Looking Back

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 Now that I am home and done with all the traveling I have had the desire to try and chronicle my time at the Olympics. In a way, talking about the Olympics doesn’t work without photographs to illustrate what it was like, but at the same time just posting photographs doesn’t really say very much either. So I thought I would do a little of both. In a way, the Olympics is just ending for me now that I am back home. I have had the opportunity to do some community events and thank everyone who has helped me along the way and it has made me feel very special and maybe the most like an Olympian out of anything that I have done.

At the start of it all, the idea that I was going to the Olympics didn’t really hit me until we went to team processing in Munich, Germany.  Suddenly there were other people around us speaking English and familiar faces from the Olympic Training center greeting us. We stayed at a hotel in Munich near the Olympic park and that is where we received all the Olympic clothing and gear. Walking there, our German team director explained that it was built to be an inclusive venue so all the structures were see through so people who didn’t have tickets could still watch the competitions. It was a little overwhelming to get bags and bags of clothes and I am pretty sure I started trying to figure out in my head who was going to get what as soon I got them. We were brought to a big room that was split into stalls and we had to walk around with this checklist of things to mark off as we got them. It was fairly surreal.IMG_4261

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The funniest part was getting our totally over the top Ceremony clothes and having designers cluck and fuss over how our pants were rolled up and how many buttons needed to be buttoned. We all tried to take it very seriously…IMG_426420140209_143211

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20140202_142445We flew to Sochi early the next morning and I think everyone was a bit apprehensive about how long it would take to get organized once there because of how much of an ordeal it was last year at the test event. Considering the amount of people and baggage that had to be moved and secure, I was really impressed at how smoothly everything went. There were tons of volunteers everywhere and they were all so helpful. It took a long time but moved fairly smoothly. Once we got our credentials, we got on a bus up the valley. It was unbelievable how much construction was finished in the last year. It was also unbelievable to see the amount of natural destruction occurred for the Olympic games. We also heard a lot of stories about families and communities being forced from their homes to make space for the infrastructure needed. It made me think a lot about the social and environmental costs of the Olympics. I know that they are some of the most inspiring entertainment in the world but I doubt I would think that if my family had to leave their home for a super highway to be built.  I definitely left feeling like an accessory to something completely awful and but also completely amazing and wondering if the price of the Olympics worth it?

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At the end of our bus drive, we got onto a gondola and took the ride up to our Endurance Village where we would spend the next three weeks. It was stunning. With snow covering anything that wasn’t totally finished, it was easy to forget that this had been a pristine mountain not that long ago.  The endurance village athletes were very lucky. Our accommodations were really comfortable and all of our structures were permanent because it was built to be a fancy resort after the Olympics were over. In the same building that we ate we also had a disco, a basketball court in the lower floors, a game room, and an outdoor swimming pool. It was obviously meant to be a luxurious retreat. The scenery didn’t hurt anything either because no matter what direction you looked, stunning mountains greeted you.

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For the first few weeks, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t try to do too many things right away. This is something that I can be bad at because I hate to miss out on things. Earlier I had talked to our sports psychologist about the one thing that he thought would be important for me to be aware of and try to do in the beginning of the Olympics and that was his advice.  It is good he knows me well because I was just exhausted simply from the visual stimulus alone. I pretty much just went to training, walked a lot back and forth between meals and the venue, and tried to get acquainted with how everything operated. It was thrilling to even stand in line for food next to people that I view as skiing heroes and stars like Marit Bjoergen and Therese Johaug. Plus, I was really psyched to see the American Nordic skiers that we never get to race with.

The only thing I let myself do that wasn’t just part of the daily routine was to meet my parents off the mountain to watch the opening ceremonies at a hotel down the valley. Our coaches didn’t want us to go the entire way to the coast for the real thing and while I felt disappointed at first, I knew that I wouldn’t enjoy them as much if I felt worried about getting sick or over tired. Luckily, missing the ceremonies became very irrelevant once I got to see my parents because that was much more special to me.

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The day of my first Olympic race, I was somehow terrified that I wouldn’t be able to compete. That after months and years of holding back and being careful with anything that I could get hurt doing I was afraid that some small stupid thing would happen at the last moment and keep me from competing, like twisting my ankle getting out of the shower or something. Luckily it didn’t.

