My Road to Rio

My Road to Rio

The world of sports has played a pivotal role in inspiring and bringing people of different ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds together. It enables people to overcome differences and unite as passionate fans and citizens. Sport has proven to be more powerful than political action in breaking down barriers.

We’ve seen this with sport competitions, such as the 1995 Rugby World Cup, where the power of sport took place during a time when unity was nonexistent between black and white South Africa. “One team, one country” became the slogan for the Springbok rugby team’s campaign, as they were playing not just for white South Africa, but for the entire country.

We’ve seen this with athletes, such as Muhammad Ali, who channeled the controversies of his time and leveraged his celebrity to change public perception on religious freedom and racial justice.

The Olympic Games are a prime example of an opportunity in which people from all over the world come together as one cohesive group with a common goal: experiencing and participating in the magic of the Games, while paying tribute to some of the most talented athletes in the world. The global spectacle is truly unlike any other sporting event.

I have had the extreme fortune of attending the past three Olympic Games, with Rio de Janeiro being my most recent experience.

It all began when I received an unexpected text from my dad, offering me a spot on his trip to Rio as a guest of ASICS.

I freaked out…

and immediately responded, YES!!!

My whole family attended the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics with New Balance for one week each, and I ended up spending a consecutive week in London with my dad as a guest of Nike. Both trips were an absolute dream, and I honestly didn’t think I’d be fortunate enough to experience the Olympics again in my lifetime.

In the months leading up to the Games, ASICS sent us several swag bags with a surplus of goodies, including leather passport holders, luggage tags, toiletry bags stuffed with travel size toiletries, Beats by Dre, hats, extraordinary packets of information about our trip, and more. I was in a state of amazement before even arriving in Brazil.

* * *

Finally, the big day had come – August 16. My dad and I flew out of RDU that afternoon and had a layover in Miami, where we experienced several flight delays. However, the flight delays were a non-issue considering ASICS gave us access to the Admirals Club.

My dad and I lounged in plush leather chairs while sipping on champagne and munching on finger foods. Atop granite countertops, there was an open bar where you could serve yourself any drink you desired and fill up a plate of delicacies. I soaked up every moment of the serendipitous occasion.

It’s debatable whether I’ll experience this kind of luxury again.

* * *

Wednesday

Eventually, we landed in Rio de Janeiro around 9 a.m. – my first time in South America! A sweet young woman named Hana from the ASICS hospitality team greeted us near the baggage claim with a large “WANT IT MORE” (the ASICS Olympics slogan) sign in hand. We whizzed through the city in a private ASICS van, peering out the windows throughout the drive. To my left, tall, sleek buildings towered over the city. To my right, crumbling favelas crowded the other half of the city. Favelas are slum villages scattered throughout Brazil where impoverished citizens have been pushed out of the central areas. The most famous favelas exist in Rio, and within minutes of my arrival in Brazil, I was already witnessing the stark contrast between the haves and the have nots.

After about 40 minutes, my dad and I were plopped at the Copacabana Ritz-Carlton and welcomed with warm smiles and yet another packet of information about our stay. We stumbled into our hotel room and our beds were decorated with gifts – apparel, shoes, sunscreen, mosquito repellant (the Zika virus was kiiiind of a big deal at the time), beach towels, adaptors, and more. Once we finished digging through our mountain of goodies, we climbed into our beds and took a much needed nap. The ~20 hours of travel time had zapped our energy.

I had to vigorously shake my dad awake in order to make it to the ASICS rooftop party on time. It was there that we were united with our fellow Fleet Feet guests and pals for the week. We all sucked down several Caipirinhas (Brazil’s national cocktail) before heading to our first night of Track and Field, or ‘Athletics.’

The energy in the Olympic stadiums is electric, with adrenaline and excitement pulsating through the crowd. The Athletics stadium comprised a sea of colorful flags, hand-made signs, and jerseys representing myriad countries.

One of my favorite aspects about the Olympics is that it’s not just about cheering for your home country. We cheered for every athlete and every team at every exciting moment. Patriotism and pride illuminate the stadium, but you find yourself identifying as a Brazilian, a South African, a German, etc. as you watch the ultra-skilled athletes from around the world.

During the field events, the athletes encouraged the crowd to clap their hands in unison – starting out slow at first, and building in momentum as the athlete neared their jump, throw or hurdle. Ivy (another Fleet Feet guest) and I were hands-down the most dedicated cheerleaders for the U.S. We started “U-S-A” chants at every opportune moment and had our cameras ready at all times.

