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To Russia and back


Looking back on the experience of a lifetime


by Joshua Spaulding
Sports Editor - Granite State News, Carroll County Independent, Meredith News, Gilford Steamer, Winnisquam Echo, Plymouth Record-Enterprise and Baysider

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THIS IS ME, checking out The Baysider (one of our Salmon Press publications) near the Laura Cross-Country and Biathlon Center in the mountains outside Sochi, Russia. Courtesy Photo. (click for larger version)
March 31, 2014
WOLFEBORO — As this goes to press, it's approaching two months since I boarded a flight at Boston's Logan Airport with the eventual destination of Sochi, Russia with a gig covering the 2014 Winter Olympics.

While I wrote numerous stories while I was there and posted blog posts every day, I thought it was a good time to look back on the trip of a lifetime and hit on some of the things that made this trip so memorable.

Flights

I hadn't flown an international flight since I went to Europe at the end of 2001, so I have to admit I was a little apprehensive and concerned that things would go smoothly.

A week before I left for Russia, I made a quick trip to California and back and experienced two cancelled flights and another delayed flight.

Thanks to the hard work of Kitty at Wolfeboro Travel, I had a solid itinerary in hand. My connection times were all an hour or more, but the first one (in Paris) was the shortest, at just more than an hour.

After the trying experience a week earlier with delayed and cancelled flights, I was a little worried, but we landed in Paris early and I had no problem making my way through the airport from one gate to another.

The next obstacle that concerned me was in Moscow. All my luggage had to clear customs in Moscow and then I had to go from the international terminal to the domestic terminal to catch the flight to Sochi.

As I got off the plane in Moscow and headed toward the customs area, there appeared young women carrying "Sochi accredited" signs. They directed us to the proper customs desk and once through, there was another group of girls that led us to our baggage and then on from one terminal to the other. This was truly the first blessing of this trip. It was a long way between terminals and I don't know that I would've found my way easily.

And on the way back, it was exactly the same thing, as there was a group of young women to lead us from the domestic terminal to the international terminal and our connecting flights.

And through all the flights, there was not one single cancellation or delay. It's hard to believe that flying internationally was easier than flying domestically.

Accommodations

Less than a week before I left for Russia, I began getting tons of e-mails and Facebook posts, as people started sharing the horror stories about their rooms in Russia. There were stories of journalists arriving to find their hotels weren't finished being built yet. Others had brown water spouting from their sinks and showers.

Needless to say, I was just a little nervous. But I didn't run into a single problem like that in my two-plus weeks in Russia. My hotel was complete, the elevator worked, the hot water worked (and it was clear), the electricity worked and the sheets were clean.

Now, I'm not saying I drank the water straight from the tap. I didn't. But, that's fairly normal for me if I'm at a hotel in a city.

And I'm also not saying it was 100 percent perfect either. There was one morning with no hot water and the checkout process was a real pain in the butt, as they kept trying to figure out how much I owed them (we had to pay all of these charges in advance of making the trip). But overall, the experience I had was nothing like the horror stories I was hearing before I left.

I will say, that one of the women I saw regularly at the alpine events did have some of those issues, as her hotel wasn't complete when she arrived. But she got upgraded to a better situation.

Food

This is one of the things I get asked about the most, probably because it appears that food is a very large part of my life.

And it was a mixed bag. It was obvious that the media center food court was working to try and make the food palatable to people from many different places. There was an Italian stand that served pizza and pasta. There was a grill that served chicken and pork kabobs. There was a quick food stand that served hot dogs and sandwiches. There was a sushi stand that served raw fish and the like.

I don't like to try new foods. I like what I like and I tend to stay with it. But I did have to spread my wings a little bit. I tried the pizza one of the first few days I was there and it was nothing like I am used to. I wouldn't eat sushi or hot dogs in the United States, so I certainly wasn't eating them in Russia. The grill area was the one that I frequented the most. While there was very little beef, the chicken and pork kabobs were pretty good and they always had different kinds of rice to go with it.

The venue media centers were a little different. They didn't offer quite as much variety and the food tended to be not quite as good, simply because at the venues they were operating out of what seemed to be portable kitchens.

Strangely enough, the one spot where I found pizza I enjoyed was in the food carts located throughout Olympic Park. They had plain cheese pizza that actually tasted like the plain cheese pizza I eat at home.

