Clemson students pose in front of the Paralympics sign and the Olympic flame in Sochi, Russia.

Clemson students pose in front of the Paralympics sign and the Olympic flame in Sochi, Russia.
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

NOTE: Three Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management faculty members and a group of Clemson students are on a study abroad trip focused on the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. The trip’s mission: Return with heightened awareness of disabilities, culture and potential within their respective fields of study, those that include sport and event management.

Reflection post written by student Alexandra Vrampas and Professor Gwynn Powell

Long days and jet lag are a hard combination for travel, but being in Russia at the Sochi Paralympics has a way of making you forget these minor worries. Two nights ago (although we are so at home, it already feels like ten), we arrived at our quaint little Russian hotel in Adler. After a needed night’s sleep, we spent the day verifying our credentials for our spectator passes and exploring Adler.

Our hotel is a five minute walk from the sea, two minutes from a 24-hour mini-market, and the town has a lot of small knick-knack shops that became a great start to our Russian shopping experience. That night we attended the Opening Ceremony and were awed by the extravagance of the event. They had Russian dancers and singers on the pedestrian path up to the venue for us to take pictures with, sing along and dance as we made our way to the event. Fireworks went off within the stadium at the beginning of the event, and there was a huge ship that floated across the huge ice stage during one of the performances to symbolize the power of sport to “break the ice” between nations. The president of the International Paralympic Committee also had a very important message of inclusiveness and did well by mentioning how Sochi is paving a way for Russia and the rest of the world because Sochi adapted to an accessible mindset seen through both their buildings and in their attitudes.

A large part of the experience has been meeting the volunteers. They do everything from free hugs and high fives, to ushering us in the right direction when we need information. The majority of them are Russian university students who are beyond excited to practice their English and trade pins with us (our professor introduced us to the Olympic tradition of pin trading with several American flag pins to trade). They are happy to be a part of making the experience interesting and safe.

Bright and early Saturday morning we made our way up the mountain to the biathlon venue. Both at the opening ceremonies and at the biathlon venue we were honored with many requests to take photos. People noticed the American flags and different accents and would automatically ask if we would pose with them. We proudly had our American flags on display and took photo after photo with other Paralympic fans who were excited to be part of such an international sporting event. Though we met some, there were few other Americans at the event, and we saw several Canadians, Kazakhstani and Japanese, among other nationalities. The majority of the fans, however, are Russian and are very eager to cheer on any athlete whose fan base who is not here. We have also been so impressed at how loudly everyone cheers for Ukrainian athletes. It has been explained to us that Russia and Ukraine are like one body. People in the Ukraine have family in Russia, and people in Russia have family in Ukraine. Right now, due to politics, part of the body is ill. Both countries know what war is, and people cannot understand how nationalism can bring even whispers of war in the modern world. People we have met are sad about the situation, yet also hopeful that solutions will emerge because deep down, both sides are family. If we were not here for the Paralympics, we would not have heard this personal Russian perspective on such a public situation.

Clemson student Meredith Swetenburg tries out the sit ski at the Sochi Paralympics.

Clemson student Meredith Swetenburg tries out the sit ski at the Sochi Paralympics.
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

One of the neatest aspects of the biathlon venue was the equipment trials we experienced. We had a taste of the challenge of the sport. We used a sitting chair that is used by athletes to ski. We can’t imagine skiing even a mile through the snow in the chair, let alone up an incline and around a track. The other piece of equipment was the gun that the athletes with visiual impairments use during the shooting part of the biathlon. Instead of aiming for the target with a scope, one listens for beeps through a headset and when the beeps become one high pitched drone, it is time to pull the trigger. Our professor Skye Arthur-Banning made the highest score with a 4 out 5 targets hit, and Alexandra was the silver medalist of our group. We think it is because he tried it with his eyes closed and was not tricked by his eyesight.

The mountain-top venue gave us the opportunity to try the famous Russian blini, a crepe-style pancake served savory or sweet. For dinner we planned to have a nice sit-down dinner, but we did not realize until too late that it was a Saturday evening and International Women’s day, a new holiday for us. We received congratulations all during the day.  A few people in our study abroad group took the last available table of the restaurant, while the rest of us enjoyed a meal on the terrace of our hotel of meat kebabs from a simple hole-in-the-wall restaurant. We are looking to get a good night’s sleep in before heading off to watch Sledge Hockey in the morning.

It was a surprise to us, that our new Russian friend and translator told us how happy she is to be here at the Games with us, because our infectious zest for cheering caused her to realize that she has much to be proud of about being Russian. At her university, there are not sports teams, nor mascots, so our Clemson Tiger paws and abundance of orange came as a surprise. She knew we would cheer for USA, and is familiar with the sense of pride in the USA. She told us that many Russians automatically assume that other places in the world are better than Russia — and maybe that was true in the older times. But, listening to us cheer for all the athletes and getting caught up in our excitement made her feel proud that her country could host the entire world and truly take the opening ceremony theme and “break the ice” between people who often think they are so different.

As of now, not much else can be said except that we are loving Russia and all the Games have to offer.