LONDON -- In all my years of covering hockey, I have never touched the Stanley Cup. I have stood next to it for pictures. I have leaned close to look at the names, my nose an inch away. I have fallen down on my duty as a father, holding my young son near it, failing to anticipate that he would reach out and grab the bowl. (Sorry, Ethan. You'll never win it. All my fault.)
It's really not that I'm superstitious, because I certainly lost all hope of winning the Cup myself long ago (like, the day I started skating). It's that I haven't earned it. It's that I'm a writer, not an athlete. It's that it's not mine to touch.
So when Rosie MacLennan held out her gold medal and offered me a chance to hold it at the end of an interview, I respectfully declined. I told her about the Cup. I said she was the one who had won it on the trampoline, not me. But she insisted, told me to go ahead, kept holding it out there, told me to go ahead again and … well, I couldn't resist. I held Canada's only gold medal of the London Olympics in my right hand and felt how heavy it was, and I'll never forget it. (Thank you, Rosie.)
There is a lot I'll never forget about these Games, dozens of I-can't-believe-I-was-there moments. Here are just a few:
When you're actually there, you don't know what you're watching. On television, the camera focuses on something, and the commentators, who have been prepped beforehand, tell you what it means. But in the stadium, your eyes are overwhelmed. They don't know where to look. You don't know how to interpret it. Sheep? Smokestacks? Sex Pistols? Huh? You flip through the book they give the media outlining all the symbolism, and just when you figure it out, the scene changes, and you flip through the book again. It's hard to keep up.
But the best parts needed no explanation, like the athletes marching into the stadium, and when it was over, it felt like the Olympics. I scrunched into a bus behind a guy from Mongolia, hearing German and Russian and some other languages I didn't recognize. On the packed train platform long past midnight, I bumped into three nurses still in costume from the ceremony. We had just met, but we took a picture together. We knew we would never be there again.
It doesn't matter if you love tennis, like tennis or just tolerate tennis. If you love sports, it's a check on the bucket list to explore the All England Club, even if it is draped in weird purple banners and the players aren't wearing white. And if you know the Olympics, you know that you never know what you'll see.
I bought some strawberries and cream (check) and settled into my seat to watch Canada's Milos Raonic play a second-round match against France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Three games into the third set, rain began to fall on Court 1. The delay stretched one hour, then two, then almost three. When play resumed, a tennis match turned into something more. Raonic and Tsonga played the longest set in Olympic history -- 48 games, three hours. It was an epic battle of big serves and iron wills, and the match went so long, I got seconds on the strawberries.
One of the media buses went past Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Parliament, the River Thames, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. Every day. It was just the backdrop of the routine commute.
The cycling road race ended with a sprint from Buckingham Palace down the Mall. The beach volleyball court was at Horse Guards Parade, surrounded by significant buildings. After the cycling time trial, I interviewed Clara Hughes in Henry VIII's old front yard at Hampton Court Palace.
You couldn't help but feel the history of gravity. I went for a little walk one morning before an event on the Mall, and I saw the kind of plaque that you see all the time in London: "Sir Isaac Newton 1642-1727 Lived Here."
Before MacLennan handed me her medal, I didn't even know she had it. We had been talking for 40 minutes in a conference room at Canada House. She was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, as if she were any other 23-year-old. I asked where she kept her medal, and she reached down to the table beside her chair and grabbed a little, black, inconspicuous pouch. She'd had it the whole time but didn't want to show off.
The vast majority of Canadian athletes were classy in victory and defeat. Hughes finished fifth to close out her great athletic career, and she said she hoped her legacy would not be what she did but how she did it. Simon Whitfield crashed his bike in the triathlon, and his disappointment was not in failing to win another medal, but in making his family sacrifice so much for a "DNF." Justyn Warner walked off the track destroyed after the men's 4x100-metre relay team thought it had won bronze, only to find out they had been disqualified because Jared Connaughton had taken one step outside his lane.
"I can't," Warner said as he was stopped in the mixed zone, the area where reporters interview athletes. "I can't. It's hard. I can't talk. I just don't want to talk to anybody."
Still, he talked. He stayed doubled over, never taking his hands off his knees, never looking up from the ground, crying, trying to compose himself, and shared his story with Canada. He did not run and hide.
"I'm doing this," he said, "because I'm a better athlete than that."
I saw Michael Phelps. OK, I saw the only race in which he failed to medal. But even if I did see him finish fourth in the 400-metre individual medley, at least I saw him swim. I saw Ireland's Katie Taylor box. I saw her box a Brit, too, the crowd screaming with the passion of a real ancient rivalry, the Irish fans signing.
And for me, the finale was Saturday night. Somehow I snagged a seat in the third row at Olympic Stadium, about 25 yards from the finish line, for the final night of athletics. I saw Mo Farah win gold for Great Britain. No, I heard Mo Farah win gold for Great Britain. As he raced to the finish line in the 5,000 metres, the roar just rose and rose and rose, as if someone put static on the stereo and just kept turning up the dial.
I saw Usain Bolt run. I told myself not to try to take a picture, to just stop and stare and absorb the sight as he ran right in front of me on the anchor leg of the 4x100-metre relay. But I couldn't help myself. I held my camera, held it still, waited, waited, waited and pressed the shutter button, hoping to capture the moment as proof that I had been where I was, that I had seen this with my own eyes, that I was one of the lucky few.
When I looked down at the digital image, I had to laugh. It was a blur.
The whole thing was.
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