Friday, February 11, 2011

One Year Later: What Vancouver 2010 Meant To Me

I remember waking up on Friday February 12, 2010 and thinking to myself "holy cow, the Olympics begin in my city TODAY!" It was a surreal feeling and one that never left me throughout those 17 days. Each day I would wake up knowing that somewhere in the city of Vancouver or Whistler an athlete's dreams were about to come true. As the days wore on I became confident to the point of cockiness. Canada was having so much success at the Games that after awhile it was not a matter of wondering if Canada would win a medal that day. It was about how many we would win.

The Vancouver 2010 Olympics changed my city and they changed me. Even though the athletes, the visitors, the media, and the festivities are long gone I can still picture them as I walk on Robson Street. Prior to the Olympics I remember telling my friend "this is going to be creepy. So many people from all over the world will be converging on our city. I feel violated - like people are walking right into my house or something." I was not an anti-Olympics person. To the contrary, I had an urge to lay a good old fashion Canadian beatdown on all the rioters and protesters. But I am protective of my city and my country and I knew that we would be judged for who we were and what we did. I was scared that Vancouver would somehow lose it's international lustre for being a beautiful and culturally diverse place. But 17 days of glorious weather, amazing hospitality by all Vancouverites, and hard work from every blue-jacketed volunteer made our city even more appealing to the world. By the time it was over I was overjoyed to have so many visitors and I actually didn't want them to leave!

During the first few days I felt a weird kind of pressure. I wasn't an athlete nor was I a member of VANOC or the IOC so there were no expectations on me to perform or anything, but I felt pressure on behalf of our city. So much time, money, and effort had gone into the planning of these Games that I wanted everything to be perfect. It was therefore devastating when, only hours before the Opening Ceremonies, we learned of the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili during a training run at Whistler. In my mind, the Games were over before they even began. How could any event recover from a tragedy of this magnitude? What was going to happen to the fallen luger's family? To the fellow Georgian athletes? To the luge competition?   Suddenly "Owning the Podium" seemed like such a far away goal. Had it been me in VANOC CEO John Furlong's position I don't know what I would have done. I think I would have waved the white flag of defeat. But with the world's scrutiny on him, Mr.Furlong didn't falter. He defended the Whistler Sliding Center and the event like any good leader should but he also allowed his emotions and his profound sadness over the tragedy to show. The Olympics were his main interest but he too was human and there were few people in the world who were more affected by the death than Mr.Furlong. I think it was important that he showed that to the world. I also think that the Georgian team agreeing to march in the Athletes Parade of the Opening Ceremony was important. It gave the fans at B.C Place a chance to show, on behalf of all of us, how we stood behind Nodar Kumaritashvili and Team Georgia as though they were our own. The feelings of Canadian pride were emitted like never before during the Opening Ceremony and suddenly it started to feel like maybe we could overcome the days events and still put on the greatest Games the world had ever seen.

The days that followed were vastly different and yet also very similar. I had the TV, the laptop, Twitter, and all other forms of social media around me 24/7. There was so much going on that I didn't want to miss anything. I had the pleasure of getting to attend two events - both women's ice hockey preliminary games. My love for women's hockey goes far beyond anything else in my life. I have worshipped some of the Team Canada players since I was little. To finally get to watch them play live in front of a full house at Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Center was a dream come true. With ever shot that Hayley Wickenheiser took and ever save that Shannon Szabados made my love and respect for the players and the game grew. And looking around I knew that I was not the only one. "In this arena, this city, this nation, and this world young girls are realizing the power of their dreams," I told myself. The amazing thing about the Olympics was the interactions with others. Everyone around me seemed giddy. They all wanted to talk even if they didn't know who they were talking to. Some wanted to know more about Vancouver. Others wanted to talk about specific sports. And yet others just needed to know where the heck the nearest Starbucks was (I had Starbucks programmed into my iPhone GPS because that's how many people kept asking me where to find one!). Either way, the Games were a coming together of many nationalities under one common banner: sports.

Canada makes no secret of our desire to win gold in hockey. Prior to the Games I think we all felt that as long as our hockey teams (particularly the men) won gold, any other losses would not really matter. Such is the beauty of the Olympics though, that as the days progressed we all started falling in love with sports we'd barely even heard of. I found myself Googling things like biathlon, curling, and speed skating just to make sure I knew the rules for when I watched the events on TV. Suddenly, every event and every athlete became important. I was holding my breath every time a Canadian took center stage and was on the edge of my seat when Alexandre Bilodeau came down that moguls run on his way to bringing home Canada's first gold medal. I even fell in love with figure skating - a sport that I've hated for a decade because I believed it took me away from my real passion of hockey. With the exception of men's hockey, all the other athletes train year round, sacrificing their bodies, leaving their families, while making barely any money, all for a chance to compete on the Olympic stage. They deserved our support as much as any other team did.

Out of the Games came stories of tragedy and triumph. Fans screamed and cheered with every medal their athletes won and they felt the heartbreak of every goal surrendered and every fall on the track. The world came to hold a special place in their heart for Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette who competed just days after her mom's sudden death, and for Petra Majdic the Slovenian cross-country skier who won bronze despite suffering four broken ribs and a collapsed lung after a horrific fall during training runs. These athletes and all the athletes in the Games showed us what happens when you have a passion and you work hard. They were ordinary people with an extraordinary work ethic and they showed the world what the human body and spirit are capable of pulling off.

Since the Games I have made an effort to get in touch with a lot of the athletes. Since I was little I've had a dream of competing in the Olympics. It didn't happen for me because, unlike my heroes, I didn't have the courage to pursue it. The fear of failing overpowered the desire to become something big. But knowing that the Olympics took place in my city and that I was a small part of the volunteering and the fun made me feel that I was doing something to help other people's dreams come true. I wanted to get in touch with these athletes to tell them that I'm proud of their courage, their passion, and their commitment. Because of them, more people will be inspired to pursue their dreams. I wanted them to know that although being an athlete is not always glamourous, they have fans who hold them in higher esteem than they may realize.They needed to know that so that they never walk away from their respective sports thinking that no one noticed what they did or that they never made a difference. They did. They did make a difference, in my life and in the lives of so many who watched.

Vancouver 2010 made us realize that if you begin a mission with a single goal in mind, and if you work hard, do the right things, and believe in yourself, your dream will unfold in front of you as though it were out of a movie. Unscripted and yet so perfectly choreographed, Vancouver 2010 taught me to Believe.