Growing up on the ski slopes of Boyne Mountain, Michigan, I never thought my journey to the Olympics would take me through Lithuania.
My parents taught me how to ski. We spent many winter weekends on the slopes of Northern Michigan, went to Colorado every spring, and I loved to watch ski racing in the Olympics. I remember Tommy Moe’s gold medal in the men’s downhill in Lillehammer (I was teaching a young cousin how to ski that day), but I don’t remember the first Olympics I watched—like skiing, it is something I’ve just always done.
I’m attracted to the uniforms, the marching, the uplifting and sometimes heartbreaking performances, and the surprise victories. But what really draws me in are the stories of underdog competitors from tiny countries with no hope of ever winning a medal who go to the Olympics simply to participate and show what they can do against the very best.
I started ski racing myself as a teenager. I was strong, motivated, and I loved speed. My mother led a campaign to add skiing as a varsity sport at my school when I was a sophomore and I became the captain of the team. We did well, but an Olympic berth with the U.S. Ski Team was a little out of reach. As I packed my bags to go off to college at the University of Colorado, my dad suggested that maybe I could ski for Lithuania. I had never been to Lithuania and I didn’t speak Lithuanian, but my dad’s suggestion intrigued me.
I joined the University of Colorado’s Alpine Development Team. One of the assistant coaches was Linas Vaitkus—with a name like that, he had to be Lithuanian. Born in Chicago and raised in Steamboat, Colo., Linas had already gotten his Lithuanian citizenship and was slated for the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. He put me in touch with the Lithuanian National Ski Association.
Lithuania had cross-country skiers but on the alpine side, its racers were well past their prime. I was young and willing to pay my own way, so the LNSA sponsored my effort to gain Lithuanian citizenship.
In February 1997, I received an official letter from then-President Algirdas Brazauskas declaring both my dad and I citizens of Lithuania. I enrolled in a language course the following summer at Vilnius University and set my sights on Salt Lake City.
I took time off from school and worked as a ski instructor when I wasn’t training or racing to help offset some of the cost of my sport. Each country is allowed to send one man and one woman to the Olympics for alpine skiing, but I still needed to meet certain qualifications to get there.
It was a hard road. I worked intensely, but eventually, the emotional, physical, and financial strain of trying to be a one-woman team got to me. Two years before the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, I decided that maybe an Olympic berth in ski racing was not meant to be.
I went back to the University of Colorado to finish my degree. I continued to work as a ski instructor and race coach and developed a ski program at a local elementary school where I ran an after-school program. Every Wednesday, the school let the children out at noon, and with a couple of parent volunteers we drove them up to Eldora, where I got them season passes, ski equipment, and taught them how to ski. The program was a success, and the next year, enrollment in the ski program doubled. I hired an assistant.
After graduating from the University of Colorado with a degree in Eastern European culture in 2003, I convinced my parents to buy me a one-way ticket to Lithuania. I hadn’t gone to the Olympics but I still had my passport, and Lithuania would soon join the European Union.
We’re the coaches
I arrived in Lithuania in December, just before Christmas, and Viktor and Eva Tombak hired me as the photo editor for FHM, the new men’s magazine franchise they were about to launch. I would work at Cosmopolitan and Ieva too. I still had contacts in the Lithuanian skiing community and on the weekends I went with friends to ski at the Lithuanian Winter Sports Center in Ignalina, a small city famous for its Soviet-era nuclear power plant an hour from Vilnius. It had a couple of tiny slopes, a rope tow, and a T-bar. To get from the hotel to the ski slope, you had to push yourself across the frozen lake.
Moving to Lithuania after eight years in Colorado was a lot like moving back to Michigan, only darker. But being surrounded by a nice group of friends and having at least the chance to slide around on skis kept me from missing the Rocky Mountains too much.
That spring, at an end-of-season party with my friends from the Lithuanian Alpine Ski Federation (LKSF), a group that organized some local beer-league races and trips to the Alps each year, people were lamenting how terrible it was that we didn’t have any ski coaches for the kids. During Soviet times, they said, their coaches had all been Russian. Looking around the table, I saw at least a dozen former ski racers in their thirties and forties. I said, “What do you mean? We’re the coaches!” But none of them believed me.