The other issue I had was the issue of salads. I eat salad every day for lunch (I know, it doesn't really show), but in Russia it seemed almost impossible to find a decent salad. The only place that could answer the call was McDonald's.

McDonald's was located in the bottom floor of the Main Media Center. It had a limited menu, but on that menu was the chicken Caesar salad. I decided a number of years ago to stop going to McDonalds, Burger King and the like, but after almost a week with no real salad consumption to speak of, I broke my own rule and stopped under the golden arches.

I'm not going to lie. I bought chicken nuggets and strawberry shakes at times as well. But I stayed away from the cheeseburgers that I used to devour. And since I've been back, I've managed to keep away from McDonald's.

On a related note, since Coke is a major Olympic sponsor, the only sodas around were Coke products, of which I am not a huge fan. I got by with Fanta orange and an occasional Sprite, but as soon as I found Pepsi coolers in the airports, I was happy. And my first stop after getting off the plane in Boston was at a convenience store for a Mountain Dew.

People

Heading into this experience, I think there was a little preconceived notion of what Russian people would be like, but that first experience in the Moscow airport eased my mind a bit and that continued throughout the trip.

Almost everyone I came in contact with knew enough English to help me and if they didn't, they knew where to direct me to someone who did. The volunteers (who weren't all Russian) were fantastic in regards to helping me find my way around. And I have to admit, they put up with a lot of crap from a lot of different people and I was impressed with how they handled themselves.

The tech crew in the Main Media Center came through when I was struggling to get my Internet working at times and that was a big help to me.

The one "different" situation I had in dealing with people came while I was riding a late night bus from the mountains to the coast. Just before we went through the security checkpoint, the bus driver stopped and opened the doors, right in the middle of the road and started speaking in Russian. Luckily, a guy in the front of the bus was able to translate for us, telling us all to get off the bus, though they never really told us why. It actually happened again before I left and I never really figured out why. Luckily we weren't very far from the Main Media Center when they dropped us off.

I also met tons of people from around the world there covering the games. It was interesting to see how veterans of the Olympics handled things and how they did their jobs. It was also interesting to talk to people who cover each event throughout the year. I found this especially interesting when it came to alpine skiing, because they offered some great insight into how each athlete had performed leading up to the Olympics.

But perhaps the person who was the most help to me was Dan Egan. A freestyle skiing icon and a resident of Campton, Dan found me on the first night I was there, at the women's moguls event. Newfound ski coach Garlyn Manganiello had mentioned to Dan that I would be there and he found the guy in the Red Sox hat (which got more comments than anything else).

Dan was instrumental in helping me get through those first few days. He was working for the boston.com, but he had tons of contacts with people throughout the skiing world, which was a big help. He let me know which people had local ties that I may not have been aware of and he even found a couple of guys from Loon Mountain who were there working ski patrol and I was able to get a good story out of it.

I was incredibly grateful for all of Dan's help while I was there. It gave me a whole different perspective on things.

Additionally, I got the chance to talk to many athletes and they were all more than accommodating. The thrill for me, however, was getting the chance to see Leanne Smith and Sean Doherty compete and talking to them after their competitions. These were kids that I covered in high school, now competing at the highest level. It was pretty awesome.

Transportation

The sheer number of buses in and around Sochi was just incredible. The buses came and went from both the Main Media Center and the Gorki Media Center (in the mountain cluster) every couple of minutes. And those were just the media buses. There were tons of spectator buses and other buses for athletes. And I was incredibly impressed with how the bus drivers handled getting these large buses up and down the narrow mountain roads leading to the alpine and extreme park venues.

I spent a lot of time on the bus and for the most part, I was able to either get work done or get some sleep, so I made the most of the trips.

And, out of all the many, many trips I took, the driver got lost just once. I guess that was bound to happen.

Looking back

While there certainly were some things that weren't 100 percent complete when the Games started, that can't be said about the venues. Those were incredible and I had the chance to see them all.

My first full day in Sochi was Saturday, Feb. 8, and after getting things set up in the Main Media Center, I made my way to the mountains, where I saw my first venue, the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, which was actually two separate venues. I saw the first men's snowboard slopestyle competition and then the women's moguls competition.

