Tag Archives: sochi olympics

Week One in Russia: A whirlwind

12 Feb
Chelsea and I at the halfpipe qualifiers today. Fun in the sun on an "off" day.

Chelsea and I at the women’s downhill today, where we witnessed a first-ever Olympic tie for gold in alpine skiing, a sport (like nordic) that’s timed to a hundredth of a second!

I can’t believe it’s been a week since I touched down in Russia, hopped a Sochi 2014 bus and headed up into the hills of Krasnaya Polyana.

Sorry to keep any of you anxiously awaiting my fate, but I’ve been able to post photos on Facebook, Instagram and the like. And it’s no excuse, but we literally hit the ground running and haven’t stopped.

Our hotel in the Gorki mountain village at the top of a gondola

Our hotel in the Gorki mountain village at the top of a gondola

A typical day covering an Olympic event (or two or three) consists of sleeping six hours, waking up late morning, getting in some kind of movement (I hesitate to say “workout”), then eating as much of our hotel’s free breakfast spread as possible — which is supposed to hold us through the day.

By the time we leave the hotel, way up high on a mountainside in a newly constructed village for mostly Olympic media lodging, it’s around 11 a.m. and we’ve got a race in two hours.

It takes about an hour to get to the Laura Cross Country Skiing and Biathlon venues, and involves a 10-minute gondola (or “Karusel”) ride down from our little village — with two or three hotels fully operating out of a half dozen or more. We were some of the lucky ones; ours was ready upon my arrival late last Thursday night. The spa, including a pool and gym, were finished yesterday.

At the bottom of the gondola, Nat, Chelsea and I walk up the street and cross a bus-ridden, multi-lane road to start heading toward the venue. It’s a walk that gets more pleasant as you go along, and usually isn’t an issue with traffic in broad daylight. The buses don’t want to hit you, but they’ll honk if you run right in front of them.

There’s no need to play frogger in Russia.

Anyway, with some strategic J-walking (sidewalks are a little sporadic here), we make our way along the river that’s been rerouted in several different directions around the valley. It’s all part of Sochi’s $50+ billion dollar Olympic budget, and while it’s impressive they can move rivers, one can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen when the snow melts off the mountains this spring, or next spring, or in a couple years from now.

Hopefully all of the infrastructure and these villages built up for the Olympics hold up. Hopefully people come back and visit them as winter destinations.

With no need for a jacket in temperatures near 60 degrees, we walk 5-10 more minutes to the gondola. There, we’ve got a security checkpoint, complete with a rotating belt to put all of our personal items on and security personnel who make me take my food out of my bag every time I pass through.

I always agree, explaining the sunscreen is for my face and letting them scan my water bottle with whatever the heck is supposed to detect it’s not vodka. I’m not sure it would be a big deal if it was.

Our daily commute down to the valley, then back up another mountain to the Olympic cross-country and biathlon venues -- in a gondola

Our daily commute down to the valley, then back up another mountain to the Olympic cross-country and biathlon venues — in a gondola

Once through, we board the next gondola, which takes about 15 minutes to get to the top. At this point, we’ve usually joined some other international journalists or photographers, and sometimes we start up conversations. Other times, nobody wants to speak English, or they just want to hear us talk about nonsense.

From there, we’ve got a short shuttle ride to the biathlon venue, where the print media center for the two locations is located. This is where we can work for an hour or so before the race and then, usually around 2 p.m., it’s go time.

I won’t bore you with the details of the races, but if you care, check out FasterSkier.com. We’ve been working our tushes off covering cross-country and biathlon races each day, and I couldn’t ask for two better co-workers to handle the workload with. Every day has been fun, and so far, historic for the U.S. nordic and women’s biathlon teams. It’s a good trend that I hope continues — it makes our jobs more rewarding and I’m sure it’ll make the whole experience more memorable.

Two days ago, we had a bit of a curveball in the women’s cross-country sprint. American Kikkan Randall had been the favorite in the skate sprint, right up there with Norwegian great Marit Bjørgen, and she was expected to end a 38-year Olympic medal drought for U.S. nordic skiing with the first medal since Bill Koch’s silver. On a perfect day, she could win gold.

