The view from the balcony of the housing complex that houses the U.S. Olympic Team is everything that Lee Stecklein could have dreamed of. There are magnificent views of the majestic snow-covered peaks of the Caucasus Mountains, home of the Olympic alpine events. Down along the coastline there are palm trees gently swaying in the subtropical breezes as the February sun shimmers off the calm waters of the Black Sea. And off in the distance, a Russian Navy frigate sits in silent vigilance on the horizon.
Welcome to Sochi, Russia, which organizers have dubbed the safest city in the free world. At first glance it may be hard to argue with that assessment. The presence of Russian security forces is everywhere, from the heavily guarded Coastal Cluster, home to the ice events, to every intersection, train station and highway within 100 miles of here.
No one appreciates that more than the members of the U.S Women’s Olympic Team. Like most everyone back home, they have read their share of news reports of terrorist threats and security concerns, and have fielded numerous questions from family and friends who wonder if it’s worth putting themselves in harm’s way to pursue their Olympic dream.
But now that they are here, the players have no doubt that the Sochi Olympic Organizing Committee, in concert with the Russian government, has done everything in its power to ensure that the 22nd Olympic Winter Games go off without a hitch.
“Right now I don’t have any worries. Everything has been going very smoothly,” said Stecklein, a native of Roseville, Minn. “My parents are really excited to come. They get here later on tonight. We’re expecting a great trip.”
Long before boarding a flight from Boston to Sochi, with a stopover in Munich for Olympic Team processing, the coaching staff was in constant contact with members of the U.S. Olympic Committee, who kept their collective finger on the pulse of what’s going on in Sochi in regards to potential security threats. And since arriving on Feb. 2, the players have seen for themselves that things have been taken care of.
“We can’t control what goes on, all we can control is ourselves,” said Lyndsey Fry, one of 10 Olympic newcomers on the U.S. roster. “Our biggest thing is to stay focused on what we’ve been training so hard for.”
After several days of practice, players had a rare day off on Wednesday to walk around and get an up-close look at the Olympic venues that light up the night sky with a ghostly hue that can be seen at night from the athletes’ village.
“I think that speaking for my entire team, we love the village and the venues,” said Jessie Vetter, who is playing in her second Olympics. “The actual park itself is unbelievable, having everything so close. It’s easy to get around, and I don’t think at one moment we felt unsafe.
“I think the Russians and the IOC have done a good job of providing the security that is needed. Every Olympics is a challenge, and I think they’ve done a good job of meeting all of them.”
Seeing firsthand the steps that have been taken to keep them safe, the athletes feel comfortable that they can now focus on the matter at hand, which is winning the first gold medal in women’s ice hockey since the inaugural tournament in 1998. Their first test comes on Saturday morning when they open up the women’s tournament against Finland.
“There’s a great security presence here, and I think that’s a very comforting thing for everyone,” said head coach Katey Stone. “There’s no question that Russia’s ultimate priority is to make sure that everyone is safe and everyone has a fantastic experience, and since we’ve been here it’s been nothing but that.”
And that’s the way she wants it. They have done whatever necessary to keep the focus where it belongs and brush aside any and all distractions. That does not mean, however, that they are viewing these games through rose-colored glasses. Stone believes that it’s in everyone’s best interest to ensure that these Games go off without a hitch. In the hours leading up to their first game, she is just glad that the conversation has turned to hockey.
“I can’t speak for the kids, but we’re not concerned. We’re here to play hockey. It’s another hockey tournament for us and it’s just in a different setting with a lot more athletes around and a lot more fans, but it’s not at the top of my mind by any stretch. We’re here to play some great hockey.”