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The Beijing Winter Olympics: Live from … Stamford, Connecticut

Chad Salmela, a former U.S. national team biathlete who coaches cross country and track at the College of St. Scholastica, is one of many NBC Olympics analysts calling events off a TV monitor half a world away from China. 

Chad Salmela: “I didn't really know it would have the impact it did.”
Chad Salmela is back in Stamford again calling Olympic cross country skiing and biathlon for NBC.
College of St. Scholastica

Remember this golden Olympic moment? 

It happened four years ago this month, at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. As Afton’s Jessie Diggins overtook Stina Nilsson of Sweden in the team sprint to give the U.S. its first gold medal in cross country skiing, NBC Olympics analyst Chad Salmela — a Minnesotan himself — lost himself in the moment. Already hoarse, he twice shouted “Here comes Diggins!” over play-by-play commentator Steve Schlanger, then yelled “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Gold!” as Diggins crossed the line victorious. 

It didn’t take long before the call went viral. While Diggins and Kikkan Randall, her relay partner, were still in the stadium, an NBC field producer replayed the audio for them. They loved it, and Randall texted Salmela thanks on behalf of them both. Months later, Diggins ran into Salmela and complimented him as well.

“I didn’t really know it would have the impact it did,” Salmela said in a recent telephone interview. “I was worried that maybe I was a little too much of a homer and over the top, and my producer just assured me it was great and it was going to be big. I was like, ‘You think?’ And he goes, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s going to be big.’ 

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“Sure enough, my phone just kept buzzing for weeks.”

In some Minnesota circles, Salmela’s call stands as an all-timer, as memorable as Jack Buck’s  “And we’ll see you tomorrow night!” after Kirby Puckett’s Game 6 homer in the 1991 World Series. But one significant difference separates Buck’s call from Salmela’s. Buck was actually in the Metrodome when Puckett homered. Salmela and Schlanger called the Diggins race off a TV monitor in a booth in Stamford, Conn., half a world away.

Why? Because it costs oodles of money to fly, lodge and feed all the people it takes to televise an Olympics. So in 2018, to reduce expenses, NBC kept announcing teams in certain non-glamour sports stateside. Salmela and Schlanger broadcast from a 300,000 square foot facility on the site of an old Clairol factory, off Interstate 95 about 40 miles northeast of New York City.  

Salmela, a former U.S. national team biathlete who coaches cross country and track at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, is back in Stamford again calling Olympic cross country skiing and biathlon for NBC. This time around, Salmela has company. Lots of it. 

Understandably nervous about COVID-19 and unsure how long China might detain anyone who tested positive, NBC in January canceled plans to send its highest profile announcing teams to Beijing. Instead, it reassigned the bulk of its Olympics production crew to Stamford. Yes, even popular figure skating analysts Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski are among the 1,500 announcers, technicians, producers, researchers and interns spending three glorious weeks in Connecticut on NBC’s dime. 

Prime time host Mike Tirico started out the Games in Beijing, along with a modest cohort of reporters, producers and technicians. But NBC brought Tirico home a few days early to anchor coverage from Stamford before flying him to Los Angeles for the Super Bowl. And NBC wasn’t an outlier; the BBC and CBC also chose to keep its staff on home soil. 

As so many MLB, NBA and NHL announcers can tell you from their pandemic experiences, you lose something calling games off a monitor. Salmela said announcers in Stamford can access the same camera views they would have in Beijing. But it’s still not the same as being there, hearing the crowd, soaking it all in.

“The call suffers a little bit because, when you’re onsite, you see things you don’t see when you’re in a booth in Stamford, and you don’t feel the atmosphere,” he said. “It’s hard to be descriptive because there are certain things you just aren’t going to say because you’re not there. You can color the commentary a little bit better when you’re there. 

“To be honest with you, I don’t think that really makes or breaks the call necessarily at a fundamental level. It’s just a shame you can’t impart the feel of the stadium when you’re sitting in a dark booth.”

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Salmela said it’s less of an issue in cross country skiing than in biathlon, where weather conditions — especially the wind — can impact performance.

“The good thing is, if the wind is blowing, they’ll have a graphic with wind direction and intensity, and that helps us tell the story,” he said. “There might be different winds on one side of the range compared to the other, and you won’t see that in a TV graphic. It can’t capture that, but you can see it in real life if you’re looking for it.”

The other issue is the time difference. Beijing is 14 hours ahead of Central time; 8 p.m. in Minneapolis translates to 10 a.m. the next day. That means announcers call some events live in the wee hours of the morning here, which NBC often tapes and re-shows later for U.S. audiences. 

On the first day of competition, Salmela called a Diggins cross country race at 1:45 a.m. Central (3:45 p.m. Beijing time), then walked across the hall to do the men’s biathlon mixed relay at 3 a.m. The latter featured Paul Schommer, whom Salmela coached at St. Scholastica. (Salmela headed the school’s nordic skiing program before switching to track and cross country.)  

Salmela got excited when the U.S. appeared in medal contention, but no Diggins-like moment followed. Schommer, skiing the anchor leg, struggled on the shooting range, and the U.S. finished seventh. Afterward, Salmela went back to his hotel in Greenwich and crashed for a few hours.

“I’ll probably never do another Olympics on site,” said Salmela, who worked for NBC in Torino (2006), Vancouver (2010) and Sochi (2014). “I don’t know that, but I’m guessing I won’t, especially if they have me doing multiple sports. The logistics of moving from cross country to biathlon at the Olympics Games is always a concern for them. 

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“Vancouver and Sochi were actually pretty close; I just walked between the venues. But when the venues are spread out more than a mile, you start to get tight turnarounds, and then what do you do? It’s a lot easier for them to have me here. It’s cheaper, and it solves a problem.”

And no matter what, he’ll always have the Diggins call. At the time, Salmela worried about NBC’s reaction. He broke one cardinal broadcasting rule by talking over the play-by-play, and his exuberance nearly broke another. Was he rooting too hard for the U.S.?

In the end, Salmela said, NBC was fine with it. Schlanger kept his cool and described the finish flawlessly with just the right touch, which hardly anyone remembers except Salmela. NBC teamed Salmela with Schlanger again this year for cross country and added the now-retired Randall as a second analyst. 

“He’s a good guy,” Salmela said of Schlanger. “He felt like he had to keep his hand on the steering wheel while I was going crazy, and it worked.”