Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Personal Memories

Everyone has a moment in their lives when they have a personal experience with a common major event. The event registers in their consciousness, and 20 years later, we can say, “I remember that!” after years of saying “I was too little to remember that.”


In a previous article, I mentioned how the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding scandal was one of the first things that I can remember experiencing as a kid. As publicized as the event was, I only remember watching the figure skating competition - and even then, I might have only watched the highlights on Good Morning America after it happened, since my mom always had that on as we got ready for school. As for the rest of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, I honestly can say I remember nothing else.


My actual Olympics experience began in 1996, thanks to Atlanta receiving the bid to host the Summer Games. It was the first Olympics that had been held in my lifetime on American soil, and America went kind of nuts.


To attract the kiddos (like me!) to enjoy the Olympics, each host city creates a mascot for the Games. And yes, I was a big fan of Atlanta’s mascot, a blue...thing named Izzy. (I checked Wikipedia - apparently it was an “abstract, animated character.” So I was pretty much spot-on.) I had an Izzy action figure. I think I even had an Izzy coloring book, featuring the thing doing many Olympic events in his giant red shoes, like running, archery, and basketball.


That was the first Opening Ceremony that I ever watched, and I remember having a really good time, despite the country introductions taking a really, really long time. It was the first time that John Williams’ “Summon the Heroes” was played, and I was in love. That music (and the original Williams’ Olympic tune, “Olympic Fanfare and Theme”) still make me simultaneously giddy and choked up. Some older gentleman named Muhammad Ali lit the flame. (My 11-year-old mind didn’t comprehend how amazing this was.)


The Dream Team of 1992 had been a big deal, but I remember the 1996 Dream Team a lot more. It finally gave me a chance to root for Michael Jordan, after years of rooting against him and the Bulls. I also watched a bit of women’s basketball, which featured ladies like Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo, who, thanks to this showcase, were about to launch into a new league - the WNBA - in 1997.


I also remember waking up and finding out a bomb had exploded by one of the outdoor concert venues set up in Centennial Olympic Park. That was scary.


There was Michael Johnson after he broke the world record in the 200m, arms outstretched, mouth open wide in a shout of joy. There was freckle-faced Amy Van Dyken winning medals in swimming. And who could forget the women’s gymnastics team event, when Kerri Strug vaulted her way into America’s heart?


1996 had a big impact on me. Unfortunately, the reality of the Olympics being a worldwide event soured my 1998 Nagano experience. Since everything took place many hours earlier, the excitement of seeing something live was tarnished. (I’m still not over that, especially with Sochi’s distance.) There were some bright spots, though: the NHL allowed its players to compete. (The Americans trashed their living quarters, too.) Some girl named Tara Lipinski beat out fan favorite Michelle Kwan for figure skating gold. Despite their male counterparts, the women’s US hockey team was able to compete for the first time, and won gold.


The 2000 Summer Games also had a time difference factor, and it also took place in the middle of September, when school was already in session. I enjoyed Cathy Freeman lighting the flame as it rose up around her. (Still the coolest one, IMO.) I had a crush on Ian Thorpe (BMP, of course - Before Michael Phelps), the Australian with a giant schnoz who won a bunch of golds.


And then, the time issue was no more! The 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City were a dream for me. I followed everything. I cut out magazines and newspapers to make a collage for my dorm room walls. I had another John Williams’ masterpiece to love (“Call of the Champions”).


I had a crush on Apolo Anton Ohno, and was furious when he crashed with three other short track skaters to miss out on gold. Michelle Kwan lost again. And my roommate helped me see the awesomeness of men’s figure skating, thanks to the upper body strength of Russian Alexei Yagudin.


We smuggled a VCR into our dorm room - a definite no-no at the time in my school. We had it under a pile of books and clothes, and we’d record the Olympics when we had study halls and come back and watch them later. It was glorious.


The time difference came back in Athens in 2004, but Athens also introduced me to Michael Phelps. (Sensing a pattern? Welcome to teenagerdom!) Of course, I STILL have a crush on Michael Phelps to this day. It was a lot of fun watching swimming that took place outdoors. I also loved the wreaths that adorned the heads of the winners, harkening back to the wreaths given to winners of the ancient Greek games.


Oddly enough, I remember a lot of press coverage over how Athens wasn’t ready for the Games - unfinished stadiums, unpaved roads, etc. But when they took place, I didn’t notice a thing. Ah - my first realization that the media overblows stuff.


The men’s basketball team lost, which drove USA basketball fans crazy for a couple of years. Paul Hamm miraculously won the individual all-around gold medal after a crazy comeback. (THAT was fun to watch.)


We’ll skip 2006, because I don’t remember much about it. I don’t think I even remember how to pronounce Turin correctly, because NBC kept putting up “Torino” on its logos, but it was “Turin” everywhere else. Very confusing.


It was Beijing in 2008 that changed EVERYTHING for me. I was training to serve as a teacher in China, and because of that I had a lot of time to watch stuff. I sat enamored as the Opening Ceremonies took place - I think everyone else did, too. It was the first time I was overwhelmed and cried during the lighting of the Olympic flame - something that I now do every single time. (I also cry when it gets put out - so. sad.)


In Athens there were rumbles that Michael Phelps would try 8 events and attempt to break Mark Spitz’ record, but I never thought that it would actually happen - I just assumed it was media overhype. But in Beijing, it did. Thanks to smart programming by NBC (whoever thought that could be said?), the swimming events were shown live in the evenings in America while happening in the morning in China. This meant when I watched the 4x100m relay and screamed at the television in my cousins’ basement, it wasn’t spoiled for me at all. (Though I think I spoiled it for others. Sorry Rachel.)


This was the first time that I watched smaller events, like badminton and beach volleyball and fencing. It was the first time I’d realized how big the Summer Olympics were, and how much they had to offer.


The biggest thrill of these Olympics for me didn’t take place during the Olympics at all, but in December, when I was in Beijing on my way home. It was early in the morning, and the taxi was taking me to the airport, and I looked to my right, and I SAW the Bird’s Nest, and I SAW the Water Cube. In person. It was the biggest thrill of my life. I wish I’d had the time to see them up close.


I loved the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver just as much as the 2008 Games. I was teaching in Wisconsin, and I got my kids obsessed with it as well. I taped important stuff from the night before and would show the best stuff to the kids. I got them to sing the “Olympic Song” (you know the one: “Bum! BUM! Ba-bum bum bum bum!” etc.). I didn’t have a Valentine’s Party that year - I had an Olympic Opening Ceremony party instead! I had a giant bulletin board in my classroom that I covered with newspaper and magazine pictures from the events. (Those eventually made their way into a scrapbook that I am showing my new crop of kids.) My wish is that those kids get just as excited for this year’s Games because of what I did with them in the 2010 Games.


And the events! Lindsay Vonn, Apolo Ohno (for the last time, *sniff*), Shani Davis, Shaun White (pre-SJ), Evan Lysacek beating evil Evgeni Plushenko, USA Hockey losing BOTH hockey finals to Canada, Bode Miller, and much, much more. I held a party at my apartment to watch the Opening Ceremony, and sat by myself and cried as Neil Young sang while the flame went out.


I don’t need to tell you about the 2012 Games. Just look at the previous blog posts to see how psycho crazy I was!


My hope is that 2014 is very similar to 2010 and 2012 for me. I want to be as involved as possible, and I want others to be just as involved with me. It is my hope, dear reader, that you will join me on this 17-day thrill ride, and that every person that I talk to about the Olympics gets that same excitement and energy that I still get every time I hear those familiar John Williams themes.