With less than a year until the opening of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, the two national ski teams are training together at the venue, which will be used for Alpine racing next February.
Three years ago, the two ski associations entered into an agreement to cooperate and share global training facilities. The training camp in Krasnaya Polyana, which is 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, from the Black Sea in Sochi, marks the most valuable benefit for the U.S. skiers to date. They get access to check out and practice on the future Olympic terrain at a resort that is heavily guarded by armed security personnel and remains closed to the public.
"It’s really cool to be here and get access to the hill one year early,” said David Chodounsky, a member of the U.S. Ski Team. "It’s a good time to get the feel of the place, get the feel of Sochi, so when we come here next year we’re comfortable and we can bring our A game.”
It is not just the U.S. team that is benefiting from the relationship. Alexander Glebov, 29, of the Russian team, said the cooperation could help his country’s program, one that has seen limited success at the top level of the sport.
"We can learn a lot from the U.S. team, how they are preparing and their organization,” Glebov said. "It’s a big deal for our racers. Maybe we still have a lot to learn, but I think we are doing well. We have to start skiing faster and everything will fall into place.”
The two teams arrived together in Sochi last week from Slovenia. The Americans headed to their training camp, while the Russians took to the rugged mountain for their national championships.
"Getting to know the mountain, how everything feels and how things are run here can be a big advantage for the future,” said Sasha Rearick, the U.S. head coach.
In exchange for access to the future Olympic slopes and getting to scout the private area, the Americans welcomed the Russians to training camps of their own in New Zealand, Austria and Colorado, at Copper Mountain and Vail.
"They have good leadership and their coaches are very knowledgeable,” said Urban Planinsek, the Slovenian head coach of the Russian team for the past three seasons.
"The U.S. team has always had special kids,” Planinsek said, rattling off a number of skiers: Bode Miller, Ted Ligety, Mikaela Shiffrin, Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso.
"Just being around them is good for us,” Planinsek said.
"At the beginning, maybe for some of ours it was a little intimidating, but now they see that they can take advantage of it,” he said. "They speak a little more English and the U.S. guys are open and accessible, so that makes it easier.”
Ligety, who won three gold medals this month at the world championships in Schladming, Austria, and helped lead a dominating overall performance by the Americans, will join the U.S. squad this week.
"With Ted coming, we’ll have some good partners for training,” said Glebov, who won the downhill and super-G in the Russian championships.
Along with Resi Stiegler, Shiffrin is just one of two female U.S. skiers joining the men at the camp this week.
"I think it is crucial to get time here before the chaos of the Olympics begins,” said Shiffrin, 17, who became the youngest world champion in slalom in 28 years when she won gold on Feb. 16. "It’s a different world over here and to be able to see it and to know what to expect geographically for next year will be huge. It’s just one more factor that will help keep the stress at a minimum.”
Shiffrin, who has three World Cup slalom victories this season, has liked what she has seen.
"The tracks seem pretty straightforward; I’ve been on the women’s speed trails and men’s G.S. trail so far,” she said. "There is quite a bit of terrain, but it’s not really crazy. My first impression was that the venue won’t be a huge challenge, but we’ll see next year.”
Glebov and his teammate Alexander Khoroshilov, 29, a two-time Olympian, have significant World Cup experience, but most racers on the youthful Russian squad compete on the Europa Cup, a training ground for the senior circuit.
"They’ve worked hard,” Rearick said about the Russians. "Three years ago, they probably had no one scoring Europa Cup points, and now they have three guys on the podium.”
The U.S. team, which is expecting both Miller and Vonn to return from injuries and compete next year, will be hoping to at least equal its eight medals from the 2010 Vancouver Games.
For the Russian ski racers, the goals are not as high, but they do want a respectable showing in Sochi as their country holds its first Winter Olympics.
"At the Games, it will be interesting because we can surprise,” Planinsek said. "I’ve already seen that we race with much more self-confidence here. Being on home turf next year, I think it will be a positive thing for this team.”