As the Aeroflot A330 approached over the Black Sea, the lights on the shoreline came alive. Brilliant reflections of red, blue, yellow and more illuminated the sky from the stadiums of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Park. As the laser-like lights pierced the midnight sky, all the rhetoric and fears of the Sochi Games simply disappeared. It will be a spectacular Olympics!
As I reflected on the three weeks ahead, my mind wandered back in time. First it was that moment in 1960 when mom turned on the TV and we watched the Squaw Valley Olympics. My life was determined at that point in time. Sochi will be Winter Olympics number eight, a string of memories going back to 1980.
Lake Placid, 1980
Ask anyone about their 1980 Olympic memory and they'll respond: Miracle on Ice. As the cross-country stadium announcer, though, I'll never forget the poignant scene of giant Finnish cross-country skier Juha Mieto standing in the forest next to our announcer booth weeping after losing the 15k gold medal to Sweden's Thomas Wassberg by a mere hundredth of a second. Legend has it that Wassberg proposed they melt their medals together. Mieto declined.
Albertville was a comeback Olympics for the U.S. Ski Team after a shutout in Calgary. It was a proud moment to be in the finish as Hilary Lindh skied to silver in the downhill to break the drought the first time I experienced an American medal. It was a good feeling and signaled a rebirth for ski racing in America, ushering in what would be two decades of success and counting. A day later in Tignes, Donna Weinbrecht became the first Olympic champion in her sport of freestyle moguls. Today, Hannah Kearney is carrying on the tradition the Jersey girl started over two decades earlier.
Greatest Olympics ever? Could be. After all, Norway is the birthplace of skiing. For the U.S. Ski Team, Tommy Moe etched the story of the games with his opening day gold medal in the downhill. It was almost surreal to stand in the finish that day, frantically trying to help Tommy's parents get to him, then hustling Tommy into a car with legendary Sports Illustrated writer Bill Johnson who wrote his "Golden Boy" cover story on the way to the medals ceremony. It was not a dream. Tommy Moe became an Olympic champion.
Trivia question. How many super G races did Picabo Street win in her career. Answer, just one. But it was a big one. Returning from a knee injury, Picabo was not 100%. Few gave her much chance in the normally turnier super G. But she and Coach Herwig Demschar saw an opportunity on a course that was straighter than normal, using longer and faster downhill skis. It worked. She won by a mere hundredth to become an Olympic champion, calling home from the finish line to wake up her mom to give her the news. That same day, Jonny Moseley threw his 360 mute grab to take gold. Later in the Games, Nikki Stone and Eric Bergoust won aerials on the same day.
Salt Lake City, 2002
In an Olympics marked by a snowboarding sweep and hometown hero Joe Pack winning silver, what stood out for me was Bode Miller's heroic recovery from a near-catastrophic crash to go on to win silver in the alpine combined. The image of Bode up on one ski, about to lose control and go careering into the netting, will forever be etched into my mind. This was the world's introduction to one of the greatest ski racers of all time, providing us with the first of many 'edge of your seat' experiences. It was the first of Bode's now five Olympic medals and one that shaped his future as one of the greatest ski racers of all time.
Parkites still cheer Ted Ligety, who came literally out of nowhere to take gold in the alpine combined. No one ever considered Ted all eyes were on Bode, who was disqualified after the first run of slalom after video showed he straddled a gate. We all did the math going into Ted's second run. He had a chance at a medal. Then we did some more math. He had a chance to win. And he did. But the most distinct memory of all came in the women's GS. It was the worst possible conditions. Rain, snow, fog. Absolutely miserable. That's where Julia Mancuso thrives. At the start of run number two, you had that unmistakable sense that she, too, was going to win gold.
With 17 athletes winning 21 medals, it's hard to pick a favorite. But the image of Billy Demong, eyes focused skyward, mouth open to suck in that last gasp of oxygen, crossing the finish line as an Olympic champion is forever etched in my mind. It was the part of a string of three remarkable Nordic combined events, with U.S. medals in each one. Being amidst the scrum in front of the stage as the team event silver was presented gave you a sense of what team truly meant.
With the Opening Ceremony just two days away, only time will tell what Sochi will present. The Olympics hold a special place in our culture, transcending time and place. For the next 18 days, the world will watch. Medals will be won. And memories made.
One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing, Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president, Communications, for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. A Wisconsin native, he and his wife Carole Duh have lived in Park City since 1988 when he's not traveling the world with the team.