We were all dripping in sweat because there was zero airflow in the stadium on a 90-degree evening. Even after the sun dropped below the stadium rafters, it was still hot as Hades. For some reason I decided to wear skin-tight jeans that were glued to my legs with sweat by the end of the night, but it still didn’t deter me from cheering vigorously.

Our group chomped down on chicken sandwiches and mini pizzas from the stadium kiosks, and guzzled multiple beers. At the Olympic Stadiums, you could consume five beers and not even feel a head buzz because the alcohol content fell around 2 or 2.5 percent. This was probably for the best considering how aggressive some sports fans become when there’s heavy alcohol in the mix…

The first night of Athletics consisted of decathlon events, 100m hurdle semis, men’s 200m semis and more! It had been a long yet incredible first day in Rio. Once our heads hit the pillow, we were out for the night.

Ashton Eaton running the 400m portion of the decathlon

* * *

Thursday 

The adventures continued the next morning. We were treated to a decadent rooftop breakfast at the Ritz, overlooking the expansive city and beach. After filling our bellies, the ASICS hospitality crew transported us to the first excursion of the week – Sugarloaf Mountain, a beautiful peak perched on a peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean. Our large ASICS group packed into two cable cars and traveled 4,600 feet to the top of Sugarloaf, which offered a 360 view of the city. The surrounding scenery was breathtaking. Photos didn’t do it justice. But nonetheless, my dad and I probably snapped more than 200 photos during the hour we spent there.

Slowly climbing to the top of Sugarloaf in our cable car

The crew of ASICS employees and guests atop Sugarloaf

After the excursion, we were escorted to a tour of a nearby botanical garden, followed by a 5-course meal in a beautiful outdoor setting. To top off the night, we attended the men’s field hockey gold medal match!

 

Going into the night, I knew very little about field hockey, but I was thrilled to see the final match against Argentina and Germany. We sat among gregarious Argentinians, who were hands-down the most zealous fans I witnessed all week. Throughout the match, it felt like every Argentinian fan lived and breathed field hockey. The game itself was also quite exciting, but the fans truly make (…or break) the event. After attending three Olympic Games, I can honestly say I’ll remember my experiences with fervent fans more than actually watching some of the events.

The night was topped off with a rooftop party at the Ritz, where I met a multitude of ASICS executives and danced like a fool on the dance floor with Ivy.

Dad and I with Gene McCarthy, President and CEO of ASICS Americas

* * *

Friday

We had a free morning on Friday, so I went for a long run through the city with some Fleet Feet folks and then wandered around Copacabana with my dad. We bought souvenirs on the street and zipped through the official merchandise store for the Olympics after waiting in line for what felt like an hour.

One of the biggest surprises of the week was how much we all enjoyed watching…handball! I knew even less about handball than field hockey. We watched the men’s semi-final match (Germany vs. France) on Friday and the gold medal match (France vs. Denmark) on Sunday. We ended up sitting in a section dominated by passionate French fans for the first game, and by the end I had learned the words of almost every single one of their songs and chants. “Allez les bleu!” rang in my ears for the rest of the week. I was completely enchanted by the passion pumping through the veins of so many attendees.

But back to handball! It’s a fast-paced, rousing sport that is pretty simple to understand even without knowing all of the rules. This is especially beneficial for me since I still don’t understand all of the rules of the most “American” sport of all – football.

We later found out that handball is also quite lucrative – the top handball players can make anywhere from $6 to $11 million annually. Soo I’ve decided I’ll sign my children up for handball in the future. 😉

Athletics was the last event on Friday’s agenda, where we witnessed many remarkable sprint relays. Unfortunately, this was the night the U.S. men’s 4x100m team was disqualified after crossing the finish line in third place. The attendees and athletes didn’t even know it at the time. My mom was watching it all go down on TV and texting my dad updates about the disqualification. We technically knew the bad news before the actual runners found out. Regardless, it was an inspiring and exhilarating night!

   

Cheering on all the runners with my dad and Ivy

   

USA and Jamaica’s 4x100m relay teams

* * *

Saturday

The most memorable excursion of the week took place at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday. Dad and I crawled out of bed after the late night of Athletics, and loaded into a van that trekked up to Christ the Redeemer for a private sunrise experience.

