Let the Games begin

By Beth Bourgeois | March 07, 2014, 4 p.m. (ET)
Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games
Alpine skier Jon Lujan, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, leads Team USA into the arena during the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games on March 7, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

SOCHI, Russia— The Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games are officially underway. The 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team marched in the Opening Ceremony at a packed Fisht Stadium Friday evening (March 7).

Approximately 500 athletes from 45 countries participated in the ceremony, marking the largest Paralympic Winter Games to-date.

U.S. flag bearer Jon Lujan (Littleton, Colo.), an alpine skier and retired Marine Corps Sergeant who was wounded serving in Iraq in 2003, led Team USA into the stadium.

“It's hard to put into words how I felt,” said Lujan. “The emotions that were going through my head knowing that I was waving the flag in front of thousands of people in the venue, and even more on the worldwide broadcast, brought me immense pride— pride in the country, pride in my teammates and a sense of accomplishment of actually being a Paralympian.”

The ceremony was highlighted by a volunteer cast of more than 2,500 people from the Krasnodar region of Russia. Themed “Breaking the Ice,” the Opening Ceremony evoked a spirit of Russia and the importance of breaking down barriers and stereotypes faced by people around the world every day.

For several members of Team USA, it was an experience they will never forget.

“That was the most amazing thing I've ever experienced,” said U.S. snowboarder Heidi Jo Duce (Ouray, Colo.). “I'm so excited right now. It is official, the Games are open. It's going to be amazing.”

"The Opening Ceremony was amazing,” said snowboarder Mike Shea (Castaic, Calif.). “We've waited a long time for this, and as snowboarders, we've waited a really long time for this. It was so nice to get to walk out into the stadium and see the crowd and be there for the moment, I think, of a lifetime."

Alpine skier Tyler Carter (Topton, Pa.), who will be making his Paralympic Winter Games debut, said, “The Opening Ceremony was awesome. It was so well done. It was so exciting and so much fun. The Games are on now, let's do this, go Team USA!”

"My favorite parts of the Opening Ceremony were going out as a team, seeing the crowd and being recognized as a country,” said sled hockey athlete Kevin McKee (Davenport, Iowa).

"I thought the technology in the stadium was amazing,” said Taylor Chace (Hampton Falls, N.H.). “They seemed to have anything you could ask for to use for performance purposes. I thought the icebreaker ship was the coolest part of it. It floated in there and was essentially the size of a full ship. The excitement was there, the stadium was packed. It wasn't too long; it held your attention for just the right amount of time. Now we can start the Games."

The Paralympic torch relay concluded with Russian two-time Paralympic champion swimmer Olesya Vladykina and six-time Paralympic champion cross-country skier Sergey Shilov, who lit the Paralympic cauldron.