London 2012: Through the eyes of an American college student

Though I got to know London while studying abroad there this past spring, it was a completely different city when my family touched down on July 25th. The first major change I encountered was the Olympic lane, which ran all through the city from Heathrow to the Olympic Park and beyond. Meant only for official Olympic vehicles, it managed to cause traffic for anyone else. While it took my family over an hour to get to the Soho Hotel, where we stayed for two weeks, we were lucky enough to use the Olympic lane for the Opening Ceremony on July 27th.

Starting off our trip with the Opening Ceremony was maybe the most incredible vacation experience of my life. We only managed to get the tickets the day before. Luckily, my parents managed to secure the tickets, which came with an Olympic vehicle for the journey there and a sit down dinner right before the show. Seated at our table was a man from Hong Kong and two couples, one from London and the other from Singapore. It was amazing to meet and share a bond with people from all over the world before this historic event in such a friendly and multinational environment. We had a delicious dinner and eventually made our way past a display of old torches into Olympic Stadium – a daunting structure – which was absolute chaos. We hurriedly found our seats as it started to rain.

The Opening Ceremony was mind-blowing, beigninng with the flyover of fighter jets spewing red, white, and blue smoke. They brought out several people to warm up the crowd as actors dressed like 18th century peasants filled the grassy stage in front of us. My favorite pre-show performer was Frank Turner, a British folk singer with a gorgeous voice. We were given a tutorial of how to move lights positioned in front of every seat, so the television audience would see a light show in the stands. I still don’t know what that looked like on TV, but it looked pretty cool from the other side of the stadium. We had “Mechanicals” in every aisle – performers who led the audience in the light show and activities like tossing a giant beach ball and moving pieces of blue silk down over the crowd. I assume the name was a nod to Shakespeare, just as Kenneth Branagh’s speech from “The Tempest” honored the prolific writer. While I heard some backlash from Brits complaining that the Opening Ceremony was too liberal, multicultural, and critical of England’s development as a nation, I thought it was beautiful and actually showed respect and admiration for the country. Danny Boyle venerated the accomplishments of Great Britain, especially in industry, literature, music, and pop culture. My personal favorite moments were Kenneth Branagh’s monologue (I’m a Shakespeare buff), J.K. Rowling’s reading (I may have teared up when they announced her), and getting to sing along with Paul McCartney as he belted out “Hey Jude.” The whole night was an experience I will never, ever forget.

The next day we eased into the Games with Table Tennis. The matches were held in the ExCel North Arena, a much smaller venue, with four games going on at a time. My family sat right behind American phenom Ariel Hsing as she beat China, although both of them qualified for the finals later that day. NBC broadcast our smiling faces, and our friends at home took screen shots. It was exciting to know that we could be seen as representatives of our fellow Americans watching at home. We became very spirited after that, buying official Team USA gear from the USA shop at the Team House. Americans were very patriotic all around, no matter who was competing. It was really heartwarming to see our flag at nearly every event, and to meet people in the streets of London who would call out “USA!” when they saw our outfits. It made me proud of our country and its people. I just wish I had been in the States to see the events I couldn’t attend in person – obviously, they have the BBC in the UK, and therefore it was all British newscasters interviewing British athletes. If there wasn’t a Brit on the medal stand, they didn’t show the ceremony, and the only American athlete they interviewed was Michael Phelps. That was the one thing I missed.

On July 29th my sisters and I went to Swimming at the Aquatics Centre, praying we’d see Michael Phelps. Though he didn’t compete in that series of events, we did spot him later in the Games. Swimming was incredibly fun, especially since there were a lot of British athletes competing. The British audience was remarkably spirited, making each event with a British competitor more entertaining just because of the cheering. There were so many Brits in the audience at almost every event; you couldn’t help cheering along with them. And there was never any tension at the Games; everyone showed their support and held off from bashing one another, at least while watching. It was an easygoing, fun atmosphere.

For several events we could only get three tickets, so there had to be some negotiating between family members. This was especially frustrating when we saw how many empty seats there were at each event. This problem was later solved by giving the seats to students and members of the armed forces, who were easily spotted in blocks of camouflage. In fact, security around Olympic Park was managed by members of the Armed Forces, all in uniform. It was airport style-security to the extreme; no liquids or gels allowed inside. Though it added about 15 minutes of travel, I felt very safe.

I went sightseeing while my dad and sisters saw Diving. We also saw Women’s Basketball, Team GB versus Canada, and though Team GB lost it was quite entertaining to be at such a close game (they lost by eight points in the final minutes). The only trouble with Basketball is that the arena, though inside Olympic Park, was an hour walk away from the entrance. The Park was so large; it took forever to get from one side to the other, so we often had to allow extra time to get to each event. We also set aside a time to visit the Coca-Cola Beatbox: a red, instrumental structure where you could walk all around and hear noises of the games, such as breathing, water splashing, and feet running. It was a fun activity, with spectacular views at the top.

