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Sochi: the experience of a lifetime

City and its people make Winter Games very special

Posted: 02/24/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

Last Modified: 02/24/2014 8:04 AM | Updates

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SOCHI, Russia -- In the end, they'll be remembered as just another Olympic Games. The political unrest, the corruption and the spectre of Vladimir Putin will all fade to background and the athletic achievements will burst forth.

The world leaves Russia now. Alone to wrestle with the unrest in Georgia and Ukraine. The smoke over Kyiv won't reach and irritate our western eyes once we touch down back in Toronto, New York and Winnipeg. Human- rights issues we railed about all summer and fall will lose their sex appeal and fall to the back pages. It ain't right but it's true. We shone our spotlight on Sochi. Now we'll turn it off.

Sochi turned out to have warmer suns and hearts than we ever expected. Put Putin and his politics aside and look to the everyday people of this corner of Russia for how this land sounds and feels and loves. They astounded me. I'm a Cold War baby and cold is exactly how I naively viewed Russian people. I was so wrong and I'm so happy for it. I have a new perspective. Sochi was helpful, generous and friendly. Disorganized and a little short on details, yes. But charming and endearing all the same.

I'll remember the people and the athletes showing the world their very best.

We'll remember Jennifer Jones setting an Olympic record with a performance for the ages. Her perfect mark of 11-0 can never be bested, only tied. We'll remember Gilmore Junio giving up his spot in the belief that Denny Morrison had a better chance to medal. We'll remember Morrison delivering on Junio's gambit with a silver medal our country crowed and cried over.

The glow of the Dufour-Lapointe sisters will forever stick in our minds; Justine and Chloé's medals only outshone by the pride and smile of their big sister, Maxime.

Who could forget our hockey teams? Canada's women authoring their own miracle on ice and the men putting country before personal glory in one of the great displays of teamwork we will ever see.

The Canadian Olympic Committee cleverly came up with the slogan We are Winter. So often these manufactured catchphrases are hokey and miss the mark. Not this one. It's Canada in three short words. It'll stick.

I'll remember:

 

Jonathan Toews waking up a nation with a golden game-winning goal. Winnipeg's Toews was the most dominant player in the biggest game of the tournament. He checked, he scored and he lifted Canadians out of their church pews, bar stools and easy chairs. The image of him picking up a Canadian flag and skating around the Bolshoy IceDome with a gold medal around his neck will stick in the minds of Canadians and Manitobans forever.

 

Russian pride...

Finding 60 or so young Russians watching their Sochi Olympics opening ceremony after putting together a makeshift living room in a hotel lobby, with couches pulled from around the hotel and TVs rigged up on the reception counter. They stood arm-in-arm and sang their national anthem with smiles on their faces and tears streaming down their faces. They roared when their athletes entered the stadium. They strained with their English to describe to me what they were feeling.

 

... and hospitality

Walking back to a bus stop after the opening ceremony to get back to the Olympic park and having three young Russians accompany me to make sure I got there. Then they stayed with me for close to an hour until the bus arrived, making sure I was safe and had company and hugged me before I left to never see them again.

 

Rolli Olli

Bumping into Winnipeg Jets winger Olli Jokinen on his first day in Sochi, decked out in Team Finland gear and riding his bike around the Olympic Park like a kid at the cottage and with the same smile on his face.

 

Fantastic volunteers

The smiles on the Russian volunteers in their garish but somehow endearing official Sochi 2014 jackets. They learned little snippets of all kinds of different languages and we all tried to pick up a little Russian. Somehow everyone got what they needed and where they needed to go. The warmth and kindness of spirit was both everywhere and overwhelming.

 

A mother's pride...

Approaching Carol Jones, Winnipeg curler Jennifer Jones' mother, and asking her about watching her daughter get piped into the Olympic Games and seeing tears well in her eyes.

 

... a daughter's humility...

Telling Jennifer Jones a few hours later in a media scrum about her mother's reaction and seeing the same reaction from the curler. "Oh, now you're going to make me cry," said Jennifer.

