There was no way I was going to miss “my” skiers competing in their first Olympics, because in the end, it was my first Olympics, too.
In Sochi, we measured everything in hot dogs. The concessions inside the Olympic venues were limited, to say the least, and the hot dogs were the most appealing. A “classic” hot dog with ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise was 150 rubles. The specialty hot dogs, which included the “Brooklyn,” covered in melted cheese product and bits of bacon, and the “Manhattan” with ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise, as well as fried onion bits and pickles, cost 200 rubles. Because it’s extremely difficult to comprehend that an American hot dog covered with baked beans (the “Boston”) could cost over $6 in Russia, we simply ignored the conversion rate and measured the world in specialty hot dogs.
A five-minute taxi ride—one and a half hot dogs. Souvenir Olympic gloves—two and a half hot dogs. Purple Russian Olympic team sweatpants by Bosco—17 and a half hot dogs. Yes, I bought those. The price was more reasonable when you factor in the fact that we had been standing in the rain at the alpine center all day to watch the women’s giant slalom and I had not yet received my lost luggage. (I did get it that evening, but the sweatpants made the ride to the airport tolerable. I also spent five hot dogs for a taxi back to our guest house.)
Russia was outrageously expensive, and not only around the Olympic venues. Two hundred miles away in Krasnodar where Joe and I spent my first night in Russia before flying on to Sochi, we spent 12 hot dogs for a simple meal of borscht, salmon, beef stroganoff, and shared bottles of beer and water. But the cost was absolutely beside the point when I saw Ieva’s excitement as she ran down the hill toward me before her first run of giant slalom and Rokas’s smile after he finished his first Olympic race.
Traveling to Sochi
My roommate was kind enough to get up at four o’clock in the morning on a Saturday to ferry me to San Francisco International Airport. From there I flew to New York’s JFK, where I decided to kill half of the four-hour layover by getting a massage. What I thought was a splurge turned out to be one of the most reasonable purchases I made on the trip. My flight on to Moscow took off two hours late, putting me at Sheremetyevo International Airport with under an hour to pass immigration and make my next flight. Fortunately, there were helpful Sochi volunteers everywhere, and an Aeroflot representative ran me through security toward my gate, where on the way my brother Joe shouted at me from the bar where he was drinking a beer. I finished it for him.
Together we flew to Krasnodar where we spent the night and then flew on to Sochi Monday morning. Our plane landed just 10 minutes before my friend Hanna, who is Finnish but lives in Brazil, landed on a flight from Moscow. Together we took a taxi to our little Russian guest house. Hanna speaks a little Russian, and I can count to 10, but that didn’t get us as far as the translation app on Joe’s phone. We left our bags and our host Nina informed us that our room would be ready at noon.
We walked to the Spectator Pass office just across the river, and got our first look at the Black Sea. After picking up our “passports,” we made our first new friends, Julia and Mariana, who also had just met. We bought SIM cards for our phones, and headed with Julia to Olympic Park—she had kindly bought us passes for the day after I had sold her one of my extra tickets to the women’s giant slalom.
Since the only person at Aeroflot who spoke English could not help me with finding my luggage, except to give me the phone number of various offices where no one spoke English, Julia spent much of the day trying to help me track down my bag. The lack of English was a trend throughout the trip—even at the information booth in Rosa Khutor (pronounced hoo-ter), which was full of foreigners, the woman didn’t speak English. We got by with Joe’s translator and a lot of sign language.
At Olympic Park, we admired the unfinished amusement park and bemoaned the thirty-minute walk from the train station to the central square. We were exhausted, hadn’t showered, and I still didn’t have my luggage, but you can’t tell that in our pictures jumping in front of the Olympic flame. We went to the ticket office to see about getting some more event tickets and immediately were offered four seats to the USA – Sweden women’s semi-final hockey game. I brushed my teeth with Joe’s beer while he caught up on some work before the game and then somehow we found the energy to cheer on Team USA to a 6 – 1 victory. We got back to our hotel and stumbled down the street to a cafeteria for dinner.
A very wet ski race
It was still dark when I dragged Joe and Hanna out of bed to make the trip up to Rosa Khutor for the women’s giant slalom. I still hadn’t seen Ieva and Rokas, and I wanted to get there in time to give her a hug before her start and get a good seat in the grandstand. We didn’t need to worry about that. It spit rain all day, that is, until the temperature dropped and turned us from soggy to frozen. The race was not well-attended. Rokas came up to watch with us and brought me an extra Lithuanian flag.
