Click here to read an account of physical therapist Ned Dowling’s first stint overseas with the US Ski Team in March, 2020.
Holmenkollen, Norway. March 8, 2020 – Men’s 50k Classic World Cup. 33 degrees and raining. The ski jump was engulfed in clouds. Spectators were forbidden from attending the Super Bowl of cross country skiing due to the impending COVID pandemic. My first stint as a physical therapist traveling with the US Ski Team was ending in an Oslo fog.
Salt Lake City, Utah. Late March, 2020 – Buzz kill. In the week following my return from Norway, my son’s school was closed, my clinic was closed, people were fighting over toilet paper and hand sanitizer. It was the end of the world as we knew it. And we didn’t feel fine.
July 6, 2021 – I received an email from Chris Grover asking if I could travel with the ski team again in 2022. We were amidst the calm before the storm. People were getting vaccinated. COVID cases were dropping. We went on vacation. Delta had not yet jumped out from behind the grim reaper. The light at the end of the tunnel was getting brighter and brighter.
I had declined an offer to travel the previous winter. I knew I couldn’t get permission from either the boss at work or the boss at home. And I sure couldn’t tell my kid, who was still doing school remotely, “You keep up with those classes on Zoom while Daddy is off to Europe.”
But now things were looking up. By the time I’d be overseas in March, the COVID thing would be a distant memory. Hell yes! Sign me up Chris.
Summer, Fall, Winter – We all know what happened next. The light at the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train and the shit hit the fan. Lots of shit hit lots of fans. First, the Delta variant, then Omicron. Through all of that, I did my best to stay optimistic about my opportunity to work the last two weekends of World Cup races in Falun, Sweden and Tyumen, Russia.
Falun was a bit of a known entity, or at least easily researched on the internet. The World Cup had been racing there for years. Trail maps showed a good network of tourist tracks (which is a good thing because the race course is no joke). Videos of old races on YouTube showed huge crowds, which were sorely missed at the pre-COVID Holmenkollen.
Tyumen, the Pearl of Siberia, was going to be much more of an adventure. Much to my relief, the plan was to have a chartered flight from Stockholm to Russia. I really, really didn’t want to fly (or crash) on a commercial Russian plane. With a lot of digging and Google Translate, I could glean some information about the race venue and its environs.
February 9, 2022 – Chris emailed me about getting a Russian visa. He told me to contact someone at the Russian Consulate in Washington: call this guy, do what he says, pay what he says, we’ll reimburse you. The next day I anxiously called Bogdan, to whom I would be entrusting my passport. “You send passport, extra photo, and $250. You complete visa application online and send password for application, so I fix your mistakes. You send postage to mail back.” I had him repeat that three or four times while I nervously scribbled notes to myself. I reminded him that I was flying to Sweden on March 6 and would very much need my passport back by then. “No problem. You get passport.”
The visa application was nerve racking. Employment history. List of all countries traveled to in the last 5 years. “Have you been trained in firearms, artillery, or nuclear warfare?”
With sweaty palms and my heart rate in L4, I mailed off my passport and hopefully everything else I was supposed to. Then I waited.
Thursday, February 24, 2022 – Russia invaded Ukraine. The world as we knew it ended once again. Chris texted me that the trip to Russia was canceled (the US team’s decision not to go to Russia preceded FIS’s decision to cancel the races). “Get your passport back right away.” I called Bogdan, my contact at the Russian Consulate. “We’ve had a change in plans, and I won’t be traveling to Russia. Can you please send my passport right away?” “No. I do not have your passport. Embassy has passport. I cannot get until finished with visa. But I mail it.” I could hear a toddler crying in the background. Bogdan apologized for the crying. I told him he shouldn’t have taken my call at home. He said, “Do not worry with passport. Visa will finish on Monday or Tuesday, then I mail. I call you when I mail.”
Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday – Nope. Not going to happen. I’m never going to see my passport again. They’ve all left the embassy. My passport is too low of a priority. They’re just going to be jerks and not send it back. So much for going to Sweden. COVID, war, what’s next?
