Before I begin, I want to send a huge shout out to my teammates that held down the fort for the Mesa and Crested Butte races. You represented our team extremely well and continued to throw down incredible results while we were in Kazakhstan. This was without coaches Christi and Rachel or half of your team and I am incredibly proud and impressed by all of you.
Describing my time in Kazakhstan is an experience I can’t fully convey to you with words and pictures but I believe that it is worth a try for the readers of this blog. I will offer a warning in advance that this post is long and sappy. As a senior in my last season on the team, I feel a few “senior moments” coming on and hope you enjoy reading this post half as much as I enjoyed writing it. In the middle of our trip, Christi and Rachel challenged us to sum up the experience in a word. For me, it was “Dreamlike.” This was my third time competing in the World University Games and it was hands down the best.
|USA Team Scoping Out the Alatau Cross Country Skiing and Biathlon Complex|
I am embarrassed to say I knew very little about Kazakhstan before arriving in the country but found it to be a fascinating place once I arrived. The games were based out of the city of Almaty which is the country’s largest city with over 1.7 million people calling it home. The city is a hub of Eurasian culture and has served as a diverse crossroads for people from all over the world throughout history. This was initially fueled by its prominence as a stop on the historic Silk Road and today still functions as a financial and trade center for the region. This is just one factor that makes Almaty a city of stark contrast. Almaty saw both the good and bad times of the Soviet Union resulting in a clash of modern and soviet architecture that is often found side by side. The juxtaposition that hit me the hardest, was the incredible beauty of the landscape side by side with the worst pollution I have ever experienced. Due to the dirtier gasoline, lower emissions regulations on power plants, and many people burning wood and coal to heat their homes, the city is almost always blanketed in a thick layer of smog. If you think Salt Lake City is bad in the winter, it’s got nothing on Almaty. It wasn’t uncommon to lose sight of the beautiful 15,000-foot tall peaks just south of the city through the haze. At its worse, you could hardly see from one building to the next. In a year where I have been focused on the sustainability of skiing with decreasing snowpack, my thoughts turned to air quality as the sound of coughing range through the athlete's village. In the United States, we are privileged to not have to worry about this as much. However, after living in a thick cloud of smog for two weeks, and having multiple teammates deal with health issues, it is clear that the issues combating skiers globally are more extensive than having enough snow.
|The mountains of Almaty on a "clear day"|
Despite the poor air quality, the city and its people were incredible and made for some truly memorable experiences. The US Consulate in Almaty was very involved with the whole USA Team and not only hosted a party at the Ritz Carlton in our honor but took a day to show us around the city. My highlight from this was a gondola ride to the top of a hill, near the city center, with a view from the top that was stunning. We also took a tour of the Almaty’s cultural site which notably included a beautiful Russian orthodox church, the cities largest museum, and the Green Market. This was an Asian market where bartering was the standard and you could find everything from traditional and modern clothing to sheep horn bows to freshly butchered horse meet. Very few people spoke English at the market and while trying to communicate with some salesmen about their dried fruit, I had one of the funnier interactions of my trip. After communicating I was American a group of vendors laughed and said, “No, you Russian” and pointed at my rosy cheeks. This continued to happen throughout the market with laughs and smiles from the vendors. I guess my rosy cheeks make me a Russian. Smiling was not uncommon while in Kazakhstan as I probably say more smiles per capita than I have anywhere else in the world. This was especially prevalent when we were walking the streets in our USA gear. There is one day in particular that highlights this for me. We were exploring an expo for traditional Kazakh culture and were in the back of a crowd of a couple hundred people watching a musical performance. They had invited some of the kids to come up on stage and dance. Quickly after the performers saw us, we were motioned onto the stage to come join. After a moment of hesitation, our group ran up on stage and danced with the kids for a song. When the song ended, the band grabbed our hands and said something to the effect of “American Friends.” The crowd went wild and as we stepped off the stage, a crowd formed around us for pictures and autographs. I have never in my life felt that level of fame. In the fray of picture taking, I received two firm butt squeezes from older Kazakh women, and ended up being handed a women’s young baby. After the picture was taken, I handed the baby back its mother and she told me “thank you” tears in her eyes. This only lasted for a second as another group grabbed my arm for a picture. Fame of that magnitude was unreal is something I am grateful I got to experience for a few days and not my entire life.
