When I put on the Team USA gear, and the flag is on there, what I see is the flag of a nation of immigrants. Unless you’re Native American, your family came here hoping to better themselves. Going to the Olympics and representing that kind of ideal, it’s heartwarming. —Allen Tran
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — If it weren’t for the restrictions on what can be bought with food stamps, Allen Tran may never have found his way to be the man in charge of nutrition for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team.
The son of refugees, Tran wondered why his mother didn’t buy the popular sugar frosted cereal that all of his friends seemed to be enjoying.
“We were on food stamps,” said Tran, who was born in Chicago’s inner city after his family fled post-war Vietnam in the 1970s. “As part of that, you were restricted to what kind of food you could buy. It had to be nutritious. So I wanted to know why do I have to get this and not that? Why did I have to eat Total instead of Frosted Flakes?”
His parents were very conscientious of food, and they took the opportunity to discuss nutrition with their young son.
“My dad was an incredible cook at home,” Tran said. “That interest in food and nutrition was piqued early on for me.”
Tran is part of the team behind the U.S. Olympic team in Pyeongchang. While the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team accounts for 108 of the 244 American athletes competing at the 2018 Winter Games, the Park City-based national governing body enlists the help of about 120 support personnel.
For the 22 alpine athletes — three of whom are from Utah in Holladay’s Jared Goldberg, Park City’s Ted Ligety, and Park City’s Megan McJames — U.S. Ski and Snowboard has nearly 50 people “looking out for athletes,” according to alpine team director Patrick Riml.
“From coaches working with athletes, technicians, physios, conditioning coaches, sports science people and nutrition, there are about 50 people just looking out for our athletes on the alpine side,” he said.
Tran, 32, is the U.S. Ski Team chef, and he recently shared his thoughts on how his family’s struggle to find a peaceful place to live ended up sparking a lifelong interest in nutrition and food for the University of Utah graduate. As the child of immigrants, he has a unique perspective on what it means to represent the U.S. at the Olympic Games — both on and off the field.
“Hopefully what I do helps them get to their goals,” he said. “I’m part of the high-performance team, so we try to do everything that can have an impact from sports psychology to the clothes they wear, and my area is nutrition. It is a big team effort, and every little bit comes together like a puzzle.”
Tran actually traveled to Pyeongchang several weeks before the teams so he could work out any logistical issues before the athletes arrived.
“Can we get food that is safe?” he said. “Imagine, all of these years of training, and someone gets sick, like food poisoning or something. My job is to find and prepare safe, performance enhancing and delicious food.”
Journey to Utah
Tran’s journey to Utah and overseeing nutrition for the U.S. Ski Team began with his grandparents, who were natives of China.
“I have a two-layered refugee story,” said Tran, who spoke with the Deseret News as he made arrangements for athletes in Pyeongchang. “My grandparents were from the south of China, and at some point, parts of China were ravaged by drought, which happened alongside the rise of communism in the ’50s. They decided to flee.”
His grandparents — both maternal and paternal — walked to Vietnam to escape the famine and war. Officials there “forced assimilation” on refugees, officially changing their name from Chen to Tran and requiring his grandparents to learn Vietnamese.
“They integrated into Vietnamese culture,” he said. “But then war broke out there. It was not safe, and there was a lot of uncertainty.” Around 1975, the United Nations addressed the crisis in Vietnam, created by the war, and asked countries to take refugees.
“You’d just get on a boat and start going to counties that will take you under asylum,” he said. “These boats were really dangerous. Many people died. My mom had a story about how there was no food, and they were on the boat for a week trying to get to Indonesia. By the time they got there, they had to be rescued by the Red Cross.”
The boats left Vietnam overloaded, with very little water and sometimes no food. Some boats sank or capsized, and many people drowned. He said he sees this situation playing out over and over, most recently with refugees fleeing war-torn Syria.
“History just keeps repeating itself,” he said. “I definitely have sympathy for them because we were in the same situation.”
He understands the risks refugees take to escape, even homes they love, because they’re so afraid for their lives and the lives of their families.
“They just don’t want to die,” he said. “You want to have that compassion that we had in the ’70s when (the U.S.) took hundreds of thousands of refugees.”