Mind you, I had seen this statue all week from miles away – from the top of Sugarloaf, from the hotel rooftop and from the long bus rides. But nothing prepared me for the 98-foot illuminated sculpture that towered over me as I squinted up at the top of Christ’s concrete head.

Rio was still blanketed in darkness when we arrived, with only a few twinkling lights from buildings and homes down below. Within a few minutes, the sun emerged from behind a mountaintop and began to rise over the city, painting the sky with hues of pink, orange and yellow. There were about 40 of us atop the mountain, and we all fell silent as we watched in awe.

I felt as if I were in a spiritual fantasyland.

It was the most majestic sunrise of my life.

The fantasy-turned-reality continued with sunrise yoga. The clock had barely struck 7 a.m. at this point. Personally, I would’ve been content just lying on my mat in the savasana pose. I think most of us were half asleep as we pretzeled ourselves into various yoga positions.

* * *

That afternoon, most of us skipped an Olympic event (wrestling was not our sport of choice…) in order to stay at the ASICS hub.

The place was impeccable. I felt like I was in a giant bungalow within a tropical forest in Southeast Asia. There were massive screens to watch the Games, a large pool with ASICS signage in the center, glass displays of historic ASICS gear from the last several decades, a personal masseuse in a tiki hut, a 3-course meal, an open bar, and comfortable lounge chairs and hammocks scattered throughout. Ivy and I made a beeline for the bar and stocked up on Caipirinhas. It was such a glorious, pampered afternoon in what felt like ASICS paradise.

We reluctantly left the ASICS hub in order to make it back to the track in time for the last night of Athletics. My only quasi-complaint (because how can you possibly “complain” about being at the Olympics?) from the week was the amount of travel time involved to get from place to place. The traffic in Rio is already outrageous, and the Games only made it worse. The city built an underground tunnel to accommodate the masses, but it still took anywhere from one to three hours to get to all of our destinations. Luckily, the ASICS buses were comfortable and I squeezed in several naps during the long rides.

The last night of track was epic. Matthew Centrowitz snagged gold in the 1500m, marking the first time USA has won this event since 1908. I also watched the women’s 800m and 1500m, the men’s 5000m (Go Mo!), and the 4x400m and 4x200m relays. It was my fourth time seeing Usain Bolt compete, and I still got chills every time he sprang from the start line like a jackrabbit.

I always try not to blink as he dashes across the track, because you literally might miss his race.


* * *

Sunday

The week ended with an unexpected bang. The original plan was to watch the Closing Ceremony at an outdoor restaurant, but a storm rolled in that evening, so the ASICS hospitality crew quickly cooked up a Plan B. They took us to a ritzy restaurant, and once we had taken our seats at the table, the crew announced that they had obtained tickets for all of us to go to the Closing Ceremony!

In full honesty, our Fleet Feet crew was less than thrilled at first. A looong ceremony in the rain? It sounded exhausting, wet and miserable. But we came up with a quick and simple solution – let’s pregame the ceremony.

We immediately ordered a few bottles of wine.

“Just so you know, wine is not covered with your meal. You’ll have to pay separately for that,” the server informed us.

We did not hesitate to tell him that we didn’t care – we just wanted the wine!

After ingesting a delicious meal with every meat you could imagine, as well as a buffet of salads, appetizers and breads, we snagged a few wine bottles for the bus ride.

If nothing else, we’ll forever be remembered as the crazy Americans.

After the rain subsided, the Ceremony ended up being a truly impressive spectacle. Hundreds of athletes paraded around with their nation’s flags in hand, and there were multiple speakers, dancers and musical performances.

It’s very interesting watching these big events in person because you see a lot of things excluded on TV. At one point, part of the main stage appeared to have collapsed as a group of people struggled to move a large structure off the stage. They were moving the structure every which way trying to determine the best route of escape, and in the meantime other people were trying to fix the damaged floor before the next performance. I don’t think a single second of that mishap made it onto TV.

Despite our initial reluctance to attend the Closing Ceremony, I’m so glad we went. Bursts of light and fireworks erupted from the stadium for the finale, lighting up the sky with an explosion of rainbow sparks. For the 100th time that week, I was in absolute wonderment. Not to sound corny, but it felt like the cherry on top of a perfect week.

* * *

I don’t think my words could possibly do this weeklong experience justice, but transcribing my memories is hugely helpful so that one day I can tell the stories to my children and grandchildren. I can only hope that they’ll have magical experiences like this in their lifetime.

Oh, and I’m pretty much the luckiest daughter on the planet to have my dad.

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