SOCHI, RUSSIA – As the doors closed behind her, Sara Shuster looked around the packed bus. The Duluth native speaks no Russian, and the older women on the bus appeared to speak no English. But they still managed to bond over a universal language: baby.
The women wanted to hold 9-month-old Luke, son of Sara and U.S. men’s curling skip John Shuster, and they handed him from one to the other. “They were all cooing over him, and some of them gave him buttons,” Shuster said. “And a boy played ‘Yankee Doodle’ on his kazoo for him. It was all very cute.”
Minnesotans have seen this other side of Sochi, after the avalanche of fears over terrorism, unfinished hotel rooms and undrinkable water subsided. Those worries caused some families of Minnesota athletes to skip these Olympics. But many who braved the trip — including John and Diana Herman of Bloomington, Deb and Clay Diggins of Afton, and several relatives of the curling teams — have been pleasantly surprised.
The biggest problem the Hermans reported was the lack of burgers at a restaurant called Sushi & Burgers. The Digginses, who are staying on a cruise ship docked near the athletes’ village on the Black Sea, were happy with their modest accommodations and charmed by the friendliness of the volunteers. While some family members were a little nervous before leaving for Russia, they were glad they chose not to pass up the experience of seeing their spouses or children compete at the Games.
“It’s very much a relief,” Shuster said. “John always said that everything was going to be fine. I was the worrywart of the two of us.
“We heard all the horror stories on TV, but it’s really not like everyone said. The hotel is beautiful, the volunteers are helpful and there are multiple steps of security you have to go through. I feel very safe. It’s just like any other Olympics.”
Shuster spent most of her time at the Ice Cube curling arena, with her in-laws Tom and Jackie Shuster of Chisholm, as well as Joe and Anna Zezel of Hibbing and Steve and Cheri Landsteiner of Mapleton. The Zezels and Landsteiners are parents of U.S. team members Jared Zezel and John Landsteiner.
All were decked out in their U.S. jackets and caps, and even baby Luke had a tiny flag to wave. The group did occasionally get lost — they once wound up on a freeway ramp after taking a wrong turn on the walk to the arena — and Luke Shuster’s body clock remained on Minnesota time, meaning he was ready to play from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. Sochi’s sketchy water quality meant they also had to get used to using bottled water for drinking and brushing their teeth.
Other than that, Sara Shuster had no complaints. Neither did the Hermans, who came to see their daughter, Keri, finish 10th in women’s slopestyle skiing.
Like so many things in Sochi, the Burgers & Sushi restaurant had opened only three days before the Olympics began. It actually served only two things on its extensive menu, Diana Herman said: sushi and sea bass. As it turned out, they didn’t eat much in restaurants during their six-day stay, because of the VIP treatment afforded to the families of American athletes.
The tangle of badges around Diana Herman’s neck included her admission cards to USA House and the Procter & Gamble Family Home, two Olympic Park bases for U.S. athletes and their kin. Both serve full meals and drinks and show the Games on large-screen TVs perched above cozy couches. The P&G Family Home also gives athletes’ mothers a cash gift and free services including spa treatments.
The home includes a baby-changing station with diapers and wipes — a huge help to Sara Shuster — and hot shaves for the dads.
“You can have a glass of wine, watch the Olympics on the big screen and meet other athletes and their families,” John Herman said. “We had dinner with the curling team, and we’ve met parents of hockey players, ice dancers and a ski jumper. It’s really been fun to share the experience with them.”
The parents of cross-country skier Jessie Diggins are staying on the Black Sea during the Games. Literally.
Deb and Clay Diggins booked a room on a cruise ship, docked near Olympic Park, that was converted into a hotel for visitors. The rooms are small, but it’s within walking distance to the train station that takes visitors from the coastal cluster in Sochi to the Nordic venues in the Caucasus Mountains.
“It’s a lot like camping,” Clay Diggins said. “This place is awesome. It’s been great to see all the hospitality from the volunteers and everyone here. The people are very friendly. It’s really made it a great experience for us.”
When they’re not watching their daughter race, the Digginses try to attend as many events as possible. They have been to slopestyle and snowboarding and a few hockey games. The Hermans also saw hockey, and John Shuster proudly noted that Luke slept through the pandemonium of short-track speedskating.
Before the Olympics, John Herman learned some Russian by listening to recordings. It hasn’t always been easy to communicate — “it’s kind of like playing charades,” Diana said — but the Hermans found the locals and volunteers eager to try out their English.
It was all part of a cultural exchange they are glad they didn’t pass up.
“We’ll say, ‘Do svidaniya,’ ” John Herman said, using the Russian phrase for farewell. “And they’ll answer, ‘Goodbye. Have a nice day!’ It’s been really fun. Our experience has been nothing but good.”