Russia is different.
I have always thought that if were a foreigner flying to the United States, customs was a most unwelcoming and frustrating first experience of this country. Getting into the EU, on the other hand, is super easy and they seem to actually want you to be there. Going to Russia is like going to the United States. You have to fill out a lengthy application and they want to know everything about you. When you get there you have to recheck all of your bags and recheck-in for your next flight. When you are on a 20 person team and every one of you has at least 4 bags at or above 50lbs, this is no easy task. The trip took a while, but we made it.
One of my first experiences of Russia was quite funny. My teammates and I were all sitting at the back of the plane, waiting to disembark in Sochi. Our wheelchairs had not come up to the plane yet so we inquired to the steward if they were going to come up to the plane at all. He pauses for a moment, looks out the door of the plane, looks back at us, and with a slight frown says “I will ask, but this is Russia.” (Where did they go? Siberia?)
We stayed in this completely manufactured village called Rosa Khutor that consists of nothing but giant hotels and a sewage infested river running through the middle. The nearest real town is about 30 minutes down the valley. There is construction going on all along the valley, 24/7, and I have never seen so many dump trucks and concrete mixers in one place.
The security situation in this area is intense. Sochi is just barely north of the Georgian border, which Russia invaded a few years ago over a dispute about Russians living in several regions bordering Russia. This did not go well for Georgia, so they are not exactly friends. Chechnya, a republic of Russia, is a few hundred kilometers to the east, and Russia has had to quell several uprisings over the past few decades. Due to all of this one can see not just the police everywhere, but the army, too. The ski area is accessed by one gondola and you are only allowed to go up there on the days you are racing, so freeskiing is not possible. You also need to pass through full airport-like security run by guards who have no sense of humor and are not allowed to smile. The skiing looks like it would be great and the mountain is huge and steep, but the chances of running into hidden machine gun nests and razor wire are rather higher than your average ski area.
The downhill is awesome. We ran down the men’s downhill which has all sorts of cool terrain features, including steeps, flats, fall-away turns, and a real jump! We don’t often have jumps in our downhills because there are some disability classes that are not well suited to flying through the air, or so I have been told. I saw all the disability classes go down the course and they did just fine, with no one class crashed more than the other. The track was a ton of fun and if you ran it correctly you were in the air for quite some time. Due to very soft snow and warm weather, we ran the only training run of the downhill and the first race on the same day. Normally a downhill takes two days of training and one day of racing. I ended up winning the race because of a perfect combination of a bumpy track, technical turns, and a jump I was not at all afraid of going full speed on. The next day we had another downhill and my teammate, Chris Devlin-Young, won. It bodes well for next year.
The next day it started to rain. We were supposed to run a super-combined but the track go too soft and the visibility was too bad so we just ran a slalom. In the slalom I was top ten in the first run and easily within striking distance for the podium. In my second run I skied some of the best slalom I have ever skied, but I went too straight into a flush just before the finish and flipped over the wrong side of the last few gates. This has been a pattern the whole year, but I know that once I get my consistency, I will crush slaloms.
At the end of this World Cup season I ended up third in the giant slalom standings and I won the speed events globe (we don’t have enough races to do separate globes for downhill and super-g, and a crystal globe is the first place prize of any world cup overall category). Overall it wasn’t a bad year, but I have the skills to be the best.
Thanks to all my sponsors for helping me through another season. Nike, Starz Entertainment, Aspen Seating, POC and Enabling Technologies make it happen!
Here are some pictures!