Relay: Igor and America

Igor’s a guy who’s looking ahead; he doesn’t dwell on the bad stuff

The other day, like many recent days, I was in a funk about America. The presidential race — angry, degrading, dumb, bafflingly regressive — was eating at me. Then along came an old friend to make America great again — or, at least a little better.

The person in this story can only be referred to as Igor. The unmistakable Slavic accent, the mixture of brash and tough and tender, the sheer, huge dimensions of the man. He is about as “Igor” as anyone could ever be. The only Igor I have ever known.

Twenty-four years ago, Igor’s career as a budding Yugoslav national team ski racer was cut short by the collapse of that cobbled-together nation. A bloody, brutal, neighbor-against-neighbor war ensued. Igor was swept into the war as a soldier on the Serbian side. He witnessed comrades and friends and neighbors killed, and within months he was injured, hit by shrapnel.

Igor’s a guy who’s looking ahead; he doesn’t dwell on the bad stuff. Questions about the injury and that dark time are delected with self-effacing dignity. “Friends were killed. . . . I survived. . . . I was lucky. . . .” Details have emerged in bits and pieces of conversation over the years, but he never divulges too much at once. 

Igor grew up comfortable, the son of college professors, in a leafy neighborhood in Sarajevo. As a kid he dreamed of snow-covered peaks, and when he was just 4, he strapped on skis and sped down his hometown Bijelasnic and Jahhorina mountains. Winter was the magic.

“I was born under mountains and introduced to sport of skiing by my father,” he said in an interview some years ago, his high-pitched voice unexpected from such an imposing eastern European, his sentences devoid of certain articles and pronouns, as if he’s a man in a hurry. “I have been in love with skiing since I was boy and have traveled from winter to winter all around world because I love sport.”

With his world in disarray there was nothing ahead for him in Serbia. So, at the age of 18, he fled home, leaving family and friends and a country in tatters. It would be eight years before he would see his family again.

“I took a car, the family car, and I remember driving away with my father on old bicycle behind us, waving: ‘Go! Go!’ ”

A friend, a pregnant woman, traveled with him. They shot across the Sarajevo airport runway that was the frontline, bullets whistling overhead and striking the pavement. They headed north. They passed scenes of war, bombed out towns and buildings, charred vehicles. He moved bodies from the roadway. He snuck through Europe — Austria, Switzerland, Italy — stealing food as he went, working odd jobs, checking his pride in the face of anti-Serb prejudice, borrowing floor space from friends of friends or sleeping in the open. 

Igor must have had an angel riding shotgun, not only because his story is so improbable and its contemporary chapters feature a wonderful woman and two adorable children, but at every turn he found astonishingly generous and powerful friends, and always new signs to push him onward, with skiing as the pass-key of his life. He obtained a passport and permission to travel from the former Yugoslavia, thanks to his standing on the national ski team and, ever after, skiing got him jobs, housing, recognition, friends. 

Igor landed in glitzy Monte Carlo — “I had my 501 Levi’s and my white shirt, which I washed every day, no matter what. That’s all I had, and my army boots.” With an irrepressible combination — sheer good luck, desperation, charm, passion — he landed a job coaching the principality’s ski club, and then its national team. He learned French — badly, but well enough. He met and befriended Prince Albert of Monaco, who it turned out was quite a skier himself. With Monaco friends, Igor established a successful summer ski camp in the Alps. In the summers he would head south to coach in Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand. He loved Australia so much he stayed for a few years and became a citizen.

Igor came to America in 1999, to western Massachusetts to coach at Berkshire East Ski Resort. He got one look at the place and remembers thinking, “Where are mountains?” 

One midwinter day, a friend recalled, Igor returned from a ski run and announced: “I have just seen camel!”

Turns out, he’d seen a moose. Welcome to America.

From Berkshire East, Igor coached at Mount Snow in Vermont, shaped and led a championship UMass ski team, and coached at Diamond Peak in California. We met in 2004, when he took over the reins at the Mount Mansfield Ski Club, which he proceeded to transform with the energy of a man possessed.

That’s how he met Micheline Lemay, a young coach with snowy mountains in her DNA. She grew up on skis in New Hampshire. I was at their wedding a few years ago — fittingly, on the winter solstice — at a chapel accessible only on skis high in the Green Mountains. It was a joyful convergence of United States, Serbia, and friends and family from far and near, including Igor’s mother, Lula, in from Serbia.

In the falling snow that day, Igor spoke with optimism like only a man who has been freed from hell can. He read a letter to the crowd about his journey and his search, and how he’d arrived here and met Micheline and found happiness. Then everyone skied down in the powder to a local tavern and rejoiced in the magic of it all.

Last month, Igor became an American citizen at a ceremony in Burlington, with Micheline and his children, Sofia and Hugo, at his side. 

Forty-eight nations were represented at the event, including at least one Bosnian. Burlington has a large Bosnian community, many of them refugees from the very same war that drove Igor away. Bosnians had once been the enemy. We’re all Americans now.

The federal officials conducting the event “called me Yugoslavian,” Igor laughed, “I liked that. It no longer exists, but that’s where I was born, Yugoslavia.”

He tells me he misses Yugoslavia, he cherishes it, the memory of it. And America? “I am married to an American girl, I have kids born here, I live here, I pay taxes here, I want to be here, and have my own home and land.”

He pauses, and adds, “America, it is the only way to go. Right?”

Right.

 


Biddle Duke is the editor of East, the Star’s forthcoming magazine.