Spartans in Sochi
Spartan alumni, faculty have ties to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia
Click on the Olympic rings above to read about Spartan connections to the Games.
There will be a touch of green in the 22nd Winter Olympics.
For the next 16 days, the world will watch Olympians glide across snow-swept courses created by MSU alumnus Joe VanderKelen and his team at SMI Snowmakers.
“If you’re an architect and engineer, it’s a dream project to start with a white canvas,” VanderKelen said.
VanderKelen graduated from MSU in 1983 with a degree in mechanical engineering before going on to earn his master’s degree. He designed the Sochi courses out of scratch because the resorts were brand new.
VanderKelen’s parents started SMI Snowmakers in 1974, and VanderKelen took over as president in 1991. The family’s involvement in the Winter Olympics dates back to 1984 in Sarajevo, Bosnia, when the company already had operations in several international markets.
Upon graduation, VanderKelen had a choice of following in his family’s footsteps or starting something new. But his love for mountains and skiing was what motivated him to become the master of the snow business.
“I was intrigued by how the business works, and independently of that, I think it’s pretty cool and it’s fun working when you click with it with interest and passion,” VanderKelen said.
MSU will be present in the snow — being made by the alumnus snowmaker — and other Spartans who are also involved in everything from television to organizational care for families at the Olympics, which will have its Opening Ceremony at 11 a.m. EST today.
The VanderKelens’ history of helping shape Olympic venues has helped them learn from past experiences and prepare for the next step.
“We got involved with Sochi in 2007 — it’s a long process because it’s new, but very fun,” he said. “Previously, we worked in existing resorts, so this was a new experience, but it was exciting.”
He credits the opportunity in part to his family’s positive experiences at MSU.
“MSU teaches you how to think and how to be a great communicator,” he said. “It teaches you to have fun and to be involved in a lot of things (that are) not school-related.”
To ensure his and his team’s courses and slopes were ready for the Olympics and the environment, he “hustled back home to model” and got positive feedback from customers testing the snow at the company’s headquarters in Midland, Mich.
Now Vanderkelen will have to sit back, see how the slopes work and jump in if something needs to be changed.
The six to eight people who are responsible for making snow at the Olympics will have to watch for above freezing temperatures, according to weather predictions on The Weather Channel.
Sochi is a subtropical city. The Weather Channel predicts that between Feb. 7 and Feb. 13 the lowest temperature is 36 degrees, and the highest could reach up to 56.
“We have produced around double the snow volumes required to host the Games, so there is extra snow to be ready for melting and high temperatures,” VanderKelen said.
“They also have extra snow grooming machines to be able to react quickly to changing weather and snow conditions,” VanderKelen said.
Although his biggest concerns are rain and natural snowfall, they have extra workers there to prepare snow if needed.
Like his parents, VanderKelen will have to wait to possibly adapt to changing weather conditions. But this time, he’ll be on the ground in Sochi, standing by and ready to step in.
Other Spartan connections
The VanderKelens aren’t the only MSU alumni who will be Sochi-bound for business.
Alumni Nick Masters and Julia LaFeldt both graduated in spring 2011 and will attend and work at the Winter Olympics.
LaFeldt, who was hired by Procter & Gamble as her first job out of college, said she will help accommodate families involved with Team USA who are far away from home.
“While in Sochi I will be working at the P&G Family Home, which is a ‘home away from home’ for Team USA moms, families and athletes,” LaFeldt said. “More specifically, I will be managing daily events and athlete appearances at the family home.”
As communications assistant manager at P&G, she runs a program providing assistance to families called “Thank You, Mom.”
LaFeldt isn’t an Olympics rookie.
“I went to the 2012 London Olympic Games, and once the London games were over, I started planning for Sochi 2014,” she said.
Masters’ work is much more technical. This is the first Olympics where people from all around the world will be able to watch the games on smartphones and tablets, and Masters said he will work with film and cameras with a new technology that sends information through 3G wireless networks.
“I’m independently employed — that’s how most film and TV works in Los Angeles — but I’ll be going mostly OBS hired and working with 3G wireless broadcasting services,” Masters said.
OBS stands for Open Broadcaster Software and is a broadcasting service that people can use to download and watch the Olympics at no cost.
Within the 3G wireless coverage, he will be working with ice arenas, handheld cameras on ice skates and video transmitters.
The film professional got an offer to work at the Olympics long before most spectators were talking about the games, during one of the biggest projects he has undertaken.
“I was actually working on Planet of the Apes in New Orleans last spring,” Masters said. “It’s a long process, I got offered it six to eight months before — and I booked this. … Being in the Olympics gives you a different level of experience.”
During his time studying at MSU, Masters said he was heavily involved in the MSU Telecasters Club, and he gives credit to the university for such a strong start in his career.
“I was a producer and director at Telecasters and that was a building block to further my experience,” he said.
MSU did “a lot of showing what it will be like when he graduated and went to work on professional projects.
“It gave you the basic fundamentals of what it’s going to be like in the real world,” Masters said.
Masters’s preparation at MSU afforded him this opportunity soon after he left college, while LaFeldt’s experience surprised her before she even received her diploma.
“I got my offer from P&G two days before I graduated from MSU and started there in July 2011,” she said.
She credits landing the job to her involvement with PRSSA, the Public Relations Student Society of America, while at the university.
With that, she was able to get her “foot in the door” at P&G.
“When I got the job offer for P&G, I was beyond thrilled to just to have a job,” LaFeldt said. “Knowing that I was going to work on the Olympics program was icing on the cake.”
On the homefront
Back at home, students who do not have the opportunity to go to Sochi have the chance to take a free class where they learn about the Winter Olympics and how they work. The class is called Mega Events: Inside the Winter Olympics.
The Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, is taught by Olympics experts and School of Planning, Design and Construction professors Eva Kassens-Noor and Mark Wilson.
Kassens-Noor and Wilson collaborate to teach students to look deeper to understand not only the Olympics, but also the world around them.
“We look at utility, politics, urban planning and geography and it was a great way to talk about the differences in cultures,” Wilson said.
A very important part about the class — besides looking deeply into the Olympics — is to help officials plan it and to bring people who are passionate about it together, said Kassens-Noor.
“This class is to raise awareness internationally to people who actually plan and work on them — the urban development of the Olympics,” she said. “The reason it’s valuable is using the Olympics just as an example to understand just how complex daily life is.”
The class aims to connect people from all over the world and help students from MSU be more open-minded to other cultures. Wilson and Kassens-Noor said they organized an event to watch the Opening Ceremony by booking the McDonel Kiva on Friday.
Wilson said anyone can join the viewing party, which will have speakers and students taking the class who are connecting from all Twitter and Facebook.
“We’re Spartans, so we want to give something back to the alumni and bring attention to MSU globally,” Kassens-Noor said.