Olympian Kate Hansen was sitting in the lobby of a Russian hotel when the man approached.
In his mid-20s, Timur Bakirov asked if he could speak with her even though she was obviously engrossed in a phone call. She thought he was with the press, and she tried to politely decline a conversation by telling him that she was on the phone with her mother.
“He said, ‘I’m LDS,’ ” said Kathie Hansen, Kate's mother. “And Kate said, ‘Mom, I’ve got to go.’ ”
He was an engineer for the Russian luge team from St. Petersburg, and he told Hansen in a very thick accent that he was getting baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in two weeks.
“He said, ‘I wanted to let you know that you were my first missionary,’ ” recalled Hansen, who will compete in Sochi, Russia, as a member of the U.S. luge team. “I literally could have cried. ... In my patriarchal blessing, it talks about this. It says (I) will affect people (I) do not know. I called my mom crying. I said, ‘You will not believe this.’ ”
Bakirov was afraid Hansen wouldn’t make the trip to Russia, as she’d broken her foot in the team selection races in October. But not only did Hansen make the trip, she also won those selection races even though she had to use crutches to get to the starting line.
The California native listened as Bakirov recounted their first meeting. A year earlier, the U.S. team was training on the Olympic track when he asked if he could get a picture with the team. When they posed together, he said he felt there was something different about Hansen.
He searched the Internet for information about her and discovered, in part because of her YouTube page, that she was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The 26-year-old put his hands over his heart and tried to describe in his limited English how he felt when he met Hansen, and how he felt that same feeling when he finally found Mormon missionaries months later.
“He kept saying, ‘My heart, my heart,’ and I said, ‘Your heart was full?’ and he said, ‘Yes, my heart was full. Then I saw your video and I felt the same way,’ ” Hansen recalled.
Kathie Hansen said Kate was so moved by the experience, it became more important to her than her quest to make the U.S. Olympic luge team.
“She said, ‘If I don’t make the Olympic team, it was all worth it. This story and this experience makes it all worth it,' ” Kathie said.
As it turns out, the girl who grew up surfing and skateboarding in the California sunshine will compete for the U.S. in luge in the 2014 Olympic Games. Hansen has high hopes, especially as the Brigham Young University student will enter the games with a win in the final World Cup race of the season — the first World Cup victory for an American woman in 17 years.
At this moment, Kate Hansen’s life certainly looks perfect.
But the 21-year-old BYU student’s path to the Olympics was difficult and, at times, very much in doubt. She endured fractures to her back during her junior year of high school, missed out on the 2010 Games by the smallest margin and then, just a few months ago, she broke her foot during team selection races.
Hansen won the first two races in Lake Placid, and then, on a training day in Park City before the final two races, she broke her foot.
“We thought it was over,” said her father, John Hansen. “We thought, 'What a terrible end to this 10-year career.' ... That hit us really hard. We were kind of devastated.”
The Hansens had friends — Evrett and Cheryl Benton — who’d moved from their La Canada ward in California to Park City. John called Evrett, who left work to meet Kate at the hospital. Another California friend, Howard Edwards, joined them, and the two men gave Kate a priesthood blessing.
“They made sure she had everything she needed,” John Hansen said. “They made sure she got to the track. They were just a real blessing. We couldn’t be there, and we thought it was the end.”
Kate Hansen had to make a decision. If she had surgery on her foot, her Olympic dream ended. If she didn’t, she’d have to compete in pain and on crutches for a time. Hansen called her mom the next morning and told her what she’d decided.
“She said, ‘I’m going to slide, and I’m going to win the race,’ ” Kathie Hansen said.
Hansen did just that, securing her spot on the World Cup team, which set her up for the emotional battle to earn a spot on the Olympic team. She competed on the World Cup circuit on crutches and with a small boot on her injured foot.
Hansen earned her spot on the team with a fourth-place finish on the same track in Park City. She will likely need to have surgery on the foot after the Olympics.
“My foot is feeling fine,” she said. “It definitely can be sore at times. I don’t feel like I’ve missed a beat.”
Watching their daughter realize a dream that began when she went to a tryout and a camp at 10 years old has been an emotional roller coaster for Kathie and John Hansen.
There have been challenges. For instance, how do you help your teenage daughter stay connected to her faith when she travels with older athletes who do not share or understand it?
Their solution was seminary.
“The seminary teacher recorded the lesson, and we’d pick up five days of lessons and send them to her,” John Hansen said. “She’d write a paragraph, and that’s how she fulfilled the requirement.”
Kate Hansen said those lessons brought her comfort and gave her guidance. Sometimes when she felt isolated or homesick, she listened to the lessons, and she felt confident and at peace.
From the start, the Hansens never saw luge as just an athletic opportunity. While Kate saw it as a way to escape the daily grind of school, the endeavor became much more serious when in 2008 she became the youngest American woman to win the junior luge World Championship.
The plan that had attending BYU at the top of the list was rearranged a bit as luge became more of a priority.
Even with the Olympics as a realistic goal, John said that he told Kate that if she were going to make the sacrifices necessary to pursue luge, her efforts had to be about more than accolades and awards.
“It has to be about more than just sliding down ice,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to be a missionary, to see the world, to make friends, but it has to be bigger than just being able to slide down ice faster that other people. That’s when she started making the videos.” Her YouTube page combines her luge experiences with her faith. It is the way she expresses both her personality and her faith while sharing the unique experiences of life as an elite winter sport athlete.
“It’s kind of a behind-the-scenes view of things, and I think it’s just fun,” Kate Hansen said. “It breaks down people’s walls, and I think it brings the luge community together.”
Hansen decided to fulfill her dream of attending BYU after she narrowly missed qualifying for the 2010 Olympics. She was exhausted and discouraged, and she said attending BYU, where no one knew about her luge career, was refreshing. Eventually, a bishop asked her about it, and she admitted it because, she said, "Who lies to their bishop?"
The bishop asked her to share her experiences with other students at firesides, and she said that reinvigorated and inspired her.
"It was hard," she said of taking a break from luge and attending BYU. "It definitely wasn't easy, but I loved it. It was one of the best decisions I made."
She said the questions about her sport had always bothered her, as there was the implication that it was really just glorified sledding and that one didn't need to be very athletic to compete.
"I've dedicated my life to this, and it's the hardest thing I've ever done," she said. "No one is ever going to know; only your teammates understand. That's why I avoided telling people."
The firesides gave her the opportunity to educate people who saw her as more than an athlete. It gave her freedom and helped her to feel understood.
Finding her own testimony at a young age was critical as Hansen was traveling the world alone as a teen.
“When I was younger, it was definitely a concern,” she said of her commitment to her Mormon faith. “There was a time when I really needed to figure out if it was for me. Seven years later, it’s not even a question. We actually joke about it all the time.”
It’s customary that the winner of any luge event parties the hardest with all the other athletes after the competition. While there were questions and even some pressure when she was younger, now everyone understands and embraces that her version of partying is a bit different.
“I’ve had a lot of missionary experiences,” she said. “It’s taught me to figure out what my life is about. It never really changed me or anything and never threw my faith into question.”
And that’s something for which she said she is grateful, especially after hearing that her behavior is being watched by people such as Bakirov.
“That is probably one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had,” she said. “It makes you think, ‘What have you been doing? How have you been living?’ I was grateful that I did things the right way, that I did the little things.”