Thursday, March 20, 2014

Call It Magic

I have a wise coworker who has been working in Olympic sports since the early 80's who has two sayings I tend to repeat as mantras at every Games. One is "some days you have fun, some days you build character". The other is "fun isn't always fun."

For the three months leading up to the Games I found myself clinging to those words. The Sochi Games would be my fourth Olympics. If I had to pick a mindset for each Games it would go like this:

Salt Lake: Too young and dumb to realize what was really happening
Vancouver: New and excited and maybe still a little dumb
London: Overconfident and ripe for a fall
Sochi: Dread. Overwhelming dread.

I have been relatively open about the fact that London shook me up a bit.  OK a lot bit. Overall it was a positive experience but I came home from that summer, wrote a list of all the things that didn't go well that I felt I could fix and over the 18 months between Games (yes, there are only 18 months between the Summer Olympics and the next Winter Olympics. If that sounds brutal, think about what it must have been like when Winter and Summer were in the same year. Death. That's what it seems like.) I tackled each one. From ordering to volunteers to venue space to athlete flow I worked really hard to make sure I wasn't waking up in a cold sweat at 2 am worrying about how many mediums we had. I found great venue partners and I put together a team I was really confident would be fun to work with and also do their jobs well. I had plenty of reason to be calm.

But I didn't feel calm. I knew in my brain that I was prepared, that I did everything I possibly could to be ready. That like our athletes, I could trust my training. But my confidence was bruised. I went into London just a little too cocky. We had plenty of mishaps that were out of my control but there were things I definitely would have done differently and all of it swirled around enough to make me sort of a mess.

I went to Utah for Christmas about three weeks before I left for Munich. I slept a lot. I went skiing with my brother. I played with the baby girls. I saw old friends. I went to yoga classes. I avoided conversations about the Games. The night before I left I asked my brother for what we Mormons call a "blessing." It's basically this nice little prayer that someone else says on your behalf and it tends to be really personal and this one was lovely and emotional and made me adore my little brother even more than I already do. I came home, managed to work up some excitement as the team started to get named and made sure every last little detail was in place. I had promised myself that I wouldn't leave for these Games as already tired as I left for London so I also made myself go to the gym, eat good food and get to bed at reasonable hours. I went skiing the Saturday before we left and pushed myself harder than I usually do then spent my second to last night making a fabulous playlist and laughing myself sick with my friend Jess.

We had a 6 am flight to Munich which is kind of terrible but also kind of awesome for team bonding. We were all bleary eyed and tired but everyone was excited and ready to get to work. I relaxed into Event Manager mode, handing out Red Carpet club passes and making sure everyone remembered their passport. I have a healthy amount of respect for the faces in this photo and their enthusiasm was contagious.

In the United Lounge on our layover in Washington DC I got a call from our freight company saying that instead of being safe and sound in a warehouse in Germany, our entire shipment from Colorado Springs was stuck somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean due to a freak combination of weather and engine trouble. Every single shred of Ralph Lauren apparel as well as our IT equipment, office supplies and signage was in that shipment. I called a quick team meeting, let everyone know what was happening and I got a whole chorus of "no problem, we'll figure it out," which made me want to cry and hug them all. I didn't do either but I went into the bathroom, shook my head, said a quick prayer and felt oddly calm about the whole thing. 

We landed in Munich, we toured the venue, we went to the Hofbrau House and everyone except me and the mormon intern drank really big beers. We said cheers. We talked through the schedule for the next few days. Then we went home. I took a long shower. Listened to some quite music, said my prayers and went to bed. 

Jet lag woke me up early but worry didn't. The day went by quickly, the news came that our shipment was delayed even further but our Nike shipment was on track and pretty soon the place looked like this. 

It might just look like boxes on shelves to you but to me it's a beautiful portrait of progress and organization. The team got an unexpected afternoon off and when the shipment FINALLY arrived our fabulous volunteers helped us unload 1000 pea coats in record time and we were ready to rock when our test group arrived on the day before we opened for athletes. 

I think it was about day three that I let myself think, "ok, this is working. I might actually have this thing under control." I felt good. I wasn't waking up at weird hours with irrational worries. My team was taking initiative and figuring out solutions to things. I was actually having fun. 

Fun. I remembered that I love this. That I'm pretty darn good at it. I was excited for the athletes to show up and to see them react to this spectacle we created. 

