Shit-Faced Gold Medal

Ever since the first time I watched Cool Runnings, I’ve been drawn to the stories of human achievement at the Olympics. Even with everything wrong with the Rio games, and with the Olympics in general, there’s an undeniable attraction to stories like that of Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling beating his idol Michael Phelps, or Simone Biles, the American orphan-turned-gymnastic superstar.

A lot of what draws me into these stories is the way they make me wonder – "could I have ever done something like that?"

Last week I decided to try and find out.

I started by making a massive list. I wrote down sports, hobbies, jobs and anything other than school I had dedicated a large chunk of time to during my life. The list got unwieldy pretty quickly, and so I started to cut it down to just those things that I might have spent thousands of hours doing, playing and pursuing. 

Hockey and snowboarding topped the list in terms of time sunk. But even with the time investment, I was never more than a middling hockey player. I was a decent snowboarder, but I didn't have the guts to push myself on big jumps and gnarly rails, the kinds of things you needed to do to get sponsored. I played soccer and baseball when I was really young, and lacrosse when I was a bit older, but never at anything close to a high level. Skateboarding was hobby, but I had the same reluctance to push myself to learn tricks as in Snowboarding. In high school, I played one reluctant year of football (my mom thought it would help me fit in) and competed in pole vault and javelin on the track and field team, but that was mostly to get days off from class in order to attend track meets.

Despite my parents best efforts, enrolling me in piano lessons as a child and pushing me to take band in junior high and high school, I never really developed a passion for playing music. I partly blame my junior high band teacher, who goaded me into picking up the tuba, but even guitar and bass never sparked anything but a passing interest in me. Once I found punk rock, I did play in a couple bands, and even played a few shows, but nothing ever came close to being serious.

For a while, cooking became enough of a pursuit and passion to be the the first thing I seriously considered as a career. But, while I loved cooking, and had a knack for it that saw me running kitchen brigades by the time I finished high school, by my early twenties I had lost interest in working in a professional kitchen.

The list goes on like this, detailing a series of other false starts and even a few earnest failures, but in the end, there's only one thing on it that I can really say I put an Olympic-level effort into –  drinking.

Compared to a lot kids at my high school, I was late to start drinking. While I had drank a couple beers, and sipped some Friday night ski-hill rot-gut mixed from whatever could be stolen out of parents’ liquor cabinets, I didn’t get well and properly drunk until my last few months of high school.

Once that door opened though, I stormed through it. At bars and liquor stores, I proudly became Michael David Dyke, a 21 year old, Newfoundlander who looked so nondescript, his ID was used by 4 different people before a security guard actually rejected someone with it. The ID was a gift from an older coworker during one of my weekend kitchen prep shifts chopping piles and piles of vegetables in a local restaurant. He and the other prep cooks, all at least 3-4 years my senior, had adopted me as a sort of young, corruptible mascot for their depravity. To them, the fake ID was part of as a not-so-subtle plan to ruin my perceived innocence and get me onto their level, a level that involved treating Saturday morning hangovers with a mixture of chocolate milk and Clenbuterol, a veterinary drug used to treat respiratory issues in horses.

Around that same time, I fell in with a group of twenty-somethings in the Edmonton punk rock scene. With them, I found my way into house shows, after-parties, and to the dive bars that served as the social centres of the scene. I quickly graduated from getting wasted on a few beers to pounding shots of Jagermeister, becoming a regular at a few bars before I could even legally drink.

But, as good as I was on my own, I didn’t really hit my stride until I found some all-star drinking partners. As I moved through the end of my teens and into my twenties, my social life started to revolve around liquor. My weeks were scheduled around the most compelling drink specials, and after any night of drinking, my friends and I would exchange our stats.

How many beers did you drink? How many shots? Did you puke?

Hangovers were treated like injuries. We constantly tested and re-tested different remedies and prevention methods, all with the goal of getting back onto the sauce as quickly as possible. We even “trained” for big nights out on the town. If we knew a big party was happening on Friday, we would start building up to it on Wednesday and Thursday. For a day-long party, or a multi-day bender, we would plot out our strategy as if planning for some kind of multi-day expedition.

By my mid-twenties, I was at the top of my drinking game, but like anyone in their prime, young talent was starting to edge in on the scene. The new kids had grown up on Jager-bombs and been born into a competitive drinking culture. For them, it wasn’t just about how many drinks you could put down in a night, but something far more intense. Instead of shotgunning beers, they were chugging mickeys of vodka. They played beer pong with hard liquor. They timed keg stands with a stop watch.

Around that time, the conversations my friends and I would have after a night out started to change. Instead of recounting the number of drinks we had polished off the previous night, we began to relish tales of epic drinking adventures. We polished our stories from week to week, glorifying bar fights, lamenting the girls we nearly went home with and crafting elaborate yarns that turned bar-hopping into Kerouac-like tales of coming of age. That’s around the time that I discovered that I wasn’t just good at drinking, I had a knack for talking about drinking too.

I started going on road trips in order to drink in new and interesting places. A trip to a concert at an agriculture college in central Alberta became an all-night odyssey of debauchery. Nights out to dance clubs and country bars became dangerous forays into uncharted jungles. Routine road-trips became alcohol fueled epics, only to be spoken of in hushed tones. When I did get into the outdoors, I climbed a mountain not because the were there, as George Mallory infamously said about his reasons for climbing Mt. Everest, but so I could drink a beer on top of them. When I traveled to other parts of the world, I returned with bottles of local rot-gut and tales about drinking in historically significant locales.

Then one day, I realized that being really good a drinking, wasn’t actually something I was all that excited about. At first, it was hard to accept. I felt like I had wasted time, money, and even my youth. I could have spent the thousands of dollars I poured down my throat on climbing gear or expeditions. I’d be a stronger climber or a better paddler had I not wasted so many weekends moving from one hangover into the next. Had I just skipped a few parties, maybe I'd have made a trip to climb in Patagonia. While all this is true, wishing and lamenting wont change anything. Instead, I'm taking my shit-faced gold medal, and retiring from the kind of "capital D" drinking that defined my twenties.

I still love beer. It's delicious, especially after a long hike or a hard day of climbing. But, today I’d rather wake up before dawn to chase an alpine start than crawl into bed with the sun rising into the sky, feeling my next hangover creeping into my head.

I don’t plan entire trips around liquor consumption anymore, and instead I plan them around touching the tops of mountains. And, while its been nearly a decade since I last duct taped bottles of malt liquor to my hands for a night of Edward Forty-Hands, I do wrap my hands in climbing tape and dangle from my shredded fingertips in order to find the little bit of extra push to lead harder climbs. Instead of struggling through workdays because of a crippling hangover, I struggle through them because of a rolled ankle or a torn rotator cuff. So maybe, as some people have suggested, I've just traded in one vice for another.

Maybe, and maybe I'll always have a pang of regret, and a sense of wasted youth, when I hear stories of the Olympian level achievements I missed in my twenties. But maybe not, because fuck it, if Oksana Chusovitina, a 41-year-old Uzbek gymnast can come in 7th in the vault at the Rio Olympics, who knows what’s possible.

Cameron Fenton