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For Flaim, Old Glory Brings New Thrill

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 7, 1998; Page D5

NAGANO, Jan. 7 (Saturday) — Waving tiny U.S. flags and even a few Japanese flags, the United States delegation half walked and half bounded into the Minami Nagano Sports Park this afternoon behind poised U.S. flag-bearer Eric Flaim, a four-time Olympian.

While Flaim stared straight ahead and kept two hands on his flag, carrying it high and steady, his U.S. teammates shook their flags, waved excitedly and tried to shout into television cameras.

Wearing long blue coats and dark pants and hats, the U.S. athletes followed speedskater Flaim and about a dozen team officials around the Olympic stadium floor before taking their seats next to the home delegation: the colorfully clad Japanese, who wore scarves of various colors with white jackets.

"I felt a rush of emotions, from honor to pride to a love of my family. There was a tremendous buildup," Flaim said after the ceremonies. "We were waiting outside for a long time. Once we got inside the stadium, it went real fast. I wish it could have gone slower."

In front of the crowd of 50,000, figure skater Michael Weiss of Fairfax, threw his fists into the air toward the cameras. U.S. figure skaters Todd Eldredge and Tara Lipinski, both strong medal contenders, accompanied the U.S. team. While Eldredge competed in the '92 Olympics, this is Lipinski's first Games. Chris Witty, expected to win at least one and possibly three medals in the next 15 days of competition, and her speedskating teammates marched together.

The large U.S. delegation did not include the NHL hockey players, since they will not arrive until next week, but it did include a grinning Cammi Granato, Angela Ruggiero, and the rest of the women's hockey team in the debut for this sport in the Olympics.

"This is just fantastic," Eldredge said. "It's one of the most exciting parts of the Games. It's my second Olympics, but I still get goosebumps."

While Tommy Moe and other men's skiers were training on Hakuba, which is about an hour away from Nagano, snowboarders such as Rosey Fletcher were present in full U.S. gear. Like the women's hockey team and the curling athletes, snowboarding is in the Olympics as a medal sport for the first time.

Anne Abernathy, a longtime resident of Springfield, walked with the 15-member Virgin Islands team, which whom she competes as a luger.

Flaim's Olympic career has included trips to the Games in two different disciplines — short track and long track speedskating. This is his fourth straight Winter Games and he already owns a pair of silver medals. Having accomplished so much in three Olympics, Flaim retired after the Lillehammer Games in 1994, convinced he was through with athletics, yet the lure of competition brought him back in 1997.

Flaim, 30, said he had to catch his breath when told about his selection to carry the United States flag. U.S. team captains or designated representatives vote by secret ballot a couple of days before the ceremonies. Flaim didn't even know about the vote, which took place as he was flying over from the United States.

"Everybody knew but me," Flaim said. "When I walked through customs, I was handed a fax from one of the U.S. representatives, and I didn't even think to look at it. Then she told me: You might want to take a look at the fax, because you were nominated to carry the flag for the U.S. I was completely shocked and overwhelmed."

Flaim's speedskating teammates burst into cheers.

"I had no idea there would be an election while we were flying over here," Flaim said.

The Opening Ceremonies previously have been less than memorable for Flaim. In his first Olympics, in 1988 in Calgary, he didn't march because he was competing in four speedskating events.

"It wasn't my decision," he said. "My coach at the time told me I wasn't marching, I was skating four distances and I had a lot to concentrate on."

The 1994 Games in Lillehammer were an incredible thrill.

However, Flaim said, "when I got food poisoning in Albertville [in 1992] it wasn't such a thrill."

An encounter with a spoiled fish loaf might explain why Flaim failed to win any medals in that Games. In 1992, he won a silver medal in the long-track 1,500 meters event. In 1994, he won a silver medal in the short-track relay.

After leaving skating in 1994, Flaim started his own inline skating business in Boston. He also began to manage his father's precision micro-tool manufacturing company. He had his sights on a broadcasting career.

Today, however, all Flaim could think about was the glory of sport. Even after many Olympics, athletes say, the Opening Ceremonies still are something special.

"This is my fourth Olympic ceremonies," U.S. bobsledder Brian Shimer said before the event. "It's a feeling I can't describe."

Shimer recalled the 1988 Opening Ceremonies in Calgary. Because the weather was clear, Shimer said, white sand was brought in to make it look as if the athletes were trudging through snow. "Somebody asked me after if it was hard walking through all that sand," Shimer said. "I said, 'If you see any sand on my shoes, I'll be amazed, because I don't think my feet touched the ground.' It's that feeling. It lit a fire inside."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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