Olympic memories-not for the faint of heart
It was the biggest day of my young life. I was marching in the Opening Ceremonies proudly wearing the USA’s red, white and blue. After the grand entrance, waves and smiles, there I was snuggled in the stands between my figure skating teammates, Dorothy Hamill and Tai Babilonia The moment had come, the torch bearer was mounting the stairs, people were cheering wildly, my heart was pounding out of control. Then everything went black. I’d fainted. I was down and out cold. I ‘came to’ in a scrum of medical people and was carted off by ambulance to the Olympic Village.
The moment every Olympic athlete anticipates more than any other had come and gone, and I’d missed it.
I had arrived in Innsbruck, Austria two days earlier with a bad case of the stomach flu. Talk about bad timing. I was “off” at practices, but not too sick to ever consider missing the competition or the Opening Ceremonies.
Since every country marches into the ceremonies in alphabetical order, we had a long wait in the tunnel. After two hours of waiting for the big moment, I was getting woozy.
I made it into the stadium and into my seat and thought, ‘please God, don’t let me get sick on the world’s biggest stage.’ I knew I was in trouble.
Meanwhile, 20 rows behind me, my mom, sister, and best friend saw me go down. Mom loves to re-tell the story about how they tried to push past security to get to me. But there was no way they could get through. Keep in mind, this was the first Olympic Games since the tragedy in Munich where 11 Israeli athletes were killed by terrorists. Security was tight.
My family was able to visit me later in the Olympic village. They were naturally concerned about my health but also totally excited about the “access” never given to someone without the proper credential. “Hey, we get to say we went to the athlete’s village, cool!”
My pair partner, Bill Fauver and I competed in the short program the next day. I was still weak in the knees, but we did alright. The long program was not our best night and we finished the pair event in 12th place.
In the end, it didn’t matter that I missed the Olympic flame being lit. It didn’t matter that we didn’t come close to winning a medal. What mattered is that I was there, and that I was having breakfast every morning with the best athletes in the world. After all those years in freezing rinks, all those falls learning the jump, all the tears of disappointment and frustration, it was worth it. I was an Olympian.
As the Games in London approach, I think about how many athletes are in the same place I once was. There are thousands of competitors from every corner of the planet who have worked their butts off just to get there. Most of these athletes have no expectation of bringing home a medal. Just ‘happy to be there’ is not an expression NFL coaches are fond of, but it’s an altogether different story for an Olympian, especially one who never even expected to make the team.
Over the coming weeks, we will witness spectacular victories and crushing defeats. Through it all, we should remember and celebrate the little guy. The athlete who will go home with nothing more than terrific memories and the satisfaction that he or she competed as hard as they could for their country.
While the winners will go on to magazine covers, endorsement deals, fame and fortune, life for most of the athletes will return to normal after the London Olympics. They will go back to their real lives as nurses, office workers, teachers, college students, coaches, moms and dads.
But there is one thing they will carry back with them, one thing no one can ever take away from them, and it doesn’t need to go in a safe deposit box. It’s the realization that they are and always will be Olympians – never former, always an Olympian.
All these years later I have grown to appreciate even more what it means to be an Olympian. It isn’t always about the medal stand. It’s about the spirit, the pride, and what it took to get there.