Later on, we saw the preliminaries of Track and Field and Beach Volleyball, both of which were very intense. I saw the first female athlete from Qatar injure herself at the very beginning of her race and sit down defeated, right in front of me. It’s that kind of tragedy contrasted with the victories of someone like Jessica Ennis, a Team GB member who outperformed every other athlete to an astonishing degree, that truly make the Olympics so outstanding. It’s a stage where the entire world performs and competes.

Before each Olympic event, there’s a pre-show to get the audience going. At Beach Volleyball they had dancers and a DJ, at swimming they play montages and do audience interviews, and at gymnastics they had gymnasts performing a sort of dance routine followed by displays on each apparatus. This was followed by the video they played before every Olympic event, a montage of past Olympics footage set to the official song of the Olympics, “Survival” by Muse. If you haven’t seen that video, look it up on YouTube immediately. It’s amazing.

Beach Volleyball was probably the lightest event we went to, complete with bikini-clad dancers and a DJ. The arena was outside the Olympic Park in the center of London, and much smaller than the others. However, as entertaining as it might have been for us, it was all concentration for the athletes.

My two favorite events were seeing Michael Phelps swim and the Women’s Gymnastics Team Final. We got to see Michael Phelps swim the qualifications round of the 100-meter butterfly, and though he didn’t win, he was spectacular to watch. The way his body moves is astounding; he really looks like a fish in the water, so sinuous and so fast. But the most striking moment was right after his heat, when Ryan Lochte was swimming in his own round. We looked across the arena and Michael Phelps was standing alone in a corner, watching his supposed rival get a better score than him. He looked so vulnerable in that moment, it was incredible and shocking to see who we now know as the most successful Olympian of all time experiencing nerves, maybe even doubt. It seemed like no one noticed him, and as soon as Lochte finished, Phelps retreated back into the inner realms of the arena.

The Women’s Artistic Gymnastics final was, along with the Opening Ceremony, the highlight of my Olympics trip. Again, we had only three tickets, so my sisters and I went to the separate venue and were surprised to see how small everything looked. I discovered that at the Olympics, pretty much everything is smaller than it appears on TV. Of course, this made the competition even more impressive, to see just how compact the gymnasts had to make their bodies and how much movement they had to pack into the small spaces. They announced that the balance beam is the same width as a smart phone, which officially made me nervous.

Finally, the gymnasts entered: two teams per apparatus per round. It was at times difficult to watch because there was so much going on at once. However, we got to see the American athletes triumph again and again on each apparatus. They were paired with Russia on the vault, the balance beam, the uneven bars, and finally on the floor, and we were neck-and-neck. Gabrielle Douglas on the uneven bars was truly a marvel, as was McKayla Maroney’s near perfect vault. The Russians were first on the floor exercise, the final rotation of the event, with everything on the line. They were doing fairly well with a few slip-ups, and world champion Ksenia Afanasyeva was set to finish. She was beautiful and powerful; I was little anxious about our chances. But in her last move, Afanasyeva fell onto her knees, then her face, and rolled onto her back. Her teammates gasped in horror and almost immediately started crying. My sisters and I watched her leave the floor, and as her coach met her, she burst into tears. As much as I wanted Team USA to win, it was heartbreaking to watch her and her teammates, their dreams crushed and unable to escape the hordes of cameras.

But, the Olympic Games must go on. Team USA took the floor and rocked it. We were seated a row down from Jordyn Wieber’s sisters, who were so nervous they were clutching each other, barely breathing but simultaneously screaming. The gymnasts were breathtaking, and Aly Raisman performing to Hava Nagila as the closer was incredibly meaningful in light of the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre. This whole event held much personal significance for me, as the first Olympics I really remember watching were the 1996 Games in Atlanta, when the Magnificent Seven were the first ever USA team champions. This year, the Fierce Five were the second, and I feel lucky and honored to have witnessed them win. And then to stand there, hand over heart, singing the national anthem as our flag was raised to the sky – it was a moment I will be telling my grandkids about, I’m sure.

The Olympics were an incredible experience for me and my family, the kind of trip that comes around once in a lifetime.  I will forever be grateful to my parents for giving us this trip, and to the athletes and the IOC, who made it so memorable. The motto for London 2012 was “inspire a generation,” and they certainly succeeded.

A version of this story appeared in the Aug. 26 print edition. Stacy Shirk is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected]