Written by Brian Rank
SOCHI — They came from many countries and spoke many languages, but were draw by one thing – the Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi.
“The energy surrounding the Paralympic events, it’s hard to explain,” Lynn Paterson, a volunteer, said.
Volunteers are a critical component for the Paralympics to function. From the moment visitors step off of the plane in Sochi, they are met by volunteers. Their vibrant smiles and complementing their jackets that bear the neon patchwork design of the Paralympics. The simple welcoming attitude from volunteers went miles for visitors unsure of what Russia would offer, wary of what they had been told by the media and friends at home.
There were more than 8,000 volunteers at the Games, directing athletes and maintaining competition areas, translating information from Russian, providing services for people with an impairment, directing media, and just about every other part of the massive operation needed to make the Paralympics a success.
Volunteer Orge Castellano worked in the Main Press Center helping journalists and photographers stay in the know during the Games – answering questions and handing out tickets to some of the larger events and ceremonies. He expressed excitement over the transformation that Russia underwent to bring so many volunteers together for the Games. Castellano studied public relations and marketing in Russia prior to the Paralympics and volunteered in a variety of areas including sports. He said when he first came to Russia six years ago, it did not have have a large volunteer culture, but he has seen it grow dramatically during his time here.
“The Paralympics are so important because it is a step forward for the volunteer movement in Russia,” he said. “It will keep improving.”
Volunteers went through a rigorous training process that stretched back to the London Paralympics in 2012 and the 2013 Paralympic Test Events in Sochi. Volunteers received additional training at two volunteer centers at Sholokhov Moscow State University and the Russian State Social University in Moscow.
While in Sochi, volunteers lived in three volunteer villages where they enjoyed three meals a day and were treated to entertainment and live performances in their spare time.
The Paralympics provided the opportunity for volunteers to learn about other cultures with nearly 400 of the volunteers traveling from 60 countries around the world.
Paterson, who is from Canada, said she was told before coming to Russia to “be careful, something bad will happen,” but was put at ease once she met the other volunteers. Paterson, who is not fluent in Russian, said many of the Russian volunteers had studied English and were eager to hear it from a native speaker.
“It was like being a bit famous at first because they would be like ‘stop, please do speak English, where are you from?’”
But, on some level, the volunteers converged in Sochi for their passion for the Paralympic Games themselves. Paterson said she always liked the Olympic Games, but when she discovered the Paralympics in Vancouver in 2010, something clicked. She said she assumed the athletes would need help and encouragement to complete the events, but was amazed when she realized that the athletes were performing on such a high level. When it was time for the Sochi Paralympics, she begged to go.
“You think: they’re so cool, they’re so together, I can do anything with my life,” she said.