Tucker West reacts after his run in the men's sprint final at the FIL Sprint World Championships on Jan. 27, 2017 in Innsbruck, Austria.
Traveling the world as an elite international athlete sounds like such a glamorous life.
Eh, not always.
Spooky hotels. Terrifying taxi rides. Weird food. Delayed flights. Equipment missing or stuck in customs. And don’t even think about losing your passport.
Just ask Olympic alpine skier Jackie Wiles, who takes the gold medal for travel trouble.
“I was literally walking down the streets of Barcelona in my ski outfit begging for money so I could go get a new passport to fly home a couple of days later,” she said.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Wiles, 25, had been in Europe for a month in the winter of 2015 when she realized her passport was missing.
“I think the last place I had seen it was at the U.S. Army base in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany,” Wiles said, “and we had been training in Italy and then we were going to fly from Geneva, Switzerland, to Barcelona, where we were going to race in Andorra.”
Whew, that’s a lot of moving around!
“And I couldn’t find my passport and I had to fly that next morning, so I’m in panic mode,” said Wiles, who competed in women’s downhill at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014.
She went to the airport and got a temporary travel document, but officials wouldn’t let her on the plane.
Wiles found a train instead. “It was still terrifying traveling without documents,” she said. “There were all these Army soldiers with guns who were really intimidating. They’re like, ‘Passport!’ and I was freaking out and I give them my Oregon driver’s license and somehow that worked. I was like, ‘Sweet!’”
Teammate Laurenne Ross picked Wiles up in Montpelier, France, and they drove into Andorra.
“I was hiding in the back of the car,” Wiles said.
Another driver, someone who spoke no English, took her to the U.S. Embassy in Barcelona, which opened just for Wiles. “But I had come straight from training, so I didn’t have any money,” she said.
Wiles went outside and started asking strangers for cash, with no success.
“They were probably like, ‘Oh, she looks like a rich American in her USA apparel,’” Wiles said. “I think I ran 10 blocks and finally found an ATM that would work, so I got a good workout in, made it back and finally got a passport.”
She didn’t get to bed until midnight – not the best preparation for her world cup race the next morning.
“It was horrible,” Wiles said. “I don’t think I slept or ate for a couple of days. I was just trying to figure it all out, but I feel like I learned a lot.
“I feel like I could really tackle anything now after that.”
Wiles especially learned to keep her passport close. “It’s always on me,” she said. “I have a special pocket in my backpack that I always keep it in.”
Just about every athlete has a travel horror story, but skeleton racer Annie O’Shea may be the only one who thought she was in a horror movie like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
O’Shea booked a hotel online for the junior world championships in Altenberg, Germany, that she’ll never forget, though she wishes she could.
“It was the biggest goof,” O’Shea said. “I blame myself for that one for sure. It seemed cheap and it said it’s15 kilometers away from the track.”
She and her teammates drove to the hotel late at night.
“We were getting closer and closer to the Czech Republic and we thought, ‘This can’t be right. This place doesn’t exist,’” O’Shea said. “We had to go down this road and it looked like we’re going to fall into an abyss. We were all hungry and tired and we’d been together for so long … no one wanted to fight and no one wanted to admit that we all thought we were going to our doom.”
They eventually found the hotel, much to their further dismay. “I think it was an old hospital, and I swear it was haunted and I think that someone saw a mouse,” O’Shea said.
Not only did it take a solid 40 minutes to get to and from the track, but the hotel also ended up more expensive than it was supposed to be. “I paid an extra $200 to leave Germany early,” O’Shea said, “because I was over it.”
Nina Roth, the skip of the 2018 U.S. Olympic Women’s Curling Team, is looking forward to going to the PyeongChang Games, though she had a harrowing experience in South Korea as a 16-year-old at her first junior world championships.
Roth, now 29, and a teammate grabbed a cab from the venue back to their hotel.
“We didn’t speak any Korean, so we had a piece of paper that had our address on it,” Roth said. “And we get in the back of this cab – he’s got leopard print seats in the back – and he takes our note, laughs and crumples it up and tosses it.”
The driver then proceeded to drive in a direction they’d never gone before.
“So my teammate and I thought that we were getting abducted the entire time, freaking out in the back,” Roth said, “when really he was trying to make a joke on us. He got us there safely. It was just fine, but it wasn’t funny.”
Bobsled pusher Evan Weinstock was riding with teammate Lou Moreira at the wheel when he knew they were going the wrong way.
They were on the Autobahn, heading to Igls, Austria.
