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Olympics help Lake View resident put sister in touch with roots

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Updated: March 21, 2014 3:36PM



SOCHI, Russia — The idea always had been for Ali Cohen to go back to Russia, where she was born 16 years ago.

So when Sochi won the right to host the 2014 Olympics, the wheels began turning for Marc Cohen, a Lake View resident and Notre Dame graduate. He and his adopted sister, the former Irina Yagovitina, could combine pleasure with the first step toward giving her a sense of her beginnings. Not closure but a commencement. There would be fun and Winter Games and maybe a kinship with the country of her birth.

They started planning in earnest two years ago. Marc, a 26-year-old IT consultant for Deloitte, did most of the work. It was his gift to his sister.

‘‘It wasn’t easy to plan a trip like this on our own,’’ he said. ‘‘We probably called off the trip three different times. Flights were easy. Tickets to the events were pretty easy, but getting a hotel was difficult. We didn’t get a hotel until three weeks before the Games.’’

There were challenges for Ali, a high school sophomore from Hilton Head Island,
S.C., who was adopted at
6 months. Russia didn’t want to give her a visa. Because she was born in Russia and had a Russian passport for the first year of her life, the government still considered her a Russian citizen. When she applied for a visa, Russian officials said she had to hand in her U.S. passport and apply for a Russian passport. She went to South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s office for help and ended up signing a form relinquishing her Russian citizenship. The process took three months.

‘‘We never thought I was still a citizen,’’ she said.

They arrived in Moscow on Feb. 9, spent a few days there and headed for Sochi, where they have watched hockey, luge, downhill skiing and ski jumping, among other events.

She met a group of guys holding the flag of Yekaterinburg, a city about 70 miles from where she was born. They informed her it’s where Pavel Datsyuk, Alexei Yashin and Nikolai Khabibulin hail from. Maybe hockey is in her blood.

She was born in Artyomovsky, a town in the Sverdlovsk Oblast region near the Ural Mountains. When Howard and Lori Cohen came to adopt her, she was still in a hospital because the town didn’t have an orphanage. Women used poles to carry buckets of water down the street.

Ali, a three-sport athlete, wonders what her life would have been like had she grown up there.

‘‘My parents have talked a lot about this with me,’’ she said. ‘‘Apparently, the hospitals there didn’t have very good health facilities. I had a lot of ear infections, and I was sick. They said that when they were there, it looked really run-down, really pretty awful. They said that the water there
was terrible.

‘‘I don’t know what my life would be like, but I’m guessing it would pretty much be the opposite of what it is now.’’

That’s a trip for another time. Her hometown is about 1,800 miles from Sochi. She doesn’t know the circumstances that brought about her adoption. She knows her birth mother’s name is Tatiana. Her father, according to her birth certificate, was deceased when she was born. She has a ton of questions.

‘‘Maybe someday I’ll make a trip over there, try to find my birth mother,’’ she said. ‘‘We don’t have much information, just their names. But there’s always hope.’’

Her adoptive parents named her Alison and used her Russian name, Irina, for her middle name.

‘‘I’ve definitely seen faces here that look like mine,’’ she said. ‘‘In America, everybody says I have, like, different eyes, European eyes.’’

They’ve had amazing luck at the Olympics. They showed up for the U.S.-Russia men’s hockey game, which might turn out to be the most exciting event of the Games, and learned they had front-row tickets behind one of the goals. They have no idea how that happened. The United States won 3-2 in a shootout.

‘‘It was awesome,’’ Ali said.

‘‘There were two Canadians behind us,’’ Marc said. ‘‘They walk in with Team Canada jerseys, and then five minutes into the game they rip them off and they have on Russia jerseys. Then they put on the fur hats and started with the Russia chants.’’

We’ll remember that during the next North American trade talks.

Through Deloitte, an Olympic sponsor, Marc and Ali got passes to get into USA House, where U.S. athletes often hang out. When the siblings arrived, officials announced a special guest soon would be there.

‘‘The next thing you know, [Russian president] Vladimir Putin walks in,’’ Marc said. ‘‘I could have touched him I was so close. Ali got a picture taken with five of the U.S. hockey players and with the three U.S. slopestyle ski medalists.’’

She also got her photo taken with the wife of U.S. goalie Ryan Miller — in the women’s bathroom. Whatever it takes.

They leave for home Friday. Marc figures he’ll have spent close to $10,000 on the trip by the time it’s over. Worth every penny, he said.

‘‘It’s a once-in-a-lifetime, right?’’ he said. ‘‘I’m so glad that we didn’t call off the trip. We were a little worried about security. We were a little worried about not having a plan.’’

‘‘You’ll never meet a more determined guy,’’ Ali said.

Email: rmorrissey@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MorrisseyCST



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