Nashua Olympian describes her experience in Athens

EDITOR’S NOTE: Nashua’s Laura Gerraughty, a shot-putter on the U.S. track and field team, has been sharing her experiences leading up to her participation in the Athens Olympics in this journal.

ATHENS – Thanks (or no thanks) to the wonder of earplugs, I passed out last Wednesday night after my arrival here in Athens and rose from the dead 11 hours later, early Thursday afternoon. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem, except that I will compete at 8:30 in the morning Wednesday. That meant all early morning workouts to get ready. Ugh!

Thursday afternoon was spent practicing and running errands – getting a cell phone to call home, picking up my track and field team uniform, and ironing out details so my coach can be with me in Olympia while I practice and compete. I had hoped to tire myself out early so I could get some rest before my 8 a.m. bus to the practice site the next morning. However, even after taking a census of all of the sheep on the European continent, I still only managed to snooze for about 20 minutes before my Friday morning workout.

By three in the afternoon, I was resorting to large doses of caffeine (or as large as I am allowed by doping control standards) to stay awake. I was beginning to wonder how I would survive until the five o’clock bus to Opening Ceremonies, let alone be on my feet for seven hours afterward.

Two hours later, that question was answered, as I experienced a high far greater than any chemical could possibly provide. I can’t begin to describe the sight of more than 300 athletes, of all shapes and sizes, all united for one goal by their uniform of red, white and blue. Everyone chattered excitedly and snapped pictures while we waited to board the bus. Of course, all of the University of North Carolina alums got together for a group photo.

The excitement mounted as we arrived at the stadium. We took our place in a block of seats in the indoor arena that houses men’s gymnastics. I watched as the seats filled steadily, the colors of each country’s parade uniforms forming a mosaic in the stands. Somebody started the wave, and we got it to go around the building four times. It was sort of like being at an international football game.

The one downside to participating in the ceremony was that we didn’t get to watch much of it. A video screen in the top corner of the gym played the television broadcast, so we wouldn’t miss it completely. I think when the flame lit the Olympic rings over the water, everyone in the building got chills. I know I did.

After the start of the ceremony, a separate screen across from the first scrolled lists of countries with their respective 30- and 10-minute warnings. After what felt like an eternity (but was not as long as it could have been, thanks to the decision to follow the Greek alphabet instead of ours), we were finally called to the door to line up. I called my friend Amy to tell her that we were getting ready to go out, even though it was only 1:30 p.m. her time and the broadcast would not be aired for another few hours there. She squealed with excitement and promised to tape it for me later that night.

Every athlete I’ve talked to who has ever been in an Olympic Games has told me nothing can compare to the feeling of standing in the tunnel, waiting to go out into the stadium during Opening Ceremonies. Through the end, you can barely see the packed stands. A voice booms out over the cheers, announcing each country’s name. And then . . . “Les Etats Unis, the United States of America.” The crowd explodes anew in screams and applause. The stands bloom with the Stars and Stripes.

We were admonished by the USA Chef de Mission to keep our rows of eight, as instructed by the video screen when we entered, and not wander off with our friends or try to find the television cameras.

However, despite repeated head counts and rearrangements beforehand, we emerged as an amorphous blob. Still cameras clicked and video cameras rolled continuously as just about every athlete tried to capture this moment on film.

Once we made our lap, we were directed to the center of the stadium, and as other countries lined up in front of us, we lost sight of the proceedings at the periphery. I watched the bird’s-eye view of the rest of the procession on the video screen at the end of the stadium, secretly taking joy in the other amorphous blobs that followed behind us. Hah! We aren’t the only country that can’t walk in straight lines.

Those of you who saw the program on TV already know how wonderful it was. For a country that supposedly wasn’t prepared, Greece put on a spectacular show, a creative mix of the inseparably intertwined Olympic and Hellenic histories. While we waited for the other countries to file in, I called my coach from the stadium floor.

For that one moment, two generations of Olympic experiences were linked, and we added our own chapter to the history of these Games. I made no effort to hold back the tears that rolled down my cheeks throughout that night as I soaked in the greatest moment of my life.

As the ceremony and my camera film drew toward the end, I was bound and determined to get a picture of the flame carrier lighting the torch, despite my obstructed view. I solicited the aid of my racewalker friend, sitting her on my shoulders for almost 10 minutes so she could get the perfect shot.

No matter how the picture came out, I know the picture will remain fixed in my mind for a lifetime.

As my coach put it, I earned the Opening Ceremonies, and my job that night was to do nothing but enjoy them.

The work began the next day.

This is the proper order, for now I am so inspired that I could move mountains.

Nashua High School graduate Laura Gerraughty is a student at the University of North Carolina.