At the 2005 Lithuanian National Championships held in Crans Montana, Switzerland (I won the giant slalom), there were four enthusiastic children in the group. One of them was the daughter of the vice president of the ski federation. I said to him, “Look at those kids, look at your daughter. There is our ski team.” I held my first official training session on the last day of the trip. In the gondola, I told the kids we needed a name for our ski team. They choose, Lietuvos Ereliai (Lithuanian Eagles).
Back in Vilnius, I held training three times per week on Liepkalnis, a small ski area only 10 minutes from the city center. One training session cost 15 litas, about $5, just enough money to pay for my lift ticket and my taxi to and from the ski slope—I didn’t have a car.
In Switzerland, none of the kids I met were wearing helmets or even goggles. I made helmets mandatory for club skiers at all times. It’s hard to imagine that in 2005 there were parents who didn’t think helmets were necessary, but that was an issue I fought both the kids and the parents on in the beginning. We had to set a precedent, and I wouldn’t budge. No helmet—no skiing. I always brought an extra helmet to practice, in case one of the kids “forgot” theirs. And, even though we often trained in the dark, I also required the kids to wear goggles to protect their eyes.
Almost every time we appeared on Liepkalnis, another parent would approach me and ask if their child could join our team. Though my group began to span several levels, I never turned a child down. I only recruited one skier. Rokas Zaveckas was seven years old, skiing by himself at Liepkalnis.
I watched him stop at the edge of a rock, look both ways, and jump off of and ski away. I said to the rest of my group, “That kid should be on our ski team.” The group agreed, and we went and found Rokas’s father. Rokas had joined Lietuvos Ereliai by the next practice. At the end of the season, our little team had 11 solid members.
I held summer physical trainings and organized a weekend camp at the Winter Sports Center in Ignalina where the kids ran, swam, and navigated slalom courses on rollerblades. Ski racers I knew had to be strong, both physically and mentally, but I stressed having fun. I made team t-shirts and chose activities that the kids would enjoy doing together, figuring that if they had friends in the club, they were more likely to stick with it.
In October the ski federation organized a trip to a glacier in Austria. I told the parents I would take the week off of work if any of the kids wanted to go. The parents of four kids thought it would be a great idea to send their children to Austria with a near-stranger, and they pooled the money together to pay my way too. I did not ask for a salary.
When we got back, there was even more interest in the club. The only other person I knew in Lithuania with an actual ski instructor’s license was Miroslavas Urbonavičius and his daughter Ieva was already on my team. Miroslavas and I decided to incorporate a nonprofit ski club; we asked one of the parents to be the third founder and changed the name to Kalnų Ereliai—the Mountain Eagles were born. By the time Liepkalnis opened in January 2006, we had 30 kids on the team in three training groups: Intensive, Beginner, and Learn to Ski. I was already talking about our Olympic debut.
In our third season, we had 50 kids in the club, a team van thanks to a sponsorship from Audi, and a coaching staff of six—I pulled in everyone I knew who could ski and was good with kids; I could teach them how to coach. They were all volunteers—Miroslavas and I were the only ones receiving a salary, less than $1000 for the entire year.
The ski federation supported us with gates and a drill, but though our young kids had already started to beat the adults, many people did not take us seriously. That winter, we entered our first skiers in International Ski Federation (FIS) sanctioned races. In July 2007, Sochi, Russia, was chosen as the host city for the 2014 Olympics.
Miroslavas and I taught the parents and the kids how to prepare their own skis, and designed a team logo and flags. We had on-snow camps in Austria, Slovakia, and Italy, and mandatory summer physical fitness camps in Lithuania. I introduced them to mountain biking and competed alongside them in local races.
I was still working at the magazines full-time, but was also traveling non-stop with the kids; we were out of the country for more than six weeks every winter. I spent my evenings communicating with the parents, devising nutrition plans, making alliances with foreign clubs for better training conditions, and ordering equipment. Only 15 years after independence, Lithuania was doing well, but in order to keep the club growing, it had to stay accessible to a wide range of people. Full-time tuition for the year was never more than $350, plus race expenses and equipment. And the team model was working.
