Knock, knock, knock! On my first morning in Oberhof, Germany, I’m jolted out of sleep by someone rapping on my door. I crawl out of bed and poke my head out into the hallway. “Good morning sleepy head!” my teammates Sara and Annelies great me with a laugh, “you really ought to see yourself in the mirror- you’ve got a handprint on your face.” I must have been using my hand as a pillow. I grunt and glance at my watch: 9:25. I slept for almost 11 hours and I vaguely remember deciding to sleep through my alarm. Oh, the joys of jetlag!
Following breakfast, I venture into the grey world outside for an easy jog and I check out the race venue. The towering spruce trees along the road rock dangerously in the wind. A thin strip of plastic fencing tape is blowing so hard that it sounds like the clatter from a rolling luggage bag. Oberhof has a reputation for crappy weather: wind, rain, and fog. In the race stadium, I run into Max Cobb, executive director of US Biathlon and an IBU official for this week’s competitions. “Is it always this windy here?” I ask him. Max informs me that the Oberhof World Cup usually has at least one day like this.
On the day before the first event, the organizers worked nonstop to truck in enough snow.
The wind hasn’t abated by the afternoon when we arrive at the wax cabins and prepare for official training. The wax room doors are accidents waiting to happen. Open them even the slightest bit and the wind will catch them, swing them wide open, and pin them against the wall. Sara struggles to wrestle our door closed; it looks like a more arduous workout than skiing but I’m laughing so hard that I can’t assist her. I’m very glad our upstairs wax cabin is on the end of the building so we don’t have to risk walking along the narrow balcony front of everybody else’s doors.
Predictably, today’s shooting is frustrating. A teammate sums it up saying “If you can hit 3 targets [per stage], you are doing well.” Standing is especially difficult- my whole body sways in the wind. In order to hit anything, I have to wait out the worst of the gusts and be ready to shoot when there is a split second of calm.
The skiing is slightly better, although the snow is sparse. The organizers have only a 1.5 km loop open for the first couple days of training and are preserving the rest of the course for the races. Before the second afternoon of training, our high performance director, Bernd Eisenbichler, asks the team: “Who hasn’t skied here before? Susan? Annelies?” The closed off part of the course includes the strenuous “Bergsteig” climb and a challenging downhill that will be featured in the race. Last week, the world’s best cross country skiers raced down it during the Tour de Ski and there were a handful of epic crashes. “Don’t worry,” Bernd tells us with a grin, “you only go about 60 km/hr on the downhill.” He’s exaggerating slightly- Tour de Ski competitors were only clocked going 58 km/hr. We are a little worried.
Leif, a member of our men’s team chimes in: “Yeah, it’s not like it is twisty and technical or anything.”
“Shut up!” cries Annelies, and gives Leif a shove, but she’s smiling. On the day before the sprint when we finally get a chance to preview the course, I find the actual downhill anticlimactic after hearing so much about it.
A row of coaches at the scopes during offical training. In the background you can see part of the stands, which wrap around the hill like an amphitheatre.
As soon as we arrived in town, Sara started talking up Oberhof’s opening ceremonies. Last year, she was the only US athlete who bothered to participate, and she thought it was really cool. Usually these events are long and drawn out, with lots of speakers (translated into a couple different languages) and hours of standing in the cold wind. However, this one’s designed to be athlete friendly. Sara, Annelies, and I decide to go as a group this year. We arrive in the indoor waiting area at our assigned time and are immediately given an American flag and instructed to line up at the doorway behind the Ukrainian team. Two minutes later, it is our turn to march outside onto a stage to the sound of some unmemorable soundtrack. Annelies leads with the flag. We smile and wave at the crowded park below. The announcer turns to interview us. “How do you find the weather here?” he asks, and thrusts the microphone under my nose. Oh, you mean the pounding winds, the walls of mist that blast against our faces, the slushy saturated1.5 km loop of snow? “We’re loving it!” I declare. The announcer turns to Sara: “Are you planning to use your wax skis or your water skis?” I’ve never heard of snow skis referred to as wax skis before. “We hope we’ll be using our wax skis,” she responds. The announcer thanks us, and then we are waving to the crowd one last time and parading off stage. Barely five minutes have passed since our arrival in the waiting area. Short and sweet- the way opening ceremonies for these events should be.
Upon exiting the back of the building, we are mobbed by a group of 20 or so autograph seekers. Oberhof is one of the most popular World Cups in terms of fan attendance. On a Wednesday night race, in the worst weather imaginable, 15,000-20,000 fans will show up to watch. Thousands more appear for weekend races. The small group around us right now wields sharpies, event posters, and printed out athlete photos. They ask for our autograph cards. I hadn’t needed them until this year. Right about now, I’m feeling thankful that Annelies and I made a last minute decision to design some cards for ourselves. We each printed out about 100 the day before we flew to Sweden back in November. Fans in Europe expect you to have them on hand, and I like having their support. Let’s face it, American Nordic skiers can use all the support we can get. The tricky part is that if you give out one card, or sign something for one person, the entire group crowds around you. Luckily, there is a security guard in a bright yellow coat ready to intervene if necessary. At this rate, I am going to run out of cards before I even race this week. As we leave the crowd, Sara gives me a piece of advice: “If I were you, I would make sure to save some cards for Ruhpolding.”
Another section of the stands. 3 hours until the men's relay, and fans are already claiming their places.
On my second morning in Oberhof, I wake up at a reasonable early hour. On my way to breakfast, I run into one of our coaches, Per and he looks cheery. “Come here Susan,” he calls me over to the window. “I have to show you something. Look!” We peer through the blinds and he points to the sky. I can see some clear sky among scattered clouds. It’s threatening to snow. It’s even threatening to sunshine. It’s beautiful weather, for Oberhof.