The eight of us stood there, holding the World Trade Center flag, with tears streaming down our faces. The national anthem of the United States rang out like never before. As the “Land of the free and the home of the brave” drew to a close a gust of wind picked up the flag from beneath and I struggled to maintain my grip. It was as if the spirits of all the victims of 9/11 were saying to the world, “We are not defeated.” It was as if they were saying to us, “You are ready, go forth and show the world what you have to offer.”
I actually had no intention of attending those Opening Ceremonies, until they asked me to be one of the athletes who would bear the World Trade Center Flag during the national anthem. Having been through the Opening Ceremonies in 1998, I knew that although it was a spectacular event, it was also a very long night of standing around. I had therefore long since decided that in order to be at my best for my race the next morning I should forgo walking in the ceremonies and instead, stay off my feet and rest. All athletes who have to compete on the first day of the Olympics are faced with the same decision and while I really wanted to partake, I had come to the Olympics to skate and I was hoping to put forth the performance of my life. I knew skipping the Opening Ceremonies was the right thing to do. At least that’s what I had been thinking until I got a phone call the day before.
The Olympic organizing committee asked me to carry the World Trade Center American Flag into the Opening Ceremonies. They had selected eight athletes from the American team for this honor and I was one of them. I was floored.
Instantly I knew that it was something that I had to do, something that I wanted to do. It was an honor beyond anything I could have imagined. I immediately called my wife Tiffany, and she agreed that it was something I must do. I discussed it with Bart and Pat, and while from their respective viewpoints as coach and agent it may have been better for me to stay home and rest, they both recognized that magnitude of the moment and there was very little discussion as to whether or not I should do it. They quickly went to work on figuring out how to get me in and out of the event with as little strain on my legs as possible. It was eventually set up such that I would arrive at the last minute, participate in the flag ceremony, and immediately thereafter return home to get as much rest as possible for the next day’s race.
I remember one of my teammates telling me he thought I was foolish for risking the condition of my legs on the ice the next day, simply to carry a flag. He didn’t get it. To me there are things that exceed the importance of the athletic portion of the Olympics. There aren’t many, but this was undoubtedly one of them. As always, I had faith that God had lead me to this honor for a reason. I didn’t know what it was, but I felt compelled to be part.
As the Opening Ceremonies were getting underway the other flag bearing athletes and I gathered backstage. We were standing with the Port Authority Officers whose job it is to oversee the flag and they began telling us that they were proud of us, and that the families of the victims were proud of us. They told us that all the people who had lost their lives in that tragedy were looking down on us, they too were proud of their team.
In a year that had already been so wrought with emotion this was simply overwhelming. To me, holding that flag was a small way of remembering the victims, of saying I’m with you, I’m thinking about you, you are not forgotten.
When it came time to begin the procession I touched the flag for the first time and felt a physical sensation inside of me like nothing I had ever experienced. If it’s possible to feel your soul being touched then that is what I felt. As we carried that flag out before the capacity crowd and a worldwide television audience the silence was deafening. I have never heard such stillness. I felt as if I was someplace emotionally that I had never been before, someplace spiritually that I didn’t know existed. While that flag represented so much death, it seemed also to stand for life, love and the hope of a nation.
There are few times in any life that the emotion of the moment is all that exists. At the birth of my child or when I said to my wife, “I do”, my life paused, and for those few moments, no other problems, or even thoughts, existed. The moment consumed everything. This felt as if the whole world, and certainly everyone in that stadium, was simultaneously experiencing an all consuming emotional moment. Time stood still.
That wind that lifted the flag seemed also to lift the spirits of the American Team. It was a wind that remained at our backs throughout those Olympic Games as we collectively went forth and captured a record shattering thirty-four Olympic medals. I had never before felt as inspired as I did that night. Of the eight athletes selected to carry the flag, five of us won medals. That night I went to bed with a peace in my heart I have never before known.
The next seventeen days were the most remarkable of my life. They played out in a manner that exceeded the grandest notion my mind had previously dared to envision and culminated in a gold medal reality. It was then, with prize in hand, that I was able to look back at the seventeen years it took to get there and find meaning beyond the medal I never before knew existed. I had learned so much, from my first timid step into a skating rink, to my final step up onto the Olympic podium. These are those years, those lessons and those remarkable days in Salt Lake. These are my reflections...