Rings of Unity

Today marks the most wonderful day of Summer 2012. Today is the start of the London 2012 Games. Today is when amazing begins.

Rings

I’m more than giddy that the Olympics are finally here!

I had the incredible opportunity to attend the Games in Atlanta in 1996. It was the summer after my second year of college when my brother and I met up with my first-year college suitemates Betsy and Michelle to caravan to Atlanta. (I really wish I had Facebook back in 1996 for photos). 

I still remember Betsy, Michelle and I sitting in our suite first-year figuring out which sports we wanted to see as we made ticket requests for the lottery. I remember the day when we found out that we were getting tickets to the OLYMPICS. THE Olympics. Complete jubilation that day while also feeling a sense of “pinch me.” The anticipation of an international event of this magnitude, the unity, the sense of pride for one’s country, and having the opportunity to watch the best of the best athletes in the world compete. I still feel excitement in my stomach thinking about that day.

Nine nights in a row, we headed to the Olympic Park for the entertainment. Nine nights in a row, we arrive and the place is SRO. Nine nights in a row, the same bench opens up for the four of us to sit.

We’ve arrived in Atlanta and ready to soak in every ounce of this experience. Our hotel is a few miles outside of the city. The four of us share one room. We are living the dream. We have cultural activities, lots of events and sightseeing planned for the 10-day trip.

We saw a lot of volleyball—both regular and beach, men’s and women’s. We had tickets to baseball and athletics (track & field). Naturally, we rooted on the Red, White and Blue, but we also adopted other countries during the competitions. I still root for Tunisia in international events. Mario is all about Brasil—even to this day. It’s USA first for him unless they are facing Brasil on the pitch and then he is sporting a kit that is distinctly green, yellow and blue and chanting and cheering in Portuguese. We met Karch Kiraly. Mario still has the U.S. flag with Kiraly’s autograph. We logged many miles around the streets of Atlanta. I have many fond memories from those 10 days. I love lapel pins and have a nice collection, so I had a lot of fun trading those with people on the streets. Even squeezed into a MARTA car was a thrill.

“Mario, I’ll take a nap, we’ll order pizza and then head to the park for the concert.”

We were fortunate to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre live as one of our cultural offerings. I cried watching the ballerinas—the grace, the strength, the beauty and the magic. Powerful.

Alvin Ailey

We also spent a day at the High Museum of Art for the Olympic installment—“Rings: Five Passions in the World” for another awe-inspiring experience. The greatest piece of this entire trip was that I was sharing this adventure with my baby brother. (He HATED the stop at the museum). 

I spent $100 per day and it didn’t matter. Perhaps I would never have this Olympics experience again. I was all in.

We were staying at the same hotel as Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s mother and the only day that we spent at the pool, he happened to be visiting his mom. By the end of the day, she wanted me to date her son (damn hindsight).

“I need to tell you something. There was a bombing in the Olympic Park last night.”

I’m a little bit of a snob when it comes to what I like. Some find it annoying, but there was one time where it may have saved my life.

Day 10. We pack up the hotel room, and head out to our last event before returning home. We sit in the sun for several hours for track and field. The sun and I have a love/hate relationship and this time it was hate. When we left the venue, I had a horrible headache and didn’t think that I would be able to make the eight-hour drive back to Virginia. At 12, Mario would be of no help. My head is throbbing. There is no way I can drive for the next eight hours. Betsy and Michelle head north. Mario and I return to our original hotel to see if we can book a room for an additional night. The hotel is booked solid. Every hotel in the city and surrounding area is to capacity. What are we going to do? I’m talking to the hotel manager and his cousin happens to also run a hotel in the area. He calls and there is an available room. We’ll take it.

We get directions and head across town to the new digs. I can’t remember what the exterior looked like, but the room was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever come across. As we’re driving across town, I lay out the plan for Mario and I for the rest of the day. I’ll nap for a few hours, we’ll order a pizza for dinner and then head to the Park for the evening concert.

We’re in the room and I see bugs. It reeks of filth. I try to lay down to nap and it is just not going to work (never mind the thread count couldn’t have been more than 12).

“Grab our stuff, Mario. We’re leaving. I’m miserable, but I will not stay in this room.”

After a stern conversation with the manager, I have my money back and we are on the highway. The week prior, my mom was in the Virgin Islands with a group of friends and made a new friend. This new friend happened to live in Greenville, S.C. It was a little bit out of the way, but she said that Mario and I should spend the night there. We drove the 2.5 hours to her house. Introduced ourselves and soon after hit the sack.

I’d asked her to wake us up early so that we could get on the road and knock out the final six hours. She gently wakes me up and says, “I have something to tell you.”

“Ok. Tell me.”

“There was a bombing last night at the Olympic Park.”

“How many people died?”

“Are you ok?”

“Yes, I’m ok.”

Mario and I are back on the road and headed home. I was a combination of exhausted, numb, angry, confused, calm and anxious. I just wanted to be home. I couldn’t understand or figure out why the a bomber needed to afflict pain on innocent people. Why he was such a coward? My heart ached for the lives lost.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch showed a map of the Olympic Park and pinpointed where the bomb went off.

Holy Shit. The bomb went off by the very bench that every night for nine straight nights opened up for us. Mario and I could have been on that bench that Saturday night. The plan was for me to nap to sleep off the headache, order pizza for dinner (pizza is not delivered to our house in Virginia, so whenever it could come to his door, he thought it novel and wanted to order it) and then head to Olympic Park.

It was there for us for nine nights in a row. Would it have opened up on the tenth night? That night my slight snobbery may have saved our lives. We’ll never know, nor do I spend time wondering. It is moments like that when you really believe that everything happens for a reason. It wasn’t our time according to God. We still had work to do.

mario

This is Mario one night in the Olympic Park dancing to the evening’s entertainment. 

This is the first Olympics that Mario and I are in the same place. We’ve spent some time talking about our adventures during the 1996 Games. It is always fascinating and neat to me when others have an aha! Moment. He recalled how my college friends Betsy and Michelle left us in the hotel room one night to which I responded, you were 12-years old. You couldn’t go out and I wasn’t going to leave a 12-year old in a hotel room for the night by himself. His silence spoke volumes. We had matching anoraks from the Gap that we sported, for some reason that stuck with him. I look forward to reminiscing and watching these 2012 Games together.