply believe in an Olympic ideal they formed when they were children.

Russia’s Anton Gafarov is this kind of athlete. He’s a 27-year-old cross-country skier, and this is his first Olympics. He was not really a medal contender, but being able to compete here was incredibly important to him. “I couldn’t imagine my life without skiing,” he told reporters. “For me, skiing is like breathing.”

VIDEO: Cross country sprint has crazy finish

But Gafarov wanted to finish the race. So he pulled himself along. The sprint lasts about three and a half minutes. And so when the others had finished, he was still in the middle of the course, fighting his way step by step. It just didn’t seem like he would get there.

And then someone raced up to him. He was carrying a ski. That was Justin Wadsworth, the Canadian head coach. Wadsworth is actually an American — he’s a three-time U.S. Olympian — and he has a reputation as an open and warm person. He had taken the job to help build Canada’s fledgling cross-country team (no Canadian man has ever won an Olympic cross-country medal). Wadsworth’s team didn’t do too well on Tuesday — not one Canadian reaching the semifinal — and he wasn’t in the best mood.

But then, while rushing out to catch the end of the semifinal, he saw Gafarov trying to move forward. “It was like watching an animal stuck in a trap,” Wadsworth told the Toronto Star. Instinctively, he found a spare ski, and he rushed down to Gafarov.

Neither man said a word. There wasn’t anything to say. Gafarov stopped. Wadsworth kneeled down and removed the old ski. He put the new one on. And Gafarov took off toward the end.

Gafarov finished the race long after everyone else. But he finished.

“I wanted him to have dignity as he crossed the finish line,” Wadsworth said. He did not really understand why this was a story. Anyone would do it, he said.

But this is the thing, isn’t it? Anyone might wish they did it. But only one man actually did.

And right now, back in America, Margo is crying because – well, because maybe it is a way to connect with people and with something beautiful. Or maybe it’s just a parasympathetic nervous system response to a sweet story. Either way, it’s only a matter of time before the Olympics make her cry again.


Tina Maze to retire from Alpine skiing after farewell race

MERIBEL, FRANCE - MARCH 21: (FRANCE OUT) Tina Maze of Slovenia takes 3rd place in the overall Slalom World Cup during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Finals Women's Slalom on March 21, 2015 in Meribel, France. (Photo by Alain Grosclaude/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
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SOELDEN, Austria (AP) — The skier best known for crushing the overall World Cup points record and celebrating her victories with a cartwheeling handspring, announced her retirement.

Two-time Olympic champion Tina Maze of Slovenia said on Thursday she will quit the sport after competing in one more race, a World Cup giant slalom on home soil in Maribor on Jan. 7.

“I am really happy with what I’ve achieved. I don’t feel the need to compete at such a high level anymore,” Maze said.

The Slovenian started her World Cup career with a GS in Maribor, as a 15-year-old in 1999.

A few weeks after winning two gold medals at the 2015 World Championships in Vail and Beaver Creek, Colorado, Maze was beaten for the overall title by Anna Veith, then competing under her maiden name, Fenninger. Maze took a year off from the slopes and got her degree in elementary education.

The move prompted year-long speculation about her career, but Maze always kept all options open until announcing her decision two days before the World Cup season-opener on the Rettenbach glacier in Soelden on Saturday (4 a.m. and 7 a.m. ET, live on NBC Sports app, and 3 p.m. ET, Universal HD).

“I was always thinking about it,” Maze said. “I have a big motivation to compete one last time in front of my home crowd.”

Maribor will be her last World Cup, but Maze did not rule out defending her world downhill title in St. Moritz in February.

“Now I live by the day,” Maze said, adding she will decide about a start in Switzerland in the weeks leading up to the championships. As the defending champion, she wouldn’t have to qualify.

Maze’s rise to the top started in 2008 when she set up her own independent team, led by her Italian coach and boyfriend, Andrea Massi. They called it the Team to aMaze.

Maze won her first of 13 medals at major championships the following year, taking GS silver at the worlds in Val d’Isere, France. She added two more silver medals at the Vancouver Olympics the next year.

Finishing fourth in the 2010 overall World Cup standings, Maze improved one spot each year and finally won the big crystal globe to cap a record-breaking season in 2013.

