Freeskier Jen Hudak of Utah is one of the many skiers and snowboarders in Sochi, Russia, right now who are getting in some practice and competition before the small city by the Black Sea welcomes the world next February for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Hudak is one of the gold medal favorites for halfpipe next year, so we caught up with her to see what her initial impressions of Sochi are, her view of its surprisingly warm year-round climate, and what she thinks it will take to get atop the podium.
What were your travels to Sochi like? Did you experience any snafus, or was it a normal international journey?
I left from Salt Lake City on a Delta flight to JFK (in New York). From JFK I flew Aeroflot to Moscow and then Moscow to Adler, the airport in Sochi. I think the total travel time was about 24 hours, though we arrived in Sochi time 36 hours after my departure in SLC. Sochi is eleven hours ahead of Mountain Standard Time. My travel day was fairly straightforward, and in some ways easier than a typical travel day to Europe in terms of adjusting to the new time zone. I’d say the most unusual aspect was the visa process, which in the end made the normal customs hassle hassle free! However, quite a few athletes lost baggage, and it was a hassle trying to track it down.
What were your initial impressions of Sochi?
We arrived after dark in Sochi, so there wasn’t much to see initially. English is not spoken as readily here as in most European nations, which brings us to the unique aspect of Russia: While 77 percent of the population lives in “Western Russia,” i.e. European Russia, 75 percent of the land is considered part of the Asian continent. When looking at the people here, they appear more European than Asian. However, it is the first place that I’ve been, besides Japan, that has its own alphabet and a language that is not very transferable. This makes communication quite a challenge. Architecturally there is a mix of Georgian-influenced buildings, which the area at the bottom of the ski resort seems to be crafted after, and a very bland communistic look to buildings. There is a lot of construction going on in the main city of Sochi, and in the entire drive up to the mountains and resort areas. Every now and again you will see an old building juxtaposed against the new construction and it makes you realize what this mountainous valley was like prior to the Olympic bid.
Have people been friendly towards you and the other skiers?
I wouldn’t use the word “friendly” to describe the people here. They aren’t unfriendly, but they are just very business-oriented and take their jobs very seriously. It seems that a lot of the workers, at least in our hotel, are a little overwhelmed at the sudden influx of people. The language barriers again make it difficult. We’ve learned a few words like “spasibo,” which means “thank you.” Being able to say “thank you” always diffuses a tense situation, along with a nice smile.
What is Russian food like, and what are your accommodations like?
I’m not sure if the food that we have been eating is traditional Russian food or not. We have catered meals every day–lunch and dinner are the same cuisine each day. There is a decent array of food in the morning from eggs–they serve them very runny–to bacon and potatoes to cereal, crepes, and fruit. The most unique, and probably my most enjoyed breakfast option, has been the porridge that they serve, which seems like oats cooked in milk, but it has more of the consistency of a soup than American oatmeal does. The hotel is brand new and quite nice, with the small twin beds that are standard in most European and Asian hotels.
Do you think the city of Sochi will be ready to host the Olympics one year from now?
Sochi will be as ready as it can be for the Olympics. I don’t think that any city is ever really ready to host an Olympic Games and often times things come together right at the last minute. I haven’t yet been to a Winter Olympics, so it’s hard for me to say definitively yes or no. But my gut tells me yes. The biggest issue will be snow management and venue preparation and maintenance, as it’s quite warm here.
How would you rate the halfpipe? Is it a world-class pipe, worthy of the Olympic recognition?
The venue is quite impressive. The mogul course, aerial site, and halfpipe all share one finish area and it makes for a really fun time watching training and events–there is always something going on. Not to mention, the mountains of Rosa Khutor are absolutely breathtaking and serve as the backdrop to the halfpipe. The pipe is long and quite steep. It has the potential to be worthy of Olympic recognition; it is all dependent on snow and weather conditions. This year was probably about as warm as it gets and they are pulling it off, though conditions aren’t ideal for peak performance.
What has been biggest shock you’ve experienced while in Sochi– anything weird or unexpected happen so far?
The biggest shock I’ve experienced was having to go through metal detectors and getting frisked every day before getting on the gondola to head up to the hill. They take security very seriously here.
What do you think it’s going to take to win gold at the Sochi Games?
It is going to take a mix of all the important elements–huge amplitude, I hope, spinning in both directions and on various axes, grabs, and really clean execution. To name a run that would be the “winning” run is impossible, but I can guarantee that it will be a great show.
What excites you most about freeskiing making its debut in the 2014 Olympics?
I am just excited to have our sport be on the largest sporting event stage. To have the world’s attention, even if it is for a brief period of time, and to have people understand that when I say “I ski a halfpipe” it doesn’t mean snowboarding.
Photos courtesy Jen Hudak