Monday, September 17, 2012

Golden Summer

Olympic Stadium-one perfect night in August

Once upon a time some dumb kid from Utah went to London for six weeks and magically made sure 1700+ people all looked super sharp as they went to press conferences and met with sponsors and won gold medals and marched in some ceremonies that a billion people watched on TV.

I have been back for a week and I still don't know how to describe exactly what happened this summer.  Within 48 hours of leaving home in July I was giggling my way through helping Ryan Lochte try on his silver medals stand jacket. For the record, I am terribly professional when it comes to working with athletes but Mr. Lochte makes it nearly impossible not to giggle just a little.

So when the adventure STARTS by seeing every ab muscle of every human on the US Olympic Swim Team and by a week later you've actually forgotten all about it because so much other stuff has happened, well, you see why I'm having a hard time figuring out to answer the "how was London?" question.

I think I have the same answer you would get from anyone who has worked behind the scenes on a giant project-London was sometimes the worst experience of my life, sometimes the most amazing thing I have ever done and all around something I feel extraordinarily blessed to have been part of. The Summer Olympics in a city like London where Team USA wins both the total medal AND gold medal count feels like a once-in-a-lifetime kind of occurrence. I'm still pinching myself that I was not just there but actively involved. 40 million Americans watched Team USA march into the Opening Ceremony. 40. Million. Americans. Saw the project I have been working on for three years.

When Ralph Lauren decided they would like to try doing skirts for the women, it was me pulling together a little focus group here at the Colorado Springs Training Center so see how our female athletes felt about it. I tried to get a good cross section of women, Illeana here was one of those girls. I was practically delirious with joy when I got to tie her scarf and straighten her beret before the Paralympic Opening Ceremony.

In the months leading up to the Games everyone kept telling me how much BIGGER the Summer Games were going to be than Winter. And I thought-sure sure, more people, more clothes, fine, I got it.
This isn't my first rodeo guys.

Did you know there are 44 rowers on the US Team? Just rowers. One team.  There aren't 44 of ANYTHING at the Winter Games. The Summer Games aren't just double the size-they are Winter when Winter starts doping. In the Winter, you have ice and you have snow. Half the Team Leaders work for one national governing body. Winter has Shaun White and Apolo Ohno who come through Processing with their teams and blend right in. This time I had Andy Roddick and Venus and Serena in the building at the same time as Kerri Walsh and Misty May. There is a different kind of stress trying to make sure the paparazzi don't approach Lindsay Vonn on her way in than the way you feel when you look out the window and 12 NBA superstars are eating chicken on the lawn in one of London's roughest neighborhoods. I didn't sleep a full night for 17 days.

My time in Eugene and Knoxville had lulled me into this false sense of security. Both events went really well, the Team Leaders for both Track and Swimming are people I love working with, the athletes were lovely. I had dear friends come help me out at both events which was fun and filled me up personally. We had already had a family funeral and my house almost burned down so it seemed like I had pretty some solid perspective on where the Olympics fell in the grand scheme of life priorities. I knew I had a fantastic team of people on the ground in London-I felt really prepared getting on that plane in Knoxville.

And then.

I didn't sleep a wink on the 9 hour flight and it was raining when we landed and had to go straight to the venue. I will spare you a blow by blow of the next six days but honestly, if there was a way for something to go differently than I had planned it during our set-up, it did.

I had a pretty get it done no matter what kind of team though and we worked together to solve things and suddenly it was the 16th and the first wave of Rowers showed up. They tried on clothes and ordered rings and got their photos taken and then it was groundhog day until the 27th. Groundhog day where all the groundhogs are insane.

An athlete getting fitting for his Opening Ceremony Uniform

I couldn't possibly tell all my stories here and you really don't want to hear them all. But here are my highlights.

*You want to see what a warehouse of 96,000 items looks like? I took my CEO up to the observation deck to get a bird's eye view of what it takes to get a US Olympic Team ready. His eyes almost popped out of his head. It was endlessly entertaining to show this to people. This is 14 semi trucks and at some point, every one of those boxes had MY name on it. I get PTSD just looking at this photo.

*I had loads of friends who wanted to volunteer for the Games so I ended up with 15-20 people I just love on the team. When you are having a stressful day there is almost nothing as awesome as your darling friend Natalie walking in wearing her Salt Lake Olympic shoulder bag. My friend Ian who was my intern in Vancouver came with his parents and his girlfriend and they worked their tails off the entire time. The few times when I felt like I was going to fail it was awfully nice to have him there to say, "I have SEEN you rock this Katie Clifford, you can do it."

