After travel ban, WorldTek scrambled to bring home 120 US athletes, coaches

Category: Business

After travel ban, WorldTek scrambled to bring home 120 US athletes, coaches

It had been a long day for U.S. Ski & Snowboard President and CEO Tiger Shaw last Wednesday (March 11). The better part of it was spent on the phone with cross country World Cup organizers in Minneapolis. The world of sport was crumbling, with officials coming to the realization that COVID-19 was going to claim the balance of the season.

A little after 7 p.m., Shaw was conferencing with Minneapolis race leaders. The TV was on in the background at home. Suddenly, President Trump announced an unexpected ban on travel from Europe to the United States, going into effect in less than 48 hours.

‘Where did that come from?’ he thought, now distracted from his call.

His mind flipped back to a night 29 years ago in Laax, Switzerland. Shaw was a U.S. Ski Team athlete at the time. The tech team had raced in Adelboden the day before and was taking advantage of a schedule break before the World Championships coming up in Saalbach, Austria.

“I remember (coach) Steve Victorson rushing into our room yelling, ‘We’re at war, we’re at war,’” recalled Shaw. In the next hours, roughly 100 U.S. Ski Team athletes made their way to airports and safe houses around Europe, evacuating in response to a credible threat to their safety at the dawn of the Gulf War. Only a handful returned a few weeks later to the Alpine World Championships, together with State Department security.

As he quickly wrapped up his call, Shaw knew, ‘We have to get our athletes home — now!’

With nearly 100 athletes and staff at myriad locations across Europe, it was daunting to bring them back before the presumed deadline. Without even being asked, team managers and support staff were already making their way back to the Center of Excellence for what would be a long night. Some stayed until 2:30 a.m. Some slept on gear in the equipment room. Others worked remotely. Some came to the office just for moral support. Everyone worked in harmony, waking up athletes and staff overseas, and calmly working together to change their plans.

During the day, Women’s Alpine Team Manager Colleen Jamiesen had an unsettling feeling. Around noon, Park City time, the World Cup in Åre, Sweden was canceled. Shortly thereafter, the Junior World Championships in Narvik, Norway — already underway — were stopped.

“We had already begun working through flight changes,” said Jamiesen. “The Åre cancelation was really the tip of the iceberg. Neither Åre nor Narvik are easy locations.”

Through the afternoon and into the evening, Jamiesen and her men’s alpine counterpart, Gwynn Watkins, worked through airline and hotel changes, waiting on hold for hours. It was now approaching 8 p.m. The travel ban heightened the urgency and an emergency call was set for 9 p.m.

“When Patty (Frechette, Shaw’s executive assistant) called to see if I would come in I thought it would be just me,” said WorldTek Travel manager Carol Menconi, who came in just before 10 p.m. “What a difference that made in getting the job done with the physical support from the team managers. I have never felt such teamwork in play!”

In Åre, Sweden, Alpine Press Officer Megan Harrod was relaxing with coaches after a long day, which included confirmation of Mikaela Shiffrin’s much-awaited return to competition that weekend. World Cup Finals in Italy had already been canceled. Just after Shiffrin’s confirmation, the Åre races were canceled as well.

“We thought it was a joke at first, especially because that entire week we had been in close contact with the OC (organizing committee) and they had said everything was going to be ok,” said Harrod.

Earlier, the team celebrated Shiffrin’s upcoming 25th birthday on Friday. Paula Moltzan and Nina O’Brien had been wrapping gifts all day. After the celebration, they got in the car and drove to Trondheim, Norway — three hours away — to get a flight out Thursday morning.

Watkins had been on the COVID-19 beat since January with the men’s planned World Cup in China, plus a week in Japan. A negative buzz started up around Kitzbühel, before FIS canceled China. Routings for the tech team to Japan were changed to avoid connecting in China, as well.

“It was a constant roller coaster of emotions the last month,” said Watkins. “Once we received confirmation World Cup Finals were canceled, I breathed a sigh of relief.” Still, the prevailing direction from the athletes and staff was to finish what was left on the schedule in Europe.

