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Families and athletes thinking twice about traveling to Sochi

Russian riot police observe a protest by Russian nationalist groups in Moscow in November, 2013. Economic and political problems continue to inflame ethnic tensions and exacerbate the threat of terrorism.

As he prepares to take the Olympic hockey stage, Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter just made an unwelcome change of plans: His family now won't be watching him from the stands in Sochi, Russia, next month. A swirl of new security concerns has suddenly scuttled their trip.

Teammate Zach Parise has told his parents not to travel there, either, because of growing concern about safety.

Team USA athletes are training toward peak performances for the Winter Olympics while terrorism threats inside the host country have put some athletes and families on edge about their travel plans. Russian officials say they have stepped up security, and the U.S. military has an evacuation plan using warships and aircraft if needed -- comforting some but worrying others.

"I'm actually really concerned about it," Parise wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. "I know they say they have evacuation stuff for us and all, but you just never know. I guess you have to wonder at what point does someone say it isn't a good idea for us to go."

An Islamic militant group posted a video Sunday claiming responsibility for bombings in the country last month and threatening to strike the Winter Games next month, and on Tuesday, Russian security officials were hunting for three potential female suicide bombers. A police letter said that one of them, a 22-year-old widow of an Islamic militant, was in Sochi. Russian authorities have blamed the so-called "black widows" of slain insurgents for previous suicide attacks in the country.

'Once in a lifetime'

Minnesotans John and Diana Herman of Bloomington reconsidered traveling to see their daughter, Keri Herman, compete in the Olympics' first slopestyle freeskiing event. But they decided to go, banking on the Russian and U.S. governments doing everything they can to make the event safe, John Herman said Tuesday.

"You've just got to hope that the government of Russia and [President Vladimir]Putin hold true to their words to make sure this is the safest Olympics it can be," he said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list event. It's incredibly special because our daughter will be competing and representing the United States ... We're doing everything that we can to be thoughtful when we travel and be careful."

Parents of Olympic women's hockey players have been discussing security concerns via e-mail and plan to have a conference call soon, said Linda Stecklein, of Roseville, whose daughter Lee is on the team.

She and her husband, Robb, still plan to fly across the globe to watch Lee play, as she's heard no recommendations to do otherwise from hockey officials.

Parents are concerned, she said. "Some of those questions about safety have been cropping up a lot more ... People are for sure wary."

The Steckleins said they're letting coaches and team administrators handle discussions about security with their daughter.

The family is looking forward to its first Olympics, she said. "Provided that all goes well, we're just looking forward to the whole experience."

Suter, a Wild defenseman, said his wife, two kids and parents were planning to go to Sochi but changed those plans in light of the security threats.

"They're not going to go anymore," he said.

Still, he said Tuesday, "I think that [security personnel are] going to do whatever it takes to protect us. I think the Russian government will protect us because that's a black eye on them if they don't."

Russia promises safety

Putin has promised that his country will do all it can to ensure a safe Olympics without imposing security measures that are too intrusive. But members of Congress have expressed concerns about the safety of Americans at the Games and said Moscow must cooperate more on security.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said on CNN's "State of the Union" that he wouldn't go to the games, "and I don't think I would send my family."

Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, was in Sochi on Tuesday to assess the situation and said he was impressed by the work of Russian security forces but troubled that potential suicide bombers had reportedly gotten into the city, despite the extraordinary security measures.

McCaul, a Republican from Texas, said he had numerous meetings with officials in Moscow and Sochi, and was briefed by the joint operation center in Sochi, which is responsible for overall security in the area.

"The one improvement I would ask of the Russians is to allow our intelligence services to coordinate and cooperate better with theirs," McCaul said. Although the Russians are confident that they can provide security, the U.S. has information that could help keep the Games safe, he said.

The State Department has advised Americans who plan to attend the Olympics, which run Feb. 7 to Feb. 23, that they should keep vigilant about security because of potential terrorist threats, crime and uncertain medical care.

Scott Blackmun, chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said in a statement: "The safety and security of Team USA is our top priority. As is always the case, we are working with the U.S. Department of State, the local organizers and the relevant law enforcement agencies in an effort to ensure that our delegation and other Americans traveling to Sochi are safe."

USA Hockey spokesman Dave Fischer said security at the Olympics is always a concern, but that there were a few more conversations happening among officials now, given the news out of Russia.

"Due diligence is being done ... if there's reason not to go, we won't go, but I don't expect that," said Fischer, a former Minnesotan. "I think it'll be a terrific experience for the athletes ... Our government is not going to send our athletes into harm's way."

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Staff Writer Rachel Blount and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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