Thursday, November 29, 2012

Favorite Sports Moment

In the spirit of the holiday, and the obligatory “What are you most thankful for?” questions, someone recently asked me what sports moment I was most grateful for this year. This moment was not only the highlight of my season but athletic career; it wasn’t during competition or even on the bike. London was my second Paralympic Games and second march into the stadium. Despite having been to “The Show” before, I was not prepared in the slightest for what happened in the London stadium.

The parade of nations is one of the most breathtaking events an athlete can be part of. Not only are there 80,000 people in a stadium watching you, there are fireworks going off, laser light shows, music blasting, dancers, and hundreds of cameras and broadcast lights all over. There is so much sensory stimulation you don’t know what to do. While all of this is going on, it hits you- you’re at the Games! Everything you’ve done in the past four, six, even ten years has led to that moment, to stepping through the palpable wave of emotion and noise into the stadium.

The moment when you walk into the stadium with your best friends- your teammates who are more family than anything- the people you’ve cried tears of pain, sadness and joy with, that you’ve shared successes and failures with, that you’ve experienced some of the best moments of your life with, is when you realize that it’s all real. All of it is real, you’re not dreaming and you’ve made it. You’ve all been through the wringer to make the team and you’re finally there. It’s a whirlwind of emotions to start with and then, and then add on what’s about to happen next.

Walking through the stadium, we spotted a giant, American flag hanging over the second balcony. We waved to the people and then looked closer. The people standing behind the flag, waving madly back at us, were wearing very distinctive USA clothes- an 18” stovepipe American flag hat, flag pants, flag shirts. It was one of my best friend’s family. I’m not a statistician by any means and even I know that the odds of finding loved ones in an ocean of people is nearly impossible. Tears welled up, knees felt as structurally sound as jelly and there was a lump in my throat the size of a baseball. I have chills writing about it now. We held up the line of athletes and didn’t care a single lick. Seeing his family flooded me with emotions and reminded me of all the sacrifices they and every athlete’s family made for their athlete to get to the Games. It’s as much hard work and sacrifice on their part as it is ours, often more.

Seeing his family
My family was unable to attend the Beijing games for financial reasons; it was less than a month after the death of my father. Their presence in London meant the world to me. Without seeing them in the stadium, I could feel that they were there with us.

The day after the ceremony, I talked to my family who was in the stadium, only to learn that we looked and waved directly to them too without realizing it. (Between tears, a perma-grin, and the lights we couldn’t make out their faces.) Had I known it was them, I would’ve been a complete mess. It was a group effort getting to the Games and I wouldn’t have been there without them.

Marching through
After that night in the stadium, I knew whatever happened at the Games was what it was and I could go home happy. Sharing such a powerful moment with people who have played enormous roles in our journey to the Games is something I will cherish forever.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Not Such an Airport Ninja After All

One of the many perks of being a cyclist is the travel. Thus far, in 2012 alone, I stayed in 26 separate hotels, raced in five countries (with a sixth trip back to one of them) not to mention driving who knows how many miles in the car. The passport pages are covered in stamps from years of being in the sport and ‘airport navigation’ may very well get added to my resumé under list of skills. With all this travel, you learn a few things along the way. You learn what you do and don’t need, you get really fast at packing and rebuilding bikes, that you can pack for two weeks in a carry-on bag, and typically the exact number of minutes it takes you to get from the curbside drop-off, through security and to your gate at your home airport. Frequent flyer miles tally up, you know where the red carpet clubs are in given airports and you’re always on the upgrade list for being a preferred customer. What all this really means thought is that you spend way too much time on an airplane.

Jeremy Powers once did an interview and talked about the importance of being an airport ninja if you’re a cyclist. Now, what, exactly, is an airport ninja? An airport ninja is what you become when you fly all the time. The airport ninja is able to quietly and swiftly navigate an airport, flash a big smile and use their conversation skills- also known as “schmoozing”- at the check-in counter and fly their bike(s) for free, get through security fluidly, and arrive at the gate at precisely the time of boarding.

The airport ninja slips through unnoticed. They’re travel professionals. What the airport ninja does not do is go to the wrong gate and try to get on a plane to a different destination. I, as I quickly learned, am apparently not an airport ninja.

Earlier this year, when I still considered myself an airport ninja I was flying… somewhere, and certainly not to Omaha. I’d made it through check-in without having to pay a bike fee, strolled through security like I was the mayor of the airport and made it to what I thought was my gate, just in time to walk onto the plane. The line worked its way up to the scanner and I ran my ticket over it. Meeeeep. The agent took it and scanned it again. Same thing, meeeeep. She looked at the ticket then up to me and said “Your gate is over there” and pointed to the correct gate. Flushed and embarrassed, I apologized and turned around for my walk of shame, against the current of the soon-to-be-boarding Nebraskans. I meekly walked over to my correct gate, quadruple checked that it was the right flight number, destination and airline. When I was satisfied that I was, in fact, at the correct gate, I took my place in the boarding queue with the lanyard passport holder, socks and sandals, Hawaiian shirt wearing travel amateurs at the back of the line. I was ready to commit seppuku right then and there. I’d brought dishonor onto myself and other airport ninjas.

Just when I thought I was hot stuff, knowing my way around the airports of the world, feeling like the world was my oyster, it was time for a reality check. A true airport ninja does not get cocky. It was my downfall. I’d built myself up in my head and let my guard down. It opened me up for an attack from within- the most devastating!

With the holiday season rapidly approaching and some of you traveling- maybe even with bikes- try working on some of your airport ninja skills. Be nice at the check-in counter, flash those pearly whites, have all of your liquids in an appropriately sized plastic bag and to maintain your own panache, double check the gate you’re at.