“Honestly, I was becoming more alarmed there would be an issue getting them out of Europe,” she said. “Airlines were reducing flights, things were rapidly changing in Europe.”

When Watkins left the office that Wednesday afternoon, she felt good about what they had accomplished. She unwound with her husband at a friend’s house, staying away from TV news — until her phone started lighting up with calls from parents.

She immediately went into two-phone mode, with WorldTek Travel on her husband’s phone and the men’s World Cup tech team on her own, waking them up at 3 a.m. Athlete flights were the priority, with all of them on airplanes six to eight hours later. The staff remained for a day to organize gear.

While team managers from each program usually work just in their sport, that night they came together as a team.

“My goal was to just be as grounded and purposeful as I could be, whether it was communicating with our athletes and their families, remaining calm for those abroad who woke up to a massive amount of calls and texts about the travel ban, or providing leadership with accurate and timely updates,” said Freeski and Snowboard Team Manager Jess Tamez, who had athletes in Amsterdam, Budapest, Copenhagen, Munich and Zurich. “All the while I was trying to find a few moments here and there to lighten the mood for the team managers since it felt like the world was coming down on us for a little bit there.”

Freestyle and Snowboardcross Team Manager Alexis Williams was at home in Park City when she heard the news. Earlier in the season, she got her feet wet when Finnair went on strike and she needed to put an entire team on a bus across Lapland. She had teams in Idre Fjall, Norway, four hours from Oslo, and Veysonnaz, Switzerland, two hours from Geneva. She texted her coaches and hopped on the 9 p.m. conference call with fellow team managers and the team’s WorldTek Travel manager Carol Menconi.

“I told them I had about 30 flights to change and I heard a gasp in the background,” said Williams. “They said, ‘Come to the office.’”

It was now approaching 10 p.m. in Park City. Patty organized snacks and drinks for the team. Women’s alpine changes were being finalized.

The assembled team gathered around the WorldTek cubby on the third floor, calmly going through their checklists. Menconi, eyes ever focused on her screen, let her fingers do the talking as she rapidly keypunched changes. It was interspersed with calls to Delta and the United Olympic Desk. Everyone was in good spirits, despite the late hours, focused on the mission.

It’s always easy to second guess crisis decisions. Many wondered in 1991 if there was, indeed, a serious threat. Then U.S. Ski Association Secretary General Howard Peterson had been ahead of the game, working closely with global security officials. The threat was real.

In February, teams began implementing social distancing and doing daily reports. Through the winter, Shaw led an initiative to monitor COVID-19 developments with health officials, including the Center for Disease Control, pushing FIS to ensure athlete safety as the disease spread. Camps were moved to avoid hotspots. Daily calls were initiated with event partners back home.

“I thought Tiger was quite a leader during this time,” said downhiller Steven Nyman. “Before Kvitfjell, we had a call with him about going to Finals or not. All of us, as athletes, were against him wanting to pull the plug. But Tiger was ahead of the game. He was ready.”

“We don’t know the financial impact, but it had to be done,” said Shaw. “We had great support from WorldTek and the airlines at helping us get change fees waived.”

Friday morning, just 36 hours after it all began, Shaw gathered his staff for an impromptu meeting the Center of Excellence. Together, the entire staff team applauded itself. Shaw presented symbolic medals from an old event to the team managers and staff who did yeoman’s work that evening.

The work continued for a full week. Just this past Wednesday, Junior Worlds skier Olivia Holm finally got her six bags back from Oslo, after a circuitous route took her from Narvik all over Scandinavia and Europe. Today, everyone is home enjoying some rest and sharing stories.

For the staff in Park City, it was an experience they won’t soon forget.

“One thing that I took from this was just how well we all came together,” said Tamez. “Each of our teams function very differently, so there’s rarely any day-to-day crossover. But this event really brought us all together. And, in a unique way, it bonded us.”

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly is a veteran of nine Olympics and serves as Vice President, Communications for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. Each week he takes you Behind the Gold to tell you the inside story of our nation’s top skiers and snowboarders.

Worldtek Travel Management in Park City Utah has managed the US Ski and Snowboard Team travel for over 20 years.

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