The human spirit is a powerful thing. The Olympics bring out that spirit in a most spectacular way. For the last two weeks, through tears and cheers, America has been enraptured by the conquests of young men and women who found gold, silver and bronze in Sochi.
What started as a tempest of coverage of political, security and construction issues quickly turned to captivating storylines of athletes achieving their lifetime dreams. And, after all, isn't that what the Olympics are supposed to be about?
Naysayers quickly had to find hiding places as the spirit of the Sochi people, the brightly colored venue facades and hard-earned medal conquests by athletes took center stage.
For Team USA, 17 skiers and snowboarders left Sochi with medals including a record eight gold! It all began on opening day when a young man who grew up riding PCMR's King's Crown saw his life change in the blink of an eye. Throwing a closing trick he had never landed before coming to Sochi, 20-year-old Sage Kotsenburg captivated the world (especially the IOC) with his athleticism and personality just enough snowboarder stereotype mixed with fun, frivolity and great respect for what he had accomplished.
Like his friend Sage, Park City's Joss Christensen ad-libbed a few new tricks into his own slopestyle skiing run to win gold. We reveled at the dazed looks in the faces of three young U.S. men who scored a rare medals sweep with Gus Kenworthy taking silver and Nick Goepper bronze.
Ted Ligety retained vivid memories of the 2010 Games in Vancouver when he failed to join his teammates in their Olympic success. It was a turning point in his career. Through four years of World Cup and World Championship success, Ligety pointed towards the Sochi giant slalom. He left every ounce of himself on the hill powering to a solid win to become the first U.S. male skier to win two Olympic golds.
And then there was Mikaela Shiffrin. Her wit, her comfort in her surroundings and her sheer athletic ability showed maturity far beyond her 18 years. Everyone expected Mikaela to win the slalom even herself. In her "day after" press conference she boldly stated that "miracles are not random." She had skied thousands and thousands of slalom runs leading up to that one day. So when, in the middle of her second run, her left ski kicked up and out, she simply reacted with instinct, bringing her ski back to earth and arcing the next gate within an inch of straddling. It was a microsecond of fear and subsequent reaction that culminated with slalom gold America's 17th medal.
There is a palpable emotion being in the finish area with an Olympic medalist. You dance with glee alongside Julia Mancuso. Your heart pounds in anguish with the tears of Hannah Kearney, who won bronze after working four years for gold. Your soul rises as you watch Andrew Weibrecht pull out a totally unexpected silver. And you ache for Bode Miller, who had so much pride in his sixth Olympic medal, but is pained not to be able to share it with his brother, Chilly, who died last April.
Your palms sweat with nervousness as you watch David Wise throw out three years of precise planning to adjust his run to the slow speeds brought on by heavy snow. Two days later, you feel a wave of joy as you help him jump over the fence to hoist teammate Maddie Bowman on his shoulders to celebrate their halfpipe gold medals. You feel sheer delight for the happiest Olympian, Kaitlyn Farrington, on her surprise gold. And you nod your head with satisfaction for Kelly Clark's bronze the hardest fought of her three career Olympic medals, and the one that made her the most proud.
For three weeks we worked in places we had never seen. We were uplifted in spirit by volunteers and the Russian people who took great pride in Sochi 2014. In his closing comments at Sunday's Closing Ceremony in Fischt Stadium, Sochi Chief Dmitry Chernyshenko said, "This is the face of the new Russia our Russia."
That told the story the story of a place many feared or simply didn't know. Those who came, or were among the three billion who watched on television, were treated to a region with friendly faces, bright colors and amazing venues.
Do svidaniya, Sochi. Thank you for providing our athletes with such a magical place to shine!
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.