The Bobsled and Skeleton team arrived the next day and from there it's all a complete blur. I know there was a lot of laughing, a lot of silliness, a whole bunch of work and definitely some character building. But one major thing happened that completely changed my perspective on the entire experience. 

One evening I left the hotel with some of the sponsor folks and a few of our staff to go meet my friend who was in town for dinner. My phone died while we were out but I was with people so I knew I was reachable. We were finishing up with dinner when my teammate Aron pulled me aside to tell me he had gotten a call saying that the aforementioned wise old coworker had collapsed in the office and was en route to the hospital. We immediately left and when we got outside Aron told me that Doug had had a heart attack. I felt guilty for being gone and we went back to the hotel as quickly as we could. 

The good news is that the hospital in Munich was terrific and Doug was treated well and was ok. His wife was on her way over within hours and because we had a down day the next day I was able to go over and see him. He was cracking jokes and asking for his computer which was a giant relief.

HOURS before this whole thing happened we had been joking that Doug was some kind of robot. He's in his 60s and he runs circles around the rest of us. Doug is sending emails before any of us get up and he's in the office after we all go to bed. The man climbed Mount Everest last year. Yeah. Let that sink in. Mount Everest. So going to a hospital in the middle of our event to visit him flipped a switch in my brain. It didn't make me stop wanting to do a great job. But it did make me realize it wasn't worth getting my heart in a twist over an ill fitting tee shirt or a misplaced piece of signage or even over a boy who broke my heart once and made the team and was coming to Processing on the last day. 

Everything is heightened at the Games. And things that wouldn't happen in the course of six months in real life happen in the space of hours. You have already forgotten about your chit chat with Kristi Yamaguchi by the time Vernon Davis is trying to smooth talk his way in to the USA House after hours. You go from watching someone you kissed right on the lips win an Olympic medal to ringing up hockey jerseys for tourists from the Midwest. So the good stuff is SO GOOD and then the bad stuff is THE WORST and you can find yourself careening from one extreme to the next. When there is an issue it has to be solved IMMEDIATELY and when you do, indeed, solve it (because you always do, you just always do), you feel like a freakin' rock star. It's part of why I love it and it's definitely why it takes weeks to recover. It's a very concentrated experience and if you don't come home at least a little changed, a little more confident of your skills and a lot more aware of things you need to work on, you weren't doing it right. 

So I still believe all of that, and I think for me the Games will always be stressful and hard and awesome and thrilling. But I don't think I will ever again allow myself to wake up in a cold sweat, panicking over something I've invented. All kinds of things have gone wrong at events and nothing has ever actually been as awful as what I imagine at 2 in the morning. 

We wrapped up Team Processing, my team went home and I went to Russia to work in the USA House store. The store is it's own kind of bananas and there are always apparel questions and issues that come up so my time there was still busy. I've been around this world long enough that it was fun to see old friends from past Games and I even made it to a couple of events. And then it was time to go back to Munich for Paralympic Processing. 

I had one really glorious day off before anyone else got there. I slept in and went for a run in the English Gardens. I ate a meal without checking my cell phone. It was wonderful. 

The next morning my sister called. It was too early in the German morning to be anything but a middle of the night Utah call and I said when I answered, "whatever you are calling about it can't be great." She said that it was not, in fact, great and that my Grandfather had suffered a heart attack and they were on their way to the hospital. He has been sick and the last time I saw him he was so frail, nothing like the strong, funny grandpa I've known my whole life. Still. You don't want to be on a different continent when you get that phone call even if you know that phone call is going to come. I called my boss, tried and failed to keep my composure and he told me to do whatever I needed to do. I needed to go home so we got a ticket booked, I briefed the staff that had arrived at that point on what to do for the next few days and beyond if I couldn't make it back before Processing opened. 

I left the next morning and in what felt like my grandpa's first act watching over from above, the team was coming through Munich to go home and my close athlete friend was boarding in the gate next to mine. I got to see a friendly face and get a big hug before I headed home which was an enormous blessing. 

I got to Utah and got absorbed into siblings and in-laws and nieces and nephews. My mother has a very special relationship with her dad, one that I have always envied, and as soon as I saw her I was glad that I hadn't pulled any kind of stupid "I have to see this project through" B.S. that you might read about in a really, really dumb leadership book. 

