That fireball seen winging across the Russian skies may just be a winter athlete from South Lake Tahoe.
Halfway across the world, hometown favorites Maddie Bowman, Kyle Smaine and Whitney Gardner arrived in Rosa Khutor, Russia, for a combined Freeski and Freestyle World Cup test of next year's Olympic venue. While Sochi is the official name of the upcoming Winter Games, the ski venues are 70 miles away at Rosa Khutor - a geographical tidbit not made clear to most of the visiting athletes.
For most of the competitors, simply the trip to Russia was an attraction; and despite the distance, with email and social media, these athletes were rarely far from friends and family.
Whitney Gardner, age 18 and a Tahoe native, was selected last year for the newly formed US Ski Cross team. She travels with her older brother, RJ, who serves as her coach and technician. The two have logged some serious miles, traveling to competitions across the US, Germany and Switzerland. Last week, the Gardners made the long trek to Russia.
"I'm a little confused as to how this is the 'winter' Olympic location," Whitney Gardner said via email. "There are palm trees ... I don't get it. We should be heading up to the mountain tomorrow, but organization here is not exactly on point, so we'll see when we actually get up there."
Closer to Sochi is the Coastal Cluster, where the ice events and main media center are located. The Mountain Cluster holds the Alpine Center, Extreme Park, X-C Center, mountain village for athletes and another media village. After traveling to the Mountain Cluster at Rosa Khutor, the Gardners saw how little snow existed and how much work is still needed.
"So far Russia has been lots of waiting, lots of stern faces, and some of the craziest terrain I have ever seen. To get on the gondola every morning we go through security. Yep, security ... the full bag scan, metal detector and pat down. It's pretty wild. Up on the hill there are armed guards all over the place and even a few snipers. Since Russia was recently in a war with Georgia, which is just on the other side of the mountains, they have snipers at the top of the mountain," Whitney explained via her blog.
"There is so much construction going on everywhere, I have no idea how they are going to get everything done in a year. The venue is really cool though. There is a finish for moguls, aerials, and half pipe. Then the finish for ski cross, border cross and slopestyle also meet. The ski and border cross start together and finish together, but they separate and intertwine through the middle section, which is sweet."
In a Skype call, Kelly Gardner said, "my daughter says there's plenty of snow at the top of the hill, but not much down at the bottom. RJ says they're doing something he's never seen before. They're drilling into what little snow they have at the bottom and plugging it with dry ice, trying to keep it as cold as possible."
Based on his own world points ranking in the halfpipe, Kyle Smaine, 21, told the Tribune, "I got my last-minute invite only two weeks prior to the event. So making all the necessary travel plans was hectic, but I'm so glad I was able to make it happen. It was an amazing experience. The mountains, and people and culture here in Russia are so different than in the US and most other European countries. Being able to see everything in person was great."
After finishing 30th in his event, the Heavenly-sponsored skier reported, "Weather conditions on the contest day were less than ideal, to say the least. They've been having an unusually warm winter here so the venues were extremely soft and lacking snow. On top of that, the morning we competed there was a heavy rain/snow mixture coming down, but that's part of competing in a winter sport. I skied pretty well for the conditions, but didn't do as well as I would have liked."
Despite the lack of snow and warm temperatures, average winter temps are 52 degrees, the women's halfpipe went off with few hitches. Halfpipe skier Maddie Bowman, 19, has been on fire all winter, winning the two previous World Cup contests. She scored a disappointing 11th at the Russian Extreme Park, falling on each run of what is being deemed a fairly gnarly pipe.
After landing back in the states, Bowman spoke of her Russian experience, saying, "it was amazing. I'm definitely a little disappointed with my results, but just in myself. We got to do some actual skiing over there and it was awesome. It reminded me why we do this sport. The mountains there are simply amazing. But the people, while nice enough, are really serious and we had to go through some crazy security check points. I honestly think it's more than our TSA does."
Despite wet, soggy snow conditions, all the athletes came back with the same goal. "Overall, it was a great experience, and it has motivated me even more so I can come back next winter for the 2014 Winter Olympics," Smaine said.