One of the many airplanes inbound Monday for Moscow carried five American long-track speed skaters. They were flying in from Atlanta.
Another plane bound Monday for Moscow carried five more American skaters, along with the U.S. national long-track team coach, a team doctor and team trainer. This group was coming from Holland. They had just been at the 2011 International Skating Union long-track sprint world championships, in a Dutch town called Heerenveen.
As the jet from Holland bore down on Moscow, the captain came on the intercom. Ladies and gentlemen, he said, we’re going to be a little bit delayed in landing. Heavy air traffic, the captain added.
It was more than that, of course. A bomb had gone off minutes beforehand at Moscow’s busiest airport. Later, authorities would call it a suicide bombing, and announce that at least 35 people were dead and 168 wounded.
For those who observe the American Olympic scene, in the days and years to come there almost surely — if regrettably — will be more days like Monday, filled with tense uncertainty. In this instance, that uncertainty played out most intently for those closely connected to U.S. Speedskating.
This story has — at least for the American delegation, and for the moment — the calmest of all possible endings. Everyone in the U.S. delegation is safe and sound.
Even so, the Moscow bombing underscores the sorts of new and dizzying challenges confronting the U.S. Olympic Committee as well as U.S. sports federation and delegation officials charged — first and foremost — with ensuring the safety and security of their athletes. A bomb in an airport arrivals hall? Who would have thought to worry precisely about that?
Of course, no one back in North America — or, for that matter, in the air, flying from Holland to Moscow — knew immediately Monday what had happened. And that illustrates the real-life and real-time demands of trying to find out what is going on halfway around the world, what kind of risks might be at issue, how to communicate about such matters and, ultimately, what to do — if anything.
The logistics of it all Monday were, in a word, ferocious.
This, though, must be said: With the advantage of hindsight, the way U.S. Speedskating handled it all may be come to be seen as a model. A contingency plan was in place. And technology certainly helped. But, as ever, the value of relationships proved vital.
And, so, too, did a huge dose of common sense, all involved emphasized Tuesday.
When word broke of the Moscow bombing, it was late morning Monday in Ottawa, Canada. Mark Greenwald, U.S. Speedskating’s executive director, a two-time U.S. Olympian (1988, 1992), was there in a meeting, along with the federation’s marketing and sponsorship director, Tamara Castellano. “We stopped the meeting cold,” Greenwald said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Speedskating’s communications director, Linda Jager, was also in a meeting, along with the federation’s long-track director, Finn Halvorsen; short-track manager, Chris Weaver; and short-track head coach, Jae Su Chun. But they were out west, in the Los Angeles suburbs.
The federation’s office is in Salt Lake City. That’s where another two-time long-track (2002, 2010) Olympic skater Nick Pearson was. His job title now is “program coordinator,” and he proved Monday to be just that — the hub of everything.
“It’s a terrible situation and everyone is trying to do the right thing as they can,” Greenwald said Tuesday, reflecting on the prior 24 hours. “It’s tough when you’re halfway around the world to get information and make well-thought out decisions.”
He added, “We are a team. But speedskating is a small sport. Beyond any team affiliation we’re a family.”
A quick recap of the situation as the news broke:
Seven different federation officials, in three different cities and three different time zones.
Ten American skaters. Five en route to Moscow from Atlanta — three of whom had flown to Atlanta from Salt Lake City, two from Milwaukee. Five more on the flight from Moscow, plus coach, doctor and trainer.
Why Moscow? For a World Cup event there due to begin this coming Friday.
What about Shani Davis, arguably the marquee American skater? Would he be on either flight manifest? No. Davis went back to Salt Lake from Holland, to train for next month’s world all-around championships in Calgary. Brian Hansen, another skater, didn’t travel to Moscow, either.
The airport where the bomb went off is called Domodedovo.
The airport where the flights carrying the Americans were due to land is called Sheremetyevo.
Thus the primary question: Did all the Americans in fact land there?
The first flight was to have landed at 11 in the morning Moscow time. The bomb went off about 4:30 in the afternoon. The second flight was to have landed just after 6 in the evening.
After some scrambling on the phone, it was clear that, yes, both flights landed at Sheremetyevo.
“We didn’t find out about anything until we landed,” the U.S. team coach, Ryan Shimabukuro said, adding, “I turned on my phone and had all these text messages.
“I used half my phone battery letting people know we were okay.”
In a phone interview Tuesday morning, he said, “I was watching the Russian news broadcasts. The pictures they showed were graphic: People dead on the ground. Bloody floors. Bodies being brought on stretchers. Crews trying to assist the wounded. It was a chilling experience.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Speedskating officials also contacted the USOC, whose experienced and ever-calm security director, Larry Buendorf, put them in touch with the American embassy in Moscow. “Just to monitor things to make sure they didn’t escalate to a different level,” he said.
Once they knew everyone in the American delegation was safe over in Moscow, U.S. Speedskating let the athletes’ families know that was the case; the also federation sent an e-mail to its roughly 2,000 members and constituents.
Further, the federation posted to its Twitter feed with a note that made clear the U.S. long-track delegation had arrived safely in Moscow. It did the same on Facebook, adding in that Facebook post, “Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by this tragedy in Moscow.”
Some of the U.S. athletes also took to Facebook. Rebekah Bradford wrote on her page, “Team USA safe and sound in Moscow.”
Responding to an email request for an interview, she added, “My prayers and thoughts go out to those affected by this tragedy. I am thankful that all the other speedskating teams are safe and accounted for. Thank you, U.S. Speedskating, for getting word out to our family, friends and fans that we are safe and sound.
“I was more concerned for them at that point because I knew I wouldn’t have access to communication until we arrived at the hotel. I feel blessed and grateful. Now it’s time to prepare for a safe and respectful competition.”
There’s been no word yet on whether the World Cup event that brought the American skaters to Moscow will, indeed, go on as planned. Assuming that it does, this last word from Rebekah Bradford, who wrote again after practice Tuesday morning:
“The ice is fast here. I think it’s going to be a good competition.”