The U.S., France and Canada took the most refugees, and his parents were randomly assigned to Chicago.
“You just get sent to a city,” he said. “You don’t get to choose.”
Tran feels that assignment was very fortunate for his family because he grew up in such a diverse community. He’s also grateful that he had that experience with public assistance when he was young because it set him on a path that led him to his passion — nutritious and delicious food.
“My interest was piqued early on,” he said. “I went to the state college (University of Illinois) and luckily, they had a food service program. I became a chef first.” He completed several internships, and then looked to move out of Chicago. After watching the TV show “Top Chef,” he sought the restaurant featured in Napa Valley, California.
“They were looking for interns,” he said. “I applied, and was accepted. I loved living in Napa Valley.”
'I got hooked'
He worked for some of the best restaurants in the world, but he got “burned out on the high-end restaurant life,” so he took a trip to Moab with a friend to do some mountain biking.
“I got hooked,” he said. “I had been wanting to go to a grad school for nutrition, and I applied for the sports nutrition program at Utah.” Between the U.’s nutrition program and the Wasatch Mountains, Tran said he “fell in love with mountain life.”
Growing up without a lot of money, Tran said exposure to nature transformed his life.
“Wide open spaces, national parks, it was all just wonderful stuff to me,” he said.
He attended a gathering of strength and conditioning professionals where he heard a speaker from the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.
“She was a physical therapist, and I asked her about the nutrition program,” he said. “She invited me to come up and talk to the chef, who was also a dietician.”
That combination is rare, so the two immediately “bonded” over their common interest in food that is both tasty and enhances health. When his mentor left for the University of Oregon, he looked to take his place.
“I came in and seized the opportunity,” Tran said.
He admits his past, while he didn’t always think or talk about it, helped him treasure every opportunity.
“You become more appreciative of the opportunities that come up,” he said. “When I saw this opportunity to combine all of my interests, I thought, ‘I have to put everything into getting that job.’”
Tran shared his story on Facebook after being moved by the story of another immigrant, Gary Lee, a Korean American and former staffer in the Barack Obama administration. Lee's first-ever tweets went viral last month after comparing an experience with Obama to comments made by President Donald Trump.
Tran said it wasn’t until that moment that he thought sharing his story might inspire young people and give insight into how the immigrant and refugee experience adds to American life.
“For me it was just my story,” he said. “I took it for granted. After being inspired by that story, I wrote my story and read it to the staff during our staff meeting. A lot of people came to me and thanked me.”
'Patchwork' U.S. team
Tran also has a unique view of the U.S. Olympic team.
“When I put on the Team USA gear, and the flag is on there, what I see is the flag of a nation of immigrants,” he said. “Unless you’re Native American, your family came here hoping to better themselves. Going to the Olympics and representing that kind of ideal, it’s heartwarming.”
He feels increased pride in his efforts to help athletes representing the U.S.
“My job doesn’t directly cause medals, but it helps,” he said. “I feel fortunate to be in this position to impact how our country is seen in the world.”
He admits there was some stigma to being a recipient of government assistance programs, and adds there are many misconceptions about who uses them and why.
“You don’t want to be on assistance,” he said. “They’re definitely there to help you get a leg up. I liken it to pushing a car that is dead. It’s very hard to get it pushed by yourself. But if you get some friends, once you get it moving, you can put it into gear and get it started. You need initial momentum to help. There is a stigma that people on public assistance don’t have any motivation, but it’s quite the opposite. With all of the rules, it almost forces you to be contributing members of society.”
And, he said, it inspires gratitude in kids like him.
“It creates opportunities to be able to come out of it, and I’m a product of all of these things,” he said. “As a kid, you don’t have a choice where you are born. We as a society should want to make sure children have an opportunity.”
While his grandparents were forced to assimilate, he said refugees in America assimilated because they want to be part of the greater society.
“It’s the American experiment,” he said, “and it’s working. You can see other countries here at the Games, and the French teams look like the French, the Japanese look Japanese. But the American team, we’re a patchwork of different looking people from different backgrounds.
"From athlete to staff, it is what makes us unique. I’m really proud to be part of that patchwork, to fit in that diverse appearance of Team USA. We’re that experiment itself.”