Sarah Hughes earned the gold medal in the ladies figure skating competition at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games. As the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games approaches 10 years later, Hughes reminisces on her experience at the 2002 Opening Ceremony for TeamUSA.org.
I remember the Opening Ceremony in Salt Lake City like it was yesterday. I had qualified as the third woman on the three spot ladies figure skating team and, with little chance of bringing home any hardware, I was set on getting the most out of the Olympic experience as possible. Most people – and I admit many of those close to me too – knew qualifying third meant a slim chance at bringing home anything else.
But let’s be honest. Is there anything else besides the experience?
The answer is no. So the focus was on bringing home Olympic memories, the Olympic experience.
You may think this starts at the Opening Ceremony, but it really starts once you are named to the team. Filling out the paperwork, getting good luck tokens from your idols (1968 Olympic champion Peggy Fleming gave me a small, engraved picture frame from Tiffany’s!), making the travel plans – it is one high after another. I almost couldn’t believe I would be part of this larger than life event.
Since the ladies figure skating event is towards the end of the Games, many times skaters choose not to attend the Opening Ceremony. The reasons vary. Sometimes it’s because they don’t want to spend two weeks away from their home training base before their event commences or it may be because they don’t want to spend two weeks being photographed going about their usual routine. Mostly, they try to do everything they can to keep their focus and not get sick. After all, athletes spend their whole lives preparing for this one event. For them, it’s not every four years, it’s every day.
But I knew I wanted to be a part of it all. I was an Olympian!
I wanted to be with the other athletes, get my official team gear at the big department store-like facility that Team USA assembles just for us. Just for the ones who spend their lives devoted to being the best at their sport.
Getting ready to go to the Opening Ceremony is a production – and there is a lot of “hurry up and waiting.” There are hours spent in a holding area while you wait outside of the stadium for your country to be announced. The upside to this is that it gave me a chance to meet and chat with many of the athletes representing other sports. Little did I know then that would be the only time I would have to get to know them and chat with my fellow American Olympians. We mostly talked about the things we looked forward to experiencing in the Village and during the Games – for many of us it was the dining hall and unlimited free food – and gave us the chance to form relationships with the people we would be cheering for in the coming days. (Ten years later, I still keep in touch with a few of them and count them among my closest friends.)
While we were waiting to go into the stadium, I sat on a curb – it really is a lot of waiting around – and one of the other athletes tapped me on the shoulder. He started talking about the Time magazine cover I was on that week. When he realized I didn’t recognize him, he introduced himself as Bode Miller. That is the type of atmosphere the Opening Ceremony presents for the athletes.
A few minutes later, as we marched into the stadium, pandemonium erupted. “TEAM USA! TEAM USA! TEAM USA!” The change in atmosphere, energy, everything – changed. The liveliness inside the Rice-Eccles Stadium that evening was so electrifying, the sheer enthusiasm and spirit of everyone there probably could have lit up the Empire State Building.
The Salt Lake Organizing Committee put on a spectacular display. The Opening Ceremony gives the host country a chance to shine, to show how great it is as a nation – and I’m proud to say the United States did a phenomenal job. Few people had a better seat than I did – President Bush even watched right alongside of me – and I knew then it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Just five months after 9/11, the United States had a renewed resiliency and the 2002 Opening Ceremony in Salt Lake City gave us the chance to show that to the world.
Being a New Yorker, I felt a tremendous source of pride throughout the Games. But it was after experiencing the Opening Ceremony and understanding this wasn’t “just another competition,” that I knew I was not going to treat it like one.
I wanted to make everyone – in New York, in Salt Lake City, in the United States – proud. Having the performance of my life and bringing home the gold medal was just the icing on the cake to the experience of being part of Team USA at the Olympic Games.