NAGANO, Japan - Everyone was ecstatic. The Winter Olympics were about to end and the U.S. team had managed to win 13 medals, including six golds, both record-tying highs.
The pressure was off. The suits had a press conference so they could say they had done their jobs. American Olympians were performing at high levels. There was no medal meltdown as there was after Calgary when the U.S. won only six medals.
Even more encouraging were all the near-medal finishes, eight fourth places and five fifth places. The Americans had 60 top 10 finishes in Japan, beating the previous high mark of 41. And the pipelines are full of Olympic hopefuls as developmental programs in all Olympic sports are identifying athletes earlier in their careers and allowing them a chance to compete on an elite level.
I do applaud the leaders of the Olympic movement for their efforts to raise the money to make this all work. There is no government subsidy and it takes millions of dollars to allow our athletes to be competitive in the worldwide arena.
But after the press conference ended I was more interested in talking to the athletes who were there, some of whom won medals and some who didn't. Listening to them talk brought these Olympics to closure for me. It reminded me of what the Olympic Games are all about.
They are about supreme individual effort, about hopes and dreams, realized and unrealized. They are about putting every fiber of your being into proving what you can do. In some sports they are about individuals reaching deep within themselves to come up with a performance they didn't think was possible. In other sports it is about groups of individuals melding into a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.
With the exception of professional hockey players and a few snowboarders, every athlete I've talked to at these Olympics has talked about dreams, inspiration, overcoming great odds.
"This is the best thing I've ever experienced in my life," said Cammi Granato, who carried the U.S. flag into the stadium for the closing ceremonies. She is captain of the women's hockey team that won a gold medal, and the lifetime leading scorer on the U.S. hockey national team. "It's amazing because you have all these wonderful things going on around you.
"t's such an honor. I'm really excited. All these things are happening and it seems too good to be true. I didn't really know what to expect. We were in it to accomplish a goal, not for anything else. It's a little hard to explain."
What she's saying is the athletes who succeeded did not put the cart before the horse. They didn't get involved with their sport to become heroes or to gain fame. They did it because they had some talent and a burning desire to prove what they could do with that talent.
The women on the hockey team wanted the gold medal, sure, but their goal was beyond that. They didn't work hours every day for long months just in the hopes of becoming celebrities for a brief time. They had something to prove to themselves. In the process they didn't notice they were becoming heroes to thousands of young girls and boys across the country.
"'ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of e-mail letters," Granato said. "It was great. You could see people enjoyed what we did. I've gotten a lot of telegrams, flowers, faxes. I talked to people back home and they said when we get back we will really see the impact of what we've done."
The Olympics has gotten even more important for American women lately. In Atlanta, the women's basketball and soccer teams captured gold and the imagination of the country. The women's softball team nearly won gold and many individual women turned in great performances. In Nagano, women won eight of the medals, including four gold.
"In America young girls are getting more involved with sports," said Sarah Tueting, goalie on the hockey team. "That's good because it gives them so much self-confidence."
Paul George, the head of the U.S. delegation in Nagano, thinks the confidence level will rise so much that the U.S. team should win 20 medals in Salt Lake City.
"I think it's going to be more fun being at home, and having a crowd that's cheering for you," said speed skater Chris Witty, the only double medalist for the American team. "I can't wait for the next four years. We're going to have a good team. I predict in four years we're going to have a lot of medals, I hope."
Figure skating champion Tara Lipinski summed it up best the night she became the youngest individual Olympic champion in history: "When I was on the ice, I had a feeling like I knew what the Olympics were about. I had a feeling of pure joy."
These athletes have brought us all a lot of pure joy.
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