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WHISTLER, British Columbia – At 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, he looked odd for a ski doctor. He had unkempt white hair and a rigid mustache that could scrape lead paint off a house. His hands weren't exactly delicate instruments, either, unless the local steakhouse required a T-bone-ectomy. But Pete Lavin was wearing the proper jacket to be in the starting house, so the Europeans on Kitzbuehel, Austria's famed Hahnenkamm downhill course, figured, well, the U.S. Ski Team was employing a grizzly bear as their team physician.
Then Lavin started screaming like the whistle on a locomotive. He was still in his doctor's jacket, mind you, but with the demeanor of a madman. For a moment, he looked like he might hit someone with a chair. Naturally, the Europeans around the start house thought he was crazy.
"Been up there ever since," Lavin said.
Nearly seven years later, in fact. But that's how Lavin got his start, with former U.S. Alpine racer Daron Rahlves befriending him and sneaking him into a start house during a World Cup race in the Kitzbuhel Alps in 2003. Nicknamed "Baby Huey" despite his massive size, Lavin blew his fake doctor disguise that day, leaving him to carve out many roles as an assistant to the U.S. men's Alpine squad. But being the last voice in an athlete's ear seems to trump them all. After all, not everyone can be a human adrenaline shot in a critical final moment. Which is why that skill is Lavin's most famous niche in the U.S. Alpine hierarchy.
He's not the man, or the man behind the man. Instead, he's the one howling at all of them.
"[He] just turns into a big blur of growling, deep sounds," said U.S. skier Andrew Weibrecht, who won Olympic bronze in Vancouver in downhill. "You may as well have a bear behind you."
That distinct talent has made him one of the famous voices in these Games, where we've now seen two snow-sprayed "Hype Men" play a pivotal role in some of the United States' most memorable Vancouver moments. On one hand, you have Lavin, who has verbally mushed the U.S. men's skiers – and Bode Miller in particular – out of the start gate and into four podium finishes, including Miller's gold medal pièce de résistance in Sunday's super combined. On the other, you have Bud Keene, the U.S. snowboarding coach who verbally (and saltily) prodded Shaun White into his epic Double McTwist victory lap, after White had already secured gold.
They are part of a growing segment on Olympic staffs that are already flush with every other area of experts: from equipment men to coaches to trainers to sports psychologists. But now you are hearing the new vital piece in the podium puzzle: the spine-tingling Hype Man. For Lavin, you hear that last second booming voice that is driving the U.S. men out of the start house. The gruff, sandpaper baritone has become famous on the World Cup tour. An unmistakable U.S. anthem, like the enunciated growl of a Harley Davidson.
Keene works his magic a little more subtly, holding court with his snowboarders at the top of a halfpipe. Unlike Lavin, he drops in a wealth of coaching tips, too. But he's made an art of delivering the perfect last sentence before a run, something he says is "like pushing that big red button inside their head." It's a unique motivational ability – one that both Lavin and Keene have carefully crafted for each individual athlete they deal with, also sharpening their skill with help from sports psychologists. But unlike Lavin, Keene's hyping technique was largely silent before these Games, when a live NBC microphone caught him revving White up with a few expletives dotting his prose.
"It's unfortunate that I swore on national television," Keene said with a sheepish smile. "I regret that. I'm not proud of it, but I'm not ashamed of it, either. It's who I am. It's what I do. It's how I get my job done. And it's very effective."
He points out that he never swears at his athletes in a negative way. Only in an uplifting, primal, emotional manner that typically sets off the synapses in their brain like a set of firecrackers. Lavin is the same way – he'll use salty language, but never in a demeaning manner. In fact, he's even had skiers occasionally come up to him and ask him to use more expletives to fire them up. Welcome to a snippet of the Olympic Games that you don't see. Where cussing can be a tactical advantage and parental advisory is sometimes advised.
"This is an uplifting type of cussing, if that's even a possible definition," Keene said. "It's really just punctuating my speech and punctuating a message with something that makes the hair on the backs of their necks stand up. If you throw an F-bomb or an S-bomb in with a sentence that's all about them and all about their performance, and all about 'let's do this thing!' It wakes them up."
Of course, there is a different playbook for each athlete. Each has their own set of buttons, and Keene and Lavin act accordingly. Bode Miller, for example, takes a constant, minutes-long serving of Lavin's growling, right into the start of his run. Fellow U.S. teammate Steven Nyman, on the other hand, was so rattled the first time Lavin got into his ear at Kitzbuhel that he had an awful race. Now Lavin doesn't say a word to Nyman until he's out of the start house and kicking down the hill. And the U.S. women's team? He's never been used for a single one of their races.
"I think he might scare us," said Julia Mancuso, a two-time silver medalist already here in Whistler.
Oddly enough, Keene and Lavin have never met each other. Instead, they have respected each other's work from afar. So much so that when Lavin's name was mentioned to Keene this week, he broke out a spot-on impersonation.
"I admire him," Keene said. "I watch ski racing, and I hear him and I'm like, 'That dude! That's the dude!' I love his voice: 'Come on Bode Miller! Come on Bodeeeee Milllller!'
"He doesn't sit at the bottom of the course. He's right there. He's the last voice they hear. They're 50 frickin feet away from the gate, and you can still hear the guy. I love it."
And that admiration is certainly mutual. In fact, when Keene caught a little heat for having his expletives caught live by NBC, Lavin couldn't help but feel his pain. After all, he actually had an NBC employee once request he stop dropping the 'F' word near the start of races.
"I've been in trouble with that numerous times," Lavin said with a chuckle. "Whatever. It's sports. It's passionate people fired up. What are you gonna do? We're gonna let loose. That's what we do. And we can do it with the best of them."