Confession: I’m an Olympics nut. For 3 weeks every four years, I am glued to my television, soaking in the sports, athletes, medals and anthems.
I love the pageantry. I love the sportsmanship and the pride of the athletes in representing their countries. I love watching athletes from the previous Olympics return for repeats or redemption. I love finding new athletes to love and loathe. I love watching sports I’d never seek out at any other time, becoming obsessed with them and developing (uninformed but passionate) opinions about them. Today, I got up at 5:30a to watch the women’s gymnastics preliminaries online before watching rowing, beach volleyball, road racing and tennis on my DVR. But the best part of the Summer Games for me is how they are a touch point in my life, every four years. When the Games come around again, I think about what I was doing four years earlier, seeing how life has changed, moved forward (or not).
1992 – Barcelona, Spain
Though I’m sure I watched the 1984 & 1988, I don’t have any clear memory of watching them. During the 1992 Barcelona Games, I was 11 years old and had just finished 5th grade. I had an “I Support The USA” sticker on my school notebook (probably a leftover from the Gulf War) and I wrote “Olympic Gymnastic Team” underneath because I was obsessed.
Kim Zmeskal was the golden girl we were sending to Barcelona, but she falter at almost every turn. There was a young, upstart gymnast named Shannon Miller who was fantastic, winning silver in the All-Around and beam and helping Team USA get the team bronze as well as winning bronze on floor and bars. Even at 11 years old, I was mad when it seemed like all the coverage was about Kim’s missteps instead of Shannon’s awesomeness.
1996 – Atlanta, USA
I was 15 years old and has just finished my freshman year of high school. The Olympics were being held in the US and my choir director decided that we should go to Atlanta on our annual handbell tour. We took four handbell choirs, our vocal choirs and plenty of adult chaperones – 100 people in two coach buses through North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia before arriving in Atlanta. We left on our trip the day after the bombing in Centennial Park, which I remember made the chaperones nervous, but the rest of us just wanted to get there.
I watched the Magnificent Seven win Olympic Gold in the basement of my host family in Goldsboro, NC with my friend, Caitlin. I could barely watch Kerri Strug’s famous vault, but when she hit it on one foot, I jumped up, screaming and hugging Caitlin. I can still hear Bela Karolyi’s voice yelling, “You can do it! You can do it!” in my head and I use it still as motivation when I want to quit. I cried during when girls received their gold medals and the National Anthem played. I’ve never wished I had started gymnastics when I was a child more than in that moment.
Once in Atlanta, we attended Field Hockey, where I first saw thundersticks, as the South Korean fans were using them to cheer on their team. We also attended Track & Field events as a large group, seeing Michael Johnson run (though not the final) in his gold shoes. Our last group event was the Men’s Bronze Medal soccer match at the University of Georgia. We were near the end of the stadium and successfully started a full stadium wave about four times. Because I’d attended Sunday School and participated in service projects, I also got to attend Women’s Volleyball with a small group of my colleagues. I couldn’t have cared less about any of these sports and yet I was riveted during each event. There is NOTHING better than attending the Olympics in person.
2000 – Sydney, Australia
I was 19 years old and just starting my second year of college at George Mason University. The tape-delayed primetime showing of the events on NBC was annoying, but not as annoying as it would become in later years. This wasn’t a good year for me personally and I used the Olympics as my escape. I stayed up late, watching as much coverage of as many events as I could, avoiding homework and class along the way. I’d pull it together by the end of the semester, but it was a struggle.
After the domination of Team USA in 1996 in gymnastics, I was disappointed by the performance of our girls in Sydney, especially after we saw that the vault table had been set up incorrectly during our turn on that event. I also got really into diving during this Olympics as well as swimming. I was fascinated by the Thorpedo and wondered if we’d ever had a dominant swimmer like that in the US.
2004 – Athens, Greece
I was 23 years old and I had just moved to San Francisco to finish my college degree. My parents had come out to help me move and then spent a couple weeks with me, sightseeing and exploring my new surroundings. There were a few weeks between when they left and when school started where I had nothing to do. Cue the Athens games! I watched any and all events I could find on my television. I really enjoyed diving, if for no other reason than Laura Wilkinson looked a lot like my cousin Julie and I was homesick. I spent every phone call with my parents, breaking down the day’s events and athletes.
2008 – Beijing, China
It was a not a great summer. I was 27 years old and trying to leave New Jersey for Los Angeles, hoping to re-enter television production as a career. I’d already taken one trip to LA and found no job and no apartment. I quit my job anyway and my mom and I headed back to LA to look for a place to live. We had a shitty hotel in a crappy part of town and very few prospects in my price range. But every night, we’d regroup in the hotel room and watch Michael Phelps swim for gold. I didn’t end up moving to LA after all and had to give up my dream of working in television for the second time.
I came home to Virginia and continued watching Michael Phelps swim for gold every night. On the night of his last swim, I attended a birthday party for my friend’s father. We all ended up leaving about 10p, so we could get home to watch Michael swim for gold medal #8. It’s ridiculous, but when he won that 8th gold medal and met his goal, it felt like a sign that my life was going to be okay too. I watched him climb through the press pool to hug his mom, who had always supported him. I had supportive parents too and wherever I was meant to end up, I was going to get there.
2012 – London, England
I’m 31 years old, finally living in my adopted hometown of San Francisco again, working at a job I adore. I’m surrounded by friends, some of whom came over on Friday night to watch the Opening Ceremony with me. I got up early and watched Michael Phelps swim on my phone when my laptop locked up. I can watch live on the internet all the events I want, without waiting for the primetime coverage (even though I’m watching there too). I’m live tweeting all the events I’m watching, sharing my passionate opinions with everyone who uses the same hashtags I do. Michael missed his first chance at a medal on Saturday night, but he helped Team USA win silver in the 4×100 tonight. No matter how the rest of his Olympics go, I’ll still be a Phelps Phan for life!
It’s been twenty years of Summer Olympic games and the Olympic Anthem never fails to give me goosebumps. I love the patriotic Opening Ceremonies and the Parade of Nations, full of athletes who will not medal, but will be able to call themselves Olympians for the rest of their lives. I get misty during the fun and chaotic Closing Ceremony, knowing it’s another four years until we gather together as a group of nations, celebrating athletics and sportsmanship and the purity of the Olympic Spirit.