In a 2008 interview with Trans World Sport, the British television program dedicated to telling the most interesting stories from the world of sport, team member Ieva Januškevičiutė said, “I’ve found so many friends here, and eventually, I think it’s much better for the team because when you are alone, it is not so pleasant or as much fun, as when you’re with your friends. When we are together, we are happier and enjoy it more.”
A change of plans
I left Lithuania in June 2009, for what I thought would be six months. I was headed to New Zealand to coach a local club during the southern hemisphere’s winter and planned to return to Lithuania just after Christmas to work with the kids full-time.
When I started the club, I’d said I could have at least one boy ready for Vancouver. A lack of funding and time on skis made that goal unrealistic, but Sochi was four years away and Kalnų Ereliai had depth.
There were 12 skiers working their way up the international children’s and junior ranks—for the first time Lithuania had a national team. At least half of those skiers had both the motivation and the talent to qualify for Sochi.
And then the recession hit. The club lost sponsorship for its team van, and many families were no longer able to send their kids off to ski for six weeks out of the year. The club could barely sustain the coaches still in Lithuania, let alone bring me back from abroad. Miroslavas went to Italy to find work as a ski instructor. Audrius Santackas, who I’d brought on as the club’s physical conditioning coach, stepped up to continue working with a small group of athletes and others were coached by their parents.
I went back to Aspen, Colorado, where I worked as a race coach and ski instructor. I continued to support the club, raising money for a video camera and other tools, researching training techniques, managing the club website, and communicating with the kids. Recognizing that the club was struggling, but also that there was still a core group of dedicated athletes, the ski federation began to play a larger role in entering the kids in international training camps and providing a limited amount of funding.
I got a job at a magazine in Aspen, ensuring I would be away from Lithuania for at least one more winter, and watched from afar as some of our best athletes struggled with injury or turned their concentration to other sports. But others emerged and had minor successes, keeping that core group of kids alive.
In August 2011, the Snow Arena opened in Druskininkai. For the first time, Lithuanian skiers could ski year round at home. The indoor ski slope employs a team of instructors, all with teaching licenses from Austria. New clubs have been formed, and hundreds of young Lithuanian children have been introduced to the sport.
I moved from Aspen to San Francisco for graduate school. The girl’s team was down to one full-time athlete, Ieva Januškevičutė. On the boy’s side, there were three racers still seriously training, Karolis Janulionis, Aivaras Tumas, and Rokas Zaveckas, though Lithuania would only be able to send one to Sochi.
Rokas missed the entire 2013 season after suffering a knee injury at a fall training camp. Karolis, Aivaras, and Ieva participated in their first World Championships in Schladming, Austria—by then they were a team in spirit only, each with different coaches and training programs. I kept in touch with them through Facebook. The sprint to Sochi had begun.
Rokas had long been the assumed candidate to Sochi, but he was coming back from injury; Karolis was a four-time Lithuanian champion and Aivaras was having a breakthrough season. All three boys achieved Olympic qualification standards, but Rokas had the lowest FIS points. Ieva qualified for the slalom in December, scoring her fifth result at a race in Italy, and qualified in giant slalom at a race in Slovenia on January 17—literally on the cusp of the deadline. On the eve of a double Olympic berth, Ieva is positioned to do what I never could: become the first woman to represent Lithuania in alpine skiing at the Olympics. Rokas will join her as the third Lithuanian man. He is only 17 years old.
It was nine years and a month almost to the day that we started the club in the Crans Montana gondola when Rokas and Ieva landed in Sochi last week, and 17 years since I got my Lithuanian citizenship. In that time, Kalnų Ereliai kids have skied from the Arctic Circle to Ushuaia. Some of them have moved abroad, they study a variety of things from business to pyrotechnics, and speak several languages. They all continue to ski for pleasure, and some have even become coaches themselves.
It will take me 24 hours to travel from San Francisco to Sochi this weekend to cheer for Ieva and Rokas. I was not invited to be part of the official Olympic delegation, but I will be in the crowd at Rosa Khutor, wearing a Kalnų Ereliai coach’s jacket and flying the club’s flag. After all, these are my kids, this is my dream—now it’s their dream too. I’ve been with them along the way, even when I haven’t been, and to be at the Olympics with them when they achieve their dream, will be even better than if I had been racing myself.