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Chasing My Olympic Dream

My interview with Žmonės magazine about what it’s like to compete vicariously in the Olympic Games.

Žmonės is the People magazine of Lithuania (the name even means “people.”) I don’t know how they found out that I was going to South Korea to support my Kalnų Ereliai skier Ieva Januškevičiūtė in her second Olympics (I really should have asked) but a few weeks ago I got a request in my inbox for an interview. Of course, I agreed (who doesn’t want to be in People magazine?) And just a couple of days before I took off for Seoul, the issue came out on the newsstands. 

I was alerted to the fact that the issue was out by a middle-of-the-night Facebook message from my cousin in Kaunas who had read the story that morning. But since most of my family and many of my friends don’t speak Lithuanian, I’ve translated the story here. Please forgive any awkward syntax; I did this translation at 6AM after a 13-hour flight from San Francisco.

Not in Lithuania to buy the magazine but prefer to read the Lithuanian version? Click here.

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Following an Olympic Dream

By Irma Laužikaitė

My very favorite picture from these Olympics.
Jennifer Virskus at the Sochi Olympics with Rokas Zaveckas and Ieva Januškevičiūtė. This year she travels to the games to support Ieva.

Journalist Jennifer Virskus, who lives in California, will soon plunge into the passion of the Winter Olympic Games. Undoubtedly, there’s room in her luggage for the Lithuanian flag.

Jennifer’s last name has Lithuanian roots. She speaks Lithuanian, but when I interviewed her, she stopped a few times to check Google Translate. Twenty years ago she was passionate about the mountains and tried to be the first woman alpine skier for Lithuania. “I didn’t make it, but at least my girl did,” she said. Four years ago, Jennifer was in Sochi to watch two of her former skiers Rokas Zaveckas and Ieva Januškevičiūtė—she who was destined to enter our country’s sports history as the first female skier in the Olympics.

Ignalina team photo sm

Ieva will represent Lithuania again this year and Jennifer didn’t hesitate to buy tickets. “I know that Ieva isn’t likely to get a medal, but it’s about the Olympic principal, the most important thing is to participate, not to win,” emphasized Jennifer who lives the spirit of the Olympics, and introduced the beginning skiers to the Olympics. “My dad taught me how to ski—he was born in a refugee camp in Germany. And his father, my grandfather, put him on skis. He bought some skis, took him to some hill and said, ‘Go,’” joked Jennifer. “When I was 15, I got serious about alpine skiing and started to participate in races.” She’s been fascinated by the Olympics since she was a kid and spent hours watching them on TV. She watched the victories, and was also interested in the stories, especially from the small countries where winter sports are not very popular, and knowing that they are not really competing for medals, but for their own personal result.

Jennifer tried to follow Linas Vaitkus’s example—he represented Lithuania at the 1998 Olympics Games in Nagano and became the first from our country in that sport. “My dad gave me the idea, that each country can send their best representative, a male and female athlete, but you still have to qualify. I was training in the same club in America as the legendary Lindsey Vonn. Of course, I was 20 and she was only 13. But to compete at that level was really expensive, and I tried every way possible to raise the money but that was very stressful and I couldn’t concentrate on training. I understood that I had to give up the idea of the Olympics. That’s why later I put so much effort to do everything possible to not make it too expensive for the parents of my kids in Vilnius.”

jenn virskus sailing hawaii
The journalist’s new passion—sailing.

Jennifer arrived in Vilnius for the first time when she was 20 and spent the summer learning Lithuanian at Vilnius University. A few years later after earning her Bachelor’s degree, she convinced her parents to buy her a plane ticket to Vilnius. Just one way. She admitted, laughing, that she thought she’d spend six months or a year; she spent five and a half years. She worked as the photo editor at Cosmopolitan and FHM magazines, and all her free time, especially during the cold season, she spent at Liepkalnis with her Kalnų Ereliai club—she started out teaching beginners and eventually the club grew to about 30.

When she left Lithuania in 2009, she thought she’d go to New Zealand for a short time to coach skiing until Liepkalnis would again be covered in snow. However, the economic crisis buried her hopes to return to Lithuanian and the Kalnų Ereliai club.

Her novel is inspired by her Grandmother Klara's story.
Her novel is inspired by her Grandmother Klara’s story.

“I keep saying I’m going to return to Lithuania, but so far it hasn’t worked out. I spent a couple of years in Aspen working as a ski instructor and at the local magazine and then went to California to the art school in San Francisco where I finished my MFA in Writing. I work as a freelance writer; I write about skiing and other sports and leisure activities.” Because now it’s a three-hour drive to the ski slopes (“Of course that’s closer than Lithuania is to Austria,” she noted), Jennifer has found a new passion—sailing.

Alpine skiers are not the only connection Jennifer has to Lithuania. “Actually, I speak more Lithuanian now since I’ve sat down with my grandmother Klara Ponelytė Virškus Rugys (she’s now 94) to record her life story. Her first husband, my grandfather Juozas Virškus (Virškevičius) from Vilkaviškis, he’s where the whole story starts—he taught my father how to ski. When I lived in Lithuania, the kids, the ones I was coaching, their parents wanted me to speak English with them to help them improve their knowledge of the language. I only spoke Lithuanian with the youngest ones, you can imagine what my speaking was like… So when I sat down to speak to my grandmother, I wanted to hear her story as this was going to be the basis for my novel. She told me about her childhood in Lithuania, how they escaped to Germany, and immigrating to America. How my grandmother arrived in the U.S.A. and how I, born in America, arrived in Lithuania. I’m on the fourth draft of the book—it’s documentary and literary fiction. I’ve had to write it all over again. I want it not only to be my family’s story but to attract others.”

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