DEN > JFK >SVO > AER. Denver, New York, Moscow Sheremetyevo, Sochi Adler. That’s Sunday the 9th of February, in a nut shell.
I kicked ‘er off at 4:45 a.m. MT, made my way to DIA and from there to JFK in New York. There, I encountered heavy security. This was to be expected: Delta and the Department of Homeland Security had both issued statements regarding flights bound for the Russian Federation during the span of the Games. No liquids, gels, aerosols, etc, to be permitted in carry-on baggage. Very fair, I think. As we began the boarding process at JFK, though, they had upped the ante, prohibiting passengers to carry a new array of items. Lip stick, for example. I overheard a handful of panicked women expressing concern over parting ways with their makeup. “This was not in the original emails we got, we can fight it, right?” As for me, I had to toss my Fiji scented Old Spice deodorant. This proved to be somewhat problematic later in the journey.
From New York, it was nine hours, give or take, before we began our descent into Moscow. Along the way, I finally had a chance to read the Olympic media handbook and transportation guides—each one coming in at about 60 pages. This trip to Russia had been locked down for some time, but with the SIA Snow Show and the standard day-to-day keeping us all busy over the past few weeks, I hadn’t made time to fully comprehended what lay in store. The heavy pre-screening in New York was the first wake up call. The sheer size of those handbooks also made it abundantly clear: this is the real deal.
In flight, I also opted to watch Bad Grandpa. I enjoyed it. I laughed. A lot. Yet, I couldn’t help but notice the wandering eyes of those around me. Some of the Russian folk sitting in my general vicinity were watching over my shoulder, likely wondering about this strange American guy (me) who’s very much enjoying the scenes where Grandpa (Johhny Knoxville) enters a male strip club and proceeds to undress, or another where he loads his deceased wife into the trunk of his sedan.
With just minutes to go before touching down at SVO, the fears and questions on my mind included: Will I have adequate access to the athletes, so as to perform my editorial duties? I hear that the competitors are heavily guarded from the media. Will the hotel be OK? Decent water? Will I get pink eye like Bob Costas did? Will I have to poop next to a total stranger? Am I going to get locked away by the Russian customs officials, as I’m transporting a ski bag on behalf of K2, full of brand new sticks pressed for Lyman Currier? The street value of that particular bag certainly may warrant some investigation. Will I go heavy on the vodka, like I did Thursday night of the Snow Show in Denver, and lose another iPhone? Will I be able to watch USA vs. Russia in men’s ice hockey pool play? Will I be attacked by a stray dog?
Excitement trumped those fears, though. Above all, I was excited to see which of the freeskiers, many of them my great friends, would perform under the greatest pressure, on the greatest stage. Having seen (on TV) Sage Kotsenburg and Jamie Anderson earn gold medals in the first ever snowboard slopestyle event at the Olympics, and to see the joy on their faces during the medal ceremonies, I couldn’t help but wonder which of our boys and girls would experience that same feeling.
On the ground in Moscow, I switched airline carriers: Delta to Aeroflot. Thus, I had to retrieve my baggage (one large duffel and two ski bags) and re-check. Lugging the items through the airport proved to be quite a hassle, even with a cart at my disposal. This is where that Old Spice would have come in handy.
I managed to check the bags after a long back-and-forth with a woman who spoke not a lick of English. Once my bags had been tagged, I made my way to a kiosk where I settled up for an overweight baggage fee. I then took the luggage down the hall a stretch to a drop-off spot. By the time I was done, I stank, and I faced a dilemma: do I don the sweatshirt, even though I’ll experience further discomfort? Or do I rock the dress shirt, with pit stains galore, for all to see?
I went with the sweatshirt.
Minutes later, I sat down at Sarah O’Connor’s Irish Pub, across from my gate. I ordered a Carlsberg. Almost immediately after delivering my frosty brew, the server requested that I settle up. I tried to explain, “Once I finish my beer, I’d like to order another.” I’d rather not pay two bills. Yet, communicating this proved to be strangely difficult. Many a hand gesture fell short, too. Alas, I paid the bill. Once I ordered my second beer, the twenty-something Russian smiled, suddenly knowing what it was I wished to convey. I returned the smile, nodding. Quoting a poster that hung on the wall of my fifth grade Geography classroom: “We all smile in the same language.” I paid the next bill and gave him a nice tip.
