Families of the area's Olympic hopefuls are finding it's no easy task to get to Sochi, Russia, to see their loved ones compete in February's winter games.
Traveling half way around the world has proved to be a big and expensive hurdle, enough for some local families to opt out of attending the games. Those who've committed to going have been digging deep into their savings to pay for the trip and dealing with mountains of paperwork to get their visas, airline tickets and lodging reservations squared away.
Marty Lawthers, mother of Saranac Lake luger Chris Mazdzer, said she and her husband, Dr. Edward Mazdzer, and Chris' twin sisters will be traveling to Sochi to see him compete. Lawthers said making the arrangements for Sochi has been very different from when they traveled to Vancouver four years ago to see Chris in his first Olympics.
Supporters of Vermontville native Bill Demong, including his father, Leo, and mother, Helen, celebrate after he won a gold medal in nordic combined at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in February 2010.
(Enterprise file photo — Lou Reuter)
"It's been much more difficult and much more expensive," Lawthers said Friday. "Crazy, out of this world, outrageously expensive. It's going to be, for the four us, about $18,000. It's unbelievable. I thought Vancouver was expensive and that was about $5,000."
Lawthers said she and her husband will be taking money out of their life insurance and retirement accounts to pay for the trip. She said they've been working on it since early this year and used Ludus Tours, the same travel agency used by Lake Placid-based USA Luge. They booked refundable flights and lodging by July, but obtaining visas to get into Russia has been a much bigger headache.
"That's been the hardest part," Lawthers said. "Ed's spent hours working on that. We've got papers all over the place. We're sending our stuff out this weekend, along with our passports. They're going to submit it to the Russian embassy 45 days before the games, which is when you have to send it in. We're just hoping we get the passports back in time."
Despite all the stress, Lawthers said the trip will be worth every penny.
"We're very excited," she said. "Of course, we would like Chris to get a medal but we really don't care. We're just proud of him and that he's representing the United States."
This will be the fifth Olympics for Helen Demong, mother of Vermontville native Bill Demong, who has competed in the Nagano, Salt Lake City, Turino and Vancouver games. He won gold and silver medals in nordic combined (ski jumping and cross-country skiing) four years ago at the Vancouver games.
Helen Demong said she will be traveling to Sochi with her husband, Joe McPhillips, her daughter Katie, Bill's wife Katie, and Bill and Katie's son Liam, who will turn three in January.
"Last year, going to Vancouver was like going to your cousin's house," Demong said. "This time, it will be a very different environment. It's been a challenge like nothing I've ever experienced. We started in June, looking at possible accommodations and flights. After researching it myself and checking with travel agents, I found it was going to be least expensive if I booked the travel by myself."
Getting a Russian visa has been a big hurdle, Demong said.
"First you have to get accommodations, then you have to apply for a visa support letter, then you apply with the Russian consulate in your area of the country, and if the information isn't exactly what they're looking for, it's rejected and you have to start all over again. We've spent a couple of months, and we just received our visas for travel."
Demong said she's talked to parents of some Olympic hopefuls who've been hesitant about going to Russia. She understands, but for her, "the memories from each Olympics have been so incredible that I wouldn't miss this for the world."
She has also been offering travel advice to other athletes' families. Marijke Cook, mother of biathlete and Olympic hopeful Annelies Cook of Saranac Lake, said Demong suggested a travel agent that she and her husband, Dr. George Cook, used to help plan their trip to Russia.
"Nothing was really that hard, but everything was very expensive," Cook said. She said it will cost them $450 a night to stay in the closest hotel they could find, in the Adler district of Sochi, about a 45-minute commute from the mountain cluster of venues, which includes the Olympic biathlon center.
"It's been challenging because there are all those little things you have to keep track of," Cook said. "For the hotel, we had to sign a contract, then you had to scan it and send it back. Getting the visa, the Russians want to know everything, like what you ate yesterday and everywhere you've been in the last five years."
Cook said their travel plans are now squared away; they're going whether Annelies makes the team or not.
"There's no point of return for George and me anymore," she said. "I will be very relieved when I know that she's going, too."
Jack Burke, father of Paul Smiths' biathlete and two-time Olympian Tim Burke, said he and his wife Mary Jean have decided not to go to Sochi, but they do plan to attend the two World Cups in Europe leading up to the Olympics. The Burkes saw Tim compete at the Olympics in Turino and Vancouver.
"It's kind of a combination of a lot of things," Burke said when asked why they're not going to Sochi. "Certainly the cost came into it. We also like to ski in between the races, and we were a little bit unsure of what it was going to be like in Russia, so we said, 'Why not go to the World Cups leading up there and send him off.' It'll just be easier and more of a vacation for us."
While Burke and his wife won't be rooting Tim on from the stands, Burke said they'll be following his races closely on television. He said the TV coverage of the Olympics is sometimes better than attending in person.
This could be the first Olympics for ski jumper Nina Lussi of Lake Placid, who's fighting for a spot on the U.S. squad in her sport's Olympic debut. Her father, Arthur Lussi, said he's not going to Sochi, even if Nina makes the Olympic team.
"I'm a huge sports fan and I love watching my children on a local stage, like high school soccer and when they compete in Lake Placid," Lussi said. "But when it comes to travel abroad, or even Chicago or Park City, I get too wound up and I don't really enjoy the experience."
The last thing he wants to do, Lussi said, is pass on any anxiety to his daughter. Should Nina be picked for the team, Lussi said his wife Martina would likely go to Sochi, while he'd use Skype and email to stay in touch with and encourage his daughter.
"We couldn't be happier for her, even to just have the chance to go," Lussi said. "I know she's totally energized and excited about the opportunity."
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.