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Athlete ROWEs to the Olympics

One man's journey to the Olympics had an interesting catalyst -- his ability to continue working remotely as an IT engineer during training and competition.

This article accompanies Anytime, Anywhere.

Sunday, August 1, 2010
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During the Winter Olympics in February, one sport seemed to be on the tip of everyone's tongue. No, not cold-weather stalwarts such as hockey, speed skating or skiing -- but curling.

Looking kind of like shuffleboard on ice, one person slides a large stone down the length of the ice trying to land on one of the numbered targets at the other end. Meanwhile, two teammates run alongside the stone, sweeping in front of it to make it go faster and straighter (or not sweeping to make it go slower.)

Once playfully criticized as the ultimate non-spectator sport, curling proved to be the breakout hit of the games, seeing significant airtime (and ratings) on TV, and gaining plenty of first-time fans.

And John Benton was in the middle of it all.

Benton, 41, qualified for the U.S. Olympic curling team a year earlier, but there was one potential roadblock -- his job as a senior engineer at Fairview Health Systems, a hospital chain in Minneapolis.

Being part of the curling team meant intense training sessions and competitions all over the world, not to mention a month of living in the Olympic Village in Vancouver while competing. It was certainly a dream come true, but dreams don't pay the bills.

"You still have to earn a paycheck and you still have to produce and that's one of the unique things about most Olympians," he says. "They're still amateur athletes. They still have lives and jobs."

Benton lucked out, however, because Fairview had instituted a Results-Only Work Environment for its IT department -- loosely meaning that employees are free to work whenever they want, wherever they want, as long as the work gets done.

As a third-level support staff member, Benton handled larger, complex IT problems and projects in a consultative role. After training during the day, he logged into the system at night and worked remotely.

"My role was somewhat reduced but it really would have been eliminated if ROWE weren't available to me," he says.

The Olympic Bug

When you grow up in Minnesota, curling is part of sporting landscape. As a kid, Benton went to curling clubs with his family, then worked his way up the junior ranks and eventually turned into one of the best adult players in the country.

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By the time his four-man team qualified for the 2010 Olympics, Benton was over 40, earning him the nickname "GG," or "Great Grandpa."

But when it comes to training, Benton hardly shows his age. Training for curling has gotten more and more physically intense over the years, as players try to gain an advantage over their competition.

"We get a lot of fun poked at us," says Benton, "but sweeping is actually quite, quite taxing at the elite level ... a match lasts anywhere from two to three hours and we might play three matches in a day."

Although he didn't earn a medal, making it to the Olympics and living in the Olympic Village was "indescribable," he says.

"There was just a different sense of purpose about life in the village and you could really tell that many of these people spent sometimes up to eight years' training for this opportunity," he says. "For some of them, their opportunity amounted to two minutes of competition time ... . It was neat to see that level of commitment and dedication."

The experience gave Benton "the Olympic bug," he says, and he hopes to make the 2014 team.

"One way or another, I'll end up in Sochi [Russia]," he says. "Whether I'm a player, coach or spectator."

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