TRUCKEE, Calif. — More than three decades after America boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics, Jonathan Sass is back in Russia.
The Truckee resident arrived in Sochi last week to begin a month-long stay as one of 25,000 volunteers for the 2014 Winter Olympics, working on the Alpine course prep team at Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort.
“I’m getting better every hour,” Sass said via a Skype interview this past weekend. “This is sort of the next chapter of how I will use my Russian language.”
Chapter One began 34 years ago, when Sass, a recent college graduate with a degree in Russian, traveled to the then-Soviet Union for a job lined up at the 1980 Games in Moscow.
When the U.S. (among many countries) skipped the Games due to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Sass came home, and he thought he’d have to let his dream go forever.
“Things don’t always work out as one hopes,” he recalled.
RETURNING TO RUSSIA
Thirty-two years later, Sass read about Truckee local Sasha Newmann’s work organizing volunteer training programs in Russia in preparation for the 2014 Games.
“When I saw (the Games) were in Sochi, I thought, ‘I can do this,’” Sass said. “I get a chance to revisit a dream of mine — how amazing is it that most times in life things like this are a one time shot, and I get to do it again?”
Sass contacted Newmann and began connecting with others involved in the Games.
“That was the start of my quest,” he said. “I was determined to figure out a way to be here.”
The father of two devoted the years that followed to studying, interviewing and contacting whoever he could to find a way back to Russia.
He spoke with Olympic sponsors and marketing companies, all the way to the head of the Olympic Committee.
“I basically contacted everyone on the planet that I could think of that had anything to do with anything,” he said.
Through the process, Sass and Newmann formed a friendship, and it was her connections with Anton Lopukhin, director of the volunteer center for the 2014 Games, that helped Jonathan secure a position last October.
“He’s been very thankful,” Newmann said.
Newmann worked in 2010 teaching Service Learning in Russia, an education method that is based in community service.
“The Olympics represent that passion within all of us to achieve our dreams,” said Newmann, referring both to her dream to teach Service Learning and Sass’ journey back to the Games. “That hope and keeping that fire alive — these athletes represent that, and Jonathan gets to be 20 feet away from them, laying the foundation for them to perform.”
‘I’M AN AMBASSADOR’
With the 2014 Winter Olympics ready to begin Feb. 6, Sass is working 12-hour shifts, six days a week, on the slopes at Rosa Khutor, 40 minutes outside of Sochi.
He said he hopes to find time to see some events and also meet with his Russian Skype partner, who he met last fall to practice Russian conversation.
Celebrating his 57th birthday in Sochi, alongside volunteers from all over the world, will be a highlight of Sass’ experience, he said. Forty-five hundred volunteers are from outside of Russia, and only 5 percent are older than 30.
Sass considers himself a traveler and said that meeting people and sharing cultures happens every day in Sochi.
“They feed us, they house us, we all have group dinners,” he said. “I love the camaraderie of meeting travelers. In a sense I’m am ambassador for the U.S.”
Sass plans to return after closing ceremonies in late February. His teenage daughters — Rebecca, 14, and Eliana, 12 — look forward to his arrival, especially with souvenirs from the Games.
“They certainly are hoping to get all of the swag that I’ll bring home,” he said with a laugh. “They’re already fighting over who gets my uniform hat.”
— Jenny Luna is a freelance reporter for the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza and Sierra Sun newspapers. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“How amazing is it that most times in life things like this are a one time shot, and I get to do it again?”
Jonathan Sass, Truckee