When the Estonian Olympic team for Sochi was announced, one name stood out for its decidedly non-local ring: Warren Cummings Smith.
The 21-year-old, who holds both US and Estonian citizenship, will be representing Estonia in Alpine skiing, a sport that is not a traditional strong suit of this flat, Baltic nation. Sports officials here are no doubt hoping that the US-native's athletic upbringing and experience combined with his Estonian ancestry will spell a record showing for the country at the Games.
Entering the Olympics at a young age, Cummings Smith explained he is both looking to Sochi and to future international events. “I’m thinking longer-term, hoping to do as well as I can in Sochi, but it’s not like I plan for this to be the culmination of my career; I’m planning to use this as an experience and a stepping stone.”
His American coach, Bruce Knoepfel, was effusive about Cummings Smith’s talents: “He’s improved such a lot, he’s far exceeded my expectations. I don’t know what the limit would be for the future.”
"I certainly am hoping to achieve all I’m capable of,” Cummings Smith himself said. “I’m sure there are some people who don’t put in as much effort as they can, but that puts the limits on how good you can be."
Based on performances this season against many of the skiers he will face in Sochi, he rated his best possible result in the upcoming Games as a top-20 finish in either Slalom or Giant Slalom, with “a realistic goal being somewhere in the twenties.” This would rank as the best-ever result in Alpine skiing for Estonia.
There was a chance that Cummings Smith could have raced for the nation of his grandparents in the previous Winter Olympics in Vancouver. That time around, Estonian selectors preferred local athlete Deyvid Oprjat, reportedly to the consternation of the American’s family. Knoepfel pointed out, though, that it would have been an incredibly brave call had Estonia fielded the young man so early on in his skiing career.
This time, Cummings Smith’s performances - including a first place showing at an FIS competition in Sweden in December - did the talking for him and made it even more difficult to leave him out. Another male Alpine skier, Tõnis Luik, might have joined him if not for a recent knee injury.
Formerly a competitive sailor as well as a skier when studying at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League university in New Hampshire, Cummings Smith is a gifted all-round athlete. He has family history in this respect; his brother and sister played tennis for their universities, his mother also played tennis at a high level and his father was an accomplished association footballer. Above all else, though, skiing was Warren Cummings Smith's main sport throughout his adolescence and college years.
Both Cummings Smith and his female counterpart in Slalom and Giant Slalom, 17 year-old Triin Tobi, will be practicing with the Latvian team’s five Alpine skiing competitors at Sochi. Although he has met Tobi, it will still be a new experience sharing the Olympic Village with his fellow Estonian athletes, who he hopes to get to know in the course of the Games.
“I’ve been working on it,” he said in response to a question about his Estonian language skills, “but I’m not to the point when I can converse with somebody.” Still, Cummings Smith seemed unfazed by the prospect of sharing living space in the Olympic Village with his new colleagues, even if he may miss out on a lot of the athletes’ banter.
Ties to the motherland
Cummings Smith’s Tartu-raised grandmother, along with her parents, emigrated during World War II, when she was 16 years old. She worked for the American Red Cross in Hamburg, where she completed her medical studies, then moved to the US after the War.
“She didn’t know anyone there and it was definitely a big move to uproot and leave. She was very concerned about [the Soviet occupation], and that was what caused her and her parents to decide to leave. She remembered how it was during the first occupation at the beginning of the war, and she wanted to escape that at all costs. She’s still alive, living here in the States, and she’s very proud of her Estonian roots,” said Cummings Smith.
The Olympian was keen to explain his decision to represent his grandmother’s country of birth. “I didn’t just go find this passport because it was convenient. I’ve had it since I was a little kid, so when the opportunity came to ski for Estonia, it became a pretty logical decision, for the opportunities it gives me in different races and the chance to represent Estonia in Alpine skiing.”
Knoepfel added: “It’s pretty exciting to be part of the grassroots development of Alpine skiing for Estonia.”
Cummings Smith has not had much chance to visit Estonia, owing to punishing year-round training schedules - skiing in winter and, until recently, sailing in summer.
His first time in Estonia, in 2010, was a mixed experience. “I got sick last time, so I got to see the inside of an Estonian hospital. It was an interesting one… the layout of the hospital was a little bit funky. I think that’s because it was built during Soviet times.”
He talks regularly with his extended family. “We have some family that’s now living in Finland, but stayed in Estonia until 2002; we’ve tried to keep up as best we can with them. When I came to Estonia I stayed with some of my grandmother’s friends’ children, which was a pretty cool experience as well.”
Cummings Smith, who is headed back this summer and hoping to spend a bit more time in the country, acknowledges that his US upbringing may give pause to some Estonian sports fans.
“I realise the position I’m in, having not been born in Estonia, but the only control I have in the matter is to represent Estonia in the best way I can, both on and off the ski hill. I’m hoping my actions can speak louder than my country of birth.”