Ieva had a great first run, though it was clear she was tired as crossed the finish line in a high tuck. Even though the weather was absolutely despicable, from rain to snow to fog, she said the course wasn’t too bad. She went back up for inspection while we crowded into the only tent for spectators, a space of about 20 feet by 60 feet, and ate more hot dogs. Julia and Mariana were there, and we had also made two other new friends, Chris from Great Britain and Alexi from Krasnodar, who offered to give us a ride back (the trains were full and we had no real idea how we were going to get to our planes on Sunday).
Like many other skiers, Ieva fell victim to the course and the conditions and didn’t finish her second run. Though we were disappointed for her, we stayed until the bitter end to cheer on the other girls, some who finished, and more who didn’t. After the race, we met Ieva, watched her give interviews, and took pictures. Back in the tent, none of us wanted to go our separate ways—I was particularly touched to see Ieva’s reluctance to leave us—but we all needed to dry out and Hanna and I had to trek to the airport for my luggage. On the way, I bought the aforementioned sweatpants in the Adler train station.
I’m just a spectator
Wednesday was the kind of day you hope for when heading out for a ski race, if not a little too warm. It was the men’s GS and it was Rokas’s turn to make his Olympic debut. I’d gotten my luggage, and we were ready to cheer. I’d brought a green wig and tutu, which Joe wore enthusiastically, along with Rokas’s Lithuanian flag like a cape. I had a scarf, cowbell, and another flag for waving. As soon as we entered the venue, we got a lot of attention and even gave an interview that was shown on the jumbotron.
By the time Rokas came down, we had a whole host of people cheering with us, including several more Lithuanians. Ieva watched the race with us that day. Just having that time to sit with her was every bit as fun as cheering for Rokas. Between runs, I agreed to hold our front-row seats while Joe and Hanna went down for hot dogs and mulled wine and Ieva went to change out of her ski boots. As I sat in the sunshine, I watched Rokas give interviews, and then talk with Paulius Augunas, president of the Lithuanian Alpine Ski Federation, who seemed to be offering some coaching. Rokas’s father Giedrius ran around gathering his clothing and credential. And then it hit me—they were down there and I was just a spectator in the grandstand. I started to get a little sad.
After a while, I lost sight of Rokas, and decided to focus on the sunshine. And then I saw him, climbing up the stairs toward me. I hopped down to meet him, and he reached out to me for a hug. He said, “I think it was good.” I told him I definitely thought it was. I gave Rokas the present I had brought for him, some high fluoro race wax, and he trundled off smiling toward inspection. I may have been in Sochi to watch the race, but that Rokas had made it a point to come and find me after his run, had reminded me that to he and Ieva, I was a lot more than just another spectator waving a flag.
After the race, Rokas’s smile was more than enough to make the trip worth it. He was so happy just to have finished. And as an added bonus, we got to watch Ted Ligety win the race.
That night in Adler, we celebrated with a late supper at a traditional Caucasian restaurant. We ordered family style, cabbage rolls stuffed with meat, khachapuri (fried flatbread stuffed with cheese), a lamb stew, and grilled vegetables. With some extra-cold Hoegaarden and a bottle of Georgian wine (not very good), the total came to over 20 hot dogs. Yes, that’s about $130. For four. In Russia. And we shared.
Our guest house in Adler was about as Russian as it got. It was at the end of an unfinished road, but only a short walk from the bus stop and the Adler city center, all in all, a good location. The room was clean, it had cable television, a heated bathroom floor, and Nina did two loads of laundry for us, free of charge. No breakfast included.
On Thursday morning, thinking we were going to ski, we ordered a taxi early to take us up to Rosa Khutor, where we had a reservation for our last two nights at the Radisson Park Inn. The hotel was newly built with a chic, modern interior, and everyone spoke English. It was cheaper than our room in Adler. The weather was miserable again, but luckily the Park Inn had our room ready and sent us off to the breakfast buffet, where we filled up on scrambled eggs and bacon, and I ran into my friend Viktorija’s father, the vice president of the Lithuanian Olympic Committee. He’d helped me a lot when I was running Kalnų Ereliai and it was fun to catch up.
The weather cleared up in the afternoon and Hanna and I went for a walk around the resort. It was built on either side of a river with a few connecting bridges and several gondolas rising up and over the snowless mountains, presumably to somewhere that there was snow. There weren’t a lot of shops, and those that were there offered a selection of kitschy souvenirs, lingerie, and over-priced ski wear (don’t even ask how many hot dogs those items cost!). There was a jumbotron in the central square, and we watched fireworks that evening.
On Friday, Joe and I got as far as putting on ski clothes to go down to breakfast. But that idea was thwarted when we saw how bad it was raining. Joe went back to the room to work, and Hanna and I headed to the official souvenir store. They only let a few people inside the store at a time, so Hanna and I stood in the rain, trying to hide our annoyance. Inside, there wasn’t much besides the sweatpants I’d already bought, a few stuffed mascots, the famous colored-finger gloves, and Olympic-themed phone covers. On par with every other souvenir shop we’d been in, there weren’t any prices on anything, and only one cashier, who didn’t speak English.
