Vicarious experience can be an incredibly powerful thing. It has been shown to be a vital strategy in motivating others, helping them to change behavior or take further action. It can evoke the most extreme emotions…putting butterflies in your stomach, chills on your arm, a smile on your face, and tears in your eyes. It can make you laugh, stomp your feet, clap your hands, jump up and down, and even scream and cheer at the top of your lungs. It can literally MOVE YOU!
Over the last few days, I’ve had the sincere privilege to experience the 2012 London Olympic Games, vicariously through our hometown Olympian Julie Culley – a colleague at Pro-Activity since 2010, an athlete under our training since 2011, and most importantly a very close friend since 1988. Few moments in my life have moved me so!
If you’ve been following along in the the newspapers, our “Elements” newsletter, with us on facebook
, or have been with us at our BaseCamp 31 facility in the last few months – you know that the Olympics have been a focal point. Something we’ve talked or written of frequently, trained some for, and celebrated with many in our community. In June, alongside our friends from the Hunterdon Lion’s Track club, we hosted a send-off party for 15+ members of the professional NJNY Track club (seven of them locals) as they made their way to Eugene, OR for the Olympic Trials. In July, with 250+ of our closest friends, families, and community members we welcomed US Olympic Trials champion and newly crowned Olympian, Culley, home and sent her off to London in style, writing about it in last month’s “Elements
”. But with all of that, little could prepare me for what I felt in London these past few days, vicariously through the efforts and heart of an American champion…..
As Mrs. Culley (Julie’s mom) describes it, “It’s not even a once in a lifetime experience…there is no framework or reference point for this….most will never get to experience this type of thing…this type of atmosphere…this type of pride in their lifetime”. And so, while I consider myself one of the very fortunate few locals who got to be there in person, please understand that as I left for London, I did so consciously doing my best to represent you, the greater Pro-Activity family and BaseCamp31 community, with an abundance of USA pride, and bringing along your strength, prayers, and heartfelt best wishes to Julie. I write these next few (ok so way more than a few) paragraphs in recap of my experience, as a celebration of an American achievement and realization of another dream, a thank you to all of you who (maybe unknowingly) played a role in getting Julie there and me to support, and as a hopeful encouragement to all readers….that you may break through trepidation, and tear down adversity, following Julie’s footsteps, IN PURSUIT and MOVING towards your dreams…..
Sunday, August 5th: It was an early start at Newark Airport and promised to be a long day of travel with seven hours of flight-time and a five hour time change, but my travel partner and I (another of Julie and my best friends Kristen Haughey-Prendergast), were greated by United Airlines employees and other passengers with encouraging smiles. They saw Kristen’s shirt that we had ordered from the USA Track & Field association, imprinted with a large American flag, and personalized with “Team Julie” inscriptions on the sleeve and back. We were continually asked, “What’s Team Julie?” and responded eagerly and pridefully with, “Oh…our friend Julie Culley is running for Team USA on Tuesday and we’re going to cheer her on”. And as we strolled down the aisle to take our seats, we could feel the eyes of the 200 other passengers on us as we walked by, smiling at us, and wishing Julie best, even if only through a quick glance!
Monday, August 6th: It was our day to explore the town a bit. Julie was tied up in pre-race preparation in Athlete village (in Stratford London), a few train stops from our apartment near Hoburn, so we thought we’d use the day to see some of the sights. Of course, Kristen, an accomplished runner in her own right (University of Virgina ‘03, North Hunterdon High School ‘99), thought it would be best to see the town on foot, or as she put it “What better way to explore a new city than to run it”. Given the airplane food indulgence, and seemingly abundant supply of bacon, and refined carbohydrates in English traditional fare that we’d soon be ingesting, I agreed. A facebook post later from some colleagues, and a challenge by team physical therapist Justin Bagley, and we were off to see how many places and famous sites we could get to and take a picture with “Mr. P-body” aka the Pro-Activity logo.
After a trip to Big Ben, Parliament, Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, the London Bridge, and Tower Bridge (where the Olympic rings are hung from), we ate an early dinner and packed it in…..Tuesday was race day…and although we weren’t racing, we had work to do!
Tuesday, August 7th: Olympic Women’s 5,000m Semi-Final: Rise and shine bright and early! We were told by tour guides to get to the stadium two hours prior to the Tuesday morning session start. This was going to be a day to remember! After some back and forth phone calls and text messaging to other “Team Culley” members (Julie’s family), Kristen and I suited up in yet another Team Culley shirt, this one designed by Kristen and our friends at Sneaker’s Plus who’ve always done right by us, and we were off to Olympic village.
Now, Olympic village was unlike anything I had ever seen. Everything was gigantic, from the buildings, to the advertisements and VISA banners with Usain Bolt, to the multiple huge stadium structures in one section of town creating what looked to be an entire town built specifically for the Games. The stadium almost had a Roman Coliseum feel to it with huge pillars everywhere. Thankfully (I guess) Kristen and I were in by about 8am, leaving us plenty of time to walk around..snap a few photos, spend 5 pounds (about $7.50) on the world’s worst coffee, and make our way to our seats, which surprisingly put us only 23 rows up from the 5,000 meter starting line!
