As the Atlanta Braves' executive vice president of business operations, Mike Plant plans and oversees many of the details of every game, from opening to closing. His other identity is even more massive - he's in Vancouver this month as the chef de mission for the U.S. Olympic team.
He'll serve as the face of the team and its chief troubleshooter. At 50, Plant looks back on three decades since his first Olympic role as a speed skater.
I was like most young kids who played sports. When the Olympics came on, that stood for the pinnacle of excellence. I was pretty gifted in baseball, football, basketball, but at 14 I decided I would really focus on speed skating.
That was in the 1970s. There wasn't ESPN or USA Today. Nothing promoted a national following for speed skating. I grew up in West Allis, Wis., the only place in the country with a refrigerated 400-meter Olympic speed skating rink. At first I didn't know what it was, only that I would be skating in tights and making big circles, not little ones.
It was a sport that was all about an individual commitment to excellence and it took over my life.
It was a 52-weeks-a-year focus, training at least twice a day, seven days a week. Pretty soon it was trips to Europe. My brother and I both made the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid along with Eric Heiden.
I wanted to find a way to make a career in sports. There were not many agencies or sports marketing companies back then in Olympic sports. You had to pay for almost everything. It was not the life of luxury. Until you made a team each year, all expenses were out of your own pocket.
I had an idea after the 1980 Games to find a corporate sponsor for me and few of my teammates. People told me, "What are you talking about? You can't find a sponsor."
I love that kind of challenge, when someone tells me something can't be done. I presented an opportunity to the CEO of Atari, who eventually committed to a $400,000 sponsorship. It was huge. I took care of running our operations for three years leading up to Sarajevo in 1984.
I always gravitated toward people in different walks of life. Even in my 20s, I never looked at attending receptions as an obligation, even after we had trained three times that day.
I told everyone on our team, "You don't get what's happening. We've got to see our future. We have to take advantage of these unique opportunities. People want to talk to us because of our athletic success. We shouldn't just show up and have a beer in the corner of the room." Listen, engage and learn.
Because I had been building relationships through skating and the U.S. Olympic movement, I was there to assist the Jansen family in 1988 in Calgary after D.J. [Dan Jansen] fell. I had gone to school with his sister, Jane, who had just died the day of his first event.
We got a private plane for him to go to Jane's funeral, then to come back for his second race, when he also fell.
I was like a quasi-agent. I told him, you want to keep going, to keep her memory alive, but you don't want to look like you are exploiting it. You're not cashing in on your sister dying. He had a good balance. I took care of my friend and provided him with a few platforms to keep skating. He eventually won a gold medal six years later in Lillehammer.
Vancouver will be my 15th Olympics. I've run a national governing body, I've served on bid committees, on the boards of Olympic organizing committees and international federations. I've touched the Olympic organization in a lot of direct ways. My style now is more of an orchestra leader. I don't play the instruments. I make sure all the musicians sound good together.
In Vancouver, my plan is to be in that operational and leadership role and to be one of the head cheerleaders for our team. I plan to meet every one of the coaches and athletes, so they understand I'm there to help them if needed.
I hope to get to at least one event a day. Speed skating is on the outskirts of Vancouver, on the water. It's a fantastic venue.
I could have never imagined being where I am at 50. I grew up in a 900-square-foot house. My dad was a police chief who worked two jobs so he could support my brother Tom's and my skating careers. My mom was a very organized person who knew how to multi-task and get things done. They are both there in what I do every day in my work ethic, integrity, passion and focus.
I get together with Dan [Jansen] and other friends from past Olympic teams several times a year. We always say to each other, "Man did we ever out-punt our coverage!" We were just a bunch of cheeseheads from Wisconsin who learned better than most in the world how to turn left every 100 meters.
-- As told to Michelle Hiskey for the AJC
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