, Newburyport, MA

January 31, 2014

Off to Sochi

Port man makes improbable return to Olympics

By Chris O'Donnell

---- — NEWBURYPORT — It may be one of the city’s best kept secrets that there has been an Olympic veteran living quietly here for about seven years.

Dominique Clement is off to Sochi at the end of the week, via Boston, New York and Moscow, marking his fifth trip to the Olympic Games. He won’t return to Newburyport with a medal, though he deserves one (more on that later).

He has to annunciate names like Demtschenko, Fischnaller, Florschuetz and Fogt. That alone is worthy of a bronze, no?

Clement is the French-speaking public address announcer for three events: luge, skeleton and bobsleigh. There are three PA announcers for each event: the native language (Russian), English and French.

Clement makes his living as the director of Translation Services for the French Cultural Center of Boston. Sochi marks the third time he will do PA at the winter games, his latest stop in what has been a very cool side gig.

Clement finds it, well, pretty easy.

“But you have to be focused,” he said. “We get all the (name) pronunciations beforehand and we record them.”

Clement did PA for the same three events in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2010. He was the French PA announcer for all the men’s and women’s soccer games in Athens in 2004, and announced the biathlon, Nordic combined and cross-country skiing at Salt Lake in 2002.

Clement immigrated to the U.S. for good in 1989 with his American wife, Patricia, who moved to Paris after college. He got his start at the Atlanta Games in 1996, where he announced men’s and women’s soccer. That led to serving as the consultant for the U.S. Soccer Federation delegation at the 1998 World Cup in France.

Despite an impressive resume for PA announcing, Clement still has to apply every time the Olympics come around. He decided not to apply for Beijing in 2008 as his son Max, 11, and daughter Madeleine, 13, were very young. He was passed over for London 2012.

“British only,” he quipped.

Olympic PA 101

There is a lot more to PA announcing at the Olympics, particularly for fringe sports, than folks realize. Wearing a headset, Clement sits next to the English announcer, longtime friend Carl Roepke of Park City, Utah, and the Russian announcer (“No idea who it will be,” he said).

Every announcement is timed to the second. The three of them listen to venue producer Peggy Katz for their cues. Native language is heard first, then Roepke and finally Clement. They have 10 seconds to announce the athlete’s name, country and a factoid about said athlete.

“It takes more words to speak in French than it does English,” Clement noted. “Everything is timed down to the second. Usually there are only two announcers (English and French), but since we are in Russia, there will be three.”

In front of each of them are two screens: one with the athlete’s information, one with the latest standings updated to the second. The luge run takes about a minute, then each announcer updates the leader board — again in Russian, English and French — before the next run.

One hundred and thirteen athletes are scheduled to compete in the luge. With teams of four in the bobsleigh (154 athletes), announcing can get tricky. Additionally, 2014 marks the debut of the luge relay. Clement isn’t sure how they’re going to handle that yet, but he is an Olympic veteran.

“The frustrating thing is that since there are three announcers, we cannot organize anything until we get there,” Clement said. “It’s going to be tricky, but we are just going to have to listen to Peggy.”

Clement has some long days ahead of him. The luge and bobsleigh run six days each while the skeleton competition (think luge, only riding on your stomach) runs three days and begins on the final day of the luge.

Olympic, World Cup Memories

Clement has seen some special things: When the U.S. was knocked out of the 1998 World Cup, he hung around for the remainder and was in a packed Parisian pub with his brother when France defeated Brazil in the final. Still somewhat new to the U.S., he also reveled in the U.S. women’s soccer team’s gold medal victory in 1996 in Atlanta.

On the flip side, Clement witnessed the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian luger who caromed into a foundation pole at 95 mph on a training run in Vancouver, the day of the Opening Ceremony.

“He was ejected on the final turn,” he recalled. “It was silent. I remember the people trying to revive him, but he was gone. I was watching all this.”

This year’s luge track will be slower.

“They have done a lot to reduce the speed in Sochi,” he noted.

Clement also recalls choppers and sharpshooters everywhere at the cross-country venue outside of Salt Lake City.

“(Former) President Bush was there,” he said.

Clement has seen the security measures at previous Olympic Games, and he isn’t too concerned. He’ll be 40 miles northwest of Sochi — and 40 degrees cooler — in the village of Krasinaya Polyana.

“There will be 100,000 police officers,” he said. “I don’t expect anything will happen.”

About that medal ...

Clement’s return to the winter games is a personal victory. Maybe a miracle. While in Vancouver, he struggled with chronic back pain, so much so that he was receiving physical therapy and massages from the trainers, without much relief.

Upon his return to Newburyport, the pain grew worse. The prescribed pain medication wasn’t touching it, neither were the two weeks of physical therapy. He would lose his balance for no reason.

After an MRI, nothing could prepare him and Patricia for the diagnosis: ependymoma, a good-sized tumor growing inside his spinal cord. The news came on March 17, his 50th birthday, no less.

Clement was referred to New England Baptist Hospital, which admittedly could do little. Feeling a sense of urgency, he contacted a close friend in France, Dr. Eric Vivier, who studied at Harvard and interned at Dana Farber. Days later, he was on the operating table under Dr. John Popp, then the chief of Neurosurgery at Brigham & Women’s, about to undergo the 12-hour procedure.

“It was a pretty rare tumor,” Clement said. “(Dr. Popp) told me he had done more than 1,000 brain tumor removals, but fewer than 100 spinal cord tumor removals.”

Popp removed the inch-sized mass from Clement’s spinal cord, and a 6-inch scar is what’s left.

Clement spent two painful weeks in a rehabilitation facility, and the summer of 2010 was spent learning to walk again. By September, however, he was able to ride a bike. By November, he could jog slowly. Since then he hasn’t missed a day of running, and he doesn’t plan to in Sochi.

“I figure someone gave me my legs back,” he noted. “So I’m going to use them.”