You think your holiday travel plans were complicated? Winter athletes everywhere would like to have a word.
Whether it’s transporting a pair of speedskating boots, a 450-pound bobsled or a sack full of hockey pads, each winter sport comes with its own unique challenges. Then consider that athletes are often on the road for weeks — maybe months — at a time, and that they’re often dealing with the same weight restrictions, customs checkpoints and jam-packed overhead bins as the rest of us.
“Traveling for us, it can be a struggle at times,” said skeleton’s Matt Antoine in the understatement of the year.
“We’re a traveling circus basically,” added biathlete Susan Dunklee.
For the most part, winter sports seasons are anchored in Europe. Athletes might spend one weekend in the Swiss Alps and the next in the Dolomites of Italy, followed by a trip north of the Arctic Circle to Levi, Finland.
The alpine skiing circuit is among the most grueling, and getting from place to place takes more effort than one might think.
Mikaela Shiffrin, the defending Olympic slalom and overall world cup champion, personally travels with eight or nine pairs of boots at a time. That means she’ll show up at the airport with four to five huge bags — some as heavy as 80 pounds — with two or three to check and two to carry on.
And that doesn’t include her skis.
Her serviceman, Kim Erlandsson, handles that. For a typical world cup stop in Europe, Erlandsson might pack three ski bags, two boxes of ski-tuning equipment and his personal luggage — and that’s in addition to Shiffrin’s own luggage. If traveling to a training camp, the ski bags could multiply to as many as 15. At least in Erlandsson’s case, he’s able to ship directly rather than check through the airline.
And yet for all of that luggage, Shiffrin said, about 90 percent is equipment.
“It’s maybe not the ideal lifestyle for a girl who likes to get dressed up, likes shoes, likes all these things because you can’t really pack all that stuff,” she said. “Here I’ll take my favorite pair of sneakers and one nice pair of shoes, and we’ll see what happens.”
Shiffrin’s hardly alone in her luggage needs.
Snowboardcross racer Hagen Kearney typically arrives at the airport with three or four bags — depending on whether he has status on the airline and can avoid weight restrictions. When that’s the case, he’ll check a board bag containing 3-4 snowboards, a roller bag with 2-3 sets of bindings and a duffel bag for his clothes, while also carrying on “a big backpack, which I can jam a bunch of stuff in,” he said.
Hockey has never been a sport that lacks for equipment, and no player needs more equipment than the goalie. So when two-time Paralympic sled hockey champ Steve Cash shows up at the airport with all that and his sled, he can feel the stares.
“It feels like all eyes are on me because I’ve got this 50-pound bag slung over my shoulder, I’ve got a sled in one hand, a suitcase in the other and a backpack on my shoulders,” he said.
It’s all part of life for an athlete who needs to get their highly technical, customized and sometimes massive gear from Airport A to Airport B.
Of course, some athletes couldn’t travel with their equipment if they wanted to. You could never fit a bobsled in an overhead compartment, so sleds get shipped for long trips. For the last couple years, skeleton racers get to ship their equipment, too.
Before heading out on a plane trip, the athletes take everything they can fit to a big metal crate. They’ll fit in their sleds and runners, which are the blades. But athletes also stuff as much of their equipment as they can on the crate, including helmets, speedsuits and any other sliding gear.
“We’re kind of like the pit crew. We pack our sleds up, we pack our bags up there, lock it, everything,” said Aja Evans, an Olympic bronze medalist from 2014.
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“It’s like a game of Tetris trying to get everything in there,” said Antoine, who also won a bronze medal in Sochi. “We fill that thing completely full.”
Once it’s full, the crate is locked up and shipped to the destination.
This can be a relief for those athletes, who then have less to worry about when it comes to weight restrictions and overhead space.
So long as it gets there, of course. Just last month the U.S. bobsled team arrived in Winterberg, Germany, only to find their sleds did not. The equipment was held up at customs, so Elana Meyers Taylor and Lauren Gibbs had to borrow other countries’ equipment for qualifying.
That’s one reason why many athletes make a point of carrying on their most cherished, customized equipment. For Shiffrin, that means always taking one or two pairs of ski boots with her in the main cabin.
“That’s one of my nightmares is to lose my equipment and have to race in somebody else’s stuff,” she said.
While plenty of athletes have had to make due with borrowed equipment over the years, some equipment is simply too specialized to share. That’s why long track speedskating world champion Joey Mantia always carries on his skates, too. And if he can’t carry on the full skates, then he’ll take off the blades and at least carry on the boots.
“My boots always go with me,” he said. “You can replace the blades, but the boots are custom. It would be a nightmare if you lost boots.”
Of all the unique travel challenges, perhaps none is quite like that of the biathletes. When Dunklee goes to the airport, she’s not just bringing your average sports equipment; she’s also bringing a .22-caliber long rifle. Oh, and ammo, too.
With trips to as many as nine or 10 countries in a season, that means nine or 10 times more customs headaches, permits and, in some cases, fees. A team manager helps coordinate the paperwork and different protocols in each country, but even the best-laid plans can go wrong.
As Dunklee can attest to, there’s not as much room for negotiation when traveling with a gun.
The nearest major airport to Lake Placid, New York, where U.S. Biathlon is based, is in Montreal. So when Dunklee needed to get to Munich for a race, she registered her rifle, paid her fee and showed up ready to go.
Except her rifle never got into the system, and officials there said it would take 24 hours to figure out. It was a situation most travelers can relate to.
“I was upset just like a normal person would be when they’re told you cant get on your flight,” Dunklee said.
The common threads soon disappeared, though, when Dunklee felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to see a police officer.
“He says, ‘Excuse me ma’am, I’ve had a report of a mad woman with a gun and I need to investigate,’” she recalled.
Technically, he was right.
“I was a mad woman who was very upset about my flight, and I had a gun, you know?” she said.
Like many travel horror stories, this one ended in mixed results. The officer knew of biathlon so was sympathetic to the situation. Dunklee still had to wait out the 24 hours. But ultimately she got to Munich and was able to race.
And like any seasoned traveler, she’s learned to look back on the experience with some perspective.
“So I had to be delayed 24 hours,” she said, “but at least I didn't get arrested, you know?”
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.