— Tom Zakrajsek (@CoachTomZ) January 24, 2014
As I gathered my belongings to pack for my trip to the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi with Italian Men’s Figure Skating Competitor Paul Bonifacio Parkinson, it occurred to me to bring a heavy coat. The warmest one I have has a great story to go along with it and illustrates the kindness of the Russian people.
The Russians and their culture have been in the news a lot recently due to both the “anti-gay propaganda” law and the potential threat of a “Black Widow” bombing. Having visited Russia six times previously, I know firsthand these two stories are not a fair representation of the Russian people and quite frankly could be headlines in many other countries around the world, including certain parts of the USA.
My personal story about Russian kindness happened four years ago when I was traveling to Moscow for the Rostelecom Cup Grand Prix event with Agnes Zawadzki. My original flight from Colorado Springs to Denver was very late and even though I made the connecting flight to Frankfurt after sprinting the entire length of the B concourse at DIA, my suitcase did not. So when I arrived in Moscow and my bag was not on the carousel, I knew it wouldn’t be there for at least a couple of days. Having boarded the plane in only a Nike windbreaker, I soon felt the icy cold temperatures of Moscow in November chilling my bones.
As anyone who has lost baggage overseas knows, it can be very challenging to overcome the language barrier and/or frustrating trying to track the arrival of the bag over the internet or by using only automated phone numbers. As I stood at the competition arrival desk in the lobby of the hotel asking someone from the local organizing committee to help translate the automated phone message, Professor Alexei Mishin overheard me telling my story. Now, of course we knew each other as colleagues, but beyond that we really didn’t. He approached me, grabbed my arm and said, “Tom, come with me,” and I followed him to the elevator.
Inside his hotel room he rummaged through his suitcase and produced a hat and sweater. Then he went to the closet and pulled his 2010 Russian Olympic Team parka off the hanger for me to try on. For the next few days I was in heaven. Not only did I have some very warm, “cool” clothes, one of my coaching idols had befriended me in a time of need and insisted I take some of his own warm clothes which he surely needed.
By the third day I had received my bag since someone from the LOC had personally driven me to the airport to get it only because Professor Mishin had asked them. After I unpacked, I called Mishin’s room to return his clothes. He answered, but insisted I keep them. I was blown away and told him I couldn’t. Over the course of the competition, I saw him many times and kept insisting he take his clothes back, especially the Olympic Team parka. Each time he said no, even insisting that I looked better in his clothes than he did.
Needless to say, I reluctantly accepted his generosity and to this day still wear that parka on the coldest Colorado days. As I settle into middle age, I appreciate what he did now more than I did at the time when I mostly just thought about how cool it was to wear “Mishin’s coat,” an official Russian Olympic Team parka made by Bosco Sport, the equivalent of Nike.
There will always be naysayers about everything and the intentions of everyone, including one Team USA official who told our team leader to tell me it was anti-American for me to wear Mishin’s parka in public at the competition. Who did I think I was? Johnny Weir? Confused by this feedback, I wondered if that meant I was only allowed to be warm in the comfort of my hotel room?
What I know now even more than I knew then is that a simple act of kindness–regardless of nationality, race, gender or any other orientation–is what defines humanity. So when I arrive in Russia this week for the seventh time, I have faith in the humanity of the Russian people, who I know will welcome the world with kindness and open arms just as Mishin did for me.
Professor Alexei Mishin is a legendary coach of many Olympic Champions and medalists who will someday soon be elected into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame, but in my mind he will always be my friend and colleague who taught me the true meaning of the Olympic ideals and spirit.
Here’s wishing our Russian hosts a great Olympic Games!