I have a lot of great moments from the Games that I'll hit in my traditional "highlights" portion of this post but I have to say, the best part of the entire six weeks was sitting in the hotel lobby eating breakfast with a bunch of wiggly kids and every single one of my brothers and sisters and their spouses. I would have been happy to just sit there and eat waffles and tell grandpa stories until our regular lives finally realized we were gone. 

The funeral was very sweet. It's not hard to say nice things about my Grandfather. He was good and he was kind and he had a good life. He was possibly the most devoted husband I have ever seen and my grandparents were still flirting with each other well into their 80s. He was successful pretty much any way you want to cut it but I kept thinking that no one really mentioned much about his job except to note he was a hard worker. They talked about what kind of person he was. At my sister's wedding a few years ago I said something teasing to my conservative Mormon grandpa about being his old maid granddaughter. He just took my hand and told me he was so proud of me and all the things I was doing.  And that boys were really, really dumb. He never missed a chance to say he was proud of us and everyone kind of felt that had reason to believe we might be his favorite. My grandfather is my first real loss in my 37 years. Grief is unfamiliar to me and I am still figuring out how to do it. My suspicion is that it's something you don't master. 

I went back to Munich the day after the funeral and was down the Processing room about 15 minutes before the athletes arrived. The team had done a fantastic job getting everything together and although we had some bumps, things went well. 

I felt really good on the plane coming back to Colorado. Proud of what we did. Grateful for all the good people in my life, thankful for my abilities and the opportunities I get to stretch them. 

A few highlights:

-We were very, very lucky to end up at the Munich Olympic Park for Team Processing. It is a beautiful place and the history of the place is palpable. These two goofballs were our venue managers and they were 100% delightful. One of my favorite things about working an operational role at a Games is how many times I am in a country that is not my own and the locals turn out in force to help our team. Between the volunteers who worked tirelessly and provided excellent service to our athletes, to all of the behind the scenes people at the airport and the hotel and the transport company-the Germans treated us like their own team. I love that cooperation more than I love medals counts. Our last day I slipped over to the memorial in the former athlete village to the Israeli athletes that were killed in 1972. After our own joyful experience in Munich I was overwhelmed with peaceful feelings that even when evil really tries, good and right are just always going to win. 

-Thanks to a dear friend with good connections I have been to Opening Ceremony for the last few Games. Being in a different country meant I this time I watched it from the lobby of our hotel. However, getting to watch the team come in with this wonderful crew of people who made that happen was one of the sweetest parts of the experience. We all groaned together at a few missing hats and it prompted all kinds of great stories about what really goes on behind the scenes.  
-Speaking of that lobby-the restaurant and bar were both right in the lobby so every night you could walk through and see this crazy mix of team processing staff, volunteers, sponsors and athletes and team staff all hanging out together. It was a unique set up and provided quite a few fun and interesting interactions. The last day of Processing everyone was down there until the wee hours. A few of us even rallied and went out dancing which is exactly what you should do when you are young and hopped up on adrenaline and you just finished outfitting a whole bunch of the greatest athletes on the planet. 
 -A little over a year ago I got a really nice email from a speed skater who had somehow stumbled upon this blog. He reached out to say how much he enjoyed it and of course I was delighted. We got to know each other over the course of pre-Games events and in December I got the pleasure of watching him make the Olympic team. My whole crazy career started in speed skating so was super fun to have him come through Team Processing as a first time Olympian. Full circle you know?

-All athletes go through a program prior to the Games that teaches them about how to be a good representative of Team USA and it's always presented by an Olympian. Typically they have done the program before they get to Processing but we always have a few who still need to do it. We lucked out and Derek Parra was the gold medalist who spent a few days with us. He is a lot of fun and we spent a fair amount of time swapping stories about trying to date in your 30s. His last day he had a few hours to kill before he went to the airport and that is how I happen to have a photo of an Olympic Champion stomping on boxes in a garbage container in Germany. The team behind the team. 
-Are you ready for one more speed skating highlight? I got a ticket to Short Track one day and it was my first time back in a rink since 2002 when I saw every single race. It's a different experience to be in the stands of course but love that little sport dearly and was so glad to get to go. 
-So maybe you heard this story-once upon a time this guy missed making the team and went to the Olympics as a wax tech. A wax tech who kept hassling me to hang out with him and I kept saying no until finally his friend won a gold medal and I met up with him at the USA House and gave him my REAL number. Some dating and some not dating and some not talking and some hard work to be  friends when more than that didn't work out and I got to be in the stands when he won the Bronze Medal in Men's Boardercross. I've watched him work and sacrifice and grow and work some more over the last four years so if you want an Olympian your kids can look up to-this one's for real. I'm so proud of him. I stood in the rain for two hours to see him on the medals stand and it will forever be one of my favorite Olympic moments. So will eating McDonald's at 4 in the morning with him and his coach the night before I left because those are the things that happen at the Games. 

