Families cheering athletes from home

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SHAFTSBURY — When Shaftsbury cross-country skier Andy Newell competed in his first Olympics in 2006, he traveled to Torino, Italy, with his parents and grandparents, aunt, two uncles and two cousins. So when Newell was named to this year's U.S. team after repeat performances in 2010 and 2014, family members knew they'd again witness history.

This time, on their home televisions.

"Don't get us wrong, we're honored he's in it," says the athlete's father, David Newell.

But the family patriarch and his wife, Carol, can tell you about South Korea's high-priced airfare and accommodations, a language they don't know and the fear of security-screening lines longer than the nearly 15-hour, 7,000-mile flight to get there.

"I'm sure the good folks will do a fine job," David Newell says. "But it's a task for spectators."

East Montpelier lawyer Mark Stephen relates. He and his wife, Susan, still savor the "thrill, honor and privilege" of their 2010 trip to Vancouver, Canada, to watch their daughter, Liz, cross-country ski.

But when she qualified for the politically charged venues of Sochi, Russia, in 2014 and Pyeongchang this winter, her family decided to join the more than 20 million Americans who'll tune in stateside.

"We expected Vancouver to be the experience of a lifetime and indeed it was, although the security and red tape made us realize while it's the biggest stage in most people's minds, it's not the most fun one for a fan," Mark Stephen says. "Your ability to be on the course and interact with the athletes is easy at most World Cup and championship events, but the Olympics are a very different kettle of fish."

Some Vermont families will attend this month's competition. Montpelier hockey player Amanda Pelkey's parents and brother, for example, anticipate a swell in pride.

"I'll let you know when I step off the plane and I'm looking at another country and the big Olympic rink and my daughter steps on the ice with a U.S. jersey on," father John Pelkey told WCAX-TV before departing. "What more could a parent ask for?"

But families who've attended before have reasons for not returning. Barbara Ann Cochran remembers her parents were home at Cochran's Ski Area in Richmond when she won a slalom gold medal at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. She'll be on the same Vermont slope when her son, Ryan Cochran-Siegle, follows in her ski tracks at this month's Winter Games.

"I'd love to go, but it's such a long distance and a lot of money," she says. "I was a little nervous about being on a plane for so long, and then I started thinking if I land in Seoul I've got to figure out how to get to Pyeongchang, and even then I wouldn't be able to spend much time with Ryan."

Fellow Olympian Stan Dunklee cross-country skied in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1976 and Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980 and flew to Sochi to see his daughter, biathlete Susan Dunklee, compete in 2014. But anticipating headaches and hurdles, he'll watch her via satellite this month from their hometown of Barton.

"If it was in Europe, I'd be there in a flash, but it's not," he says. "You hate to put your kids out on a limb and not be able to share those experiences, but we've raised her to be independent. It's time for her to do her own thing."

Mark Stephen says his daughter gave him permission four years ago to stay put.

"Her sense was, 'I'm going there to do a job' — if she's going to excel, she's got to focus," her father said at the time. "Had she said, 'I really want you there,' there's no question we would have figured out a way. But we don't want her to worry about making time to visit Mom and Dad."

Tim Caldwell traveled the world as part of the U.S. cross-country team in 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984. But he, too, doesn't want to be a "distraction" to his son, Patrick Caldwell, a 2018 Olympian.

"We're going to cheer him on here," Tim Caldwell says. "The Olympics are a circus in the best sense of the word, but it's tough to get around."

Vermonters can watch the games by tuning in to network television or internet live-streaming, all while adjusting their schedules to the fact that South Korea is 14 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.

"Whatever the hour," Mark Stephen says, "we will be in front of a TV."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.

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