True, 1989 was a watershed time for Romanians. But for the country's athletes there was just one tiny problem: When Nicolae Ceausescu's murderous communist regime collapsed, so did Romania's state-sponsored sports program. Suddenly, its top athletes were without good coaches, equipment, training facilities and money.
Things got so bad that by the winter of '93, as she trained on the slopes of Transylvania, downhiller Miheala Fera had to ski past whittled sticks plucked from the woods because real racing gates were just too expensive. "We did have some racing gates," Fera says with a laugh. "But we had to save them for races." Fera's ski boots were a good three sizes too big, her skis were old, and her trainer—well, he was nice enough, but he had one major fault: He didn't know much about skiing. This for a two-time Olympian who is among the top women skiers in the world.
Here's where Dan Egan comes in. Egan, an extreme skier, had hauled his New Hampshire film crew to the Transylvanian Alps last February to shoot footage for ski-film maker Warren Miller. Egan happened upon Fera as she was hurriedly removing the primitive gates from a hill. "I was trying to get out of the way," recalls Fera. "I didn't want them to get mad." They didn't. In fact, Egan was so taken by Fera's skiing ability and so flabbergasted by her appalling lack of resources that he returned home to Waterville Valley, N.H., with an idea. "Everyone I work with agreed that we had an opportunity to help someone in the ski community," says Egan. "I'll admit I asked myself, Is this unpatriotic? But we all agreed that this is a country of opportunity, so we decided to bring her over here to train."
Over the following months, Egan and his friends scrounged up Fera's airfare and sent her plane tickets. The 23-year-old Fera wangled a hard-to-get visa and on Dec. 17, boarded a flight to Boston. "I couldn't even breathe, I was so excited," she says.
Once she arrived, she followed an intensive daily training regimen in a Waterville Valley ski program where the rugged, icy Northeastern terrain served as a perfect simulation for the sometimes unfriendly conditions in Lillehammer. She raced in seven North American Ski Championship races during her stay, and various U.S. ski companies offered her spanking-new equipment—skis, bindings, sunglasses—though as of mid-January Fera was still wearing a ski jacket once given to her by a Spanish skier. But, hey, it beat training back in Romania, where Fera is a senior at Transylvania University—or, as her American friends call it, TU.
Fera grew up in the tiny town of Sibiu and learned her downhill skills by copying skiers from other countries she saw on television. "Mickey soaks up coaching," Egan says, using Fera's nickname. While other students of the ski program slept before the morning practice, Fera jogged in the cold—and smiled about it. It's a good thing, too, because Fera isn't just Romania's best Olympic skier; she is its only Olympic skier.
On Jan. 25, Fera headed home to prepare for the opening ceremonies in Norway, where she has virtually no chance to win a medal. Still, before she left, she took time out from her morning training to thank Egan for his help. Rising early, she prepared him the quintessential American breakfast: hot dogs.
Romania's sole Olympic skier warmed up for Lillehammer on U.S. slopes.