-Another Games, another picture with my pal Paul who used to sit across from me in 8th grade english class. He has a big fancy IOC job but always makes time to come hang out. This time his wife brought this little guy and their BRAND NEW BABY all the way to Sochi so if anyone deserves a gold medal in being an awesome mom, it's Kim. 
-Since working at the Olympics is in no way as glitzy as we all make it look on social media, what keeps us coming back? It's because these two ladies used to sit on my floor in 2002 when unbeknownst to most of you, the Games were being executed by a whole bunch of eager twenty somethings with little experience and lots of wide eyed optimism. There was a layer of adult supervision of course, but most of the worker bees were a bunch of kids. And now these are women with fancy titles and lots of responsibility and I think we all wonder how the heck we got to be the grownups. I adore them and I squealed like a teenager when they walked into the store. What keeps us coming back? Each other and the bonds that you develop when you live and work together for weeks and months and years doing this big, crazy thing that the world is going to watch and then will be over in a blip. If the glamour is why you came, it probably won't keep you. 
-I almost never interact with families at the Games. I cry at the Thank You Mom ads from P&G just like the next guy but my world rarely crosses paths with an actual mom. The day of Alex's race I was in the bleachers with some family members and because the race was delayed and then postponed, I ended up helping out a little with some of the scramble to get tickets changed and hotel rooms rebooked. One particular mom and cousin of one of the athletes were so much fun and we ended up hanging out quite a bit during the rest of their stay and I just fell in love with them. Mary's kid didn't end up doing as well as we hoped but there she was, cheering for the other guys and being positive and upbeat. There just wouldn't be Olympics if there weren't families in the background supporting the heck out of their kids and I really enjoyed getting to see a whole new side of the Games. 
-One day I was in the shuttle on the way to my store shift when I got a note from a press officer saying that a gold medalist only had his shoes but could not find his medal's stand uniform and they had just a few hours before he was receiving said gold medal. I pretty much leapt out of the car when we arrived at the Olympic Park, ran into the store, stripped a mannequin and sprinted across to the Today Show set where the athlete would be arriving in a few minutes. I got there early and thanks to my lovely coworker and a nice cameraman, I got to take this quick shot from the anchor desk. Then the athlete showed up and after glancing at his feet I asked where his shoes were. "These aren't it?" Nope! So I sprinted back over to the store, discovered to my relief that the mannequin wore the same size and back I went to the other side of the Park juuuuust in time to escort the athlete and his girlfriend to a green room where we did a quick private fitting and all was well in medals land. I won't say who the athlete was but he *might* be my 2014 athlete crush. I am a professional and I don't really get star struck but this guy is a deadly combination of nice and handsome and scorchingly talented. So it didn't hurt my feelings to lose an entire afternoon to solving this particular apparel crisis!

I could go on and on but this post is already too long so I'll wrap it up. Oddly enough this was probably my favorite Games experience since Salt Lake. I love my job. I'm grateful for it every day, I get to have experiences that my young self wouldn't even have known to dream. I work with people who are talented and driven and good. I still believe that being part of something bigger than myself is important and that conviction makes what I do very fulfilling. 


(You knew there was a but right?)

I also know that I don't want my job to get the very best of me. We didn't talk about Grandpa's job at the funeral. Doug's job didn't fly to Munich to sit by his bed. I will always be a person who spreads herself a little too thin. There are too many people to love and experiences to have and places to visit and stuff to try and that is the way I like it. But I want my job to be ON that list, I don't want it to BE that list. Being part of the "team behind the team" really is an honor, but when you stand there and watch your friend-who is super talented and a hard worker but still just a human-achieve a dream he's had since he was a kid, you do start to wonder what your own gold medal dream equivalent is. And if you are on the right track to get there. 

So that's where I'll be in 2014. Worrying less. Priority shifting. Dreaming. 

1 comment:

christy said...

Beautiful lesson to learn.
Thanks for sharing your experiences! I live vicariously through you. Keep me on the list for Volunteers for Rio :)