KGOU

Melissa Block

Our series "Take A Number" looks at problems around the world — and the people trying to solve them — through the lens of a single number.

At the tiny public library in Winterport, Maine, 43-year-old Robert Hartmann bends over The Little Engine That Could and slowly sounds out the first line.

"Ch-chug, right?" he asks his volunteer tutor, Sandy DeLuck. "Yup," she encourages him. He presses on: "Puh-puff ... puff ... puff. Ding ... ding-dong?"

For Philip Schentrup, whose daughter Carmen was among the students killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., each day brings the same, sharp pain. The same search for answers that don't come.

"To be honest, it's the same day I live over and over," he says. "Since February 14, this is every day. Every day of trying to hold yourself together."

"You search for normalcy, a 'new normal,'" he says, then pauses.

"I say those words. I don't really know what they mean yet."

It's been one month since the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The cauldron has been extinguished. The 23rd Olympic Winter Games has wrapped up in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CL: 2018, Korea. Let's go.

Olympic sports have their own special vernacular — colorful slang terms that are head-scratchers to an outsider.

Here in Pyeongchang, I've made it my mission to crack the code. So I cornered as many Olympic athletes as I could and asked them to divulge their terms of the trade.

When I asked U.S. biathlete Tim Burke for his best example, he didn't hesitate.

"If you have a bad crash, a lot of times we call that a 'yard sale,'" he told me.

Yard sale! I was intrigued.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the Winter Olympics, where races can be won or lost by thousandths of a second, tiny imperfections can make all the difference.

Nowhere is this more true than in the ice venues, where skilled technicians called "ice meisters" have honed their expertise over years of crafting the perfect surface.

Make that surfaces: It turns out that all ice is not created equal.

Depending on the sport, the ice might need to be softer or harder, colder or warmer, textured or smooth.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There are Olympic athletes, and then there are Olympic families. NPR's Melissa Block caught up with a famous former Olympian as she watched her daughter compete in South Korea.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) We will, we will rock you.

Since she was a little girl, Ashley Caldwell has been in constant motion: jumping out of her crib, tumbling off the couch, leaping down stairs, flipping on a trampoline.

So it seems fitting that now, at 24, Caldwell is the reigning women's world champion in aerials skiing — a sport in which she somersaults and spins through the air, some 60 feet off the ground.

Remember this name: Maame Biney.

The short track speedskater just turned 18; she's not even out of high school. But she is already one of the biggest U.S. names at the Winter Olympics.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLYMPICS OPENING CEREMONY)

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here are a few of the big questions hovering over the Pyeongchang Olympics, about to get underway in South Korea:

  • Which Russian athletes will be allowed to compete?

  • How will the North Korean team fare?

  • Can the United States top its highest number of Winter Olympics medals — the 37 it won eight years ago in Vancouver?

But way up on my own list of burning questions is this: What do these athletes dream about?

Imagine running up 10 flights of stairs as hard as you can, and then immediately trying to thread a needle.

A similar union of two opposite skills defines the sport of biathlon. It combines the all-out exertion of cross-country skiing — pushing the limits of human endurance — with the calm, focused precision of rifle shooting.

Biathlon has the distinction of being the only winter Olympic sport in which the U.S. has never won a medal. The American team is hoping to finally break that drought this month.

At the Winter Olympics, which get underway next month in Pyeongchang, South Korea, some of the most blistering speeds will come in the three high-adrenaline sliding sports, where top athletes zip on the ice at about 90 miles an hour.

There's bobsled, kind of like a downhill race car on steel runners.

In the luge, athletes lie back on a sled, going down the track feet first and face up.

And then there's skeleton, where racers go head-first, face-down, in a blink-and-you-miss-it blur of speed.

Imagine a minute of pure adrenaline: a race down a track of ice at speeds up to 90 miles an hour, enduring crushing gravitational forces around the curves.

Bobsled is one of the thrilling — and punishing — sports in the Winter Olympics. The U.S. hopes to repeat its recent medal-winning performances at the 2018 Olympics next February in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Sweet Pea Atkinson's croon is probably best exhibited in the campy 1980s MTV hit "Walk the Dinosaur" by the group Was (Not Was). The track featured the Detroit singer's distinctive growl, and the accompanying music video cemented his dapper image with his wide lapels and trademark fedora.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A moment now to remember one of rock music's most-beloved musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN GIRL")

TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: (Singing) She was an American girl.

On a recent, perfect morning at Johnson Farms in northern Michigan, workers climb wooden ladders high up into the trees, picking bags strapped across their bodies. The branches are heavy with fruit that glows in the morning sun. Their fingers are a blur, nimbly plucking fruit and filling bushel bags: about 50 pounds per load. It's hard, sweaty work.

Apple season was just getting underway on Old Mission Peninsula, a finger of land poking into Lake Michigan, dotted with lush farms.

Right after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, electrician Rocky Breaux, 53, loaded up his airboat in Houma, La., and drove to help rescue people from the swiftly rising floodwaters.

And now that the waters have receded, the ad hoc "Cajun Navy" has gone airborne: Breaux is now helping out with what's being called the "Cajun Airlift." Breaux has his own small plane — a Piper Arrow. When he heard that evacuees at one of Houston's big shelters needed more supplies, he loaded his plane, tanked up, and flew west, with Andy Cook as his co-pilot. "We're locked and loaded," Breaux says.

Sixteen-year-old Murad Rahimov peered down into a gigantic space he had only dreamed about before: the world's largest clean room, kept scrupulously free of any dust or contamination, where NASA assembles and tests spacecraft before launch.

Murad's eyes gleamed and a smile played on his face as he took it all in — the scientists encased in sterile white suits; the replica of the massive new space telescope, the most powerful ever built, that will study the first galaxies born after the Big Bang.

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