I've known Michael Voudouris for years -- sort of. As a features editor for equestrian magazines, I've handled hundreds of his slides and chatted with him countless times about events, assignments and images. But this past week I realized I never knew the man at all.
I didn't know Michael the EMT, who set up a triage center near Ground Zero within hours of the 9-11 attack and damaged his own health while helping others.
I didn't know Michael the "slider," who accepted a dare a few years ago to ride a tiny sled headfirst at 80 mph down an icy track -- and fell in love with the dicey European sport of skeleton racing, which returned to the Winter Olympics this year after a 54-year hiatus.
I didn't know Michael the 41-year-old Greek/American, who asked Greece, the country of his father's birth, to let him wear its colors in Salt Lake City.
But I found out about Michael the past couple of weeks, as did many other people who thought they knew him, and many who discovered perhaps they'd like to know him.
You gotta love the guy. His is one of those quirky stories that hungry newscasters seize on -- a departure from the norm, a guy with a sincere passion for his sport and total disregard for the spotlight. Olympic spectators have identified with him as Everyman, a guy who dreamed -- and then actually did it. He is a stark contrast to the sleek, fine-tuned, sponsored, slightly surreal athletes who populate the Games these days.
As Newsday's Michael Dobie wrote, "In a time when even the snowboarders are professionals, Voudouris is a refreshing throwback to the antiquated ideals of amateurism. He has no coach, no funding, no support system, no cutting-edge equipment. And no chance, he admits, to win a gold medal."
Why does he do it? Even he can't put it in words, beyond saying, "It just seems right."
Predestined, perhaps. Michael was in Lake Placid to photograph winter sports when he saw a skeleton sled fly down the track and was intrigued. Ten-time national women?'s skeleton champion Juliegh Walker challenged him to try a run. He did. And began driving six hours each way on weekends from New York to take four one-minute runs. Walker became his mentor, and says he has improved vastly over the past two years. Not enough to worry the big guys, but enough to gain their respect as a legitimate acolyte of the sport.
The skeleton competition, which takes place on the same torturous course used in bobsled racing, lasts a minute -- and a lifetime. A "slider," as a skeleton racer is called, rides a skimpy 4-foot sled which supports his body hip to shoulder. His helmeted head projects in front of the sled, positioning his chin two inches from the ice. Speeds reach 80 mph, enough to get a ticket on any interstate. Braking is rudimentary, consisting of dragging barbed toes.
The daredevil sport originated in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in the 1800s, and was a feature of the 1948 Olympics held there. It is still popular in St. Moritz, where playing polo on snow and horse-drawn ski-racing across a frozen lake are also considered normal pursuits.
I asked Michael what he likes about the sport.
"It's so dangerous and it calls for great concentration," he says. "You have to be calm when it's chaotic around you. There were 18,000 spectators yelling above the course. I had to ignore them and focus on the six inches of ice in front of me. My 21 years on ambulance crews and the equestrian photography have, oddly enough, helped me to concentrate on what?'s important no matter what?'s going on around me.
"I've also learned from years of watching riders stay focused," he continues. "It's all about the lessons you learn in life. Seeing Olympians like Michael Matz, Leslie Lenahan, Karen and David O'Connor -- those are classic lessons."
It's obvious that Michael's life lessons have also included bravery and tenacity. When terrorists struck the World Trade Center in September, he rushed to the scene with a nurse he knew and set up a triage center which soon involved 5 physicians and 10 nurses. Twice he worked 40-hour stints without sleeping. It cost him. He was unable to train for two months due to bronchitis and scratched corneas. He was depressed and could have given up, says Walker, but he didn't. When his life savings were depleted, he moved in with his parents in Glendale.
He had become a man with a mission -- a message, actually. On the bottom of his sled he painted the Twin Towers, the star of life, and the names of nine EMTs and paramedics who died on September 11. It was a matter of honor.
Ironically, the ISOC did not allow Michael to race with his sled, which violated Olympic rules barring advertising. But Michael got his message across on practice runs and in press coverage, and used a borrowed sled in the final.
I spoke with him after the skeleton competition on Wednesday, in which he finished near the bottom of the pack, but proudly. What's next after competing in the Olympics, I asked.
"I'll go back to Greece to visit relatives, then come back to New York. I'll return to EMT work and try to get my life in order. Equestrian photography is not very lucrative these days, but I'll be at Rolex and the Gold Cup because I love the sport."
Nor have we seen the last of Michael in front of the camera in international competition.
"In four years, the skeleton competition will be in Italy, and next year the World Championships are in Nagano, Japan, so I want to go," he says. "The beauty of the sport is the travel. Carrying the sled and equipment is a pain, but once you're there it's a great opportunity. I appreciate the fact that I can represent Greece. I'm proud of that and hope they're proud, too."