Saturday, November 10, 2001
Steamboat Springs Back in 1998 Linus Vaitkus made his Olympic debut as a member of the Lithuanian National Ski Team.
It was a little bit strange for Vaitkus who was born and raised in the United States and learned to ski as a member of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
But while Vaitkus was an American citizen, his parents had always reminded him of his Lithuanian heritage. Dual citizenship allowed him to ski for his parents' homeland.
They had fled their homeland during World War II and relocated in a Lithuanian community in Chicago.
"There are 3.5 million Lithuanians living outside the Lithuanian borders," Vaitkus said.
So when the government of the small country just northeast of Poland on the Baltic Sea asked Vaitkus to ski for them he jumped at the chance.
Vaitkus lived in Chicago through first grade where he was immersed in the Lithuanian culture.
"I learned to speak Lithuanian and spoke very little English when I came to Steamboat Springs," Vaitkus said.
But as he grew up in Steamboat, Vaitkus slowly lost some of the traditions of his parents' homeland, but never the pride of being Lithuanian.
A few years ago he was approached by Lithuania and asked to ski for the country in the Olympics. He had dual citizenship and Lithuania needed alpine skiers who wanted to wear the uniform at the Olympics.
"I actually got some bad press back there during the Nagano Olympics," Vaitkus said.
He said people back in Lithuania wanted to know who this American kid was and why he was skiing for their country.
Vaitkus posted his best result in downhill where he finished 25th. He also competed in the combined slalom and downhill events.
"It was totally cool," Vaitkus said of skiing in the Olympics. "You have a picture of how it will be in your mind. It's exciting when it turns out to be just the way you dreamed it."
Vaitkus said the most thrilling moment was when he skied through the finish line of the downhill and thousands of ski fans screamed and cheered for him.
"I've never seen that many people at a ski race before. It was amazing to live a dream even if it is just for a few days."
This year, Vaitkus will try to make it back to the big show one more time.
He has been invited by the Lithuanian government to try again, but he will need a top finish to make the qualifying cut.
"Right now I think my chances are about fifty-fifty," Vaitkus said.
Vaitkus said he would like to return to the Games and ski at Salt Lake City, but says he will need a top-30 finish in one of the two NorAm starts on the Birds of Pray course in Vail Dec. 2-3.
Vaitkus, who coaches the J-3 skiers for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, said he had hoped for more chances to make the requirements imposed by the Lithuanian Olympic Committee before Dec. 15. However, several events have been canceled because of tough economic times at some ski resorts.
Vaitkus is hoping to qualify this time around in the giant slalom and super-G.
"I've been working out with the kids, but I haven't raced competitively in more than four years," Vaitkus said.
In fact, the qualifying events will be Vaitkus' first races since the Olympics.
"I will not be crushed if I don't make it," Vaitkus said. "It's just ski racing. It's not like I'm curing cancer. I realize that there are bigger things in the world than just qualifying for the Olympics."