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Spending Thanksgiving Abroad Means Making Some Adjustments For Team USA

By Blythe Lawrence | Nov. 21, 2018, 12:31 p.m. (ET)

(Second from left) Chris Mazdzer poses for a photo with his teammates.


On paper, Chris Mazdzer’s Thanksgiving plans look a lot like everyone else’s: on Thursday evening, he’ll sit down to a turkey dinner with loved ones. At some point, following a longstanding tradition, someone will make a speech. Afterward, the athletically inclined will troop outside for the annual Turkey Bowl football game.

That all this happens in the mountain-ringed landscape of Igls, Austria, a resort town just outside of Innsbruck, is where Mazdzer’s tradition veers away from everyone else’s. There’s also the fact that the turkey and trimmings will be fetched from a U.S. Army base an hour away. The loved ones around the table will be his USA Luge teammates, not traditional family. As for the speech, that’s always up to the youngest member of the team — this year, Brittney Arndt — to prepare and deliver.

“We come together, have a good meal, and it’s a great way to prepare for the beginning of the season as one team,” said Mazdzer, who won a historic silver medal at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. “The only issue is sometimes they don’t give us enough turkey!”

For Mazdzer and many Team USA winter sports athletes, Thanksgiving coincides with the opening of world cup season or other important events. Instead of celebrating the holiday in a relative’s dining room, they’ll take their dinner in hotel restaurants or buffet tents halfway around the world after the daily workout.

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It’s become their own holiday tradition. 

“For as long as I can remember, I have been off chasing snow or races during the Thanksgiving break. I think the last time that I was home for Thanksgiving was in elementary or middle school,” said Ida Sargent, a two-time Olympian in cross-country skiing.

Far from home, the athletes do their best to cater to tradition, which can mean improvising when necessary.

“We never really know what we’re actually going to get for Thanksgiving dinner,” said 2014 and 2018 Olympic cross-country skier Sadie Bjornsen.

Reindeer, not turkey, is often on the menu in the ski village of Rukatunturi in northern Finland, where the international cross-country season begins with this weekend’s Ruka Nordic event.

“I hit upon this tradition here: They don’t have cranberry sauce here, but they have this thing called lingonberry sauce, which is really similar,” Bjornsen added. “So we all sit together, we try to dress up, and we always bring lingonberry. It’s kind of my role, actually. For whatever reason, just adding cranberries to meals just pretend like it’s Thanksgiving, it does the job.”

Pairs figure skaters Tarah Kayne and Daniel O’Shea will be spending their holiday in Grenoble, France, at the Internationaux de France, the sixth event of the ISU Grand Prix series. For them, Thanksgiving came early.

“We had a pre-Thanksgiving celebration with our coach and her family. We had a big classic American dinner and played fun board games as a group, so we won’t miss out on any of our normal traditions while we are in France and will have to focus on competing,” Kayne said.

In lieu of pumpkin pie, Emily Sweeney, a luge athlete who is in Whistler, British Columbia, preparing for the second world cup event of the season, thinks she’ll take advantage of her surroundings to pursue a different foodie goal: the fabled Nanaimo bar, a decadent three-layer chocolate and custard dessert.

“We all miss pie — and family,” said Summer Britcher, a 2018 Olympic teammate of Sweeney’s.

Bjornsen has taken to calling home the morning after Thanksgiving, when it’s still nighttime on the West Coast, and pretending she’s there with her relatives.

“I’m the kind of person that can celebrate a holiday literally every day, so it’s fine for me,” she said.

She’s found another way to compensate for missing Thanksgiving, too. “Thanksmas,” as Bjornsen calls it, generally takes place during the first week of November, and involves getting her friends together for a meal where they go around the table and say what they’re thankful for, followed by a white elephant gift exchange.

“I unfortunately don’t get to have my family as part of that, because I’m always training right before, and so I always think it would be nice one year to set up a Christmas tree in April when I get to see them and celebrate all the holidays at once,” she added. “I might just aim for that this year!”

Blythe Lawrence is a journalist based in Seattle. She has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.