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Sochi's unseen players

The spotlight is on the athletes at the Olympics, but there are a group of people at Sochi who hardly get noticed -- until now.
Brian Shactman visits ski technician Miha Dolinar in his workshop.
Brian Shactman visits ski technician Miha Dolinar in his workshop.

SOCHI, RUSSIA -- The spotlight shines brightly on the athletes at the Olympics. Whether raised by supportive (or hard-driving) parents, trained by transformative coaches, or inspired (or bullied) by siblings, their journeys to the Games are talked about and admired. But there are a group of people at Sochi who hardly get noticed -- until now.

Brent Proulx and Miha Dolinar aren’t competing, but they have stories worth sharing. They are deemed “equipment guys” or technicians; however, both terms sell them short.

As the equipment manager for the U.S. Women’s hockey team, Proulx sharpens skates, lays out uniforms, and patches up equipment -- he even ensures they get the right chewing gum.

“He’s at the rink more than we are,” U.S. defenseman Kacey Bellamy said. “We play [the games]. We’re passionate. But he’s the guy who has to set everything up and have everything perfect for us.”

But Proulx’s job extends beyond his basic duties.

“He’s one of the most important parts of this family,” Bellamy said.

Calling Proulx a family member is no hyperbole. In hockey, the team doesn’t simply show up and practice or play a game -- hours are spent together before and after. While the players get dressed, stretch, warm up, tape sticks, and check skates, Proulx learns more about each teammate.

“It’s different depending on their personality, but with every one of them, you have a personal relationship,” Proulx said.

Proulx made sacrifices to be with the Olympic team. He only saw his wife and three young children sparingly while the team spent six months at their pre-Olympic camp in the Boston area. And instead of Sochi, his family is home in Minnesota.

“Six months away from them has been hard,” he admitted. “But it’s worth it. This opportunity – with this team, it doesn’t get any better.”

Then there’s Dolinar, the Slovenian-born ski technician for American Olympic downhill and Super G skier Stacey Cook.

Olympic skier Stacey Cook talks with Dolinar in his workshop.

Unless you’re a die-hard World Cup ski fan, you’ve likely never heard of Cook. But the world-class athlete is accomplished enough to have either a sponsored technician (by the company that makes her skis) or one from the U.S. ski team.

Dolinar and Cook have a unique relationship, to say the least.

“When he first came to me, we sat down, and he asked, ‘What do you need?’ I said that I needed someone who cares,” Cook said. “I didn’t need the best technician. I just needed someone who cares, and he was that person right away.”

Acting like an old married couple that runs a business together, Dolinar and Cook tackle so much with so little communication -- he instinctively knows what she wants.

“I know he has that side of the sport taken care of,” Cook said.

Cook says he’s the best in the world when it comes to edges -- and if the skis aren’t right, she has no chance, no matter how good she races.

“Everything around her has to be perfect,” Dolinar said, who makes sure more than two dozen skis are in racing condition at any moment. “In general, my job is as important, I would say, as a coach or even what she does.”

Follow Brian A. Shactman on Twitter @bshactman