citius, altius, fortius (10 years ago)

Ten years ago, this month, I stood on a hill at 4:30 in the morning, wearing my skis and uniform, carrying a shovel over my shoulder, and pushed off down a slope lit only by moonlight and the occasional spark that shot off one of my friend’s ski edges.

Yup: I volunteered at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Utah.

My official position there was FIELD-OF-PLAY | SPORT | ALPINE SKIING | SNOWBASIN – quite a mouthful. What it meant is that I was part of the course crew at the Alpine Skiing speed venue at Snowbasin, Utah, about an hour north-northeast of Salt Lake City (my hometown). My job was to help keep a section of the women’s downhill, super-G and combined slalom course as fair as can be from racer to racer. It involved buffing snow, setting up and maintaining safety fencing, and making sure that my colleagues were all on the same page, and that we, in turn, were on the same page as the chief-of-race.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And there were hundreds of us on the mountain for these events.

It meant getting up at 2:30 in the morning on event days (3:30 on training days), meeting my carpool to drive up to a remote parking lot around 10 miles from Snowbasin, hopping on a bus (often a loaner WMATA MetroBus) still bleary eyed, getting off at the resort, going through “mag-and-bag” supervised by the National Guard, meeting my crew chief and fellow crew members in the base lodge, putting on my ski boots, grabbing my skis from overnight storage, hopping on the lift at 4:20am (5:20 on training days), getting to the summit, grabbing a shovel or rake (or sometimes 2 or 3), and skiing in the dark to my section of course.

As my course section was smack dab in the middle of the mountain, my crew didn’t have the luxury of skiing under the floodlights that covered the venue. We skied “by feel” down to our section and immediately got to work on the day’s task. We moved fences. We shoveled snow. We boot-packed loose snow, then raked and shoveled it into a smooth consistency. We talked with coaches and officials from all over the world (I had a “side business” of trading official start lists with coaches, in exchange for unique and rare pins). We would occasionally get to talk with athletes (including Picabo Street, an old mate from junior racing days).

And we had a TON of fun.

We did this for two weeks straight, as our events vied for time with the figure skating, hockey, bobsled, luge, curling, nordic skiing, jumping, biathlon and other events. Our work day was usually wrapped up by 3pm, so the volunteers could take advantage of what the Olympics had to offer from an entertainment standpoint.

And there was a lot to do during this “downtime!”

Downtown Salt Lake City was transformed into a 24-7 party. Concerts were held in conjunction with the medal ceremonies. Each Olympic committee from each participating nation had its own “house” with food, drink and festivities. The locals were almost all in good spirits (even those who fought, tooth and nail, to prevent the Games from coming to SLC), and the out-of-towners each brought their own enthusiasm to the mix.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been looking at my box of memorabilia from the Games. I still have the uniform, even if it’s a bit too big these days (I discovered long-distance road cycling in the intervening years). I have a large pin collection, populated not only with team pins but also pins that refer to Utah’s quirks, as well as ones that were only issued to the volunteers. I still have the commemorative watch, though I need to get its band repaired. I have a stack of newspapers from the Games and the previous year’s World Cup, where I also volunteered. I have a couple of “spectator kits” from the opening and closing ceremonies (neither of which I attended, though I was at the dress rehearsal for the opening ceremony). There’s a pile of ticket stubs from various events and concerts I attended. And I have a lovely bronze medallion, minted by the same jeweler who made the athletes’ medals – it’s lovely.

You can see pictures snapped by my fellow volunteer, John Risley, here (I’ll also be posting pictures of other memorabilia in this set – keep checking for that). And just to show that I still have (and occasionally wear) the uniform, click here.

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