I've been asked what my favorite memories or moments were from the 2016 Olympic Games. That's an almost impossible question for me to answer because every day in these games I witnessed greatness, grace, dedication, sportsmanship and triumph. It didn't always land those I was there to cover on the medal stand, and sometimes the greatness I saw wasn't even rewarded with a prize. For what it's worth, these are the top moments for this reporter from Salt Lake City who feels better for having had the privilege of telling just a few of these stories.
There was a joke circulating the day the Olympics ended. It was a meme that pictured natives watching the Portuguese explorers approaching Brazil’s shores. It said, “Just like the first time, Gringos come and take all the gold.” Nobody sacrificed more for these games than the people of Rio. Which is what made it even more emotional, more satisfying and more inspiring when Brazilian athletes won gold, sometimes against all odds. Judoka Rafaela Silva, pole vaulter Thiago Braz da Silva, the men’s volleyball team (indoor and beach) and, of course, their beloved Neymar scoring the game-winning gold medal goal in a shootout.
Usain’s final victory.
Every race Jamica’s Usain Bolt ran was historic. But, for me, seeing him run his last 200-meter final — and win easily — was my favorite. Maybe it was the good-natured exchange between him and 21-year-old Canadian sprinter Andre de Grasse that made me love every aspect of this race more than the others because we saw his humanity as much as his gift. After his win, he told reporters, who repeatedly asked, that he was done racing at the games. “I’m the greatest. I have nothing left to prove.” And for once, no one saw that as arrogance or hyperbole because once you see him run, you feel the truth of it.
An upset with a message.
Michelle Carter won the first U.S. gold in women’s shot put by upsetting a two-time Olympic gold medalist. The daughter of famed San Francisco 49er Michael Carter, Michelle pulled off an unlikely upset of favorite Valerie Adams, New Zealand, on her last throw of the competition. But it isn’t just the two-time Olympian’s athletic accomplishment that makes her one of my favorites. It’s her message to girls and women — and frankly — everyone. “I just encourage young girls just to be true to themselves. For me, I’m in a sport that people don’t look at us as being girly or feminine. I’ve been girly all my life. And so I couldn’t separate the two — being a woman and being an athlete. I put the two together, and do what I love to do. I love hair; I love makeup; I love fashion. And I love throwing the shot put.”
Courage after heartbreak.
The USA men’s volleyball team’s comeback in the bronze medal match against Russia. Athletes from high school to the Olympics have told me that playing for anything but a championship (any kind of consolation game) is just about the toughest thing an athlete can do. I saw it twice in the 2016 Olympics — Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross recovered from losing the first set of their bronze medal match to win bronze, and then the U.S. men, including BYU’s Taylor Sander, rallied from a two-set deficit to win bronze against Russia. The reason I chose the men’s game over Walsh Jennings’ match is Reid Priddy. I don’t think there is anything tougher than preparing to compete at the highest level and rarely getting in a game. But that’s what this 38-year-old professional did. And when his team needed him most, he put on a Superman cape and saved them. His energy, his leadership and his skill helped a young team rally to win a prize they didn’t want until it was slipping away. U.S. head coach John Speraw said it best on Twitter, “To win gold requires many things. To win bronze requires one. Courage.”
An “every man” hero.
BYU and Davis High alum Jared Ward finishes sixth in his Olympic debut. What this 27-year-old statistics professor offered was hope that hard work is just as important a component of success as talent. He was no phenom when he started high school. In fact, one former classmate said that if he had to choose someone from the Davis High ranks who would eventually go on to Olympic glory, it wouldn’t have been Ward. But dedication and discipline transformed him, and if he chooses to continue running, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him claim some of the sports — and the world’s top titles.
The significance of success.
Simone Manuel’s face after winning the first of her two golds and two silvers said it all. Her victory (a tie in the 100-meter freestyle with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak) was a historic moment for a country struggling with racial issues. She became the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold in an individual event — a feat more impressive when considering the lasting legacy of Jim Crow laws that kept African-Americans out of public pools for decades. Just 20, the Texas native understood the significance of her accomplishment. “The gold medal wasn’t just for me. It was for people that came before me and inspired me to stay in the sport,” she said. “For people who believe that they can’t do it. I hope I’m an inspiration to others to get out there and try swimming. You might be pretty good at it."
Even the best get giddy about Olympic gold
The picture of UConn coach Geno Auriemma jumping into Brittney Griner’s arms after Team USA won its sixth straight gold medal describes how the games make even the most accomplished among us feel. Not only did the women make a statement as they continued the streak — extending it to 49 consecutive victories — they played with purpose and grace against every opponent. They silenced those who wondered if they were hurting the sport around the world with their dominance, and proved that their excellence is inspiring, not discouraging. And extra kudos to Auriemma for educating male journalists on why that question, which was never asked of U.S. men’s teams, is sexist. Griner, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, Lindsay Whalen and Maya Moore showed the beauty and strength of true teamwork.
Competing for those without a home.
The IOC’s decision to allow 10 athletes to compete as the first-ever Refugee Team was inspired. They swam and sprinted and competed in judo for themselves, for the homes they’d lost and those who’d adopted them. But mostly they competed for those, who like them, lost their homelands to violence so horrifying, they asked reporters not to continue questioning them on it. Their inclusion, they said, was meant to give hope to those without much else. “I want everyone to think of their dreams because a lot of people there forgot their dreams,” Mardini said of what she wants other refugees to take from their participation in these games. “I want everyone to think refugees are humans who had homelands, who lost it, not because they wanted to and not because they wanted to be refugees or run away or wanted to have drama in their lives. They had to leave their countries, yeah, because everyone is trying to get a new life, a better life. Here we are in this stadium, encouraging everyone to do their dreams. I want people to think good about refugees.”
Age is just a number and Moms rule.
Three women — Kerri Walsh Jennings (38-year-old beach volleyball player), Kristin Armstrong (43-year old cyclist) and Kim Rhode (a 37-year-old skeet shooter) — showed why women can have anything they want. It used to be that age limited what women could do because having a family meant an end to a professional athletic career. Sure, male athletes are parents and deal with unique demands once they start families. But for women, it often means coming back (recovering) from pregnancy, a feat that is as significant as rebounding after injury. If the physical challenges weren’t significant enough, there are all the ways in which society will shame and pressure women to give up their own pursuits simply because they are moms. But these women showed that there are no excuses — not age, not pregnancy, not the never-ending demands of motherhood. In fact, every one said becoming mothers enhanced every aspect of their lives, including their athletic careers.
It’s been asked and discussed hundreds of times — what is the legacy of these 2016 Olympic Games. Certainly, most of the realities are not good. Their government is still corrupt, their city still ravaged by recession, sewage still floats in their water, crime is still high and Zika is still a threat. But for three weeks, the people of Rio welcomed the world, revealing the reality that kindness is a powerful salve to even grievous wounds. While many of the costs can never be justified, the people of Brazil now have a sense of pride in their culture and their abilities that will endure long after the physical structures built for these games are gone.