In the Spring of 2017 I was notified that I had qualified for the World University Games. What are the World University Games? That’s the same question that I had at first. The World University Games is known internationally as the Universiade. The Winter Universiade occurs every two years and is an international competition for university students modeled after the Olympics. Nearly 3,000 of the best student athletes from 57 countries compete in 14 different winter sports. Never did I think I would get a chance to compete on the international stage for cross country skiing. In March of 2016, I had managed to snag a 2nd place finish in the skate sprint at USCSA (United States Collegiate Ski Association) Nationals, which locked me in for a spot at the 2017 28th Winter Universiade in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The event took place during the first two weeks of January. My teammate at Western Colorado University Cam Moore also qualified with his strong performances at nationals.
The flight to Almaty marked the start of our trip. Lugging around a suitcase, duffel, backpack, seven pairs of skis, and four pairs of poles while crossing 13 time zones over the course of a day is exhausting! We arrived at 6am, Kazakh time. Our first impression of Almaty was a crowd of friendly volunteers designated to help us with our luggage. Following a police escort, as we would soon grow accustomed to, we took a short bus ride to the athlete village. After checking into the athlete housing, we headed out for a run and then did yoga in the fitness center. We spent the rest of our first day exploring the village and making frequent visits to the athlete dining hall. I can’t be entirely sure, but I believe the first bite of meat I ate was horse. Another great bonus was the free coffee bar in the ground floor of the central pyramid.
Once we had taken a day to settle in and catch up from our jet-lag, the team headed up to the Alatau ski stadium where our skis had been conveniently delivered for us strait from the airport. The ski venue was amazing! Beyond World Cup standards! The stadium was located up in the Alatau mountains, which towered above at 3,000 meters and taller. I was amazed by the quality of the grooming, the technicality of every corner and descent, and the difficulty of each climb. There were two five-kilometer ski loops that crisscrossed, but never fully intersected. An infrastructure of tunnels and bridges kept each course its own. The stadium was large enough to host over a thousand fans. Large TV cameras lined the entire course. A tunnel system was hidden below the stadium and contained wax rooms, changing rooms, and a cafeteria for athletes. The whole event felt like an Olympics, and the treatment of athletes was over the top. The only down side was the hour and a half bus ride to and from the venue.
The opening ceremony signaled the official start to the games. 12,000 people packed into a massive ice arena with a spectacular show of the culture and history of Kazakhstan through dance, theatre, technology, and pyrotechnics. To start the ceremony, each country and its army of athletes made the march around the stadium floor, navigating around the large stage that protruded out on the ice. Chariots manned by golden warriors followed by acrobatic horsemen entered the arena. Electric transport pods and hover boards operated by actors dressed in glistening white suits showed a display of the future energy initiatives of Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital. The ceremonies continued with one spectacular display after another. Numerous dance performances displaying the culture of the many participating nations brought ice skaters spinning through the air, dancers flipping and flying, and large props emerging from above. The president of Kazakhstan closed the ceremonies out by wishing us luck in our competition.
The first competition came the following day. A ten-kilometer individual start classic race, making two loops around the red loop. To my surprise, I was first in the starting order, with nearly a hundred skiers starting at intervals of 15 seconds following my lead. Although I couldn’t understand a word of the Russian or Kazakh that the volunteers were speaking to me, I managed to make my way to the start gate on time. As I made my first strides and began to race, the stadium roared. Still, I blocked out the sound of the noisy spectators, and did my best to start conservatively as planned. The excitement of being at the games and the exhaustion of travel made it difficult for me to find my race gear. I placed 84th on the day. The podium went to two Russians and a French skier. The top skiers were all World Cup skiers racing down at the university level.
A ten-kilometer pursuit start skate race continued the racing the following day. The pursuit start was led out by the previous day’s leader, followed by the other racers based on their order of finish and time back in the 10k classic. Towards the back, I started with eight other skiers in a mass start wave a few minutes behind the leader. I started with bib number 84. After getting a solid 10k shakeout in the previous days’ race, I was feeling fresh and ready to turn my race mode on! The course was the same, two laps with a large climb leading out and a long descent back into the stadium each lap.
The pack accelerated out of the stadium with a burst of speed. I patiently held on in the back waiting for the pace to slow. Within a kilometer, two skiers quickly lost speed and were sent off the back of the pack. My US teammate Sam Wiswell broke off the front to catch a Norwegian that he had been eyeing up the previous day. After a couple sharp corners, we started the long climb. With several inches of fresh snow groomed over, our skis were slow and the hill was more difficult than usual. I held strong to the tail of the lead skier in the pack and used my altitude training as an advantage. The pack strung out, coming together again near the top. A strong surge into the long descent towards the stadium gave us a gap on two more skiers. Starting the climb out on the second lap, our pack had been thinly spread to contain a Korean, Chinese, Kyrgyzstanian, another Cam, and myself. By the top of the loop, I managed to drop everyone but the Chinese skier. With a big surge over the top of the climb, and rocket skis thanks to the wax techs, I gapped my rival. On the finishing stretch I nearly caught a Mongolian skier that had fallen off the group in front of us. I may not have been at the front of the race, but I was very satisfied with beating skiers from 6 countries to finish 72nd on the day, and 78th for the pursuit. Again, the Russian skiers dominated with several top ten finishes.
During our day off between competitions, the team took a tour of the city. We were able to view some of the architecture of the thousand-year-old city, and learned much about the nomadic tribes that long inhabited the Kazakh territory. My favorite building was a small yellow cathedral in the center of a large park. The woodwork and interior embellishments were fascinating. The cathedral was also built without the use of nails, which must have made its construction quite the project. Our last stop on the tour brought us to the Green Market. The
Green Market hosts many vendors of fruits, nuts, meats, and cheeses in its center market area. Surrounding the central market were many outlets selling black market apparel, shoes, and other goods. It was interesting to see that a pair of shoes typically going for a few hundred dollars could be produced in a cheaper fashion and sold for less than $20 US dollars. Many of the US team members took the opportunity to practice their negotiating skills. Interacting with the Almaty locals may have been difficult, but it was interesting to say the least. I was never sure whether to be flattered or annoyed when we would be ambushed by locals to get selfies with us in our USA jackets. After a fun day out, and another meal of meat pastries, horse, and cheese, we checked in early to rest up before the classic sprints the next day.
The classic sprints were short. After a long warmup and some changes in wax, I received my timing chips and headed to the start. Due to the technicality of the blue loop, the course that we would be using for the 1.6km sprint, I decided to use my stiffer and more movement restrictive skate boots so that I could take the corners more aggressively without risking a crash. Unfortunately this choice cost me time, as I had trouble compressing my wax pocket in the tracks, and was unable to kick the steeper climbs in the course as I would have been able to in my classic boots. I still finished 72nd, which was no different than the 10km skate two days previous. Overall, the energy around the event was intoxicating. Even spectating from the center stadium area with the crowd cheering wildly felt like a rush of adrenaline. Kaz-akh-stan, Kaz-akh-stan, Kaz-akh-stan; the crowd would chant.
With the team sprint and 30-kilometer classic left, I became sick and was unable to finish the week of racing. However, it was a blast to cheer on teammates in the remaining competitions. My teammates and I made sure to set up our cheering camp on one of the most exciting parts of the course. We got a few moments of fame, as the TV camera panned by us filming the leaders as they blasted across the ski bridge towards the stadium. Cam raced as the third leg of the 4 x 7.5km relay to conclude his racing. Packing, saying goodbyes to our new friends, trading uniforms, and closing ceremonies; it all went so quick. The last few days were a flash, as the 28th Winter Universiade wrapped up. Almaty, Kazakhstan; a place that I previously knew so little about, and now have grown so fond of. Besides the smog, I will long remember Almaty for its hospitality and beauty. The Alatau mountains will always be fixed in my mind as the most noble mountains I’ve witnessed. I cannot give enough thanks to those who made my trip to Kazakhstan possible.