GANGNEUNG, South Korea – I hadn’t seen anyone physically receive a medal until Thursday. At most events, athletes don’t receive their medals after their victory. Most people probably don’t realize that. At this Olympics, athletes receive stuffed white tigers right after their victories, then get their medals at a ceremony up in the mountains the next day. I haven’t been up in the mountains. I hadn’t seen any medals.
But they did hand out medals after the gold medal women’s hockey game Thursday. So I should have seen the medals placed around the necks of the Americans after their stunning shootout win over Canada. Unfortunately, I missed them. And I’ll never forget it.
All Olympics, I was hoping I would get to watch the USA-Canada gold medal game. I assumed someone more experienced would get to write it, so I just wanted to be there. That I got to cover it meant more than I was willing to admit. I’m admitting it now. I hope no one reads this …
When I was growing up, the U.S. women’s soccer and hockey teams served as reminders that women’s sports could matter. They were the ones that everyone paid attention to, at least every four years, which wasn’t enough, but it was something.
I know the challenges faced by women’s professional leagues, from the WNBA to the NWSL to the NWHL. No one gets paid enough. Anyone who wants to make a decent living heads to Europe. The national women’s hockey and soccer players had to risk their careers just to earn a living wage. I always knew all that. But none of the obstacles or caveats changed how much it meant to me when, every four years, everyone suddenly cared so much. I wanted to experience it in person.
Not long after Jerry Brewer and I arrived at the gold medal game, the ESPN contingent shuffled down our aisle and settled in next to us. Julie Foudy sat next to me. I didn’t tell her this – have to be cool, right? – but I could probably recite the names of everyone on those U.S. soccer teams she led back in the day. Those teams meant nearly as much to me as the New York Yankees playoff games I used to watch while refusing to use the bathroom for fear I might single-handedly ruin their mojo in the process. I will not explain that further.
Anyway, as the game started, then became one of those classic U.S.-Canada clashes of the titans, I wrote a little bit after every period. During every Nationals game, I write as the game goes along. We file a “running” game story at the final pitch so as to make the papers. Then we revise that version when we have more time. By now, writing as the game goes is habit.
But by overtime, I wasn’t writing anymore. I was watching. We all were. Everyone was leaning over in their chairs. In the press box, where everyone is always trying to stay cool, no one could be. Even Foudy, who has played in a big game or two, couldn’t be cool. Even some of the most grizzled sports columnists around, those guys who have seen and heard it all, were shaking their heads after close calls, or taking deep breaths when the action stopped.
So few games live up to all that you think they will be. This one did. By the shootout, all of us were standing. It was captivating. It was literally breathtaking. Seeing that in person, after hoping for so long that the women’s games that meant that much to a younger me meant as much to everyone else – well, that was redeeming.
When Maddie Rooney stopped the decisive shot, and I watched the U.S. carry flags around the rink to “Born in the U.S.A.,” I had decided that this was the coolest sporting event I had ever covered. I was grateful it was late enough that I had no print deadlines to worry about. I could bask, soak it in, think it through. Then I got an email asking me where my story was …
Perhaps an indication of much deeper psychological trouble, I have a recurring dream about sitting at my computer in the ninth inning of a Nationals game and seeing nothing typed on my computer screen. For three-plus years on the beat, I was able to calm that anxiety by reminding myself that I had LITERALLY NEVER forgotten to write a story. So …
Anyway, outside of the now-justified anxiety that undoubtedly will plague me as soon as I get to West Palm Beach, everything turned out fine. I sent a quick story. I made it to interviews in time. If there were expletives uttered in our office on K Street, I couldn’t hear them from here, which I considered a small victory. Everything turned out fine. That game will linger as the most memorable and enjoyable I’ve ever covered. After two and a half weeks here, I still haven’t actually watched as anyone received their Olympic medals, and it’s my fault that I missed my best chance. But after Thursday, I’m fine with that.
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