“Putin touched my cheek”

If you had told me that this trip would bring me within 50 yards of Vladimir Putin, I would not have believed you.

And yet, during Valentine’s Day in Sochi, I saw one of the world’s most powerful political figures.

After an afternoon shooting in Olympic Park, another member of the group and I decided to pay a quick visit to the USA Team Store. As we walked towards the building, we noticed a cluster of people beginning to form around a train of black vehicles snaking behind the building. About a dozen police and park security offers were forming a ring around the train of cars. A limo was in the middle of the caravan.

It was Putin’s motorcade.

When we got to the scene, an American pin trader named Dan who we had interviewed days earlier happened to be standing next to us. He informed us that we had just missed Putin by about 10 seconds. He had gone into the USA house to presumably meet the athletes.

I would later learn from news reports that his visit was planned earlier that day and that he would also visit the Canadian house next door. But for now, I was part of a quickly growing crowd eager to catch a glimpse of the Russian Federation’s exotic-creature-loving leader.

After about 15 minutes, security personnel in black jackets with earpieces started funneling out the backdoor of the USA house. A small road sits between the Canadian and USA houses, and that’s where Putin’s motorcade was lined up. Either he was going to get in his car and speed away or possibly go into the Canadian house.

As Putin walked out, he was barely visible around his entourage. His shortness also made getting a good look difficult. People around me started cheering, Russian flags started waving, and a group of Canadian girls draped in their country’s flag started screaming at the top of their lungs.

It quickly became obvious that Putin was paying a visit to Canada too. Onlookers started rushing to get into the Canadian house before the doors were closed, and by the time I got there, the doors had just been shut. I was a few seconds away from getting inside. In hindsight, I should have gone into the Canada house while Putin was visiting the USA.

As people shoved to get a look through the plexiglass doors, I could see Putin’s head on a stage inside through a sea of cameras. He was congratulating Canada on their success so far in the games and wishing them luck, except in ice hockey, of course. He spent less time in the Canada house. It wasn’t too long before he was in his limo and speeding away.

The crowd started to disperse. I noticed a couple of girls in Canadian gear squealing hysterically. One had the Canadian flag painted on her cheek and a flag around her shoulders. She was literally jumping up and down with excitement.

I asked her if she shook hands with Putin or something like that, and she wildly responded that not only had he hugged her, but he had caressed the painted flag on her cheek with his hand. “HE IS SO CUTE!,” she shouted.

Happy Valentine’s Day?