A Mountain Eagle from Liepkalnis forgoes university for the Olympics

Isabella Tobias shed tears of joy this week in Lithuania, but she is not the only winter sports athlete to fulfill her Olympic dream. Alpine skier Ieva Januškevičiutė for a long time didn’t believe that one day she would become an Olympian. However, when the opportunity presented itself, the 19-year-old decided to put aside her university studies, and grab the bull by the horns.

Mindaugas Augustaitis for delfi.lt.
 
Januškevičiutė on course in Latvia
Januškevičiutė on course in Latvia
 

The early story

“When I was little, I dreamt about the Olympics, but only very superficially. It seemed that it simply wasn’t realistic. But now I am very happy to think that my childhood dream will become a reality,” said Januškevičiūtė. Hers is the latest name to be added to the Lithuanian Olympic team list to travel to Sochi next year. She has been working toward an Olympic birth for two seasons. In order to qualify, Januškevičiūtė had to score five results under 140 FIS (International Ski Federation) points. Penalty points are applied according to the difference in time from the race leader.

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Januškevičiutė (right) with teammate Laura Pamerneckytė at an early Kalnu Ereliai training camp in Austria

The Lithuanian has already earned the right to start the slalom competition in Sochi, but she does not intend to be satisfied with that. Until the end of the Olympic selection period for alpine skiing January 20, Januškevičiutė will take part in competitions held in Sweden, Italy, and Slovakia in order to qualify for the Olympic giant slalom event.

According to the Lithuanian skier, earning the right to test her skills against alpine skiing stars like Lindsey Vonn, Tina Maze, and Maria Hoefl-Riesch, will be a double victory because so far no female Lithuanian skier has managed to qualify for the Olympic games. And even more so, because the Vilnius resident spent her childhood not on the slopes of the Alps, but making turns on Liepkalnis ski hill, where it only takes a few seconds to ski from the top to the bottom.

An American saw her potential

Januškevičiūtė stood on skis for the first time long before she sat at a school desk. She caught the alpine skiing virus from her father Saulius when she was five, during a family trip to the Tatra mountains. Later, she gained further interest in alpine skiing when her father brought her to head coach Jennifer Virškus of the Vilnius-based ski club Kalnu Ereliai (Mountain Eagles). The Lithuanian-American brought together three dozen children to teach them her skiing secrets. The future Olympian liked winter sports, and at 12-years-old, began to travel with the team to competitions in Slovakia and Sweden.

“Some kind of miracle results were not imagined for Ieva at that time, because training in Lithuania, it seemed impossible to reach them. But the coach said that the most important thing was to smile and have fun. We, as parents, didn’t think about it, no. That’s not why I allowed Ieva to participate in the trainings—I just wanted her to be busy, to participate in sports,” remembered Saulius Januškevičius.

Nevertheless, his daughter became increasingly interested in visiting the mountains abroad, and last year, Januškevičiūtė received a small gift toward her destiny: The Lithuanian was invited to participate in a two-and-a-half month FIS-sponsored international training camp. It was then that the hope of a trip to the Olympics got new breath, which was added to by the Lithuanian Alpine Ski Federation (LKSF).

“The Federation basically set the goal for Ieva, when it saw that she was close to reaching the qualification standards. How did I react? Of course, before I wouldn’t have believed it. But our expectations grew little by little, and the qualification standard got closer, so when Ieva finally reached it, it wasn’t a big surprise to me,” said Januškevičius.

Looked after by Italians

Rokas Zaveckas and Januškevičiutė
Rokas Zaveckas and Januškevičiutė

As she began to target Sochi, Januškevičiūtė started to devote more and more attention to alpine skiing. Last spring, the graduate of Mykolo Biržiškos high school decided not to rush to university, where she planned to study physical therapy.

“I decided that it would be better to concentrate on one thing. Skiing has an important place in my life, and the farther I go, the more important it becomes. Now I can’t imagine myself without skis,” explained Januškevičiūtė.

“As parents we didn’t force her to quit sports, but she also needs to look after her education, since she won’t feed herself from alpine skiing. However, we’re not pushing her: A young person has the opportunity to participate in sports, that’s why we’re not rushing her,” the athlete’s father explained.

Skiing is not Januškevičiūtė’s livelihood, it’s rather the opposite. The cost of equipment, travel, and life abroad largely falls onto the shoulders of the skier’s parents. Only after she was added to the list of Olympic candidates thanks an effort by the LKSF, did the Lithuanian National Olympic Committee (LTOK) begin to pay for her room and board; this year the state gave her some 5 thousand litas for that. The amount is barely enough to buy three pairs of skis—which she has to change every season—or a couple of trips to the Alps.

The financial burden weighs heavily on the family budget, since last summer she joined the international Kronplatz Racing Team based in the Italian Alps. Januškevičiūtė is now works with Italian coach Nicola Paulon, along with skiers from Ukraine, Romania, Georgia, Latvia, Greece, Israel, and even Brazil.

Responding to the critics

The athlete to earn the latest place on the Sochi Olympic express does not have any formal goals. Januškevičius believes his daughter can expect to finish in a similar position as Rokas Zaveckas, another alpine skier making his Olympic debut in Sochi, which is expected to be between 40th and 60th place.

“We won’t jump higher than the belly button. We’ll be on the lower part of the result sheet, unless a lot of skiers fail to finish. There won’t be any miracles, since in other countries, the level of skiing is stronger. Traditions to not appear from the sky, they need to grow, and we are the pioneers,” said Januškevičius, who works as an IT specialist.

“Alpine skiing results are often very hard to predict. For me, the most important thing is to show what I can do, to demonstrate my best technique, and not to make any mistakes,” Januškevičiūtė replied about her objectives for the Olympic race.

Is the athlete’s family ready for the avalanche of negativity, which will likely fall if she doesn’t succeed?

“Those who do sports themselves know what it means to win and to lose, that there is always someone stronger than you are. Not everyone can be first in sports. Those people who sneer at us most likely do not do sports themselves or are too spoiled. If the Lithuanians were first in alpine skiing, then what would Austrians do?” reasoned Januškevičius, who himself participates in amateur cycling races. “I’ve also noticed that people are angry about an alleged waste of money. They argue that there is no point to take an athlete to the Olympic Games if they will be last. But money is also spent on non-athletes without any reaped benefits.”

A younger sister on skis

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Januškevičiutė at the 2013 World Alpine Ski Championships in Schladming, Austria

In recent years, all of the Januškevičius family’s thoughts have turned to the Sochi Olympics. The head of the family admits that he doesn’t know how long his daughter will continue her determination and ability after the uproar has died down.

“If she is able to continue training with the Italian team next year, Ieva will continue to compete. But it’s hard to tell how it will be, since she also needs to study. Education can be difficult to reconcile with trips to the mountains,” noted Januškevičius.

However, it’s true that enthusiasm is not missing from the former Kalnu Ereliai club member.

“If everything goes well, I would like to continue to compete. It depends on a lot of different things: Avoiding injury, how my results will continue to improve, and how much time I’m able to spend in the mountains. I understand that Lithuanians have no chance to become professional skiers. But maybe with what I’m doing now, in the future there will be more opportunities in Lithuania for alpine skiing to grow as a sport, and to develop stronger athletes,” says the Olympian about the future.

One of those athletes may already be growing up. Ieva’s 13-year-old sister Urtė is also on skis this winter and training at Liepkalnis and in Druskininkai.

A reminder that the Sochi Olympic Games will be held Feb 7 to 23. In independent Lithuania’s Winter Olympic history, there have been only two alpine skiers: Lithuanian-American Linas Vaitkus took 25th place in the downhill at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, while Vitaly Rumiancev was 44th in slalom in Torino (2006), and 59th in giant slalom in Vancouver (2010).