My second full day I was supposed to head out to the men's downhill, but I overslept and didn't make it in time to see Bode Miller's run. The Rosa Khutor Alpine Center is located across a large ravine from the extreme park and was truly impressive. There were four different trails leading into the finish area. While most of the courses aren't lit, the slalom area did feature lights, which they used later in the competition.

From there I made my way down out of the mountains to the Gorki Media Center and then back up to the Laura Cross Country and Biathlon Center. This area was accessible only by cableway and was high on a mountain top. Stepping off the cableway was like stepping into a whole other world. It was just stunningly gorgeous, surrounded by snow-capped mountain. I was able to see Thornton's Kris Freeman in the Skiathlon and then continued on to the Sanki Sliding Center (after a cableway ride and two more bus rides), where I saw men's luge. These types of events were the ones I was looking forward to seeing, since it's not something you can see on a regular basis.

I tried to keep my Monday schedule to a minimum so I could get the papers all sorted and ready for publication. So Monday, March 10, I had just one event, the women's super combined, which I took in at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center and watched Conway's Leanne Smith open up her second Olympics.

On Tuesday, March 11, I took a little time in the morning to walk from my hotel down to the Black Sea. The clouds obscured most of the mountains, but there were still plenty of views to take in.

I then took the bus up into the mountains for my first event at the RusSki Gorki ski jumping center, where Sarah Hendrickson, the daughter of two Plymouth High graduates, was competing in the first-ever women's Olympic ski jumping competition.

Wednesday, March 12, I got to watch the women's downhill and then made my way back to the coast for my first trip into Olympic Park, which was located right next to the Main Media Center. I saw the US and Canada battle in women's hockey inside Shayba Arena, my first indoor action of the Olympics. I also received a few messages that I made the TV broadcast of that game, as the media section was right behind where the US men were sitting.

On Thursday, Feb. 13, I checked out the Shayba Arena again, as the US men's hockey team opened its Olympics against Zdeno Chara and Slovakia. My plan that night was to hit up the men's figure skating short program, but I forgot to reserve a special ticket (only certain events needed them), so that didn't happen.

Friday brought another trip to the alpine center, this time for men's super combined and I moved on over the extreme park for women's aerials to close out the night.

On Saturday, Feb. 15, I saw Leanne wrap up her Olympics in the super-G and then took advantage of the many cableways in the mountains, killing some time with a nice ride down out of the mountains and a walk through the village of Rosa Khutor. I then hit up the Sanki Sliding Center again, this time for a little skeleton action.

Sunday brought another trip to the alpine center for men's super-G and there was also another trip to the sliding center for men's bobsled.

On Monday, Feb. 17, I hit up the IceCube Curling Center for the US women in action, but I couldn't take my eyes off the Russian and Great Britain teams competing right next to the US. It was back up to the ski jumping center later in the evening for the men's team event.

Tuesday, Feb. 18, was a trying day. I stood in the rain for the first run of women's giant slalom and in the process, my camera got wet. I made my way back to the coast to catch short track speedskating, long track speedskating and more hockey and the camera stopped working. I was able to check out short track in the Iceberg Skating Palace and long track in the Adler Arena before heading to the Bolshoy Ice Dome (the bigger of the two hockey venues) for men's action between Switzerland and Latvia. These were my only trips to each of those three venues during my time in Sochi.

Wednesday, Feb. 19, I saw the men's giant slalom and on Thursday, Feb. 20, I saw Nordic combined at the ski jumping center and women's skiing halfpipe under the lights at the extreme park.

Friday, Feb. 21, was the final trip to the alpine center, this time to see Julia Ford of Holderness in the slalom. And Saturday, Feb. 22, was my final trip into the mountains, as I made my way to the biathlon center to watch Sean Doherty of Conway compete in the relay event.

Sunday, Feb. 23, was my final day in Sochi and I spent the day in the Main Media Center, wrapping up the week's papers and preparing for departure.

The experience

This was a once in a lifetime experience, something I will never forget and something I never imagined I'd be doing. I am incredibly grateful to everyone that helped make this experience possible. Without your help, this never would've happened and I am eternally grateful.

Sometimes, when I am sitting in the office doing work, I think back and remember that I was at the Olympics. It still seems like something that happened to someone else.

And the true magnificence of it all can't really be described on these pages. It was an experience to treasure and remember forever.

Joshua Spaulding can be reached at 569-3126 or sportsgsn@salmonpress.com

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