|Checking out the speed skating rink|
In the whirlwind of experiences that these games offered, my strongest memories will be from the people I met. We spent about three hours on the bus to the venue every day which allowed for some great conversations. In trying to channel the social prowess of my teammates Britta Schroeter and Taylor Vignaroli, I ended up forming friendships with a number of athletes and volunteers from Canada, Germany, Italy, Norway, China, Belarus, Australia, and Kazakhstan among others. I hope some of these will last into the future. While some of my interactions were two-hour conversations that I hope to never forget, others were far less traditional. This was highlighted by an interaction I had with an athlete from Belarus. While riding the bus up to the venue on the day of the relay races, a woman I had interacted with that week was sitting in front of me. She knew a few words of English and greeted my teammates and I with, “American Boy, American Girl” in a thick Russian accent and a big smile. That day she had not acknowledged us yet as it was early morning and the sun had only just begun to rise. I was having a conversation with my long-time teammate Yara Thomas (we have skied together since middle school) when, without looking back, the women from Belarus extended her hand toward me. At first, I thought she was just stretching but her hand remained for an uncomfortably long time and eventually Yara and I, perplexed, stopped talking. She looked over her shoulder and pointed her finger, not directly at me, and paused. Still perplexed, I did nothing. Five long seconds later she tapped my leg and I grabbed her hand. I received a strong squeeze from a surprisingly soft hand that lasted for a solid three seconds but felt like a lifetime. Still not looking at me, she released my hand and the sounds of the bus flooded back into my ears. I was the last time I interacted with her but later that day she anchored her relay to fourth. I guess she just needed a squeeze.
Within the USA nordic team, we had the pleasure of athletes from UW, Western State, St. Olaf, Colorado Mesa, the Airforce Academy, and OSU representing the country. While the qualification process for the games is hard to explain here, the athletes that represented the US were essentially an all-star team from the 2016 USCSA National Championships that were held in Lake Placid. This is different than in the past as UW had been the sole representative at the 2015, 2013, and 2011 World University Games. While I wish all my teammates could have been at these games, a mixed team added to the experience immensely. Getting to know the people we race against all season on a deeper level turned acquaintances into friends as we became the USA Team. It also generated the best cross country results that the USA has had since the USCSA has sent a team to the event. I hope this continues well into the future.
Of course in all of this, there was racing. I skied four of the six events including the 10km classic, 10km skate pursuit, 1.6km classic sprint, and the 30km classic. The venue of Alatau is incredible with ideal classic striding climbs and technical hairpin turns. The field was incredibly fast and contained world cup caliber racers from many nations. The highlight of my week of racing, and potentially my entire ski career, was the 30km classic mass start. The race was six 5km laps and two nights before the race we were informed a lapping rule would be in effect. This essentially meant if we got lapped by the front pack, we would be pulled from the race. This led a good number of racers to not even start the race but, I saw it as a challenge I wanted to pursue. As one of my Canadian friends said, “Why not give it a whack when you have flown half way around the world to be here?” The race started a bit fast for my taste l but I knew that it would be essential to keep moving fast to ensure I did not get lapped. With this in mind, I skied an aggressive race through lap four. I had entered the zone and was catching a number of skiers that had strung out in front of me. Entering lap five, Coach Christi’s voice broke through screaming, “It’s going to be tight, you gotta go!” I kicked it into the fastest gear I could muster after 20km of aggressive racing as I felt the lead pack on my tails. As I entered the stadium the crowd roared, and it wasn’t for me. Just a quarter of a kilometer back, the leaders with duking it out for the win on their final lap. I entered the lap lane and hammered through the stadium glancing back to see the top three racers entering the final straight away. I had narrowly avoided getting lapped and had completely exhausted myself doing so. The racers I had been chasing started to slip away but I continued to push. I entered the stadium for the final time as the last racer allowed to finish. The crowd erupted into a roar and I thought, “That can’t possibly be for me.” Glancing around I realized it was and I hammered the final straight away. Three meters from the finish I stood up, blew a kiss to the crowd, and waved as I crossed the finish line. I will never forget that moment.
To finish this off, I just wanted to shout out a few thank yous. A huge thank you is due to the over 3000 student volunteers that made the event possible. Everyone volunteer I talked to had their own incredible story that I simply do not have the space or time to describe here. Without them, the games would not have been possible and they did it without receiving any monetary compensation. I would also like the thank BTI Events for getting us to the games, offering logistical support, and enabling so many young American athletes to compete on the world stage. To our coaching staff, Christi Boggs, Rachel Watson, Tom Jorgenson, Isaiah St. Pierre, Sindre Solvang and Kyle Bochanski, I am forever in your debt as, without you, this simply would never have happened. Finally, thank you to all of those who supported the athletes both from back in the US both financially and emotionally. This event wasn’t free and it wasn’t easy and we are forever thankful for your support.