“I think he took a wrong turn and we ended up having to go through a toll that was going to take us to another country,” Weinstock said. “I was in the back of the truck, riding with the sled, and I was following on my GPS on the phone. I was like, ‘We’re going the wrong way,’ but I had no way of reaching them. We eventually made it to the track an hour later, but I was freezing cold in the back.”
And riding with the sled in the back, Weinstock acknowledged, is “probably not legal.”
All athletes know how important it is to carry their skates and boots onto the airplane.
“You can always find the other stuff,” said alpine skier Julia Mancuso, who has won four Olympic medals.
But long track speedskater KC Boutiette, a veteran of four Olympic Games, realized last year that he should have packed his blades.
He said there’s no problem keeping the blades on the skates if you don’t have a connection, but he had one in China.
“We’re going through security and now you’ve got language barrier and people that don’t want to help you,” Boutiette said. “They said, ‘You’re going to have to check them,’ and I go, ‘I can’t go back out there and make it through this line.’”
Boutiette’s team had already gone through.
“It got kind of heated,” he said, “and to a point where I was like, ‘I’m walking, so you can either stop me or you’re going to bring somebody with me.’”
A security person accompanied Boutiette to the plane.
Two-time Paralympic alpine skier Danelle Umstead had to get permission from the pilot to let Bettylynn, her guide dog, board a plane after a layover in Argentina en route to Chile.
Umstead and her husband, Rob, her sighted guide on the slopes, took Bettylynn, the first guide dog to represent Team USA at the Paralympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010, outside to go to the bathroom.
“Well, it wasn’t that easy,” Umstead said. “They were like, ‘Uh, you can’t come back in.’ We didn’t have the right paperwork. We didn’t have a visa.’”
Airport officials didn’t care that Bettylynn was famous.
When the Umsteads finally convinced officials to let them back in, they were told they had to muzzle Bettylynn. “Somebody had to vouch for us,” Umstead said. “The pilot was like ‘Let them on, let’s go.’ We ended up making it but it was a pretty scary situation.”
While equipment that doesn’t make it isn’t exactly scary, it’s terribly inconvenient.
Two-time Olympic medalist Elana Meyers Taylor had what she called “an absolutely crazy week” earlier this month when her bobsled and equipment were held up in customs prior to the world cup in Winterberg, Germany.
She and Lauren Gibbs, her brakeman, had to borrow sleds, runners, helmets and spikes from other nations for the training runs to qualify for the race.
"It just goes to show that we can overcome anything as a team," Meyers Taylor said. "Every single person on this staff and team came together this week. Jimmy (Reed) and Nic (Taylor, her husband) drove to Munich to get our sleds so we could be here to train.”
There was a silver lining to the ordeal: a silver medal in the race.
Prior to the 2015 world cup in Lake Placid, New York, Meyers Taylor couldn’t train for two days because of a late bobsled.
“I ended up winning the race,” she said, “so maybe missing the training actually helped me.”
Skeleton racer Matt Antoine hasn’t had to deal with a missing sled since the 2010 Olympic season, when it happened at the worst possible time.
“It was one of the qualifying races just to try to gain points to qualify for the team and my sled showed up five days late for a competition,” Antoine said. “I was already on edge because I knew I was kind of on the brink of making the team and all of sudden my equipment doesn’t show up. So that was adding insult to injury at this point.”
He remembers waiting at the baggage claim carousel in Calgary, Alberta, for his bag. “It doesn’t come out and then you go over to the counter and they tell you where it is.”
Chicago. His stuff was in Chicago. He had to borrow suits and shoes from other athletes until his arrived.
“Ultimately I didn’t make the Olympic team, so it just wasn’t my year that year,” said Antoine, who went on to win the bronze medal in Sochi.
Criss-crossing the world for nearly two decades has made four-time Olympic cross-country skier Kikkan Randall ready for anything.
En route to a world cup in China, Randall and her team were supposed to arrive at 7 p.m., but were delayed and didn’t get in until 3 a.m.
“We were due to compete at 9 a.m. the next day,” Randall said. “There hadn’t been a lot of food because the airport was closed and so we all showed up in the morning for breakfast really hungry. And it was the weirdest Chinese buffet I’ve ever seen. It was all these unidentifiable things. Thankfully, I had some power bars that I had traveled over with. It was like, ‘You’re in this situation; you’ve just got to make do.’”
Luge athlete Tucker West, who competed in his first Olympics in 2014 and just made the 2018 team, said athletes make do wherever they are.
“No one wants to hear about how much we just slept on the airport floor,” he said. “I’ve definitely had my share of those nights. You get the backpack back there, you put something over your eyes and you’re good to go.”
Unless you wake up and can’t find your passport.