I was surprised at how emotional I felt while I was warming up. This was something I had dreamed of for my entire life and given up so many things for. I used to travel and bring my roller skis as a kid, or going on two hour runs in Amsterdam when visiting family, always having to ask my best friends to go training with me so that I would have the opportunity to spend time with them, doing intervals the morning of my grandmother’s funeral. I remember a Dutch friend of my mother’s describing me as a “fanatic” and feeling so embarrassed because I didn’t feel like one, it was just something I had to do. I was so happy to be skiing around the warm up loop I kept finding myself crying.

Crossing the finish line was such an enormous relief and all I wanted to do was be with my parents. They are the ones who have been there the entire way for me. Even when they worried that maybe I should stop doing biathlon and move on in life because they hated seeing me disappointed, they still supported me and helped me. They are the ones who get up when our races are at 3:00 am. They have let me live with them so many times over the years and picked me up at the airport in the middle of the night countless times. They wait for me to come home and they help me to leave.

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One of my favorite moments of the entire Olympics was when my parents came with me to doping control. We had planned on meeting to spend some time with each other after the pursuit race, but at the last minute realized that they would not be able to come and eat dinner with me at the village because it would close to non-athletes at 9:00. I was so bummed because I just wanted to be with them. On top of that, as I was heading out to at least say hello and give them a hug goodbye, I was selected for random doping control. I should have known that I didn’t need to worry because somehow my parents snuck by all the guards and barriers and were inside the athlete and coaching area already waiting for me. I suggested that they might as well walk me to doping control since they were already passed all the guards. And then once we got to doping control someone asked if they were my chaperones and they said “yes!” And then someone else asked my pops if he was a doctor and he said “yes”! And so I got to spend a lovely hour and a half with both of my parents in doping control while I waited to have to pee. It was great- all the medalists plus myself and my honey badger parents hanging out together in doping control. I was so happy.

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Doing my cool down when everyone has left and gone home is always one of my moments. It gives me time to reflect and process each race, whether or not it went well or poorly.  Sochi was no exception.

Unfortunately, even though I tried to do everything possible to stay healthy, I got sick. With so many athletes at their peak physical fitness it is so easy to get sick because our immune systems are totally on the edge. While we might be able to race our fastest, we are also really vulnerable. I felt a small sore throat two days before the first competitions and hoped it was just the dry air. But it wasn’t.

Still, I wanted so badly to race and there was nothing left to save myself for so of course I still raced the sprint and the pursuit. I felt okay in the sprint, but doing the pursuit really finished me. I wanted so badly to be able to be part of the Mixed Relay and race with teammates Tim and Lowell who I started with when I was a little kid so I skipped the individual, but still I was not a good choice anymore for the relay. I was really sad about missing both of these races and it took me a day to put my head on straight and remember that my job was to be there for my team and be as fit as possible for the women’s relay. Skipping races was really hard, but it was also a hard task for me to stay away from the team to not get them sick because I am such a people person.

I really admired my teammate Tim Burke who also was not healthy during the Olympics. He was true role model. Tim had so many expectations and really had the ability to be a medalist and for him to not feel well was such a huge disappointment. He carried himself unbelievably well, didn’t say a word of excuse about being sick, and kept racing though in any other circumstance he would not have even gone out to train.  Listening to him cough at the end of the Olympics was heartbreaking and I was so proud of him for carrying himself so well.

 

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One of the things that helped me to focus on positive things was a project I started with my teammates at the beginning of the Olympics. We decided to try and make a music video to the song “Happy” by Pharell Williams and take all sorts of clips of athletes, volunteers, and coaches dancing in different places. It was a really cool project and I felt like it broke down all these barriers and ended up being one of the best things that I brought back from the entire experience.

All of the volunteers were so excited to be in Sochi and they were all so kind and enthusiastic towards us athletes. Many spoke really good English and it seemed like it must have been an experience of a lifetime for them. I really liked it that making this video opened doors and got me talking to many of the volunteers and hearing where they came from and what they did. This to me is one of the things that embody the Olympic movement.

I have been asked many times about what the vibe was and I can only say from my experience that it was very positive. I never felt threatened or that my security was at risk and political issues such as Putin’s policy towards Gay’s and Lesbians never really came up. Perhaps it was different in other locations, but for me the experience was completely about competition.

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We finished our video on the day of the women’s relay and it was amazing how fast it grew and also just as quickly how fast it was shut down. We had to keep it private on YouTube because of Olympic Committee regulations. That was fine. It was mostly about our team creating something cool with so many different people.