 

... and a baby at home

Asking Jennifer Jones about leaving her baby daughter Isabella back in Canada with family while she was at the Olympics and having Jones show me the necklace she wears bearing her daughter's name. "She's always with me."

 

Instant friends...

Climbing on a bus on Valentine's Day and having Hockey Hall of Famer Cassie Campbell make room for me and then talking about our families for 15 minutes and how much we missed them. From near perfect strangers to friends over the time it took the bus to make two stops. Canadians far away from home leaning on one another.

 

... longtime allies...

Walking alone into a random restaurant on my first night in Sochi and hearing my name called out before I'd cleared the doorway. I saw a raft of Canadian journalists surrounding a table covered in food and beer. Half a world away from Canada but still right at home.

 

... and temporary enemies

Talking to Winnipeg Jets winger Michael Frolik after his first practice in Sochi with the Czech team and him telling me he stopped talking to teammate and Finn Olli Jokinen somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. "We're not buddies at the Olympics," said Frolik with a smile.

 

Teamwork

The spirit of co-operation and friendship among the Canadian journalists, whether from newspapers, TV, radio or the Internet. We compete against one another on a daily basis to get the best story, quote or inside information. But covering an Olympics is a massive undertaking and being at two places at the same time is a must. Getting a quote or a heads up from colleagues from different media outlets can save a reporter's bacon.

 

Camaraderie

Getting off the plane in Frankfurt after an eight-hour flight and seeing my friend Cathal Kelly of the Toronto Star sitting at the gate with a smile for a very weary traveller. One of the best things about my job is the people you meet and the friendships you make. I was tired and hungry and grumpy and Kelly took that all away with five minutes of his wry humour.

 

Hometown fans

Russia's first goal in the men's hockey tournament. The flags, the singing and the hockey fans jumping up and down to celebrate the moment. As loud and as passionate as any building I've ever been in.

 

Shootout sensation

T.J. Oshie scoring on four of six shootout attempts to lift Team U.S.A. over Russia in the preliminary round. Huge pressure, great theatre and two political giants staring down one another in a hockey game. Oshie will have trouble paying for his own beer the rest of his life.

 

Crushing disappointment

The disappointment in Brittany Schussler's voice. Her chin quivered as she spoke following a disappointing skate in the women's 1,500 metres. She came to these Games determined not to let the pursuit of a medal way weigh too heavily on her mind, wanting most of all to just put her best race on the track and let the results take care of themselves. But she didn't have her power and her energy at these Olympics.

 

Exceeding expectations

Jocelyne Larocque scoring Canada's first goal of the hockey tournament in her first Olympic game. Larocque was tired and already focused on the next task in the mixed zone after the game but did allow a smile when asked about her goal and what her friends and family back in Ste. Anne were thinking when the puck crossed the goal-line.

 

You can take the boy out of Winnipeg...

The Winnipeggers. All the Winnipeggers. From the athletes to the seemingly endless number of TV production folks and coaches and administrators. Every day I ran into someone from home to talk about the weather and the food and the work and the fun. Friendly Manitoba, indeed. Like I always say to people who ask me about Winnipeg, "the weather sucks, the people make it the best place to live in Canada."

 

Family away from family

The folks I lived and worked with for 18 hours a day over more than two weeks. Early breakfast, fast lunches and late dinners surrounding hours and hours of work. Steve Simmons. Ryan Ryshaug. Stephen Whyno. Lori Ewing. Cam Cole. Philippe Cantin. Rejean Tremblay. Donna Spencer. Ted Wyman. Steve Buffery. Roy MacGregor. Dave Parker. Chris Johnson. Scott Burnside. Pierre Lebrun. Bruce Arthur. Sean FitzGerald. Eric Sorenson. Ed Willes. Rick Houston. Arash Madani. Chris Stevenson. Rob Longley. Eric Duhatschek, Greg Wyshynski, Tim Wharnsby. Jonathan Bernier. Neil Davidson.

