I have never been to the Olympic Games before and I am a reluctant traveler. I have taken one long trip in my life, from the east coast where I was born and raised, to Haines, Alaska where I have lived for 29 years. The good news is that my London Olympic companion is a seasoned traveler. My mother-in-law Joanne Lende (Grandma Joanne) has seen her daughter, Karen O'Connor, compete at two other Olympics in Seoul and Atlanta. This will be Karen's fifth, and at 54, she is the oldest U.S. Olympian. "Does this mean I'm the oldest Olympic mother?" Grandma Joanne, who is 80, said, and asked me to book her a hair appointment before we leave. Which isn't really necessary, since she looks like she's at the Kentucky Derby when she's sitting on my Alaskan deck.
Grandma Joanne's Olympic plan, and thus mine, is to arrive a few days early, to acclimate and to experience the city before the huge crush, watch all four days of equestrian eventing, and then stay a few days afterward and find something interesting to see that won't be too hard to find tickets for, like ping-pong, and perhaps take a side trip before heading back home. She does not want to stay for the whole Olympics. Two weeks of watching sporting events in a crowd is a long time. She thinks we should have lunch in Paris one afternoon. The high-speed train only takes an hour. "We could eat in cafe and then go to the Louvre."
We learned on July 2nd that Karen and the horse she rides, Mr. Medicott, had made the team. I know, July 2? Seriously? A little over three weeks before the games begin? But yes, that is when the US eventing team of five horse and rider combinations was picked. The short list of nine riders and 12 horses (some have more than one, most, like Karen's, are owned by people other than the riders) all flew to England a few weeks prior for the final try-outs. The horses went Fed-Ex, in stall-like containers on cargo planes. The riders flew commercial airlines.
Since Grandma Joanne was at our house at the time, and since she wanted to go to see her daughter compete, and since it is so far from Alaska to the England, and since I am the one person in our family who is a little afraid of airplanes and travel, but am friends with my sister-in-law and would love in my heart to see her in what will probably be her last Olympics, even if my body is a tad anxious about it, I became Grandma Joanne's traveling companion.
We quickly booked outrageously expensive bad seats from Alaska to Washington DC to London. We will be staying with Grandma Joanne's friend Gill (pronounced Jill) in a seventeenth century thatched roofed cottage a short train ride from the action. The athletes each get two tickets to their event, and Joanne and I will have Karen's. When Grandma Joanne asked Karen if we had tickets to the opening ceremonies, which she can't wait to see, Karen asked her to look for two on e-Bay. Turns out the athletes only march in and out, but don't get to attend the gala blast off.
"We'll get in. It won't be a problem," the Olympic viewing veteran Grandma Joanne said. "In Atlanta where was plenty of room once we got there because the seats were so hot you couldn't sit on them." London is wet, so if we pack rain gear we'll be fine. We will need it to watch Karen anyway. Equestrian eventing is all outside in Greenwich Park. It is compromised of three phases. The first day, July 28, is dressage, in which the rider wears a top hat and tails and the horse performs compulsory movements in a 60X20 sand arena and is judged on accuracy, obedience, suppleness, and flexibility. This will take two days to complete in London, on the third day, July 30, the same rider and horse combinations will race over a challenging cross-country course of about 45 solid natural looking obstacles and jumps. For this phase the rider dresses like a jockey. The third and final phase is on July 31. Stadium jumping is what most people envision of when they think of horse shows. The same horse and rider that danced gracefully in dressage and galloped through the mud in cross-country, will lightly leap over colorful rail fences. The top three scores from each team are totaled to determine which teams medal. Then the top 25 individuals do one more round of stadium jumping to determine individual medalists.
Grandma Joanne is looking forward to the socializing as much as the eventing, which can be dangerous, especially the cross-country phase. Many of the riders and their families know each other and are friends. Captain Mark Phillips coaches the US team, but his daughter Zara Phillips, the queen's granddaughter, is on the British team. My brother-in-law, David O'Connor, coaches the Canadian team. Mr. Medicott used to be on the German team.
Grandma Joanne and I are resting between long flights at the O'Connor training farm in Virginia. I look at the Olympic medals on my sister-in-law's coffee table (David won a gold, they both also have silver and bronze medals), as Grandma Joanne and I have a drink before dinner, I ask my mother-in-law what's the best part about the Olympics? "The whole world coming together in a competition that you have to be so proud of," she says. When I ask what's the secret to enjoying it, she says, "Above all, you need to be friendly. You absolutely must talk to people. It makes for a much more fulfilling experience." Even a person who isn't going to London could take that to heart.