Faye Gulini shares power of snowboarding in Kyrgyzstan

March 20th, 2015 by Brian Canever in Envoys
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Faye Gulini with girls at an orphanage in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Courtesy of U.S. Embassy Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic

Faye Gulini doesn’t speak Kyrgyz or Russian. But, as an 8-year-old on the slopes of Snowbird with her brothers, Gulini learned another language that needed no translation when she visited Kyrgyzstan in late February.

As a Sports Envoy for the U.S. Department of State SportsUnited division, Gulini, a two-time Olympian snowboard cross rider, visited local schools in Bishkek and taught a group of 30 orphans (15 boys, 15 girls) the tools of her craft.

“Yeah, there was a big language barrier, but there were so many moments where it didn’t matter what we were speaking, you just shared smiles and laughter together,” Gulini said.

Gulini, 22, first learned of the trip to the Central Asian republic in an email from U.S. Snowboarding. Assuming she might not otherwise get a chance to visit the country, she replied and was soon afterward commissioned to serve as a Sports Envoy for the first time.

On February 15, the Salt Lake City native boarded a plane headed for Bishkek, the capital and largest city in Kyrgyzstan. In four days, she visited the European School in Central Asia, the Kyrgyz Academy of Physical Culture and Sports, and High School #48 to speak of life as a professional female athlete.

Gulini’s most enjoyable moments, however, were on the slopes with the Bishkek orphans.

“They didn’t have the best equipment,” Gulini said. “Most of them were in jeans and they were soaking wet, and they fell about a hundred times, but they just kept getting up and were all smiles.”

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Faye Gulini speaks during one of the snowboard training sessions. Courtesy of U.S. Embassy Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic

The 13-17-year-olds inspired Gulini with their dedication to making the most of their limited time on the snow. Unlike other teenagers Gulini has worked with in the past, the orphans spent every second of the 10 a.m.-3 p.m. time slots learning everything they could from her, in case it was their last chance to ever strap on a snowboard.

Although it’s now her full-time job, Gulini didn’t immediately fall in love with snowboarding. Her father, who works for Doppelmayr, a major ski lift manufacturer, introduced her to skiing at the age of 3, and even after she transitioned to snowboarding five years later, she’d get frustrated with spending the days cold and falling on her backside. But, Gulini persisted and moved to Denver to attend the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy in 2006. Before she turned 18, she was riding in the Vancouver Olympics.

It’s been an incredible journey for Gulini, and she wants to give back as much as snowboarding has given to her. Sharing her passion with orphans and underserved children in Kyrgyzstan is one way of accomplishing that goal. But, for Gulini, her obligations as a role model also extend off the slopes, as she realized during an unscheduled pick-up soccer game on her trip.

“The expectations for what girls should and shouldn’t do became clear when it was me and a bunch of guys playing soccer and they were standoffish and weirded out at first,” Gulini said. “At the end of the game, they were still a little shocked and they told me, ‘We’ve never seen a girl play like you.’”

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Faye Gulini addressed several elementary, middle and high schools in the country during her trip. Courtesy of U.S. Embassy Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic

Before leaving to return to training camp in Colorado, Gulini spoke to the Bishkek orphans one last time about her journey and her dream of winning an Olympic medal (Gulini finished fourth in snowboard cross at the 2014 Sochi Olympics). Heading out the door, she was stopped by one of the teens, who presented her with a simple, yet very special gift.

“He handed me this Origami swan and he told me, ‘Never give up.’”

Gulini promised she never would.