Pragelato, Italy They come dressed in red, white and blue, and the minute Steamboat Springs ski jumper Tommy Schwall slides onto the start bar, they begin chanting, cheering and waving flags.
It's a small group of Americans, but they are enthusiastic in their approach. The waving flags and oversized banners can be seen across the stadium, and their presence gives Schwall something to smile about as he goes head to head with the best jumpers in the world.
"It's awesome," Tommy said about having his family in Italy for the Olympic events. "I can hear them when I'm in the stadium, and it is comforting to know they are there."
The main part of the group is staying in the heart of Sestriere, just a few minutes down the road from Pragelato by bus. The three-room apartment is home for six to eight people, depending on the time of day. Regulars include Tommy's dad, Tom Schwall, and Tom Schwall's wife, Judy. Judy's daughter, Cammy Ravenscroft, is also on hand to give her support. Tommy's mom, Julie Green, is staying in the apartment with her husband, Lyman Orton, and Tommy's sister, Emily.
At events, the group blends with other families from Steamboat Springs, and together they have become an easy-to-spot contingent from the United States that includes the families of Nordic combined Olympians Todd Lodwick and Johnny Spillane. Special jumper Clint Jones' parents also can be found here, along with many other extended family members and a few friends.
It's a diverse group of people who have come together to cheer for their children, but they all share a common thread.
"Nobody knows what it feels like to be a parent in this situation," Green said. "We want the same things our children want. We are happy if they reach their goals, and we are there to support them when they don't."
The Schwalls spent thousands of dollars to purchase tickets in November 2004, when they didn't know whether Tommy would be selected to represent the United States at the 2006 Winter Games. Tom said it was a gamble, but that the family had planned to come to Sestriere regardless of whether Tommy made the team.
"We had so much fun in Park City, that we wanted to do it again," Tom said. "The Olympics are such a positive thing, and it's something that we have all really enjoyed being a part of."
Tom, Julie and Judy were volunteers at the 2004 Olympics in Salt Lake City. They said it has been a little easier here because they are not working as volunteers.
"It's a little easier to party here," Tom said.
In the past few weeks, the group has been making the most of the Italian experience by making friends and learning the best way to survive in the community. They arrived a week before the Olympic Games started and got a feel for the layout. They have been spectators at the Nordic combined, ski jumping and many of the Alpine events that are taking place in the mountains around Pragelato and Sestriere. Some members of the group also have taken in figure skating, and they have all been able to sample the many restaurants and shops in the area.
"The people in Italy are really friendly," Tom said. "The language has been a little difficult, but the people here are really trying to make the best of these Games."
Green said the family has taken shelter in the Team USA House in Sestriere. It's a place where the families of American athletes can gather and watch TV in English and talk about the shared experiences that come from having a child competing in one of the biggest sporting events in the world.
John F. Russell is on assignment at the Winter Olympics in Italy. E-mail him at jrussell@ steamboatpilot.com