*We had borrowed a staff member from US Ski and Snowboard to be the logistics manager for Team Processing. We thought it would be good for us to have someone who had been on the other side of the  process and good for one of our biggest winter governing bodies to see our operation from the inside. So for three weeks the guy whose day job it is to be the Head Coach of the US Halfpipe Team was scurrying around East London doing whatever crazy thing I needed. I lucked into two Opening Ceremony tickets so I took him as a thank you for going way above and beyond AND being totally fun. We were like two little kids on Christmas morning when the US Team finally came out. I don't actually care what people thought of the berets or the socks or anything else-our athletes looked absolutely spectacular and the thousands and thousands of blood, sweat and tears were worth it.
Eyes full of tired relief.

Heart stopping moment.
*After Processing was over I went and worked at the USA House store. It was bonkers. I would work an 8 hour shift and the line at all four registers would never be less than 10 people deep. I rang up dozens of Olympian's moms. They are always so cute and excited to tell you who their kid is. It was extra fun when Sam Mikulak's parents came in and I actually had a photo of the men's gymnastics team from Processing on my phone. Mom got all choked up, Dad had me send it to them. It was adorable. I also rang up Jorge Posada one day and the register got a glitch and charged him $13,000,000,000,000. That's what he gets for having been a Yankee I guess.

*I had been seeing someone just prior to leaving for London but we decided it likely wasn't going to work. So to say it was the summer of boys is sort of an understatement. A lady never tells but suffice it to say, after a series of ego-deflating experiences over the last year, Stella has her groove back.

*A couple of nights after Opening Ceremony I met up with my friend Aron, Lenny and William to grab a drink. It was midnight. We were all exhausted and our bloodshot eyes looked we had been doing drugs. We sat in silence for a full five minutes before Lenny said, "are we all stupid? Why are we doing this?" A week later the four of us were together again in a crowded restaurant after Aron's team won seven medals in one night in Olympic Stadium. Still exhausted for sure but those nights are why we do it.

*My friends Bev and Tom have now worked every single Games since we all met in Salt Lake. I got to go to a USA Basketball game with Tom and a crazy Oakley party with Bev. Bev and I also did high tea one day with our other friend-and funny enough one of my sorority sisters from SUU-Jamie one afternoon. She's now working on the Istanbul bid and it was just so fun to get to spend real time with all these people who were there from the beginning of my Olympic dreams.

*Speaking of people I have known buddy Paul and I went to JUNIOR HIGH TOGETHER. He used to tease me MERCILESSLY right up until senior year I think. We both ended up working on the Organizing Committee in Salt Lake and got to be real friends. We have both kept ourselves involves in the Olympic world and now he and his wife are on my list of favorite couples ever. This particular night at USA House he was running around accompanying the President of the IOC (yep) but seeing him even for a bit is always a treat. We like to laugh about how the two little mormon kids from Holladay are totally running amok at the Games.

*You get home and realize you didn't take enough photos but here are some highlights 
We might have taken these out for a spin one night

Our crew was pretty fun. Obvi. 

Some of my very favorite boys on earth

Ingrid and I met when we both worked at PUMA. Oops. 

Water Polo day turns everyone into a lunatic shutterbug. (They are SO HANDSOME!)

My Nike friends packing a whole bunch of medals stand outfits


My friends Al and Lexi came all the way from the USA to help out. Love them. 

Loved getting to work with our Chef de Mission Teresa Edwards. This woman has five gold medals. And a whole bunch of swagger.

Got this from my coach friend. Some of you know I earned this damn pin. 

Anyone recognize these guys? 

Big poster of Opening Ceremony at USA House. 

Olympic Park

Dr. Lance met me one morning for breakfast. We didn't talk about the Olympics. It was awesome. 

Gold Medal soccer day. Also, my coworkers are awesome day. 

Team Processing does a LOT of recycling.

You know I did this again for the Paralympics right?
Cutest ever?
Nike re-shot the posters with Paralympians which I loved

We got to go into the Village and make sure everyone looked perfect for Opening Ceremony. So rad.
This was how my heart felt at the end. 
I have a million great stories but lest this turn into a bragathon, I read an article halfway through the Paralympics that absolutely nailed the way I felt about this whole experience. Not just the ten weeks I was on the road but my entire life since I took this job three years ago.

Diana Nyad is a long distance swimmer who was attempting to set an open water swimming record this summer by swimming from Havana, Cuba to the Florida Keys without a shark cage. She didn't make it. But she wrote this beautiful article about the attempt and one of the passages jumped right out at me.