 

Brothers from other mothers

Sasha and Vlad, my bartenders and baristas. These two Russians set up a canteen in the lobby of my dormitory and they were there day and night. I'd stop for a beer at 3 a.m. on my return from a day and night at the Olympic Park and then return a few hours later for a coffee on my way back to the venues. Mornings, one would be sleeping on a couch, barely covered by a thin blanket, The other would be rubbing his eyes and manning the espresso machine. Nights they'd be laughing with customers and arguing about gold. The day the Finns knocked out the Russians, they took down Ilya Kovalchuk's Team Russia jersey and replaced it with a vintage 1987 Canada Cup Wayne Gretzky sweater. They covered the walls with hockey memorabilia including a wonderful photograph of Phil Esposito and Yuri Blinov from the 1972 Summit Series. They asked endless questions about the hockey tournament. In Canada we have passionate fans and these two men would fit in and hold their own in any barroom or donut shop hockey conversation our country has to offer. They fed me homemade borscht and passed toast smothered in caviar. They made me feel at home. They said my name with a thick accent and they hugged me the night Team Canada knocked off the U.S. in hockey and didn't understand when I said it wasn't my victory. "It's your country," they argued and of course they were right. They asked me as I was leaving if I would ever come back to Russia. I said I'd like to and I meant it. The people have soul and kindness. They made my trip.

 

Olli’s finest moment

Olli Jokinen turning back the clock and playing inspired hockey for Finland. Minutes after playing a key role in his country's upset win over Russia, the Winnipeg Jets forward stood before me with blood oozing from a gash on his chin. The very picture of a hockey gladiator. Jokinen was swollen with pride and overflowing with the glory of victory. Finally winning a bronze medal with a win over Team U.S.A. to add to the silver and bronze he already had. One of his finest moments.

 

Uplifting jubilation

Jocelyne Larocque coming here as a fringe player on Canada's women's hockey team but gaining the trust of head coach Kevin Dineen. She threw a hellacious and important body check late in the game against the U.S. to prevent a scoring chance and Dineen put her on the ice again and again in key situations. She strode off the ice and walked up to a pair of Winnipeg reporters with a golden grin on her face and a gold medal around her neck. She was inspiring and confident and grateful and triumphant.

 

All-out celebration

Jones celebrating her gold. "We did it, we did it," said the Winnipegger, minutes after winning along with fellow Manitobans Jill Officer, Dawn McEwen and Kaitlyn Lawes. "We achieved this moment for so many people in our lives. All of our friends and families, the city of Winnipeg, all of Manitoba and Canada and that is priceless really. There's no bigger moment or feeling in the world than that. I couldn't believe it. To have all of Canada behind us, not the pressure of it but the excitement of having all those people cheering us on and people in Winnipeg cheering us on, sitting there on the edge of their seats and we did it for them too." These women were dominant setting an Olympic record with an 11-0 mark at the Olympics. They were joyful all week and overjoyed after the final. They were something to see.

 

A Manitoban from Ontario

A curling nomad baptized as a curling king. Ryan Fry chased his dream all over Canada and then discovered and claimed it in Russia. "I gave everything I have to this sport and I've done it for a lot of years. I've taken a lot of losses and I've rebounded," said Fry. "I've gotten kicked off teams and I've left teams. It comes with the territory. But if you commit and give yourself to something, good things happen to you." A gold medal is a good thing.

 

Manitoba's medals. Gold was the most popular on display. Jennifer Jones, Jill Officer, Dawn McEwen, Kaitlyn Lawes, Ryan Fry, Jocelyne Larocque and Jonathan Toews. Throw in golds to Winnipeg-born but raised elsewhere Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith and a silver to Team Sweden's Alex Steen and it was a nice haul for Manitoba.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 24, 2014 C2

History

Updated on Monday, February 24, 2014 at 8:04 AM CST: adds section headers

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