The Winter Olympics in Vancouver are over. It’s been a week now and I’m going through withdrawal. And it’s no wonder. The games were 17 days of adrenaline pumped action, jaw-dropping performances and perhaps the best climax in Olympic history.
I think Graham Watanabe, who competed for the U.S. in Snowboard Cross, summed up the excitement of the games best:
“Try to imagine Pegasus mating with a unicorn and the creature that they birth. I somehow tame it and ride it into the sky in the clouds and sunshine and rainbows. That’s what it feels like.”
I honestly couldn’t have said it better myself.
The U.S. had a history-making run. Team USA led the medal count for the first time since 1932 with a record-breaking total of 37. The Nordic combined team medaled for the first time in American history, winning three silvers and one gold. And with 8 career medals to his name, Apolo Anton Ohno became the most decorated American Winter Olympian and the most decorated short track skater ever.
Canada didn’t own the podium with 26 total medals, but they did win more gold medals than any other winter or summer games in their history—14 total. And they won more gold medals than any other country in Winter Olympic history, capped by double gold medals in men’s and women’s hockey. The U.S. vs. Canada men’s final was one of the most exciting games the Olympics have ever seen. And with Canada’s victory, it’s no surprise that three out of four Canadians said the much maligned and ballyhooed Own the Podium program was worth it.
Of course, there were so many moments I wish I’d seen: Team USA’s first gold medal win by Hannah Kearney in Ladies’ Moguls; Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn redefining American skiing with multiple medal wins including a gold medal for each; Seth Wescott and Shani Davis successfully defending their gold medals in Snowboard Cross and Speed Skating, respectively; and of course, the Night Train, a.k.a. the men’s four-man bobsled piloted by Steve Holcomb, winning the U.S. its first gold medal in 62 years. I also wish I’d been able to see some ski jumping—like the result of the US/Canada ski jumping bet—and biathlon, but I can hardly complain.
So in honor of all the “bests” and “mosts” that Vancouver brought us, here are my favorite Olympic moments that I experienced first-hand.
Canada’s love for curling
Canada boasts 80 percent of the world’s curlers. Who knew? But attending one day of the men’s curling round robin competition left no doubt that Canada loves curling. The stands were packed to capacity, and Canadians cheered their maple leafs off, leading chants for “Can-a-da!” and even “Go Denmark Go!” It was downright fun and left me wanting to try the game myself.
Seeing Olympians in person
Celebrities and athletes always look slightly different in person. They seem taller or shorter or simpler and more real. Johnny Weir is dashingly poised, Evan Lysacek is strikingly tan, Shaun White is oddly hilarious and Apolo Ohno is enormously charismatic. And of course, they’re all much more handsome in life than on screen. But seeing them in action—not only doing what they do best, but what they do better than anyone else in the world—is a trip.
The Olympic Torch Relay
It was my first morning in Vancouver, and as I peered out of my hotel window trying to ascertain if the chance of rain was 90 percent or 100 percent, something seemed odd. People were lining the street, as if waiting for a parade. Then came the motorcade and then, there it was: The Olympic Flame. What a way to wake up to the Olympics—watching the Torch Relay run past my window. It was a pleasant surprise, to say the least, and got me really pumped for the weeks to come.
Figure skating, figure skating and more figure skating
It may not be the most exciting event at the Winter games, but it might be the most beautiful. Night after night, the best figure skaters in the world took my breath away. It started at the pairs event, when I got “verklempt” watching Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao of China skate to gold. They were so beautiful, and performed with such emotion, that I was overcome for a moment. And in that moment, I gave myself over to figure skating. From the men’s short and free programs, to the ladies and the exhibition gala, the Olympic figure skaters did not disappoint—they transported me to another place.
Our neighbors to the north are notoriously nice, and the Olympics were no exception. Friendly faces greeted me at every event, on every bus, and, it seemed, around every corner. Multiple reporters who’d been to other Olympics said Canada was genuinely the friendliest and most excited place to host since Lillehammer, Norway in 1994. But it didn’t end there. When I had no place to stay for the last five days of the games, a Canadian friend-of-a-friend—whom I had never met—offered to put me up in his spare room. And another offered to put me up in his RV. They knew I was cheering for Team USA in hockey and they opened their doors to me anyway. Now that brings hospitality to a whole new level.
Canada wins its first gold on home soil
It was a party in the streets. I was standing in Whistler with a few hundred other people, watching the men’s moguls on one of the big screens set up around the village. Canada’s Alexandre Bilodeau was poised for victory, sitting in first place. And when the last skier slid across the finish and the results were finalized, the street burst into a flame of celebration. Canadians screamed, rang bells, jumped up and down, and then joined together in an impromptu rendition of “O Canada.” They had their much-anticipated gold medal and they partied throughout the night. It was a party that didn’t end for two weeks.
The world stands still for Georgian luger
Nodar Kumaritashvili’s death during a luge training run shocked the world and cast controversy over the start of competition. But during the Opening Ceremony, the world stood still for the fallen Olympian. All 60,000 people inside of BC Place rose and honored the Georgian in a moment of silence—even the press, who routinely kept working through most national anthems, stood and bowed their heads. It was a powerful moment that added true gravitas to the games.
Nordic combined rewrites history
Nordic what? U.S. Nordic combined had never won an Olympic medal in 86 years of competition—until they took Whistler by storm. First Johnny Spillane won silver in the Normal Hill/10km Cross-Country event—I had the chance to speak with him after he got his medal. Next, the U.S. won silver in the Team event. And then, Billy Demong won gold in the Large Hill/10km Cross-Country competition and Spillane picked up his third silver. The team’s story of triumph after a decade of struggle warmed hearts all over the country. And now, we all know the answer to “Nordic what?”
Shaun White defends his Olympic title
The vibe at Cypress Mountain was infectious. It felt like a party, not a sporting event. The crowd was wired, a DJ played non-stop music and Shaun White threw down the famous Tomahawk, a.k.a. Double McTwist 1260. No one else even had a chance. White dazzled in run after run with a string of stunning tricks. And by wrapping up the gold after his first run in the final, he showed the world why silver medalist Peetu Piiroinen said, “I think it’s impossible to beat Shaun White.”
Evan Lysacek upsets Evgeni Plushenko for gold
Going into the men’s figure skating competition, there was one name on everyone’s lips: Evgeni Plushenko. The defending gold medalist from Russia, known as the King of the Quad, entered the games as the heavy favorite. He was in first place after the short program and said he thought he had the gold in the bag. Au contraire, mon frère. Going into the free skate, defending World Champion Evan Lysacek was just .55 points behind Plushenko. It was a nail biter from beginning to end. Lysacek delivered a flawless performance to capture the gold and Plushenko, quite frankly, didn’t. It was the first time in five Olympics that Russia failed to win men’s figure skating. Lysacek was electrifying, and the cheers he received from the crowd were some of the biggest I witnessed at the games.
Canada wins hockey gold
Canada wanted it. Canada needed it. And then, Canada won it. The crowd at Canada Hockey Place during the Canada vs. USA men’s gold medal hockey game was frenzied to say the least. It was like all the maple leafs from all of Canada’s maple trees fell at the same time onto the same place. The fans were loud and the fans were proud. Then Canada won in possibly the most exciting hockey game the Olympics have ever seen. It was the perfect finale to the Canadian Olympic story and the fans reveled in every moment. During the medal ceremony, the crowd sang “O Canada” so loudly that I couldn’t hear the music. It was a magical night, complete with a fairytale ending.
Apolo Ohno medals again, and again, and again
It was love at first sight. When I watched my first short track race, I was hooked. And when Ohno took to the ice to win his sixth, seventh and eighth medals, the mood was electric. He had the crowd wrapped around his skates, even when gold medals for Canada were at stake. And he delivered, dodging crashes and leading his team of first-time Olympians to a relay bronze medal for his eighth and, possibly, final Olympic medal of his career. He’s now the most decorated American winter Olympian and the most decorated short track skater in history. Having the opportunity to watch him skate live, in possibly the last race of his career, and then interview him afterwards, was definitely the number one highlight of the Olympics for me.
That’s all from Vancouver. I’m back to writing about running, which will be featured at the next Olympic games. Only 872 days until London 2012, and I already can’t wait.
This post first appeared in The Washington Times Communities on March 8, 2010.