For most of us, Thanksgiving Day means turkey, parades, football, home and family.
But for Team USA athletes, the fourth Thursday in November could mean reindeer, competition, training, hotel rooms and yes, family – people who share their sport, if not their blood.
While they’ve adopted different traditions for one of our country’s signature holidays, is anything more American than representing Team USA on the road – especially the road to the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018?
“I’ve missed almost every Thanksgiving for probably the last 20 years,” said cross-country skier Kikkan Randall, who is vying for her fifth straight U.S. Olympic Team. “We’re typically in northern Finland on Thanksgiving Day (the winter resort of Ruka). We make sure to give our thanks, but it’s maybe not in the traditional way.
“You know, reindeer with mashed potatoes and lingonberry sauce is pretty darn good, I have to say.”
Other athletes, though, are determined to eat turkey, even if they can’t get all the trimmings.
“We make sure to ask the hotel for turkey, and usually the hotels actually do give one to us that we can carve,” said luger Tucker West, who hasn’t celebrated Thanksgiving at home since he started traveling the world about seven years ago. “Sometimes they’ll cook us a pie.”
The luge world cup circuit is usually in Germany or Austria in late November, and this year’s event is in Winterberg, Germany.
“We all dress up in our one nice dress shirt that we take traveling and have a good, old Thanksgiving family-style dinner,” said West. “It’s the whole entire team and the coaches show up. We have this tradition that the youngest will always give a speech beforehand, which was me for three years running.”
West said the military members on the team might go to a nearby Army base to pick up some American food, “so they’ll get like some pumpkin stuffing or anything like that to make it feel more like home.”
So, does it feel more like home and make up for not being with family?
“It does,” West said. “I mean, I’m away from my actual family, but the team is a family in itself. I’ve been training with and traveling with these guys since I was 12. So we’ve grown up together, we’ve competed together, we’ve been through each other’s highs and lows, so we really are a family.”
Bobsled pilot Justin Olsen even cooked for his four-man crew last year in Whistler, British Columbia, which again is the venue for this year’s Thanksgiving-week world cup.
“We had just crashed the day before so we were all kind of messed up,” said push athlete Evan Weinstock. “We weren’t sliding. Justin went out and he bought us a turkey and he made us a whole Thanksgiving dinner. Just for the four of us. It was pretty nice.”
Was Olsen a good cook? “Decent,” Weinstock said. “It was better than what we’d had.”
It wasn’t easy to find a turkey. Like the Pilgrims relying on the natives for help, the U.S. bobsled team wound up getting their main course from Dutch driver Ivo de Bruin.
“He lives in Canada, so he had one in his freezer,” said Weinstock. “He kind of saved Thanksgiving for us.”
Aja Evans and her bobsled teammates will also be in Whistler this year.
“Thanksgiving is my favorite time of the year,” she said, “I mean outside of Christmas, if I still get some gifts – I’m kind of old now, no one gives me Christmas gifts. Usually when we spend Thanksgiving in the season, it’s in Canada or some country that doesn’t celebrate our Thanksgiving. So we try to find somebody’s kitchen to go cook and celebrate it amongst ourselves.
“I can cook the whole meal. My mom taught me all her secret recipes and her Thanksgiving array is my favorite dinner of all time.”
Skeleton athlete Matt Antoine also credits his mom with teaching him his way around a kitchen.
“My mom made sure I learned how to cook growing up,” he said. “I think last year we had sushi for Thanksgiving, though.”
Seriously? Antoine said one of the coaches made that suggestion, and he and his teammates went along with it. “Over the last 15 years I think I’ve been in the U.S. twice for Thanksgiving,” Antoine said, but he admitted, “I do miss it.”
Para alpine skier Andrew Kurka said he and his teammates aren’t sentimental at all about what they eat on Thanksgiving.
“I don’t go home for any of the holidays,” he said. “I stay in training in Aspen, Colorado, and I eat dinner with my team. Last year we had authentic Mexican food and went to the movies. Just dudes doing dude stuff, that’s what we do.”
Sacrificing time with family is what Team USA athletes do in their quest to be the best. Last year figure skater Mariah Bell competed in Estonia at the Tallinn Trophy en route to her first world championships appearance later that season.
“I remember FaceTiming my family,” Bell said. “It was a little bit of a bummer, because that’s something that I’ve always been a part of and everybody’s there together but you’re not. My mom was with me, so that was good.”
Evan Strong, the reigning Paralympic champion in snowboardcross, said he’ll be in Pyha, Finland, above the Arctic Circle, for his first Thanksgiving on the road.
“The cool thing is for snowboarders, there’s definitely like a fellowship,” he said, “so I’m sure we’re all going to be missing home and our family and Thanksgiving, but we’ll do something special to commemorate and celebrate the holiday.”
Other Team USA athletes are scattered around the country and the world for world cups. The only actual winter sports competition on Thanksgiving Day is in women’s ski slopestyle in Stubai, Austria, while men’s alpine skiers have a downhill training run Thursday in Lake Louise, Alberta.
Mikaela Shiffrin is in Killington, Vermont, getting ready for women’s slalom; while there are biathlon events in Norway and Sweden and a snowboard big air event in Beijing.
Summer sports athletes will also be in action Thanksgiving week, including the U.S. men’s basketball team vs. Puerto Rico in world cup qualifying; gymnasts Marvin Kimble, Allan Bower and Colin Van Wicklen in the Cottbus (Germany) World Cup; and three men’s and three women’s teams in the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour in Sydney, Australia.
How about some sand with your turkey and stuffing?
Nathan Chen will be one of the Team USA figure skating stars competing in Lake Placid, New York, at Skate America, which starts Friday. Others include Ashley Wagner, Karen Chen, Adam Rippon, Maia and Alex Shibutani, and Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim.
Chen said his mom will be with him, but he doesn’t expect a big production for Thanksgiving.
“My family doesn’t do anything super crazy, and this will probably be along the same lines,” he said. “We won’t do anything glam, but maybe have a nice dinner somewhere.”
And the main course? “Maybe turkey,” Chen said. “Who knows? Good protein.”