We didn’t have television growing up – or rather, we had a television and a VHS player…just no channels. No, I’m not Laura from Little House on the Prairie. It’s just how it was.
But my great aunt Ruth lived in a house attached to ours, and she had basic TV channels, which was a huge deal. Five days a week – come hell or high water – she watched the news, Wheel of Fortune, and Jeopardy. (And she would have been shocked that I just said “hell.”) She wouldn’t watch the weather, instead preferring to get her predictions from the hometown newspaper. As a five-year-old, I personally found that very unreliable, given that it was printed in black and white and not color.
My siblings and I were rarely allowed to watch TV with Aunt Ruth, but there were two events we could count on: the Presidential Election and the Olympics.
Confession: If no one else was home – an admittedly rare circumstance – my sister and I would sneak into Aunt Ruth’s house and, keeping careful watch for approaching adults, watch snippets of soap operas. Ah, the rebellious lives of homeschooled children.
So. Watching the Olympics, both winter and summer, was a big deal. More specifically, the Olympians were a big deal. They were stars, icons, world leaders…bigger than Alex Trebek or George W. Bush. They were superheroes. Unreachable, unknowable, and unbeatable – except by their own kind.
I maintained this belief for a long time, and it is still my default. It gives watching the Olympics an extra special excitement.
But in 2012, I was flying back to New York from California, and an unknown event caused an entire airline to delay flights in a major North Eastern airport. I found myself in a terminal packed full of frustrated people. Standing room was scarce, and there certainly weren’t any open seats. As a tired 24-year-old with an hour to kill, I plopped down where I could: right next to the trash can. I pulled out a book and started to read.
Within minutes, another girl claimed the other side of the trash can as her temporary home. After making herself comfortable, she called a friend. With my proximity, boredom, and innate Harriet the Spy tendencies, I quickly deduced she was speaking to a friend from home. It was obvious they hadn’t spoken while she’d been traveling, and their mutual excitement piqued my interest.
She started describing the opening ceremonies and how crazy it was that she’d gotten to meet Hope Solo and even see Alison Felix in real life.
Ah. This girl was at the Olympics. Of course she was excited.
Wait. What was that about her first heat? This girl was IN the Olympics.
This girl was an Olympian.
I could hardly believe it. But then her flight was called and she walked to her gate, and I could clearly see that TEAM USA was stitched in giant letters across her back.
I sat next to an Olympian! Well, sort of. We were separated by two and a half feet of plastic and garbage. But an Olympian!
She was normal. She was a kid. She sounded like a high school student describing her prom. She was probably a small-town hero, a college athlete who didn’t medal. For her, this was the biggest moment of her life.
Even though I’m older and much wiser, as I watch the Olympics, I’m still star-struck. Watching Katie Ledecky or Kerri Walsh-Jennings makes me wonder how there can possibly be any misogynists left in the world. Those women are amazing.
But beyond amazing, I now know they’re real people. They work crazy hard and earn those moments in the spotlight. That’s why they get to be Olympians. But they’re still normal. You and I aren’t so far away from them, really…sometimes just one delayed flight and a trash can. Don’t forget that, friends.