I’d been looking forward to eating sashlik since I’d noticed it the day before being grilled outside, and we decided to eat a good lunch before heading up to the mountain for the women’s night slalom (200 grams of grilled pork, only two and a half hot dogs!). In line, I met another Lithuanian, a representative of Sportland, a store in Lithuania (hard to miss in the bright green jacket identical to mine, and the baseball cap that said “Lietuva”). While we ate, I explained ski racing technique to him.
The rain had let up by the time we got to the stadium just after four o’clock. Instead of the bus, we took the gondola, which rose out of the valley, climbing a jagged ridge, and then making a left turn at the extreme park toward the alpine center.
Joe, again dressed in the tutu, wig, and flag, met his Russian counterpart, a pretty girl in a white wig and a flag over her shoulders. We had standing places with a great view of the final pitch. Ieva, unfortunately, didn’t make it to that pitch, loosing a ski after hitting a rut early on in her run. She was of course devastated for not finishing, and our hearts sank for her as we watched her slide down the side of the course and exit the arena, though with the words of Pierre de Coubertin in ringing in our ears, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well,” we continued to cheer for her. Later we reminded her that she was still the first woman to represent Lithuania in the Olympic games and that both the 2015 World Championships in Colorado and the 2018 Olympics in Korea, are not far away.
While Ieva went back to the Olympic village to take a shower and watch the second run on television, we went back to the grandstand to watch Mikaela Schiffrin win the race, and then stayed on to cheer every last racer. We cheered extra loud as the skier from Libya ran out to hug the last racer, a young skier from Iran—one of my favorite Olympic moments.
The ski area is closed until March
Saturday morning, our last full day in Russia, we woke up to bluebird weather and Joe and I were determined to ski. We got dressed, organized a late checkout, ate platefuls of bacon, and found a bus to take us to Gornaya Karusel, one stop down the valley where we’d been told we could ski. Full of confidence and excitement, we climbed the stairs toward the ticket window. And that’s as far as we got.
A cashier with a limited English vocabulary informed us the ski area had been closed two days before and would remain closed until March. Why? I asked. Closed, she said. But why? Closed. But why? Closed. We heard rumors later that it could be because of the upcoming Paralympics, or maybe because of the warm conditions, but that was only speculation.
Instead, we went to the Austria House, where we drank four-hot-dog beers and used their free wifi to post pictures while sitting in the sun. It’s as close to the mountains as we were going to get. After packing our bags and checking out of our room, we met Ieva and walked around with her a bit. In the end, the chance just to sit with her and listen to stories of her life in the mountains was more enjoyable than skiing would have been anyway.
A good fight
The men’s slalom was no more forgiving than the women’s had been. Less so actually, but we cheered and we cheered anyway. Thirty-eight skiers did not finish run one, Rokas included, and another 29 failed to finish the second run. Rokas made it to the final pitch before he was thrown out of the course. Not far below the gate he missed, he hiked, and then continued, but was visibly drained. A few gates later, he skied out a second time.
I couldn’t stand waiting around to see him, so I just marched on down into the athlete’s area like I belonged there and no one stopped to ask me for my credential. I waited with Paulius and Ieva, neither of whom were surprised to see me there, while Rokas finished his interviews. We had to leave as soon as the race was over, so I said good-bye to Ieva and Rokas and promised I would see them at World Championships in Colorado, if not before.
Joe, Hanna, and I decided to get on the road early. We were taking a taxi to Krasnodar and it would be up to a seven-hour drive. The white Lada showed up about nine-thirty, and we piled all our stuff and ourselves in with the help of our wonderful hotel staff. Our young driver didn’t speak English of course, but he was very professional and said he never smokes in the car when he has clients. We took turns staying awake with him, which Joe bore the brunt of. It’s hard driving—they told us it would be very curvy, but you really can’t imagine how curvy until you see it. It’s a shame we had to do it at night because it’s certainly very beautiful. Occasionally, as we climbed over yet another mountain, we would turn a corner and I caught a glimpse of the expansive darkness of the Black Sea below us. Somehow, we got to Krasnodar safely and pulled into a hotel near the airport where we all got a few hours of sleep before boarding our planes.
Our trip was barely a week long, but it felt like a month. The Olympics is tiring, physically and emotionally, and even more so when you’ve got someone specific to cheer for. We would have liked to have fit in more events, but it just wasn’t possible.
We’re already planning our trip to Pyeongchang—we’ll go for the whole two weeks for sure—and our many new friends promise to meet us there.