They sampled schnitzel, greeted local kindergartners, exercised in parking lots and worked out travel antsiness by training Thursday in Graz, Austria, building up to the much-anticipated opening ceremony for the Special Olympics World Winter Games on Saturday.
The El Cajon, California, floor hockey team was all about being flexible, having arrived in Vienna some 27 hours after leaving the San Diego area. The team missed its first flight out of Los Angeles because of a miscommunication about the flight time, rerouted to Las Vegas, flew to Baltimore and bused to Washington D.C., before flying to Austria.
"Hey, we got to eat lunch in Vegas," said John Carlo Razo, the team's backup goalie.
"It was a little bumpy," said coach Rodney Hurn, "but it's all an adventure. It's fun, right?"
Food has been another adjustment for athletes, who have been plunged into the world of Wiener schnitzel and strudel.
"My teammates and I joked that the schnitzel tastes like chicken nuggets," said El Cajon athlete Haley James.
On Thursday, Hurn wanted his team to get a feel for playing on all three hockey courts at the Graz Convention Center. This was a welcome bit of exercise after Wednesday, when the entire U.S. contingent visited the 12th century Riegersburg Castle and the Zotter Chocolate Factory, sampling some of the more than 180 varieties of chocolate.
"A lot of people said their stomach hurt because they ate too much," said James. "When we got back, the whole team said, 'We're never eating chocolate again.'"
"I had a chocolate caffeine buzz all day," said Daina Shilts of Wisconsin, the only member of the U.S. snowboard team who has previously competed in a World Games. "I think we tried 200 kinds of chocolate."
Shortly before 5 p.m. local time Thursday, after a three-hour bus ride from Graz, Shilts and her snowboard and alpine skiing teammates arrived in the mountain town of Schladming, the quaint village erupting in a burst of red, white and blue enthusiasm as more than 50 athletes departed the buses and made their way to the hotel they will call home for the next week.
"Traveling here was so much fun," said Gary Endecott, an alpine skier from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as he searched a sea of black Burton suitcases to find the one bearing his name. "The plane ride to Austria was my favorite part. It was beautiful."
The New York City unified floor hockey team, the only U.S. unified team at the Games and one of just 10 expected in Austria, experienced a seven-hour layover in the Amsterdam airport, which included a pseudo rainforest complete with ambient sound.
But for New York unified partner Birk McCaffery, the rainforest was not even the highlight of the Amsterdam airport. "We all fell asleep together on the floor, the whole team," he said. "We spent so much time traveling together, honestly, I think it brought us together even more."
While their coaches would laud Thursday's practice for absorbing the collective energy of a team ages 15 to 22, New York athlete Daniel Davila said he was just happy "coming together on the floor playing with these guys again after three weeks off."
But sadly, the New York team also bonded over tragedy this week after the sudden death of Kevin Bell, the father of a classmate at the Fieldston School in the Bronx, New York. Team members wore teal and purple suicide awareness ribbons on the back of their helmets.
After being serenaded by a group of Austrian kindergartners at the team hotel, the players decorated their helmets Thursday morning, affixing their numbers, the Special Olympics logo and the American flag along with the ribbon to honor the memory of Bell. Along with other Fieldston parents, Bell supported the team by donating to a GoFundMe page that has raised more than $13,600 to support Special Olympics. The page was set up by Fieldston sophomore and unified partner Max Lepaw.
In one corner of the Graz Convention Center, the team from Trinidad and Tobago was still adjusting to the newness of traveling. For 14 of the 16 athletes, this was the first time they left their hometowns.
"We talked a lot about what to expect," said Candilla Berment-Harper, head of the delegation. "But the weather adjustment was even bigger. We never have cold in Trinidad. When we left, it was 90 degrees, and it was 46 here when we landed."
American figure skaters also had to be flexible, literally, at IceStadium Graz-Liebenau. They were forced to do calisthenics in the parking lot Thursday afternoon after finding out too late that they did not have ice time. It meant that the highest-level skater for the U.S. has been off the ice for nine days, a concern for U.S. coach Tappie Dellinger. But as with seemingly everyone else associated with the Special Olympics on Thursday, the adjustments have been part of the experience.
"We hung out, took pictures, cheered on the speed skaters and did some off-ice training," Dellinger said. "It was just good to be here."
That feeling was universal.
"I'm so excited to be here," Shilts said. "I keep pinching myself to make sure I'm not in a dream."
"When we drove in and saw this huge complex and got off the bus with our headphones on and our matching hoodies, we really felt like a team," McCaffery said. "Then we saw the nicest courts we've ever played on and all the Special Olympics signs and the TV cameras, and it was like, 'We're really here.'"
-- Additional reporting by Alyssa Roenigk