That didn’t happen. It didn’t even come close. Randall qualified in 18th out of the top 30 that get continue racing in the quarterfinals. She led most of her quarterfinal, which was stacked with two other medal contenders in Bjørgen and Germany’s Denise Herrmann, but lost steam down the stretch toward the finish. Herrmann and Bjørgen whipped by her to place first and second, and an Italian came from behind to beat Randall as well.

Fourth wasn’t enough to lift Randall to the next round. She had been eliminated in a skate sprint quarterfinal for the first time in three years — the last time being at 2011 World Championships. The reality of the situation hit me with a sinking feeling, something I’ve rarely, if ever, felt as a journalist regarding the outcome of an athlete’s performance.

But Randall is especially unique, an athlete who’s led her sport to unprecedented success in her nation and really never faltered — at least not recently — along the way. She’s an iron woman who’s also human. And that showed Tuesday.

Kikkan Randall with her husband after being eliminated early in Tuesday's freestyle sprint at the 2014 Olympics.

Kikkan Randall with her husband after being eliminated early in Tuesday’s freestyle sprint at the 2014 Olympics.

As Randall walked slowly down the stairs out of the broadcast zone into the print area, she stopped for a moment. Sheltered behind the U.S. Ski Team’s media attache, Margo Christiansen, Randall let it all out — or whatever she needed to get out at the time — then wiped her eyes a minute or two later and got back to answering questions.

For the first one, she walked right over to me. Reporters from major news outlets like ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and several others swarmed around to get a piece of the interview and questions in edgewise. But for the next couple of minutes, Randall answered my questions. She spoke about emotions, tactics and initial reactions, plus her ever-successful team.

It was a nice acknowledgement to the work we’ve put in over the years, in which we’ve extensively followed and written about Kikkan and the U.S. and Canadian ski teams on the international-racing circuit.

But at the end of the day, her Olympic dream was lost, and we had to write a story about it. Meanwhile, another American, Sophie Caldwell of Peru, Vt., achieved the best-ever U.S. women’s Olympic finish of sixth in the same race. It was the silver lining and an incredible surprise for Caldwell, who graduated from Dartmouth College fewer than two years ago.

We wrote about that one, too, along with the women’s biathlon pursuit, which started at 7 p.m. that night.

Getting back to our hotel around midnight, we decompressed on leather sofas in the cushy lobby. There was still work to be done, which carried into the next day and the next, and I nodded off at the usual 3:30 a.m.

It’s 2:30 a.m. tonight and I’m psyched to go to bed a whole hour earlier, if I can get to sleep. After grabbing some dinner at an Irish bar in the town just north of us (complete with Russian waitresses in kilts and $10-dollar Guinesses), we rode up the gondola with a Canadian couple. Not knowing who they were, we asked the usual: why they were there, who they were supporting, where they’re from.

They had just come from the women’s luge competition, where their daughter Alex Gough was competing. We asked how she did.

“She was fourth,” they said. “Thanks for asking.”

She lost out on bronze to an American that hadn’t beat her all year, they said. And she’d been on the podium for essentially every event leading up to the Olympics.

Now that’s tough to swallow.

So whether you’re 18th, like Randall, or fourth in an event you were favored in, the fact is the Olympics are the Olympics. It’s hard to put a perfect performance together on a given day, and that’s what makes this pinnacle of many sports so fun to watch.

The stars have to align, and when they don’t, you have to pick yourself up and try again. This is why I love sportswriting, and this is why I came to Russia — for a little more perspective on life and the most incredible athletes in the world, and how they’ve become great at what they do.

Several women on the U.S. Nordic Ski Team strike a pose with Norwegian skiing legend Bjørn Daehlie on the course during training on Wednesday. (Photo: FIS Cross Country/ Twitter) https://twitter.com/FISCrossCountry/status/433533578878517248/photo/1/large?utm_source=fb&utm_medium=fb&utm_campaign=brooksha1&utm_content=433579507241746432

Several women on the U.S. Nordic Ski Team, including Kikkan Randall (127), strike a pose with Norwegian skiing legend Bjørn Daehlie while training at the Laura Cross-Country Ski Center on Wednesday. (Photo: FIS Cross Country/Twitter)

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