I love the Olympic Games. Ever since I was young, my family would gather in front of the TV to watch athletes from all over the world perform their hearts out. Tears, falls, screams of happiness, performances that gave me chills and brought me to tears. Excellence never seen before and sometimes never repeated again. Sixteen days of glory every four years, winter and summer. The whole world watches the pageantry, the camaraderie, the push for something beyond our imagination.
I had the absolute amazing opportunity to be a volunteer at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games. It was the chance to experience the big event from the inside. The whole city celebrated as thousands of athletes descended filled with hopes and dreams and the promise of an Olympic medal. My job was in the video viewing room in one of the Olympic villages. Raw footage was sent to the room by the networks broadcasting the games and athletes would come in to watch their events or their competitors or to relive their experience. It was so fun to meet people from all over the world, to congratulate them in person or cheer them on or console them over a lost event. It made me realize what an exceptional honor it was to be an Olympic athlete. Only a small percentage ever medal but to be there was a dream realized.
What I learned from that experience is how together the world can become when we all strive for the same thing. One of my favorite things to witness was athletes exchanging team uniforms, jackets, t-shirts and memorabilia with each other before heading back to their own country. There was no discussion of politics, although sadly Russia had boycotted the Los Angeles games because of a 1980 US Olympic boycott in Moscow. I felt for the athletes. All they wanted to do was compete. As much as the International Olympic Committee can declare the Games are not political we have all witnessed something very different over the years. Yet, if you ever have the chance to volunteer at an Olympic games, take it!
For all of that, my favorite event to watch is skating. While my husband and I had volunteered for a summer Olympics, celebrating that year as the US Women’s Gymnastic team with Mary Lou Retton won gold, my brother volunteered for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games. Having the opportunity to be in not one but two cities during the Games has been wonderful. The atmosphere is different, cheering those on ice and snow rather than track and field. But the desire for a medal and to perform the best a person can is the same.
For several years of our childhood, we lived in a small railroad town in Canada along northern Lake Superior. The better part of the year was spent in ice and snow and along with two elementary schools, and a Legion Hall which hosted everything from dances to movies to the town library, the town sported a curling rink and an outdoor skating rink. Naturally we have an affinity to the curling, hockey and skating Olympic events as those were the sports of our childhood. One of my favorite Christmas presents would be a new pair of skates. I recall opening that much desired box to reveal those snow white boots, those glittering silver blades, impatient to lace up those beauties to glide across the sparkling ice. It feels like flying, the wind rushing by as you push faster and faster, blades squealing against the ice, sometimes twirling, sometimes falling flat on your butt. Heaven.
There is also solitude in skating. Wrapped in my own thoughts as music or other skaters fade to the background, I can dream and think and be somewhere far away. Skating could be therapeutic, healing if I was sad or lonely or needed to be alone with my thoughts. I could never really put the feeling into words until Joni Mitchell’s iconic ballad River–from where the title and inspiration for this blog originated– was released when I was sixteen. In that song, the singer longs for a mythical frozen river she could skate that would take her away from the heartache she had caused a loved one. I immediately connected with the feeling of gliding away from hurt and heartbreak and toward something fresh.
As I write this we are in the middle of the Beijing Winter Olympics. Excellence in skating has already given me goosebumps and tears and excitement. I’m reminded again of that wind rushing past my face, chilling any skin not fully covered, the freedom, the exhilaration of gliding over the ice at record speed. It’s been many years since I have laced on a pair of skates. I have lived too long in the sun, left that behind. Nowadays it can be hard enough to get out of bed let alone don skates and glide the ice. But I find I don’t have to dig too deep to remember what it felt like. I can close my eyes, especially if Joni’s River is playing in the background, and I can feel the skates laced tight on my feet. And maybe find that mythical frozen river, should I ever need one.