9:21am, Tuesday, March 1, 2022 – Bogdan called. “Naatan, I mail passport. You get tomorrow.”
I thanked him profusely. And I said a little prayer. This man is living in America, raising a family in America. Yet he works for the Russian government. He is a Russian in a country that, overnight, hates Russians. I spent the last 5 days completely stressed because I didn’t have possession of a passport that would allow me to travel to Sweden for the sake of people skiing around in circles. This man, who must pay at least some attention to Western media, must have spent the last 5 days completely stressed over the safety and ultimate fate of his family and country.
(I do not mean to discredit ski racing or initiate some existential debate. As crazy as it seemed for the World Cup, and even Olympics, to carry on through this pandemic–and now war, I know I found great benefit from the distraction that racing provided. It was a slice of normalcy and vicarious living, which was invaluable to me as so much of what I took for granted was upended. But my little problems did seem very small compared to Bogdan’s.)
Wednesday, March 2, 2022 – Scott, our friendly (seriously, he waves to everyone) neighborhood mail carrier delivered my passport. Huge sigh of relief.
SLC International Airport. Sunday, March 6, 2022 – I hugged my son, kissed my wife goodbye, and donned my N95 mask which I wore for 18hrs straight. SLC direct to Amsterdam. Enough layover to grab a bottle of Scotch at the duty-free. A packed flight to Stockholm and a 2.5 hr bus ride to Falun. Jet lagged and sleep deprived, I met up with the team as they’d just gotten off their bus from Oslo. We all stood around in LL Bean team gear and N95s awaiting instructions on where to schlep our massive duffles.
Our accommodations for the week were not at the Scandic Hotel, the FIS-provided standard lodging for all of the teams. It was decided that the hotel and its buffet meals were too COVID risky. Instead we stayed two-each in a group of camping cabins equipped with bunk beds and a small kitchen. We were on our own for breakfast and lunch. Dinners were catered by restaurateur parents of Swedish sprint star Maja Dahlqvist (the World Cup circle is pretty close knit).
Falun, Sweden. Tuesday, March 7, 2022 – COVID testing. The team was shedding skiers and staff with positive tests. A few soldiers were left behind to wait out quarantine in an Oslo airport hotel. A couple more made it to Sweden but wouldn’t see a race bib. Anxiety was high. A positive test meant no racing, no human interaction, no trip home until the negative. One car load at a time we went to a testing center in Falun for nasal – very, very nasal – PCR tests.
“I think it touched my eyeball!” “I had 31 tests in China and that was the most aggressive one ever!” “Damn, that was legit!”
Wednesday, March 8, 2022 – All tests were negative. Collective sigh of relief. With that reassurance, I finally had some customers on the physio treatment table. Thankfully, everyone’s bodies were holding up reasonably well for being that late in the season. I felt guilty for being over there without much to do, but I figure that my boredom means they don’t need me and if they don’t need me it’s because they’re healthy, which is the goal (or they don’t want me because they’re COVID paranoid – there was plenty of that too, understandably so). So, until the racing began, I didn’t have much to do besides ski every day. Poor me.
March 11-13, 2022 – Let’s go racing! My experience with the team is that they are always a great group of people to be around, but they’re even more fun with podiums. Lots of good results all around with some “first World Cup points” to some near-misses to some 5.5 lb chunks of Gruyere podium cheese.
4:30pm, March 13, 2022 – The final race: antigen testing for entry back into the US. Again, all negative. We’re going home! That night in the bar at a Stockholm airport hotel, I finally saw some faces that’d been hidden behind N95s all week. The poor bartender had a tough time keeping up with the drink orders. Elation, exhaustion, and simple relief that they’d survived another crazy race season and were finally heading home after four months of living out of suitcases, always masked, always nervous.
Maybe next year we can race without a pandemic or war or plague of locusts.
Ned lives in Salt Lake City, UT where his motto has become, “Came for the powder skiing, stayed for the Nordic.” He is a Physical Therapist at the University of Utah and a member of the US Ski Team medical pool. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.