A dream assignment: For an Olympic fanatic, volunteering at Vancouver games unforgettable

The following is an excerpt from an article published at TheChronicleHerald.ca:

I was wearing my “Smurf jacket” while standing in line at Canada Northern House at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics when the man behind me, recognizing the distinctive blue, thanked me profusely for being a volunteer.

That surprised me because I felt I should be the one saying thank you.

Because being part of the 21st Olympic Winter Games was the experience of a lifetime for me and 25,000 other volunteers from across the country and overseas.

Smurf suits will be welcome when Nova Scotians who were volunteers and staff members at the Olympics gather for a reunion on Monday at 5 p.m. at Boston Pizza on Chain Lake Drive in Halifax.

A lifelong Olympic junkie, I applied online to be a volunteer in May 2009, along with 70,000 others. An orientation session, brief interview and RCMP background check at the Nova Scotia Community College had me dreaming of the Olympic rings.

I had all but given up when I received a phone call on New Year’s Eve inviting me to be part of the press operations team at the Pacific Coliseum where the figure skating and short track speed skating competitions were to be held — a dream assignment for a figure skating fanatic.

As a volunteer, I was required to be available for 15 10-hour shifts over a three-week period, to pay my own way to Vancouver and supply my own accommodation. Fortunately, my mother lives in downtown Vancouver.

On my way to and from her condominium to the bus stop each day, I was able to take in the carnival atmosphere on Robson Street, bustling with entertainment, a live CTV broadcast and excited red-and-white clad people — hugging, cheering and waving flags.

Volunteers received the jackets emblazoned with the Olympic rings, a fleece vest, two long-sleeved shirts, and a tuque, all in bright turquoise, as well as a pair of navy pants. Our accreditation passes enabled us to ride Vancouver buses for free. We got one hearty meal per shift, plus snacks. And every three shifts we got a prize: collectible pins, stuffed mascots, scarves, a silver keychain from Birks and a special Swatch watch.

But mostly we got memories. One Herald colleague, reading my Facebook updates, dubbed me the Forrest Gump of the Olympics for my many gold-medal moments.

Our press operations team of 21 included two supervisors from Switzerland and one from just outside Vancouver.

Volunteers, who ranged in age from 20-something students to retirees and from all walks of life, came from B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia. The Bluenose contingent included me, Kathleen Martin of Halifax, and Keith and Anne Matheson of Pictou, who also worked at the Calgary Olympics. A frequent visitor at Pacific Coliseum was former Herald entertainment editor Greg Guy who was working as a figure skating reporter for the Olympic news service.

Press operations volunteers staffed three areas: the help desk, where we answered questions for some of the more than 500 accredited print media from around the world; the mixed zone where reporters interviewed skaters, and the press tribune — tables erected in the stands with Internet connections where reporters watched events and filed stories.

I was fortunate to be working in the stands for the pairs long program, won by sentimental favourites Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao of China. I escorted the Chinese pairs gold medallists from the dressing room to the post-competition press conference — close enough to touch the heavy medals, though I did not dare.

I saw the ladies free program in which Canada’s Joannie Rochette claimed bronze with an inspirational skate, and the final night of short track where the Canadian men’s relay team claimed gold in a close, tense race where the cheers drowned out the announcers.

Canadian skaters Charles Hamelin and Francois-Louis Tremblay took gold and bronze respectively in the 500-metre race in which a chain spill saw Hamelin spin and cross the line backwards, Tremblay get knocked off his feet, hit the pads and recover, and U.S. star Apolo Anton Ohno get disqualified

One day on the early shift, which began at 6 a.m., assisting reporters covering practices, I was thrilled to be given a ticket to watch Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir’s flawless ice dance free skate that earned gold for Canada.

I was right at ice level for practices, so close that I had to jump back because I feared I would be hit in the head by the whizzing skate blade of Czech skater Michal Brezina doing a triple Axel too close to the boards, and so near I could feel the wind on my face as the short track skaters whipped round and round.

And after competitions ended at the Pacific Coliseum, I watched the gala skating exhibition from the media seats, pretended to be interviewed in the kiss-and-cry zone and raised my hands above my head on top of the podium.

On non-volunteer days, I visited a friend in Whistler where we celebrated right at the finish line as Jon Montgomery won skeleton gold, perhaps the happiest Canadian medal winner of all, and attended the dazzling opening ceremonies that made me proud to be a Canadian.

Click here to read the entire article.

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