Maze won 11 races that season, took the GS and super-G titles, and broke the overall World Cup points record in a single season. She beat the previous mark of 2,000, set by Austrian great Hermann Maier in 2000, by another 414 points.

The same season, Maze also became only the sixth female skier to win events in all five Alpine disciplines, with American standout Lindsey Vonn the only other active achiever.

Her World Cup results faded in the following season, but Maze went back to the top when she won Slovenia’s first ever gold medal at the Winter Olympics by sharing victory in the Sochi downhill with Dominique Gisin of Switzerland.

“At the moment it is not easy for me,” Massi said, adding he was particularly proud of his girlfriend reaching the top of her sport without doping.

“Tina is the best proof to young athletes that you can become the best on normal food: Schnitzels, pasta, vegetables, and goulash soup.”

Known as a gritty competitor who doesn’t try to hide her mood after not winning a race, Maze once said she becomes “completely inaccessible” when things are not going her way.

“That is just who I am. I certainly do not want to be rude,” said Maze, who in 2012 displayed her singing talent by entering the charts in her home country.

The song was fittingly named, “My way is my decision.”

MORE: Vonn details weight struggles in new book

Alpine skiing women’s World Cup season preview

Lindsey Vonn, MIkaela Shiffrin
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If the previous Alpine skiing season taught us anything, it’s that nobody is safe.

The three most decorated skiers all suffered knee injuries in crashes, missing part or all of the campaign.

Oct. 21: Austrian Anna Veith, the 2014 and 2015 World Cup overall champion, damages her right knee in a training crash, three days before the first race of the year. Veith misses the entire season.

Dec. 12: Mikaela Shiffrin, Olympic slalom champion, suffers right knee injuries in a light warm-up crash before a giant slalom in Sweden. Shiffrin misses two months of races, returning for the final month of the season.

Feb. 27: Lindsey Vonn, winner of 76 World Cup races, suffers three left knee fractures in a super-G crash in Andorra. Vonn’s season ends three weeks premature.

Swiss Lara Gut, once a teenage phenom who missed the 2010 Olympics due to preseason hip surgery, stayed healthy and captured her first World Cup overall title last March.

The versatile Gut won six races across four disciplines, but she also had the benefit of the absences of Veith, Shiffrin, Vonn and the other two top skiers from the year before — Slovenian Tina Maze and retired Austrian Nicole Hosp.

Of the aforementioned skiers, only Shiffrin will join Gut in the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Saturday (NBC Sports app, 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. ET; Universal HD, 3 p.m. ET).

Shiffrin eyes her first outright World Cup giant slalom victory, two years after sharing a Soelden win with Veith. Any Soelden podium place would boost Shiffrin’s bid to become an overall title contender by becoming more proficient in giant slalom and adding more speed races. Shiffrin is already on an 11-race slalom win streak.

Maze, 33 and a two-time 2014 Olympic gold medalist, plans to race at one World Cup stop this season, at home in Maribor, Slovenia, from Jan. 7-8, and then retire, according to European media.

Vonn and Veith are skipping Soelden for different reasons.

Vonn passed on Saturday’s giant slalom because she’s not going for the World Cup overall title this season, but rather for individual race victories. Vonn, who does not excel in giant slalom, is 10 wins shy of the World Cup career record of 86 held by Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark. She is expected to focus on downhills and super-Gs.

Veith is the 2015 World champion in the giant slalom but simply isn’t race ready coming back from her injuries. She will also miss the next giant slalom on Nov. 26 in Killington, Vt., pushing her return to December, according to Austrian media.

Vonn hasn’t publicly committed to Killington and could, like Veith, wait for the first downhill and super-G races in December.

Everybody is looking ahead to the world championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in February. That event may be a bellwether for the 2018 Olympics, especially if Veith and Vonn are back up to speed to join Gut and Shiffrin.

Four years ago at worlds, Vonn crashed and then rushed her comeback, crashed again and ended up missing the 2014 Olympics. Maze and Shiffrin each took gold medals at the 2013 Worlds and then did so again at the Sochi Winter Games.

But if last season taught us anything, the Alpine skiing landscape can change quickly.

MORE: Vonn details weight struggles in new book