This being my first visit to Russia, one thing became quickly apparent: folks in these parts don’t speak a whole lot of English.
Before boarding, I saw what was easily the best mullet I’ve come across in recent memory. The red jumpsuit complemented the hair quite well.
I enjoyed an assortment of fish on the flight to Sochi Adler. Out the window, a thick layer of clouds hid the landscape below. Eventually, the clouds broke and I spotted the Black Sea. Then, mountains, and then the city of Sochi.
I saw three military ships. And as we drew near to the airport, I was surprised by the number of bright, colorful homes that dotted the shoreline. I thought back to a show I watched a number of months ago. Not 60 Minutes, but it was 60 Minutes-esque. The report highlighted the massive preparations associated with bringing the Games to Russia. Among the finer details: homes and buildings in the greater Sochi region were given fresh coats of paint. A makeover, if you will.
I landed, retrieved my bags and found my way to the bus, courtesy of the many friendly volunteers that greeted visitors. Their multicolored outfits contrasted against a grey, darkening sky.
It was warm. There were palm trees. Military personnel with dogs. One stray dog, too. “Sochi”-wrapped cars, vans and buses. And the Olympic rings.
I had a coach bus to myself. A “media bus.” There’s TM1, TM2, TM3 … TM13, TM17, TM19 … “Transport Media.” With a media badge comes access to a vast network of buses that shuttle us to and fro. From the “coastal cluster,” as it’s called, to the “mountain cluster,” and everywhere in between.
Note: The coastal cluster, located just outside of Sochi, is home to the Olympic Park. The park unites a handful of sporting venues, all within walking distance of each other: Fisht Olympic Stadium, Bolshoy Ice Dome, Shayba Arena, Adler Arena Skating Center, Iceberg Skating Palace, Ice Cube Curling Center, the Olympic Village and International Broadcasting Center along with the Main Media Center (MMC).
The mountain cluster at Rosa Khutor, in the region of Krasnaya Polyana (45 minutes from the coast, by bus), includes the Laura Cross-Country Ski & Biathlon Center, Sliding Center Sanki, the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center, the RusSki Gorki Jumping Center and the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park—home to slopestyle, halfpipe, moguls and aerials. The Gorki Media Center (GMC), too—a substantially scaled down version of the MMC.
Mr. Nate Abbott and I are shacking up in the mountain cluster. TM17 travels between the airport and the GMC. From there, TM13 travels in a loop to the various hotels at Rosa Khutor. It’s quite convenient, really. Though, we’ve certainly spent a lot of time on buses, of late. I digress…
On the ride up, I soaked in as much as I could. There was a brand new road between Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana. A massive undertaking. The aforementioned television program covered the project extensively. There was a new railway connecting the two hubs, as well. And that same TV show highlighted the miles upon miles of fencing that had been erected along the roadways, in an effort to guise some of the less-than-glamorous homes that line the roadways. I saw those fences, too. Bits and pieces of a 50+ billion dollar venture.
I saw a large billboard, showcasing an attractive blonde, sporting a big, white smile, on a snowboard, grabbing method, with some good ol’ cleavage to boot.
Along the road, police were stationed at nearly every turnout. Beyond the asphalt, police and military patrolled the river, the railway, and the edge of the woods.
Soon, it was dark. My arrival in Sochi was marked by the sight of a massive ski jump, part of the RusSki Gorki Jumping Center, bathed in light. I thought, “Holy shit, that venue is enormous.” Little did I know, it comprised just one very small piece of the mountain cluster pie.
At the GMC, I waved goodbye to TM17, and soon after, TM13 arrived. I checked in a Hotel Valset #4 and greeted Nate, who came to town earlier in the day.
