Junior Nathaniel Kuffner wanders the world for the Winter Olympics

Sam Warren

Most families enjoy the Winter Olympics snuggled up on their couch with the television displaying the action happening on the other side of the planet—Olympians pushing themselves to their limit, trying to earn coveted medals for their country’s honor.

However, this scenario is not the case for junior Nathaniel Kuffner and his family. Every four years, the Kuffner family, spearheaded by his ambitious father Charlie, travel to the corners of the globe to experience the games up close and in person.

If it had not been for his father’s American nationality, Nathaniel’s Olympic journeys may have never happened. Charlie Kuffner, Nathaniel’s father, was forcefully stopped by a duo of Yugoslavian police officers on his train to the 1984 games in Sarajevo, which almost halted his first ever Olympic experience and Nathaniel’s from even beginning.

Traveling to Pyeongchang, junior Nathaniel Kuffner stands beside the Olympic hockey rink during a match at the 2018 Winter Olympics
Traveling to Pyeongchang, junior Nathaniel Kuffner stands beside the Olympic hockey rink during a match at the 2018 Winter Olympics

“I was on the train coming into Yugoslavia when we crossed the border and two border officers walked into the cab. They walked up to me and asked me for money to get into the country, and I didn’t have any because I spent it all on the train tickets. They shook me down and almost threw me off the train, but then they saw my American Express [credit] card and let me go because I was American,” Charlie said.

Despite his troubles, Charlie made it to Sarajevo safely and became awestruck with the Winter Olympics. One event in the 1984 Olympiad caused him to make a commitment for the rest of his life.

“When I got [to the games], I was lucky enough to see Bill Johnson win the gold medal for Men’s Downhill Skiing. That experience was so exhilarating that I told myself then and there I would go every year from then on, and I’ve never looked back since,” Charlie said.

Starting with the 1984 Sarajevo games, Charlie has traveled to ten consecutive Olympiads, and has brought his family along with him on his journeys. As a family, the KuffnersCharlie, Nathaniel, Nathaniel’s mother Barbara and his older brother Rileyhave made the quadrennial pilgrimage to the Winter Games every time the competition occurs. According to Nathaniel, they don’t attend the summer competition as well because going to every Olympics would make the experience lose its luster.

“Going every two years would lower how much of an impact the Olympics have. It’d become more of a commonality instead of a making a journey every four years, which makes it such a breathtaking experience,” Nathaniel said.

Nathaniel also believes that the winter events are much more interesting and invigorating than their summer counterparts.

“The whole aspect of the danger of the sports really makes the events so much more exciting. On the half pipe, these athletes are going 18 feet up in the air and risking cracking their head open or paralyzing themselves and in the downhill skiing, skiers are bombing 75 miles an hour down the hill, faster than cars on freeways. It’s just so much more exciting than some dudes running around a track,” Nathaniel said.

Since the Olympics change location every year, The Kuffner tradition has taken them across the globe. Since 2002, their travels have brought them to Salt Lake City, Utah; Torino, Italy; Vancouver, Canada; Sochi, Russia; and most recently, Pyeongchang, South Korea. Out of all the Olympiads, Nathaniel enjoyed his experience most at the 2018 Pyeongchang games because of the South Korean culture and hospitality.

“Korea is an awesome place and the people are very accepting and interested in American culture. My brother and I were walking around the streets of Korea in our USA Hockey jerseys and we were stopped multiple times by natives to take photos with them,” Nathaniel said.

Nathaniel also loved the 2018 games because of the meshing of cultures he observed. While at the short-track speed skating events, he caught a glimpse into what it was like to be from the most polarizing country in the world by observing the North Korean cheerleaders that Kim Jong Un sent to Pyeongchang to go root on the Korean athletes.

“Everything they did was like clockwork, from putting on their jackets and zipping them up all at the same time to leading cheers in unison. It was really cool but also freaky to watch,” Nathaniel said.

While in Pyeongchang, the Kuffners were able to attend three nights of short-track speed skating, five hockey games, the men’s team ski jump final, the men’s aerial skiing final and the men’s skiing halfpipe final. Although Nathaniel said he loves the adrenaline of some of the more extreme events, hockey is both his favorite sport and his favorite Olympic event to attend.

“NHL games are fun to go to, but it’s a much more casual experience. Olympic hockey games are so much more intense because there’s so much riding on each game. The players love playing for their country and the games carry so much more importance because they are playing for their homeland and for their nation’s honor,” Nathaniel said.

Each member of the family takes away more than just an exciting sports adventure. Nathaniel’s mother, Barbara, believes that going to the Olympics is a beneficial experience for her kids because it gives them perspectives about their privilege.

“It’s great for the boys to travel the world and learn about cultures. We live in a bubble here in Marin and going to these countries gives them perspective on what life is really like outside of the U.S., but it’s also great for them to see every nation coming together and staying peaceful for two weeks, which is a rarity in today’s society,” Barbara said.

According to Nathaniel, the games are important today because of the community aspect of the competition.

“Both the fans and athletes interact with each other in a very positive manner. Everyone gets to mix and mingle with others from other countries that they might not be able to because of politics,” Nathaniel said. “For once, everyone is just in a single place with a common goal, and that’s to win and have fun.”