Opening ceremonies bring back Olympic memories | Melanie Roach

Melanie Roach competes during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  - Courtesy photo
Melanie Roach competes during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

The anticipation of this years’ Olympic Opening Ceremony brought back a flood of emotion for my family, coach and me. We watched in awe as the celebration began and remembered with great fondness our experience just four years ago.

I felt the best way to help others experience what the Opening Ceremony is like from an athlete’s perspective is to share an excerpt from my book coming out in September - “LIFT… Enjoying the Journey of Your Life.”

IT WAS A BIG RISK. But it was a chance of a lifetime, so it was a risk I was willing to take. Here I was representing my country in the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, an experience that only a tiny percentage of Americans would ever have; how could I not walk in the opening ceremonies? The only problem was, in less than 36 hours, I would be in the thick of competing, and in order to do my very best, I needed to stay off my legs as much as possible. But by the same token, I felt that walking in the opening ceremonies with Team USA was almost as much a part of participating in the Olympics as actually competing. Ever since I could remember I’d watch these opening ceremonies on the television and feel my heart yearning for the day that I, too, might be walking proud in my red, white and blue.

And so, at the very last second, I outfitted myself in my official United States of America 2008 Olympic uniform, jumped on a bus that was filled with other Team USA athletes, and rode out towards the opening ceremony’s venue. The bus took us straight to the Gymnastics Stadium, which served as a holding tank for us, as well as the thousands of other world athletes. They lined us up country by country, in alphabetical order, and there we all waited for our country’s turn to be led to Beijing’s National Stadium, colloquially known as “the Bird’s Nest,” and walk in the opening parade.

By now, it was evening and the sky was mostly dark, but make no mistake: nighttime in Beijing during the summer can still be incredibly hot! The temperature was a whopping 95 degrees with high humidity, and the smog was thick enough to slice. There were 596 athletes in the US delegation, and we were all in our identical Ralph Lauren designed outfits of long, cream-colored pants, a navy blazer over a long-sleeved white shirt, a red, white and navy striped scarf, and a white pageboy cap. We certainly looked sharp and classically American, but we also were very, very hot. I laugh now when I think about Team USA, standing there waiting for nearly five hours, totally overdressed, and sweating like crazy.

Finally, it was the United States’ turn to enter the stadium. The entirety of Team USA zigzagged from the Gymnastics Stadium towards the National Stadium, and was led to a tunnel, very similar to the inclined tunnel of a football stadium. It was from here that we’d enter the arena. The atmosphere was electric, and by now I was so filled with anticipation, I’d forgotten how hot it was. Because of the upward slope, I could see an enormous American flag waving at the entry point, and just before Team USA was to begin spilling out into the stadium, all 596 of us began chanting, “USA! USA! USA!” The sound of our unison voices made my body tingle with emotion, and all I could think about was how incredibly proud I was to be an American.

I was nearer to the back of the team, and the closer I came to the mouth of the tunnel, the louder the chanting became, until I emerged into the vast open stadium. It took my breath away to hear the thunderous chants from the 91,000 spectators as they, too, were shouting in unison: “USA! USA! USA! USA!”

There are no words to fully describe how it felt to walk around that stadium, waving to people from all over the world, as I represented my nation at the 2008 Summer Olympics. I breathed in the moment, looked into the stands, and smiled at as many people as I could make eye contact with. This was, without a doubt, the most patriotic experience of my life...and well worth any risk of being on my legs so much before a competition. That night I fell asleep so happy I’d made the choice to be a participant.

Melanie Roach finished sixth in the 117-pound division of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Her combined lifts set an American racord.  She owns Roach Gymnastics in Sumner.

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