The 2012 Olympics have come to a close and the world is now moving on, talk still fluttering about the greats and the disappointments.
The summer before sixth grade, I was enthralled with the 1996 Olympics. Kerry’s Strug’s dynamic vault landing for gold, faming U.S.’s Magnificent Seven. Amanda Beard with her teddy bear and refusal to wear goggles during the breaststroke. And Michael Johnson lighting up the track in his golden Nikes. I watched as a kid with big dreams. I shredded my father’s “Sports Illustrated”, cutting out pictures of Janet Evans, Carl Lewis and Dominique Moceanu and plastering them to a mat on my desk as inspiration. I too could be on top of Mount Olympus.
From then on, every two years, I am glued to the television, watching dreams become reality and dreams shatter. I love the spirit of sport, which lead to a brief stint as a sports reporter, and the Olympics is the greatest show for such entertainment.
During the 2000 Games in Sydney, I was attracted to one particular swimmer. At the time, I still believed that I could swim in an Olympics games, even though I was 15 and still never swam a state qualifying time. In those games, there was a boy, my age, swimming one single event and I invested this dream in him. He finished outside of a medal, at fifth, but he gave me a hope.
Eight years later, that swimmer did the impossible. Eight gold medals in eight events. A perfect record. At 23, graduated but restless, a Peace Corps recruiter had just told me I didn’t have enough experience to be a volunteer and that he was putting my application on hold. The Olympics offered a distraction from my own goals and I cheered on my childhood idol Michael Phelps to one of the greatest Olympic achievements. I had long given up the idea that I would ever compete in Olympics, but my crush from 15 made me think I could still be something great.
In London 2012, on the night of Phelps’ last individual race, I sat in my host family’s small, bright blue living room and watched my favorite athlete slap his back three times as part of his usual pre-race ritual, blow out the competition and earn yet another gold medal.
Leading up to the moment, I wasn’t able to watch much of the Games. I did see bits and pieces of the Opening Ceremony at local bar, but I was really the only one interested in them. The bar goers did shout out with pride when the five Basotho marched in the arena with their hats and blankets, proudly representing their nation in the Parade of Athletes. Other than that, my spectating was done through nightly BBC live broadcasts and dozens of links my father sent. The Basotho, or at least the ones in my village, have little interest in the Olympics.
But I wanted to watch just one of Phelps races and meekly brought up the Olympics to my family, or liOlympic as the “li” indicates plurality in Sesotho. We talked about football and tennis, but, when my host father mentioned swimming, I used all the courage I had to ask if I could watch a race that night. He said yes, although he went to sleep a half hour later.
My host mother and sister stayed up, though, flipping through channels and watching the time go by. We are an hour ahead of London, so we had to wait till 9 p.m. for the swimming to start. My eyelids were already heavy but I was determined to stay awake. We watched a bit of tennis, then an awkwardly awesome dance competition on Lesotho TV and then a drama my ‘m’e likes. Finally, the swimming started.
There were a few races before Phelps, but each time an American walked out on to desk, my ‘m’e and sister pointed and said, “America!” We giggled and pretended to make the motions of the swimmers – my ‘m’e has got the dolphin kick down.
Then Phelps came out for the 100-meter fly. I did my Heather Dance, clapping my hands vigorously, bobbing up and down and yipping like a puppy. There he was, my favorite. He dove into his last individual race, touched seventh at the 50 meter mark and then, because his Michael Phelps, won the race. I jumped. I screamed. I nearly cried. “You are so happy,” my ‘m’e said.
Yes, I was but for more reasons than a gold medal for someone I don’t know. Phelps and other Olympians have taught me about hard work, the passion to keep going when the world has said it won’t happen.
I had to fight like hell to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was told that I didn’t have enough experience. I was told my mental health past would not make me a good volunteer. And when I finally reached volunteer status, it was taken away from me. I was could’ve and should’ve given up, but I didn’t. This was my dream and I kept going.
Sitting there with my ‘m’e and sister, I realized how far I had come in four years. I let go of things and people that were holding me back and went after what I wanted, not letting anything stop me. I was enjoying that evening with two people, who were strangers 10 months ago, but now, and forever will be, are my family. I don’t have all the answers, but I know that I am right where I need to be, that I am finally doing something I’ve always talked about doing. It was my golden moment.
It may not be Mount Olympus, but I have definitely reached the top of my mountain.