What are you most thankful for?
By Greta Neimanas
In the spirit of the holiday, and the obligatory “What are you most thankful for?” questions, someone recently asked me what sports moment I was most grateful for this year. This moment was not only the highlight of my season but athletic career; it wasn’t during competition or even on the bike. London was my second Paralympic Games and second march into the stadium. Despite having been to “The Show” before, I was not prepared in the slightest for what happened in the London stadium.
The parade of nations is one of the most breathtaking events an athlete can be part of. Not only are there 80,000 people in a stadium watching you, there are fireworks going off, laser light shows, music blasting, dancers, and hundreds of cameras and broadcast lights all over. There is so much sensory stimulation you don’t know what to do. While all of this is going on, it hits you- you’re at the Games! Everything you’ve done in the past four, six, even ten years has led to that moment, to stepping through the palpable wave of emotion and noise into the stadium.
The moment when you walk into the stadium with your best friends- your teammates who are more family than anything- the people you’ve cried tears of pain, sadness and joy with, that you’ve shared successes and failures with, that you’ve experienced some of the best moments of your life with, is when you realize that it’s all real. All of it is real, you’re not dreaming and you’ve made it. You’ve all been through the wringer to make the team and you’re finally there. It’s a whirlwind of emotions to start with and then, and then add on what’s about to happen next.
Walking through the stadium, we spotted a giant, American flag hanging over the second balcony. We waved to the people and then looked closer. The people standing behind the flag, waving madly back at us, were wearing very distinctive USA clothes- an 18” stovepipe American flag hat, flag pants, flag shirts. It was one of my best friend’s family. I’m not a statistician by any means and even I know that the odds of finding loved ones in an ocean of people is nearly impossible. Tears welled up, knees felt as structurally sound as jelly and there was a lump in my throat the size of a baseball. I have chills writing about it now. We held up the line of athletes and didn’t care a single lick. Seeing his family flooded me with emotions and reminded me of all the sacrifices they and every athlete’s family made for their athlete to get to the Games. It’s as much hard work and sacrifice on their part as it is ours, often more.
My family was unable to attend the Beijing games for financial reasons; it was less than a month after the death of my father. Their presence in London meant the world to me. Without seeing them in the stadium, I could feel that they were there with us.
The day after the ceremony, I talked to my family who was in the stadium, only to learn that we looked and waved directly to them too without realizing it. (Between tears, a perma-grin, and the lights we couldn’t make out their faces.) Had I known it was them, I would’ve been a complete mess. It was a group effort getting to the Games and I wouldn’t have been there without them.
After that night in the stadium, I knew whatever happened at the Games was what it was and I could go home happy. Sharing such a powerful moment with people who have played enormous roles in our journey to the Games is something I will cherish forever.
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Realizing who we were waving to.