It's been a hectic but amazing couple of days here in China. Friday morning we woke early for a seven o'clock bus to the airport. Sailors filled almost four touring buses and piled into a chartered 767 and took off for the massive Beijing Capitol Airport. We arrived at about 11 and were ushered off the plane onto more buses bound for the monstrous Olympic Village, 45 minutes to the west.
The village is currently home for the of the 10,000 athletes competing in Beijing. A short stint in security and we were into one the wonders of modern athletics. The place consists of about fifty 10-story apartment clusters interspersed with grassy parks, wooden walkways over running fountains and ponds.
The rooms are quite bare compared with the plush pre-Intercontinental Hotel digs that we have in Qingdao, but with air conditioning any accommodation is paradise in Beijing. The air for the 24 hours we were there was stagnant, thick with humidity and nearly 90 degrees. It was a battle to keep from sweating through your shirt when you first stepped out of the buildings.
After checking into our apartments in block A-11 we hit the dining hall for what turned out to be quite an experience. The place is at least twice as big as the massive dining hall we had in Rio for the Pan Am Games and the real kicker is the variety in the food. Where the village in Qindao's got a couple of short buffets and fresh breads, the dining hall in Beijing's got different kitchens for Asian, Mediterranean, Western, Salad, Fruit, Sandwich, breads, desserts, and a full-size McDonald's on top of that. Every vending machine inside any Olympic zone has free coke, diet coke, sprite, powerade, water… you name it. There is so much food, I think most people are having a hard time keeping weight off that they'd tried to lose going into the Games.
After checking out the dining halls, Austin Sperry (Star crew), Donnie Brennan (our boatwright), Charlie Ogletree (Tornado crew), and Graham Biehl (470 crew) and I cruised the rest of the village checking out the massive foosball hall, the public swimming pool and some of the international zone before we got showered and dressed up for the Opening Ceremonies. We had to be at the USA dorms by 5 o'clock for another set of buses to take the entire US team that would attend the Opening Ceremonies to a staging area at the Fencing stadium.
The fun stuff started as soon as we got to mix it up with the other US athletes. Austin was in his element taking photos with any and every star athlete you can imagine. It was really a thrill for everybody involved. We were situated by team around the fencing platform and the sailors were next to some fencers and the soccer team. Freddie Adu is a pretty short guy, especially when Tyson Gay (100 meter sprinter) is standing beside him for a photo swap. The star-studded basketball team entered after we did, Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Coach K and assistant Coach Boehime.
After about twenty minutes, the room quieted down and the Delegation Leader came over the microphone to introduce the 41st and the 43rd Presidents of the United States George H.W. Bush as well as George W. Bush. The President spoke off the cuff wishing all of us good luck and telling us how proud he was to be here to join us for the Opening Ceremonies. That night he would be the first sitting US President to ever attend an Olympic Games outside of the United States, showing the commitment of his administration to Olympism in America. I think regardless of your political views you have to respect Mr Bush's support of this year's team.
He took a picture with each team taking a moment to shake everybody's hand and chat with each group. He recognized the fact that Sarah Merganthaler and I had already met him only weeks ago at the White House. I had a Forest Gump moment, 'And then I met the President… again.' Mr Bush asked us whether the algae was gone from the sailing areas, and upon hearing our answer that it had indeed been cleaned up thanks to thousands of volunteers he replied 'I've got a couple of bass-lakes in mind that they could help me out with!'
As the rest of the teams were wrapping up their pictures, we were allowed to mingle around the venue. I was able to shake former President George H.W. Bush's hand and take a photo with the current First Lady. We chatted with George W's brother Marvin for a short while because he had been seated with Sarah during the State dinner a few weeks ago. I chatted with the Advance Officer from the White House team whom I had been seated next to as well as the Chief of Staff to the US Ambassador in Beijing, who was nice enough to introduce me to the Ambassador and his wife. The entire hour around the Presidential meeting was quite an amazing start to this Olympic experience.
At about 7 o'clock we headed to the Gymnastics stadium down the road, a building about the size of the Verizon Center in Washington, DC to join the other 180 teams that were rallying for the march into the Birds Nest Stadium. Each section of the stadium was filled with different colored patches of blue or red or yellow or white depending on the countries' different uniforms. Ours were Polo brand blue jackets with white pants, a tie, and white caps.
My comment made the morning's USA Today Newspaper where it was reported as 'First-time Olympian Andrew Campbell, 24, a sailor from San Diego, is 'thankful' Lauren and the USOC decided to hark back to 'a really clean-cut, classic American look' devoid of any 'silly cowboy hats or berets.' Having spent his private high school days in ties and slacks, Campbell is accustomed to such polish. 'With that USA team patch on your chest with those white rings underneath, it's a pretty powerful symbol,' he says, referring to the blazer.'
We were called into the stadium one by one after the ceremonies were under way. Its actually quite funny because all the US Sailing Team members who stayed in Qingdao to rest up for racing the next day actually saw more of the performance than we did. We heard the fireworks inside the stadium but didn't see anything until we walked through the tunnel and into the infield of the stadium. I had been sitting next to the three 800 meter runners from Oregon who won in such dynamic fashion at their Olympic trials last month, but once we got walking through the maze of local Chinese volunteers into that stadium the group mixed up very quickly.
The sailors tried to keep to the right hand side of the group so we could see the crowd once inside the stadium, and we happened to be right near Kobe Bryant some other high profile players. The entire crowd was chanting for Kobe as we went into the tunnel. I walked through with a heavyweight boxer who looked a bit like LeBron James, and the volunteers kept wanting to take pictures with him and were a bit shocked when it wasn't LeBron. We joked at one point about how he should just start saying he was LeBron and stood in for him the rest of the night.
Walking out of the tunnel with the roar of 90,000 people and 80 heads of state looking on was the thrill of a lifetime. Dean Brenner (our team leader), Graham, Nancy Rios (women's RSX) and I walked close to the outside of the track for our lap around the stadium. President and Mrs Bush stood and waved to the group, pointing and acknowledging our tip of the hat as we passed by. The four hundred or more American athletes who marched were probably outdone by numerous pockets of American fans holding flags and waving voraciously as we passed and waved back.
We stood on the infield for another couple of hours as the ceremonies progressed. The lighting of the torch was more overwhelming than I expected. I was in awe with the power of that symbol. The round-the-world trip of the flame and the lighting of that beacon of pea