Long flight, high prices face families headed to Sochi for Winter Games

January 6, 2014 Updated: January 6, 2014 at 2:05 pm
photo - The USA -2 boblsed team of Steven Holcomb and Bill Schuffenhauer  take the final curve on their third run of competition in Olympic two-man bobsled competition Sunday, February 19, 2006 in Cesana Pariol, Italy. Hays and Jovanovic placed 7th. Photo by Mark Reis
The USA -2 boblsed team of Steven Holcomb and Bill Schuffenhauer take the final curve on their third run of competition in Olympic two-man bobsled competition Sunday, February 19, 2006 in Cesana Pariol, Italy. Hays and Jovanovic placed 7th. Photo by Mark Reis 

Four years ago, Jean Anne Schaefer was in Vancouver cheering as her son led Team USA to its first Olympic gold medal in more than 60 years in the four-man bobsled.

When Steven Holcomb attempts to re-create the magic next month in Sochi, Russia, it will be without his mom's in-person encouragement.

"Steve and I sat down and had a long conversation. He is very concerned about me making that trip alone in Russia," said Schaefer, who lives in Colorado Springs. "He feels security will be very high, particularly for Americans, and he didn't think I'd have a great amount of freedom to move around the country."

The last thing an Olympic parent wants to be is an additional burden on an athlete's mind, she said.

"Basically what it came down to was he was concerned about my safety, and I don't want to distract him from what he has to do. I don't want him thinking in the back of his mind, 'Where's my mom? What's she doing? Is she OK?'" Schaefer said. "He shouldn't have a single thought on his mind at the Olympics aside from what he needs to do athletically."

The coastal city of Sochi, on the northeast sweep of the Black Sea, isn't a destination easily reached by most of the world's elite athletes and their families. Deadly terrorist attacks in recent weeks in the city of Volgograd, about 600 miles northeast, have added an additional concern for those heading to the Winter Olympics.

"Sochi is definitely going to be a challenge for a lot of families and friends to be able to get to for many reasons," said Ramsey Baker, chief marketing officer with U.S. Figure Skating. "If you've got a family member who's competing in the Olympics, I think people are very open to long travel and those hassles because it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most."

Depending on proximity to transportation and to the newly constructed Sochi Olympic Park, early travel planners encountered hotel prices ranging from just less than $500 to more than $1,000 a night.

U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton has a hold on a block of hotel rooms through a partner tour agency for its small delegation of staff members and noncompeting athletes. Hopes are that a more affordable option will present itself before the Games begin, said Darrin Steele, CEO of the sport's national governing body, which has offices in Colorado Springs and Lake Placid, N.Y.

"Because things are still under construction in Sochi, it's made it difficult to do things ahead of time," Steele said. "We still haven't locked into that (block of hotel rooms). It's very expensive."

The flight path to Sochi isn't simple or inexpensive, either.

Baker's 34-hour jaunt from the Springs connects through Chicago, Munich and Moscow. He estimated that the group's Springs staff members paid from $1,500 to $2,000 for tickets - "and that's being purchased well, well in advance," Baker said.

U.S. Figure Skating will be among the last Olympic sports to name its official team.

"The parents and the family members of the athletes won't know until the evening or the afternoon of Jan. 12 whether or not their son or daughter has made the team," Baker said. "They won't have as many options as I did when I was booking my flight a couple months ago and I could choose between several itineraries and look for the best prices."

Knowing the challenges families will face, U.S. Figure Skating launched the Family Tree program a year ago to help defray travel costs by promising $5,000 to each family of the 15 athletes named to the U.S. team. Donors can contribute by buying a digital "leaf" at destinationsochi.org.

"The family is such an intricate part of (an athlete's) ability to perform and to get to where they are. Athletes are always concerned about their families - how are they going to get to the game, where are they going to stay, and how are they going to afford it," Baker said. "Our goal is to allow the athletes to prepare and be as focused as possible on the competition. It's going to be the most exciting time of their lives, and if we can eliminate some of the things on the periphery that can keep them from doing their best, that's what a support staff does."

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