About a week before we left for Sochi, we met with a friend from the U.S. Olympic Committee. We had been asked to assist with sponsors while we were at the Games, to sit with them at some of the events and to explain the figure skating team event to guests new to the sport. I found that particularly entertaining since we had no clue ourselves, but we figured after 24 years, we could probably "wing it," as my mother would say. In trade for our assistance, we were given some Olympic swag, including Team USA flags, American flags and Team USA lanyards. Like rare Olympic pins, some lanyards are coveted collectibles. Having a Team USA lanyard is considered a major score.
It was now late morning of our first day in Sochi. Armed with tickets, lanyards and only about four hours sleep, we were headed to our first foray at Olympic Park. It was practice day for the men's individual events. That night, the team freeskate was taking place. It was a "first" and being Team USA hosts, we didn't want to miss it.
There were two ways to get to the Coastal Cluster from our hotel. First, there was the train. Located nearly 2 miles from where we were staying, this didn't seem like the practical option. Not only was it a "healthy" walk requiring actual planning time, it also meant another layer of security to go through at the station. Since we had arrived late the night before, we did not have our credentials or our required Spectator Pass - a mini passport that was needed for entry into every Olympic venue; we only had our event tickets. That, alone, did nothing; the Spectator Pass was the key element.
The second, and seemingly easier transportation option, was to take the bus. We had been advised in advance that this was not only closer, a mere 3/4 mile uphill from the Zhem, but the buses required virtually nothing in order to board - something we found true four years earlier in Vancouver. The directions to the stop were simple: Left out the hotel door, down the stairs to the waterfront; left again and up the stairs to the park, then up a long hill to the stop across the street from the Hotel Svetlana. Simple enough.
Of course, after finally getting to sleep at 3AM, we were late. Practice ice was at 3PM but we needed the coveted Spectator Pass first, something we had applied for on line weeks before and that included all our personal information and a copy of our most recent passport pictures. We knew there were varying locations to retrieve the passes, but as we were only two hours away from practice ice and 40 minutes from the park by bus, we decided to get to the park. After all, how bad could it be? we'd paid for the passes; we had our tickets. It shouldn't take long to get the passes and get going.
Hopping on the B3, we were finally headed off for our first official Olympic adventure. We were tired, but the anticipation of seeing the park and the venues had buoyed our spirits. We were armed with our Team USA lanyards, our tickets for the Team Freeskate event; we were ready to roll. There was just one SMALL problem: The tickets for that afternoon's practice ice were nowhere to be found. In our haste to get out of the hotel, find the bus and head out on the 40 minute trek to Adler from Sochi, one little thing had been overlooked - other than no coffee, no food and no bottled water. The practice ice tickets were sitting on the dresser in the hotel room.
With no internet service available, we had to rely on my phone data. A quick text was sent to our wonderful USFS skating contact who had taken such good care of us the night before. My statement was brief: We're jet-lagged and absentminded. We were on our way to the park and might she POSSIBLY have two extra tickets to practice? Fortunately, after a delay that seemed like forever, the answer that came back was yes.
One crisis averted.
The recorded announcement on the bus said " Sleduyushchaya ostanovka Olimpiyskiy Park." "The next stop, Olympic Park." For us, that meant find the booth, pick up our spectator passes and walk right in.
Unlike Vancouver, where all the venues were scattered throughout the city, Sochi Olympic Park is a massive and enclosed area, reminding me of a Russian Fabergé egg - ornately jeweled on the outside but with little to no hint of what was encased within. Signs were in Russian with other languages printed in seeming mouse type just two shades lighter than the background paint of the billboards. We asked where we needed to go to get the passes; we were met with quizzical looks by the young volunteers and the words, "Net Angliyskiy," or "No English."
We were now less than an hour to practice ice and we couldn't find the building to get our credentials.
After much confusion, finger pointing and flared tempers (and that was just between my husband and me as we tried to negotiate directions), we found a sign that pointed us to the ticket pavilion. We now had less than 30 minutes to make practice ice and we hadn't even stepped foot in the park.
Surveying the situation, it looked bleak. There were clearly two lines that resembled an unruly shopping mall flash mob on Black Friday. Volunteers blared instructions in Russian through battery-powered bullhorns. Thousands - literally THOUSANDS of people were swarming the building like locust. Every manner of language could be heard coming from people waiting simply get their spectator passes. That culturally rich vocabulary included some words that needed no translation because they resonated regardless of the language; a simple emphasis on a syllable, the roll of the eyes and a hand gesture said it all. There was no doubt we were not going to make it to practice because we didn't have tickets, it was late and we hadn't had anything to eat since our cheese plate at 1AM in the hotel bar.
Thinking quickly, my husband had me stand in what appeared to be the shorter of the two lines while he approached a woman supervisor to see if she was willing to speak English. I frantically used my international data once again in order to send a text to our son's coach stating it would be a cold day in Sochi if we made it to the rink on time. Two days of travel and all the perfect planning, we were foiled by our fanaticism and insomnia-induced ineptitude. I was resigned to a two hour wait in line, not even knowing if I was in the correct line because there were no signs, just volunteers screaming into bullhorns in Russian.
I had lost sight of my husband by this point. The line was not moving; more people were piling in; there was a lot of pushing and shoving. I am not tall, but fortunately my husband is. He was wildly gesturing to me, motioning for me to come over to the fence where he was standing with the officially-dressed woman. My inclination was to stay put. If I moved, that meant I lost my place in line, but he was intense and insistent. I yielded my coveted spot, fought upstream like a salmon and made my way to the lady and the fence.
Like the Gates of Heaven, the fence parted. She ushered us past the crowds who were staring - no, glaring - at us. We were taken in a door that was clearly marked "out," and this angel of mercy muscled her way to the desk and placed our papers in front of a sweet young lady who immediately printed our Spectator Pass and sent us on our way. From the time I yielded my spot in line to the time we found ourselves headed to the TSA-type security that would get us access into the Fabergé egg - five minutes. We were going to have to move quickly, but we now had a chance to make it to practice. We weren't sure what happened. We weren't sure why this angel of mercy opened the gates for us; all we knew was something special happened and we weren't going to question it.
Later that night at USA House, where we were meeting our USOC contact before the team event, we related the story of our seemingly miraculous experience with the Spectator Pass. Our contact chuckled and said he had heard the same story from a couple of sponsors. The common thread: Our Team USA lanyards. Apparently, the young volunteers working the massive lines of humanity at the Spectator Pass Registration building mistook us to be Team USA officials because of the lanyards. Not wanting to offend, they facilitated our registration to simply get us on our way.
I've never been a fan of being treated differently from everyone else. That day, however, I was happy to be mistaken for someone important, and to have the on-going private joke between my husband and me whenever we encountered a challenge with crowds, lines, or anything during our Sochi sojourn become, "Don't you know who I am?"