The session started with the javelin, and then progressed to the men’s 110m high hurdles, but with the exception of when the British athletes were competing, the stadium stayed relatively quiet. And then…after much anticipation, the athletes in the first women’s 5,000m heat walked out of the tunnel and entered the stadium to a moderate applause.
Now, if I had told you Kristen and I quickly made “friends” with those around us (or at least gave them something to chuckle about) it would be an understatement…..as Julie entered the stadium, Kristen and I bellowed “CULLLLLLEEEEEYYY!!! LET’S GO JULIE …..WOOOAAAHHHOOOO”. Instantly those around us turned, smiled, and realized Team Culley was here and ready to rock! And after a few warm-up strides, before we knew it, she was on the starting line, and our incredible loudmouths, among 80,000 spectators caught Julie’s ear and our frantic jumping and screaming caught her eye. She flashed back a bright Culley-like smile and greeted with a quick wave….you could tell it meant the world to her to see some familiar faces out there…and the world to us to be there in support!
Can you imagine….there you are, sitting amongst 80,000 people, in England, in an atmosphere anticipating the entrance of Usain Bolt..arguably the most dominant track and field athlete of the current era, and there you are, with your friend of 22 years on the starting line in Olympic stadium waving to you with a reassuring smile. It gave me chills instantly as I thought about what she was getting ready to attempt…what it meant to her…how hard she had worked to get there…..how proud her family and we were…and how, above it all, she was there…with the defending Olympic champion from 2008 only a few yards away from her….and still smiling…the same old Julie we’ve all come to love! And then…a hush from the crowd and a familiar “On Your Marks”……this was really happening and I was there!
With the gun, the crowd erupted as they normally do….Julie almost instantly took her position in the middle of the pack, keeping the leaders in striking distance, but not overdoing it from the start….a strategy that has proved her very well in recent competition. With each lap, Kristen and I were our usual “not-so-bashful” selves, and before we knew it….those around us were joining in and hopping on the “Team Culley” bandwagon. At one moment, I looked down the row at a man calling to his friend, seated in front of us…and as he struggled with his english to say “Caulie”….I quickly realized we had the Americans next to us…the Brits that surrounded us, and even those around from lands far away on our side! Julie’s cheering section was building, and so was her pace….
It’s pretty amazing, when you watch a 5k (5,000 meter race) on tv, it seems to go a bit slow, watching 15 minutes of athletes going round and round a track, but when you’re there in person…it FLYS by. Before we knew it, Julie was 10 laps into the 12.5 lap race, and continuing to jockey for position somewhere between 6th and 8th out of about 18 women (keep in mind top 5 automatically advance). As she passed time and time again her demeanor didn’t seem to change, she appeared calm, but focused – but those that know her best (us) knew she was ready to pounce when the opportunity presented itself….
At the bell lap things started to spread out…the leaders (including the defending champion) took to the front and you could see the girls kick it into high gear….and Julie was ready! As she passed us the last time, our whole section erupted, cheering her on….and in the last 100 yards, with Kristen and I jumping and shaking each other…screaming “She’s gonna do it! She’s gonna do it!” she repeated what she had done a month prior at the Olympic trials, outkicking a couple of women, and securing 5th place and an automatic qualifying spot in the final…all by two tenths of a second!
We went berzerk, cheering…slapping hi-fives with the “strangers” around us…..and as tears streamed down Kristen’s face, and I choked back a few of my own….our friend had realized ANOTHER dream…something she’s been IN PURSUIT of for many, many years. Julie Culley had earned herself the distinction of American Champion, Olympian, and now…Olympic Finalist!
Tuesday, August 7th – Post Race The next few hours were pretty awesome. All of us were on a high from Julie’s recent performance, and better yet….we were actually going to get to spend some time with her! And after some traipsing through Olympic Village (side note – Olympic village was CRAZY – you couldn’t get in without a ticket to one of the events….it was the only place to really buy souvenirs and there were literally hundreds of thousands of people) we finally had our reunion! To be there in person, when Julie hugged her parents….it was amazing…I’ve never seen a more proud family…and I’ve never seen a more grateful daugther!
To be there when the Brits in various restaurants and in the streets came up to Julie and asked for pictures…..to be there to hear her tell her race story and what it was like competing against the world’s best….to hear her experiences in athletes village…what it was like to have some NBA stars come to meet the other athletes….how it was “not a big deal” to be escorted around town by FloTrack and interviewed by numerous media outlets, or ride the elevator with Michael Phelps…..to be there with Julie, Kristen, the Culley family, and all of “Team Culley” and know in my heart …that Julie Culley, Olympic finalist….was still Julie Culley..the self proclaimed “ordinary girl, trying to do extraordinary things”…..it was, has been, and continues to be something that brings me great pride…pride in my friend and colleague…pride in my community, and pride in my country. USA, USA, USA!
On to the final…..we’re with you Julie!.