Maybe making this video created the positive vibe for our relay. We all had this feeling that something special could happen. The way that our teammates Susan was skiing and performing gave us the opportunity to start off in a really good place and with the rest of the team feeling good and performing well, we had as good a chance as anyone. I felt so relaxed while I was waiting for my leg of the relay and I had no idea about how we were doing until I came out of the tunnel into the stadium and saw that we were in 5th place. It was incredible. But I still didn’t feel nervous, just ready to race and do my best for my team. In the end, we placed 7th. The best relay result ever for the U.S. I felt a strange mixture of being happy and disappointed it was far from the best relay performance our team has put together and a podium result was in our grasp.  I was bummed with the extra time I took to clean and the fact that I just didn’t have it in my body to catch girls right in front of me. Now we have the confidence that we really are capable of being one of the top teams and that counts for so much in the future.

On top of that, I got to be at the Olympics with a fantastic group of strong, intelligent and kind women that I have had the honor of spending the last four years training with. Last year at World Championships we put our hands together and promised to work together to become the strongest Olympic team we could. Perhaps the racing didn’t go as well for me as I wanted it to, but still the year of training with these ladies was really supportive and fun and I am so glad for that.

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Even though the races at the Olympics were not what I had hoped for there was something else that far surpassed my expectations and that was how my town didn’t give care at all how I did. I felt so much support from everyone at home and I will never forget this feeling. Even having familiar reporters come to see me at the finish line was such a good feeling because I felt like they were there just to share what it was like for me with everyone at home.

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During all of this time at the Olympics, I barely left our mountainside. I went down to the town below once to meet my parents for a few hours, once for a team dinner at a pizza restaurant, and once because I was starting to get so stir crazy. The logistics of travel were really crazy. It took at least an hour to get almost anywhere off the mountain even if it wasn’t far away because it always required walking, gondolas, buses or trains. One morning a few of us ventured off the mountain to got for a run somewhere different and check things out. We were also racing throughout the entire two weeks and that didn’t leave us for much time and ability to explore other venues.

 

There are a lot of jokes about athletes partying and going crazy at the Olympics, but I would say that is definitely not the case in the endurance village. I joked a lot about how for us, when it would be ten pm; everyone was in bed with earplugs in, fans on their iPhones blowing and facemasks. Whatever the other athlete villages were like, the endurance athlete village was not a place where you would find any partying. Especially since we all raced throughout the entire three weeks, it was a fairly isolated experience and none of us experienced a lot of the “Olympic” feeling. At least not until the end.

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20140222_175743Once the relay was finished, there were two more days of being in Sochi. One of the things I really wanted to do was to go down and see the Black Sea.  The girls on the team were happy to go with me on a typical adventure where I had a vague idea of what I wanted and was looking for and just hoped that it would work out. It did! This was one of my favorite moments of the entire three weeks. We took a gondola and some buses and went down to Adler, the town by the coast. This was a real town that hadn’t been created by and for the Olympics and it was really cool. We made it to the sea and found a boardwalk where we ate dinner and drank beers at a restaurant looking over the sea. To top it off, the sun was setting and we got to watch the men’s relay on a TV in the restaurant. It was perfect. I couldn’t really wrap my head around the fact that after being up in the mountains for three weeks I was suddenly at the sea with palm trees all around. I was also relieved that my vague plan that the girls trusted me with was a success.

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The last day of the Olympics was also the first time that we got to see the Olympic park. We only have a few hours to check out the sights and see where all the other athletes got to stay before going to the closing ceremonies. It was really nice to go to the USA house and eat food that felt like home like chips and guacamole and these amazing chocolate chips.

 

It’s hard to describe the scale of the Olympic village, but my favorite thing was how they played Swan Lake over enormous speakers by the Olympic torch to a water show. It gave me goose bumps. And then the closing ceremonies were also really special. The immensity of what they created was unbelievable. Between ballerina’s, concert pianists coming out of the floor, orchestra’s and circus acts it was a full representation of Russian culture.

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And finally it was time to leave the world of the Olymics. Even though it was an experience o f a lifetime, I was happy that it was time to be done and go back to my “normal” life. After the closing ceremonies, all that was left was to finish up our last couple of hours in Sochi. I did my best to stay awake by biking around the coast village on the town-bikes they all had to get around on. I met an old friend and we just did laps around all the palm trees and athlete housing. And then it was go time. Of course leaving Sochi without a funny incident was going to be impossible and we all spent a few hours in an airport terminal that was basically a tent. And it was NOT warm. I have never been that happy to get on a plane in my life because I was so unbelievable tired from not sleeping and so damn cold! It was one of the best airplane sleeps I have ever had and when I woke up I was back in Munich, Germany and I got to eat breakfast with my boyfriend.


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