RIO DE JANEIRO – I imagine this is the final time I’ll ever type that dateline. Soon, I’ll be on a flight back home to the good old United States. I’ll miss the Marvelous City, despite its many flaws, and will look back on this as one of my favorite Olympics.
An Olympics has a relentless momentum that carries you along from one amazing event to the next. But I must admit, I would trade it all to have attended just one of the Tragically Hip’s farewell concerts and bid goodbye to the great Gord Downie.
The Hip tour served as a sort of soundtrack to my Olympics. I wasn’t at the shows, but the songs played in my head. I read all the wonderful tributes to Downie and the band, especially the typically excellent stuff from Jeff Miers.
Jeff had me crying at the end of his review of the Hamilton show. Downie, who has terminal brain cancer, came out alone and told his fans it had been a lot of fun, and that memories of that night wouldn’t last longer than the images being recorded on their cell phones.
After a pause, Downie said, “But, uh, it will be the little feelings here and there that pop up. OK?”
That’s where it really got me. I feel the same way about the Olympics. You rush through the moments, trying to chronicle every event for posterity. But it’s the little things that stay with you. They pop up, reminding you how lucky you were to share a rare and wonderful experience.
Every now and then, I close my eyes and see the Alps in France in 1992, or the Bosnian woman straining to finish a race for her war-torn country in 1996, or the happy Norwegians climbing the hill to watch the big cross country race in 1994.
This time, it was Elma’s Jake Kaminski, ever-gracious in defeat, remembering his late sister, Liz, and bowing three times to the Koreans after their stunning win in team archery.
It’s little things like Hayley Oleksiak, sitting up in Block 220, Row S of the aquatic center with her brother Jamie, telling me “Oh yeah, you can have a piece of her.” Her little sister, Penny, was the star of the games for Canada. Their dad, Richard, is a Buffalo native and Nichols sports Hall of Famer.
It’s seeing the Gandhi statue in the square when I leave the hotel in the morning; the graffiti on the wall saying “Mais Amor” (more love); it’s women wrestlers talking about showing young girls they can be anything they want to be in life.
Little things. After a Taekwondo press conference, the U.S. press officer stuck out his hand and said he read my stuff on the Bills all the time. Bill Kellick, a Lewiston native, has been working Olympic PR for the U.S. for 20 years. He’s been the press guy for archery, boxing, speed skating, and half a dozen others.
Kellick’s late father, William, was a family court judge in Niagara County and three-sport college athlete at Holy Cross. Bill talked about going to Bisons games with his dad and playing Strat-o-Matic with him. I was beaming about that one.
Then Bill handed his cell phone to one of the other USOC press folks and had him shoot our photo together. I had them take one on my phone, too. Two Buffalo guys hanging out in Rio. He shares my skepticism about the Bills, by the way.
It’s Emily Regan bursting into tears in the mixed zone after becoming the first Buffalo rower ever to win gold. Later, on the medal stand, one of her teammates in the eight gestured toward the Christ The Redeemer statue, high above the lake on Corcovado Mountain.
There was a lot of crying in Rio, and a lot of the Redeemer. You could see it from almost everywhere, from stadiums and city squares and hotel rooftops. I’ll probably find myself searching for it over Buffalo at some point.
Sometimes, it’s the things you never get around to writing. Stephen Lamdin was on 17 U.S. national teams before finally making the Olympics in Taekwondo. Steve Lopez, who has been to five, told Lamdin making it would hit him when he least expected.
Lamdin said it was true. He broke down and cried like a baby in a hotel room months later. His mother called and asked what was wrong. “I made the Olympics!” he sobbed. “Yeah, it was in March,” she replied.
At one point, I must confess, I lost my objectivity. Jenn Suhr came down to talk for about two minutes last Tuesday in her hotel, barely able to speak. After she got back into the elevator, I realized her husband, Rick, one of the toughest guys I’ve ever met, was crying. I choked up a little bit, too.
Jordan Burroughs was talking in the preliminary wrestling presser when he looked down at me and said. “You’re Sully, right?” His wife, Lauren, a Buffalo native, had told him to look out for me. He said he’d recently visited Buffalo and would love to settle down in our town -- if not for the weather.
I had to go to golf, of course. After interviewing Aditi Ashok, the best Indian women’s golfer ever, I saw my wife, Melinda, pointing animatedly at a middle-aged woman near the mixed zone. It was Champika Sayal, who has devoted most of her life to promoting women’s golf in India.
What a look of joy on that woman’s face when Ashok came over to the rail after shooting a second straight 68! Wouldn’t you know it, the first Olympic event she ever attended and Melinda nailed the lead.
It was the proud, happy Brazilians singing the national anthem in the restaurant after their men’s soccer team won Olympic gold for the first time. The country’s star striker, Neymar, was sobbing after the win.
The Brazilian women’s soccer team didn’t win gold, but we were in a little bar when they beat Sweden in a shootout. The transmission on the TV set in the corner kept going on the fritz. We’d see a shot, then the TV would go off. After three or four times, it came back in time for us to see Brazil’s goalie make the winning save.
All of a sudden, we were jumping up and down in the bar, rattling the Caipirinhas on the tables, like a bunch of little kids. For a few moments, I was Brazilian.
As always, the final event was basketball. After a long Olympics, I get to do my favorite thing in the business, cover some hoops. The U.S. men won easily, giving Mike Krzyzewski, the best hoop coach of all time, his third gold medal.
Coach K, who will give way to Gregg Popovich as national coach, has now won 10 major titles: Five NCAA championships with Duke, three Olympic golds and two World Championships. He’s won seven of them after age 60, proving that Americans can achieve marvelous things later in their careers.
The last question for Krzyzewski was what a coach brings back from an Olympics. They coach players to gold medals, but don’t actually win them. Coach K said USA Basketball gets them their own medals, at least he thinks they’re gold.
“The main thing is all the memories,” Krzyzewski said. “Seven of my nine grandchildren were here. It’s been a blessing. The nights before the last three games, I’ve had a chance to eat with my grandchildren, my daughters, my wife. For them to share this has been a joy. I’ve been so lucky.”
It’s those memories, those little feelings that pop up here and there, that stick with you forever and remind you truly lucky you’ve been.