For years, they could see Russia from here.
Now, a half-dozen Alaska athletes are sampling borscht and taking flight over giant Matroyshka nesting dolls situated at the competition venues at the XXII Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
They are 13 time zones away in pursuit of personal goals, if not global dominance -- although the latter is expected from one of them. Anchorage's Kikkan Randall is a gold-medal favorite in cross-country skiing's freestyle sprint.
Joining her on Team USA:
• Anchorage cross-country skier Holly Brooks, 31, a veteran of the 2010 Games.
• Anchorage curler Jessica Schultz, 29, a member of the 2006 team.
• Anchorage cross-country skiers Sadie and Erik Bjornsen, one of at least seven sibling acts on Team USA, both of them Olympic rookies.
• Anchorage slopestyle snowboarder Ryan Stassel, whose Olympic debut coincided with the Olympic debut of his sport. Stassel, 21, placed 16th in Thursday's preliminaries and will face heated competition in Friday's semifinals.
Randall, 31, is the Olympic expert of the bunch. This is her fourth Olympics.
"Having been to three so far, I've gone from knowing a great result would be to break into the top 10 to knowing that if things go well there could be some medal chances," Randall said in an interview earlier this season. "The most important thing is to do the preparation and come in with a great frame of mind.
"I'm excited for the opportunity but I'm not gonna hang my career on whether I win a medal at this Olympics."
No reason for that. Randall's greatness has been well chronicled. No other American cross-country skier has had a better career. Only one, 1976 silver medalist Bill Koch, has won an Olympic medal.
Randall recorded two victories in her last three sprint races, an indication she is ready to roll in Russia. Her big race -- the freestyle sprint -- is Tuesday. Alaskans will have to pull an all-nighter to watch it live -- preliminaries begin at 1 a.m. Alaska time and the finals are shortly before 4:30 a.m.
Many of the other Alaskans also seem primed:
• Brooks enjoyed the best season of her life a year ago -- among other things, she earned a bronze medal in a World Cup relay. But she struggled early in this season, and after Christmas she decided to make a quick trip back to the United States to regroup. Since returning to Europe, she has posted her best results of the season.
• Sadie Bjornsen was held back by injuries in recent years but she's been on fire this season. A strong classic skier, she earned two top-10 World Cup finishes and helped the Americans to bronze in a relay.
• Erik Bjornsen has competed primarily in domestic races in recent years but after winning three medals at the national championships last month in Utah, he joined the U.S. team in Europe. He came up big, placing 18th in a 15-kilometer classic race for the first World Cup points of his career.
• Schultz and her teammates were one spot away from a medal at last year's world championships, placing fourth. If things go well, they could wind up in the medal round at Sochi. Four years ago, Schultz was a member of an underdog team that won the U.S. Olympics trials and finished eighth in Vancouver. She has new teammates now, and a lot more experience.
"Going into the Olympics we didn't know how to prepare or what to expect," Schultz said earlier this season. "Being on the team I'm on now, we know what we need to do to reach our goals. We know what to expect."
TEAM ALASKA ASTERISK
Because this is the Olympics, everyplace wants Olympians to call their own.
Remember back when Tommy Moe won Olympic gold and silver in 1994, and both Girdwood and Palmer fought for the right to be called his hometown? And some town in Montana even tried to claim him as a local?
With that in mind, meet Team Alaska Asterisk.
It's a squad of five athletes with strong ties to Alaska:
• Figure skater Ashley Wagner of Alexandria, Va., who grew up in Eagle River and learned to skate during the several years her military family lived here.
• Slopestyle skier Dave Duncan of Canada, who was an alpine skier for UAA in 2003-06.
• Cross-country skier Andrew Musgrave of Great Britain, the son of an oil executive who learned to cross-country ski while his family lived in Alaska. His older brother Ben skied for Service High.
• Alpine skier Anna Berecz of Hungary, who is a junior on the UAA ski team.
• Biathlete Sara Studebaker of Boise, who has made Anchorage one of her training bases. Her tie is about to get stronger -- she is engaged to Nikiski's Zach Hall, a former member of the U.S. Biathlon Team.
IN THE RUNNING?
At least a couple members of Team Asterisk -- Wagner and Duncan -- could be in the medal hunt.
Duncan won the last two World Cup slopestyle races, so he is among the favorites in Sochi. And skater Wagner is ranked fifth in the world, higher than any other U.S. woman.
You'll see plenty of Wagner, because figure skating is one of the Winter Olympics' glamor sports. She's also getting attention because she is one of the few American athletes willing to publicly denounce Russia's anti-gay law prohibiting gay "propaganda" aimed at children.
She spoke out last year when the law was passed, and earlier this week she told reporters that she won't hide her opinions if asked about the issue while in Sochi.
"It doesn't really matter where I am. It's still my opinion," Wagner was quoted by The Associated Press. "I just believe in equality for all."
Reach Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG