They've come from near and far. From New York to Colorado, from Alaska to Texas in hopes of experiencing the thrill of a lifetime or, as the case is today at Whistler Creekside, to nervously wait for the fog to lift and the snow to stop falling so the race may commence.
No, we're not talking about the world class athletes showcasing their skills this week at the Paralympic Games in Vancouver. We're referring to the members of the team behind the team: friends and family who have lent their support in hopes that their child, dad, niece, granddaughter, neighbor or friend will return to the United States with a gold medal in tow.
On Saturday afternoon in Whistler, awaiting the start of the downhill were three such groups.
This is the first Paralympic Games for Caitlin Sarubbi's family, however, they definitely had no learning curve to conquer in the cheering section. The group, which will reach 25 strong by the end of the week, includes everyone from her two-year-old sister to her 82-year-old grandmother. This was one group you couldn't miss. Waving oversized flags, shouting U-S-A, singing along with the crowd was the norm for this enthusiastic group. Did I mention the shaved head and red, white and blue dyed hair on one of the kids?
"She qualified for all five events, so we're here for all five events," said Caitlin's mother Cathy Sarubbi. "There are 25 of us, from two to 82."
"It's awesome (having the large cheering section)," remarked Caitlin. "A lot of people say that they feel more pressure when their family is here. But for me it's the opposite because I know that they're so supportive of everything. Even if I fall in the first gate or get a medal, they're going to support me either way. They haven't really seen me race before and it's awesome to have them here cheering us on."
"We have a ton of people," Caitlin added. "My sister's two and my grandmother's 82. I just talked to my mom and she's like 'yeah, grandma was doing the chicken dance the whole time' (during the delay)."
In addition to cheering on Caitlin on the mountain, her family was hoping to be able to catch her carrying the Paralympic torch on Thursday, but that was not to be. Her family landed about 15 minutes after her scheduled leg.
"I actually bribed the pilot," chuckled Cathy. "I gave him a U.S. Ski Team pin and told him to put the pedal to the medal! He landed 15 minutes early, but we missed it."
Dual-Sport Paralympic Fans
A little more subdued, but none less enthusiastic, was the family of Allison Jones. It was easy to spot them, they're the ones with the huge banner with Allison's name, action photo and USA on it.
"It's awesome," exclaimed Allison. "I go to the World Cups over in Europe and they can't join me and I wish they could. With this event being as big as it is, it's nice to see the friends and family who have always supported you sitting in the stands. Knowing that even if I have a crappy run, I'm still going to have family who don't care about that, they just want to see me race and at the end of the day I enjoy knowing that they're here."
Allison's parents, Diane and Jay Jones, have been to four of Allison's five Paralympic competitions - Allison asked that they not travel to Beijing, where she was a member of the 2008 U.S. Paralympic Team for cycling, in order to be able to maintain focus throughout the event.
"I have been to every one, except for Beijing," said Diane Jones. "She didn't want any family there, she wanted to only concentrate on the race. It was difficult (for us). Two weeks ahead of time I was still searching for flights."
"Cycling is sort of a strange sport," Allison added. "I haven't really had family at a big cycling event. Knowing that my mom was dealing with all of her stuff with hotel, flights, food and the language, it was all just too much for me in Athens. Not that it hindered my performance, I just wanted to experience a Paralympics by myself. With Salt Lake City and here, it's pretty easy to get around, the language is the same, but in Beijing I would have stressed about them. Of course when I won silver, the first thing I did was call my mom."
While some parents try to act as an outside coach for their athlete, the Jones are enjoying their role as proud parents as fans. "They're competitors and we step in as parents looking in from the outside edge," stated Jay. "When they get done competing, then they come back to the families and have fun. You just sit on the sidelines like you did when they were little kids. It's the same way."
As for the waiting game they played today, it's old hat for Allison's parents. "I've been doing this enough years, it's the hurry up and wait game," Diane commented. "As soon as I saw the clouds move in, I was like 'we'll be back another day.'"
Third Time's the Charm
And then there was Joe Tompkins' clan. Numbering around 20, which includes a few people from the crowd who were eagerly engulfed into the group, the Tompkins are headed up by Joe's mother, Betty. But it was Christal who did all the talking.
Listening to Christal, you can't help but be impressed at the pride she has in her brother's accomplishments. She made sure to point out that Joe just won the overall World Cup title, claiming the coveted Crystal Globe. "He's 41 and he's just hitting his prime," she beamed.
It's their third Paralympic Games cheering Joe and they're convinced that this time he's going to be on the medal stand. "He led us to Salt Lake, we went," stated Chrystal. "He led us to Torino and we were there. Now he's led us here."
Joe has finished first in World Cup competitions and in various disciplines, but Paralympic success has eluded him thus far and his family senses that's about to change. They even have t-shirts proclaiming that the third time's the charm.
"I love having my family here," commented Joe from the bottom of the mountain as his family cheered from a nearby balcony. "Some people say it adds more pressure, but I don't think so. I can block it out. I've been to three games and most of my family has been to all of them. [When I crashed and injured my arm in Torino,] my son said, you can't end on this one. So I'm here."