‘Once-in-a-lifetime experience’ in Sochi

Cai O’Connell and Gracie Gold

Cai O’Connell, left, with Olympic skater Gracie Gold.

Cai O’Connell may not be an Olympian, but she had a front-row seat to the games at Sochi.

“They told me before I came that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said O’Connell, an Honors College junior in Russian and political science.

“And I understood that in a different context by the time I left. To be in the country I study, to be in that place that was built up for one reason — that’s the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

O’Connell, who has a strong background in Russian from attending Illinois Math and Science Academy and Cornell College in Iowa, applied for a three-week internship with NBC Universal’s Hospitality Guide Program.

After three months of interviews — in Russian and in English — and an anxious month of waiting, she landed the internship.

“It was a little suspenseful, to be honest,” she said.

O’Connell and a fellow Sochi intern, UIC graduate Brittany James, will talk about their experience as it relates to current events in Russia at a March 19 discussion presented by UIC’s Global Learning Community program. They will present “Sports, Sexuality and International Politics: Sochi 2014” from noon to 1 p.m. in 1-470 Daley Library.

Working as many as 18 hours a day in Sochi, O’Connell helped people travel from venue to venue and provided information for NBC’s guests about their temporary home.

“You’re pretty much a one-stop shop for Olympic information and, for me, a one-stop shop for Russian information as well,” she said. “The day never really ended.”

There were perks, as well. O’Connell and other interns visited the venues before they were open to the public and attended events such as ice skating and O’Connell’s favorite — the ski jump.

“They look like flying squirrels,” she said.

Safety and quality of living were not a problem for O’Connell, as some media reported during the games.

“We were sort of stuck in this secure network,” she said. “Along the Olympic highway, there were big iron fences with barbed wire along the top — I saw so many things that made me feel secure.”

“I think the Olympics was fantastic,” she added.

“It meant a lot to showcase the industrialization of Russia, which has always been left on the back burner.” 

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