I was pleasantly surprised to arrive to a clean, two-room spot, complete with two bathrooms and a full kitchen. We had booked the hotel room some five months ago. Nothing ritzy, but certainly comfortable. After reading the various horror stories that ran rampant across social media, highlighting reports of unfinished hotel rooms, dirty water and non-functioning toilets, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
I stepped out onto the balcony outside of my bedroom for a look around. There was just enough light to see that, “Oh my, those peaks are enormous.”
Settled, we hopped on TM13 and made for the local Marriot where friends awaited in the lobby. A few beers and a burger later, I slept. Four hours later, I woke.
Barely acquainted with my surroundings, I followed Nate—who’d been here once before—to the gondola, just down the road. The village, with two distinct sides, separated by a river, is at the base of a valley. A handful of gondolas transport folks a few thousand (steep) vertical feet, and at that next plateau, things really open up. The mountains are enormous. 360 degrees. The terrain is quite gnarly. And scattered about, in all directions, are the various venues. Scaffolding monstrosities, massive light stands, the whole nine yards. “It’s like X Games times one million,” I would later say to Nate.
Weary from travel, the excitement of freeskiing’s Olympic debut powered me through the day. As you may or may not have read, Canadian Dara Howell topped the field with an outstanding run, earning herself a gold medal and the ultimate bragging rights. In short: it was a day to remember; I felt lucky to have experienced history in the making. I’ll add: I was bummed not to see the medal ceremony. It was out of the cards, really. Following the contest, the winners are herded to a press conference and from there, shuttled to the coastal cluster, to the Olympic Park, where the awarding of the hardware takes place. Regardless, I was mighty proud of, and so happy for Howell, Devin Logan and Kim Lamarre, who took silver and bronze, respectively. We’ll look to catch up with the ladies in the days to come, for sure—I hope to inquire about their thoughts on all of this Olympic business, now that the reality of earning a medal has likely begun to sink in.
Following the contest, Nate and I posted up in the on-hill media center. Main Media Center, Gorki Media Center, on-hill media center… There are many. Each one teeming with press from across the globe. While sitting in the on-hill media center that day, I overheard one individual from the Associated Press, on the phone in full panic mode, wondering about a scheduling change to the men’s snowboard halfpipe final. Another expressed his anger at having written a lengthy piece on Kaya Turski, anticipating a gold medal performance, or at the very least a podium. Alas, things didn’t go Turski’s way that day.
Hours later, with our work completed, we headed back down to the hotel to clean up. Next, we grabbed pizza and beer at Modus, here in the village. A draft beer runs $10-$15. After that, we joined up with some of the fine ladies and gentlemen of the USSA for beers and vodka at the Golden Tulip—another of the local hotels.
Then, we slept. Five hours later, I woke.
We headed up to the hill, once again, to snap some photos during the men’s slopestyle practice. Check ’em out, here.
In the afternoon, we made the call to hop on TM10, which transported us to the MMC, down at the coastal cluster. We had our sights set on the USA vs. Canada women’s hockey showdown. The beauty of the media badge: it grants you access to all of the various sporting venues.
The downside, as we came to learn this evening, is that seating for media is first come, first serve. So, arriving to a packed house at Shayba Arena, we watched approximately seven seconds of the hockey match before consulting the events schedule. Starting in 20 minutes: men’s 1,000 m speed skating final. So, off to Adler Arena we went, passing the Olympic flame as we walked.
We watched Stefan Groothius of the Netherlands take the win. We also made a pact, going forward, to experience as many of the Olympic events as is possible. As much as we love sitting in the hotel room, banging away on our laptops, it’s good to get out…
Tomorrow, February 13: men’s ski slopestyle. The contest will air via live stream at 1:30 a.m. ET for those of you in the U.S. Follow @LiveExtra on Twitter for details. And, of course, for all the latest on the freeskiing front here in Sochi, stay tuned to freeskier.com/olympics.
‘Twas a rather long rant, as I hope to give you an idea of what we’re working with over here. There is much more to share, but I’ll look to follow up with another similar, blog-like post in the days to come. If you have any questions about any of the ongoings, or re: the differences between the mountain and coastal clusters, feel free to post ’em in the comments section below. We’ll get back to you as time allows.
For now, I’ll grab some much needed rest. In three hours, I wake.