When we came to shore yesterday, every single crew member, 53 of them, came to me to say the mission changed their lives. We lived large out there. We lived large getting ready for it. No stone unturned. We were our best selves every waking minute of every day for three years. You just can't look back at a period of unwavering commitment like this one with any regrets.

This. This is exactly how I feel about the last three years of my life. It's a pretty well documented fact that I did not love my last go around in Boston. Professionally it was brutal and that spilled over into everything else. I think I went on two dates the entire two years. The switch to working for Golf was turning things around but even as we were doing some cool things and I was getting my professional confidence back I would sit in church and think, "what am I doing in a city I don't love, far away from most of the people I care about, in a job I'm not passionate about, feeling like a 32 year old spinster?"  I was excited about the prospect of this job but I did worry that I was taking a big backward step. "Global Marketing Manager" for a giant brand seemed a bit more impressive than Head polo shirt chooser. But I took the pay cut and the move to a town that doesn't even have a J. Crew because I wanted to feel something at work again. 

We lived large out there. We lived large getting ready for it. No stone unturned. 

I have never been as tired as I am right now. But I feel complete in the knowledge that I have nothing left. Just like those athletes, I left everything on the field. I have spent years working and fixing and tweaking and enlisting experts and learning from incredibly talented people, all so that this summer would be smooth. We didn't do everything perfectly and there is so much more to do, but Team Processing is a much different animal now than it was when I got it. I have been living a big life for the past few years and while that can bring it's own set of issues, it has also been enormously satisfying. 

We were our best selves every waking minute of every day for three years.

Almost everyone I work with could be making more money somewhere else. They are bright and talented people and they don't have to work for a non-profit. But they choose to. And it comes across in their dedication and passion for what we do. And especially when we are working long, hard, physical hours shoulder to shoulder at an event and you see your coworkers when they are tired and homesick and under-fed but still getting it done no matter what, you develop a healthy respect for the sacrifices they make to help other people achieve their dreams. 

You just can't look back at a period of unwavering commitment like this one with any regrets.

No regrets. Things to do better for sure. But no regrets. 

I left out of a different terminal than the rest of the team so I was alone at Heathrow for a few hours. I ate a leisurely lunch and delighted in not having to answer a phone every five minutes. I bought some over the top bright lipstick at the MAC store because I was practically giddy at the prospect of getting out of spandex and tees and into some heels and skirts. I read a magazine not my blackberry.

And then as I was walking to the gate I started crying and I couldn't stop. I was so relieved, and so ready to go home, and so, so happy with everything we accomplished that the reaction just had to be physical. 

Oddly this week is my third anniversary of making this move. So much has changed in those three years. I feel like I am finally becoming the person I hoped I would be. I am still so grateful that I made the decision at the beginning of all of this to go to Idaho and be with my dad even though it was not remotely an easy thing to do. I'm glad I love this job so much but I'm also glad this job doesn't define me. 

That said, this summer will go down as one of the most incredible and life-changing seasons of my life. I remember wondering after the Salt Lake Games if I would ever make the kind of friends, have the kind of growth or see the kind of things I saw there. I was afraid nothing was ever going to feel that great again. Well good news 25 year old KC, apparently there is some truth to things getting better with time. Life sure does.


Sterling J. Crockett said...

Awesome! We are all proud of the amazing work you do and thankful that you do such a meticulous job -- which includes giving us a look behind the scenes.

Now take the rest of the year off. :)

Katie said...

Katie Clifford -- I love you and your life! Fantastic post.

SeƱora H-B said...

Dude. Amazing. I have no other words. Thank you for sharing!

Mary said...

I seriously am pumped up and inspired after reading this, Katie. Brava, woman! What a remarkable life you've led, and how refreshing to hear your obvious humility and gratitude for all you've gotten to do. I'm sure your entire team was only too glad to work that hard for someone as genuine and hard-working and downright lovable as you. Well done.

Becca said...

Incredible. Thank you do much for letting us all follow you through the summer. And Paul Florence? How crazy is that?

Jamie said...

You are amazing and inspiring - can't wait to see you at the next one, if not before.

NatAttack said...

Love love LOVE this. How inspiring it was to see you in action lady lay. What a monumental task you just mastered -- I'm so proud of you. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I DID tell you that in March or April of this year. I've always had faith in your abilities! Love you.

Cristin said...

When I was having a bad day I would live vicariously through your FB updates during the Olympics. Great post.

Mike McGinnis said...

Congratulations dear...well done. Tremennnnndously-----well-----done.