Somewhere around 3:15 a.m. on the morning I was to leave Sochi, I found myself dancing with a Cossack woman at a small, private party hosted by a Russian oligarch and being plied with shot glasses filled with a clear liquid that had the kick of jet fuel. Certainly not what I expected in the days before I arrived here to cover the Winter Games.
Back then, I’d gotten all caught up in the dark paranoia surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics. Everyone around me had, too. When saying goodbye to my two kids before my fight, they were both fighting back tears. I caught my 13-year-old daughter taking pictures of me. Neither of us wanted to admit it, but we both knew why. She – and her brother – thought I might not be coming back.
But on this last night, I didn’t want to leave Sochi. (Sorry kids. Except to see you guys, of course!)
For two weeks, I got to rub shoulders with countless athletes – from a dejected Bode Miller after his initial poor showing (he later won bronze in the Super-G), to the elated silver medalists in women’s bobsled – most of whom were enjoying the peak of their careers. “I’ve won so many different competitions and championships,” gold medal freestyle skier David Wise told me. “But winning here is something on a whole different level. It really feels like the whole world was watching.”
It was. And the Games went off without a hitch. The temperatures could have been colder, but my hotel room was cleaner than my place back home and even had a heated towel rack. The Russians I’d met were beyond friendly, the food (I ate mostly fish, including this familiar American preparation) was good, the beer and vodka even better. My biggest gripe is that I schlepped my skis, boots and poles halfway around the planet with the intention of carving some turns in the Russian snow. Yet when I dragged my gear up into the mountains on my one day off, I was curtly informed, “Mountain closed. Come back other time, yes.”
Hours later, not long after embarrassing myself on a dance floor with a Cossack women, I was talking with one of Russia’s richest men while spooning out dollops of caviar onto small pancakes. Oleg Deripaska is an intense, surprisingly down-to-earth guy who invested over $1.3 billion dollars of his own money into developing Sochi and most recently bankrolled efforts to save the area’s stray dogs. He seemed honestly interested in hearing about my experiences in his country. When I told him about my skiing misadventure, he shook his head slowly, looking as dumbfounded as I was about why the region’s prized new ski area would inexplicably close when scores of foreign skiers had come to sample the terrain.
“You will come back to Sochi and ski,” Deripaska said, shortly before I high-tailed it to the city s airport (that he had built), in time to catch my Aeroflot jet back to L.A.
Sounds crazy, but I’m going to try to do just that.