Linas Vaitkus was born in Chicago to Lithuanian immigrants, and moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, as a small boy. He grew up ski racing with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, and after Lithuanian independence, was able to get dual citizenship. In 1998, he became the first Lithuanian athlete to compete in alpine ski racing at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. On the day of the women’s world championship slalom, he made the 1.5-hour drive from Steamboat to Beaver Creek to meet the next generation of Lithuanian Olympians, Ieva Januškevičiutė and Rokas Zaveckas.
Linas arrived in time to watch the women’s second run with Ieva, and cheer on her friend and Kronplatz Racing Center teammate Nino Tsiklauri of Georgia. After the race, he came back to the house where the Lithuanian team was staying to meet Rokas.
“When I first met him, it was strange—I didn’t know if I should speak in English or Lithuanian,” said Rokas. “It was really interesting to speak with him, to hear his stories from skiing and his trips to Lithuania.”
Linas admits that his Lithuanian language skills aren’t as strong as he would like them to be. “My Lithuanian is not good. I haven’t had the opportunity to go there since 2002 and there’s no opportunity for me to speak it here in Colorado. I hope to get better with it, and I want my daughter Sofia to learn Lithuanian as well.”
While the coaches were at the team captain’s meeting for the men’s slalom the next day, Linas had an opportunity to sit with Ieva and Rokas, during which they compared their experiences.
“I’m glad I finally got to meet them, bridging the two generations a little bit. It was great to talk about their experiences and compare,” said Linas. Two generations indeed—Linas and I met about one month before Ieva was born. Rokas was but a glint in his father’s eye.
For Ieva and Rokas, and other skiers of their generation and younger, Linas has been something of a myth.
“Except for Vitalij Rumancev, he was the only person who has competed for Lithuania in high level competitions like Olympics and World Championships,” said Ieva. “We knew Vitalijus, we would see him, but Linas was the one that we didn’t really know. We just knew there was this guy who lives in the USA. It was exciting to meet him.”
During their conversation, Linas offered Ieva and Rokas several pieces of advice from his years of experience as a ski racer, coach, and instructor. “He told us what he thinks he would do different right now. It was a conversation but at the same time it was advice about what he would do different in trainings and in racing,” said Ieva.
That advice included not spending so much time in the gym, but also include on muscle flexibility and other cross-training programs.
Ieva, who recently started her first FIS-sanctioned super-G race, said that Linas told her he would focus on more super combined, rather than just the speed or technical events. “For small nation athletes it’s easier to get a good result in super combined than in speed or tech events,” she said.
Moving alpine skiing forward in Lithuania
“I’d like to see better development in Lithuania with the younger athletes. It takes 10 to 15 years of pumping in development money before you really start to see solid results,” said Linas. “Latvia wasn’t even on the map when I was skiing, and now they have a whole national team 20 years later. That’s about a long as it takes.”
Having a core manual of technique and tactics that all Lithuanian coaches can follow so that they are working toward a common goal is important. Group training camps for coaches as well as for athletes will help to get everyone speaking the same language, talking about the same technique. “You need better symmetry at all different levels so that everybody is training toward the same goal,” he said.
Linas was impressed to meet Ieva’s Italian coaches, and said he really appreciated the program that head coach Nicola Paulon has built. “It’s good that Ieva can train with other small nations skiers. It helps raise the bar with her and gives her some perspective,” he said. “I was totally solo when I was doing it.”
“I’d like my daughter to have a Lithuanian passport, definitely,” said Linas. “Who she races with will depend on funding. Certainly I wouldn’t dismiss Lithuania, I think that’s a reasonable future.”
Still, he says that’s a long way off. Sofia will be seven this month, and his focus now is freeskiing and having fun. “We had the best day ever yesterday. She skied all the big intermediate runs on the mountain and no complaints—just got the job done. That’s what it takes to develop a skier: Consistent skiing from year to year.” He says he’ll get Sofia into the gates when she’s a little older.
Linas laments a little bit the lack of a single culture in the U.S. “When I go to Lithuania I definitely see that culture. It’s very unique and I think it’s important that Lithuania keeps to its roots—its heritage—in a world that’s becoming blended together. Lithuania needs to stand for its traditions because they’re unique and special.”
Ieva said that while overall Linas seemed to her more American than Lithuanian, she definitely saw that he had a few Lithuanian traits. “His character is Lithuanian. He’s a very calm, reserved person. I think that’s the trait he got from Lithuania,” she said adding, “It was really nice to have this conversation about our views, on each other’s perspectives on sport, on how it was in his time when he was racing, and how is it now, and what changed and what stayed the same.”