I left off with my blog the night before the free dance, when Danielle and I went out for a nice dinner. That proved to be an excellent idea, as the last week of the Olympic Games is TOUGH for a figure skating specialist! We only had one day “off” and used it to see two other sports, so it didn’t feel like much of an off day.
The Free Dance was in the morning (primetime and post-Super Bowl on NBC in the USA), and it was tough to re-adjust for a morning event after a couple of slower mornings. So it was one more day of a 5am alarm, skipping breakfast, and heading to the rink to save a spot. I was disappointed (but not surprised) to walk into the rink and see that I was in Tier 3 for the photo draw once again. Unfortunately, not only was I in Tier 3, but I was one of the last photographers to be called, and my only choices for an ice-level spot were along the long side, opposite the judges. This allowed me to get some nice athlete/coach interaction photos, but it was tough to shoot with a 300 prime lens from my spot. I had a zoom lens on my second camera, but I don’t like the look of those photos as much, and I ended up being rather disappointed with my free dance photos. I keep reminding myself that I got great shots from practice the day before; I just need to find time to edit them!
I had a lot of nerves during the free dance (cannot even imagine what the athletes felt), and it was wonderful to see so many strong performances. The relief evident on the faces of most competitors after they finished was so strong. I am sure that every Olympic year is such a mental battle, but given the challenges of the past two years, it felt to me like the athletes were facing so much additional pressure this year. I am sure that the mental challenges seemed insurmountable at times, and I have such respect and admiration for every single team that competed in Beijing.
The ice dancers that grew up in the U.S. and Canadian systems were all athletes that I had photographed since they were young teenagers, so my emotions were running super high as I watched all of these “kids” achieve their Olympic dreams. A long-running joke with my friends and colleagues is that I have big “proud mom” energy, and this was no exception.
Following the free dance and the mascot ceremony in the venue, Danielle and I worked a bit at the rink and then caught a bus back to the MMC. We returned our borrowed camera gear, worked a little more on photos, and got a meal in the dining hall (more rice and dumplings, undoubtedly).
It had snowed the day before and then temperatures had plunged to the coldest we’d experienced yet in Beijing, so we didn’t want to head to the medals plaza too early, but we also wanted to be able to grab a spot on the center podium. When we’d gone to the men’s medal ceremony, the center spots were all gone by the time that we arrived. So we braved the cold and headed to the medals plaza about 45 minutes before the dance medals were set to start. We didn’t get center spots at first, but Greg had permission to be in the “moat” in front of the stage for the short track medal ceremony, since a Canadian had medaled and he was photographing the ceremony for the Canadian Olympic Committee, so he gave me his center spot when he moved. My coat and hat and fleece leggings under my pants were keeping me warm enough (mostly), and I’d put on a second pair of socks when we left the MMC, but I’d managed to forget both pairs of shooting gloves (the index fingertip and thumb tip flip back and secure with magnets to allow for camera operation), so my hands absolutely froze once I had to take my mittens off to photograph the ceremony.
It was incredibly emotional to see all three teams so relieved and happy on the podium, and I’m surprised I didn’t have tears frozen to my eyelashes by the time it was over! Danielle and I were so cold that we took the volunteers up on their offer to warm up in the mixed zone tent (with heaters on full blast). Typically a pass is needed to enter the mixed zones, and passes were limited due to social distancing requirements, but they were extra kind to the photographers in the freezing temperatures! We managed to thaw out our hands after a few minutes of holding them directly over a heater, and then packed up to head back to the MMC, then to our bus back to the hotel. A long day, but a great one!
I also scored a great pin trade on free dance day, so I wanted to share a little bit about pin trading at the Olympics. Danielle had given me a heads up about bringing some pins. We don’t have an IDC pin, so I bought some American flag pins online, as well as some Chicago flag ones. I don’t think city flags are common in China, so it was sometimes hard to explain to the volunteers that the Chicago flag (which most had never seen before) was for my hometown.
At the beginning, I just handed out a bunch of pins without trying too hard to trade. I had brought a lot, and I realized quickly that since my pins didn’t have an Olympic connection, they weren’t seen as valuable on the pin trading market. On our day at the Big Air venue, word got out that I had pins, and I was positively surrounded as we were trying to head to the bus. I gave out 25 pins in about two minutes! It was a fun way to be able to give a little something to the volunteers; most of them seemed to really like collecting the pins.
My pin from the free dance day was from Beijing 2008, and since I love Olympic history, I was excited to get this one! I also really love all of the volunteer pins — they are so beautiful! We barely realized that our media swag bag that we got on the first day had a few pins in it, so I’m returning home with all three of those, too. And of course I was elated to score a Bing Dwen Dwen figure skating metal pin. The ceramic version seemed to be in stock occasionally at the store (more about the store in another post), but I never saw the metal pin for sale. I traded for mine at the Opening Ceremony with a volunteer who had gone to school in Chicago and was excited to see my Chicago flag. It turned out that he went to Columbia College (but had to return to China due to the pandemic), which was just two blocks from where I went to grad school at Roosevelt University.
I had given out my first pins at the skating venue on New Year’s Day (Feb 4), to the volunteers who worked at the help desks right inside the doors to the photo workroom. They were all so excited, and a couple of them put their heads together behind the desk and then emerged with a couple of lucky New Year’s keychains for Danielle and me. They were so excited, because we had given them their first gifts of the New Year, a holiday that they usually celebrate with their families, but were unable to this year, since they were inside the Closed Loop as well. We proudly wore the keychains on our credentials for the rest of the Games. Then one of the volunteers came up to us on one of the final days of competition and gave us a couple of Beijing 2022 notebooks. So sweet!
Most (all?) of the volunteers were from local universities, and they were mainly students from English, international, or communications programs, so most had very good English language skills. I tried to speak Mandarin with a few (I have been studying on various apps for a year), but it was still much easier to communicate in English. They usually have February off for holidays, then their term begins in March. They have to quarantine for 21 days before re-entering the rest of China, so they’ll do the first couple of weeks of their term online from quarantine. I am so grateful to all of the volunteers for giving their time and for their neverending energy and good cheer, even when managing unruly bus queues in the freezing cold after late night events!
It’s just further evidence that sports at all levels—even elite—are so dependent on their volunteer bases. I am so grateful for those that give back to the sports that they love.