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INNSBRUCK, AUSTRIA--Hearing the ring of cowbells at a ski jumping hill would seem odd to most. But in Innsbruck, Austria the cowbells serve as a soundtrack to the sport. As a former ski jumper, I had become pretty accustomed to tuning out overzealous, bell-ringing children, pestering parents and athletes alike as they eagerly cheered on competitors. This time however, I was not the competitor. I was the sister, and the visitor penetrating the Stams Ski Academy bubble.
As I strolled in the direction of the ski jump, I was greeted by the first of many pleasant surprises. Cowbells in their original form: literally hung around the necks of a family of adorable, light brown, Tyrolean cows.
Wandering further along an alpine road, camera slung over my right shoulder, I couldn't help but breathe deeply and just sigh at how lucky my sister is to study and train in such an idyllic locale. The rush of a speeding Audi zipping past ripped me out of my daydream and prompted me to continue on my quest to find the jump.
Stares and hushed whispers about a "personal photographer" marked my eventual appearance at the base lodge. A few handshakes and my first encounter with a single-seat chairlift later, and I was on top of the mountain. With my back to the "big hill" and my eyes on the 70 meter jump, I perched myself precariously on the edge of the coach’s stand, and watched in silence.
The familiar grind of skis against the porcelain summer track, the audible grunt on the take-off, the airy whoosh of the athlete cushioning themselves on a pillow of air, and the ultimate slap of the skis on the watered plastic landing hill instantly brought back so many summer memories. Memories of sweating in Steamboat, walking up through the trees, pondering in Park City, riding the chair between jumps, and shielding my eyes from the sun in Chicago as I peered out over suburbia all flooded back.
Akin to my wandering thoughts, my conversation with the head coach Gary meandered in and out. I found it fascinating to listen to his instructions and suggestions directed at the athletes. I don't know why I hadn't considered it before, but it was just a little jarring hearing it all in German. All the coaching was the same, just the words specifically were different: late, on time, less arms, more legs, longer push, don't bullshit the landing.
Slowly, my sober reflection transformed into humorous observation as I soaked in additional language differences around me. I remember my mom mentioning something about my sister's funny new dialect, but I didn't really notice it at the time. Initially, I was simply amused to hear that my sister Nina's brevity had, without fail, taken root in her German elocution. But three years later, now even I notice that she just sounds incredibly Austrian. It's hilarious. I am normally pretty adept at fitting in with my German, but I suddenly found myself to be the odd one out with my proper Hochdeutsch, a dialect apparently only apropos in the classroom.
Learning the language of her sport, learning the language of her rigid academic life, and learning the language of her Austrian peers, Nina has certainly succeeded in adjusting to the Austrian lifestyle. Nevertheless, it certainly hasn’t been easy. Nina will eagerly contest that the trials and tribulations of being one of only two internationals at her school are never ending, "Seriously Danielle, they discriminate against me! It's just not fair. Sorry (I'm not sorry) I'm an American."
Although it has been quite a challenge, I remain exceedingly jealous of the opportunities the elite winter sports school has given her: the constant travel around Europe (next week she will take a casual weekend trip to compete in Slovenia), the ability to navigate two languages fluently (both in and outside of the classroom), and most importantly, the friends and contacts worldwide she has made for life. I don’t know how she does it. If I were at Stams, I would constantly skip training on the nice days, jog up into the mountains, throw on a dirndl and prance around singing "the hills are alive..."
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