Tonight, a familiar tune will echo through our television sets once again. NBC anchor Bob Costas will come on the air, as he has since 1992. The torch will come though the stadium tunnel and end a 106-day journey by lighting a vibrant flame. For many, the Olympic Games represent world-wide solidarity, peace and hope. For many athletes, the Games also represent years of arduous work, sacrifice and dreams deferred and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
For much of my adult life, the Olympic Games and I had a tenuous relationship. I played many sports before I found the hammer throw — I was a swimmer and hurdler in high school and started competing (seriously, anyway) in track and field as a freshman at the University of Vermont. There, I threw against an Olympic shot putter, Ramona Pagel, who, as a teammate and training partner of mine once put it, could probably out-sprint any of the sprinters on our Division I college team. I never thought I would be able to rank myself in the same category as she.
After college and graduate school I returned to my home state of Connecticut to begin a full-time career as a high school English teacher. I figured it would be fun to continue to throw a little here and there when time allowed, but my coach Bill Sutherland, who coached at Yale between 1986 and 1988, had other expectations. My training quickly became a second career. We trained 11 months a year, five to six days per week. The goal was to master the event — one that takes as much skill as brawn; as much grace as brute strength; as much mental patience as physical athleticism — and become the best thrower around.
With Bill’s help, over the next few years I established myself as one of the contenders for the 2000 Olympic Team. To qualify for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team an athlete has to both achieve the qualifying mark set by the International Olympic Committee in her event and place in the top three at the Olympic Trials (held five or six weeks before the Olympic Games). Going in to the 2000 Olympic Trials I had a plan: I would qualify for the Olympics, compete in Sydney, Australia, retire from competition, get married the following summer (I became engaged in 1999 but put the wedding off because of the Games) and start a family. Sometimes, however, the best laid plans don’t always work out as expected. That year, I placed in the dreaded fourth place at the Olympic Trials. I had to sit home and watch the Games with everyone else, on television.
Shortly thereafter, I refocused my goals, worrying less about qualifying for the Olympics and more about becoming best thrower I could. It worked. Over the next few years, I became the national champion, the national record holder and a World Championship Team member; in 2003, I was ranked in the top seven in the world in the women’s hammer throw. Finally, in 2004, I placed second at the U.S. Olympic Trials and qualified for my first (and only) Olympic Games.
When I think about the Games, the thing I remember most is the Opening Ceremonies. I remember hanging out for hours with athletes from around the world as we waited our turn to participate in the Ceremonies. I remember calling my husband from my cell phone as I walked through the tunnel with the other U.S. Olympians in to the Olympic Stadium (it was 9 p.m. in Greece but 3 p.m in Connecticut; Sean was gardening). I remember taking pictures of the 65,000 spectators, just as they were taking pictures of us.
The Olympics is a time when the whole world stops to watch, on one level or another. Every Olympian has a story filled with triumph and anguish; a story that mimics the ebbs and flows of life. When people find out that I’m an Olympian, they often ask if I won medal. I didn’t. Usually people follow with, “Well, at least you were there.” When I first returned home after finishing 24th out of 50 competitors, this comment sounded sort of pitiful to me.
But now, two children, six years and three Olympics later, I am glad to have participated, And tonight, after a day of teaching high school students and coaching Yale athletes, I’ll turn on my television, hear the horns of “Bugler’s Dream,” see athletes march beneath their flag and be proud to be able to call myself an Olympian.
Anna Mahon is an assistant track and field coach at Yale. She competed in the 2004 Olympic Games.