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To be at the Opening Ceremony in Atlanta in 1996 was pretty incredible. I remember walking towards the entrance to the stadium and it was like everything was in slow motion. There were thousands and thousands of people, and because we were on home turf, they were all screaming “USA, USA”. I remember feeling a sense of déjà vu because when I was a young kid, I used to dream about competing in these large arenas, but I would never have guessed that it would be an event of the magnitude of the Olympic Games and I would definitely never have guessed that it would be in the sport of sprint kayaking. So to be able to walk into the Olympic ceremony in Atlanta and feel what that whole Olympic fever was like was incredible.
My journey to the Olympic Games had been quite a rollercoaster. When I was younger, I was a runner, but in 1986, I was working on a construction site and I was involved in a serious accident. I made contact with three live electrical cables using a jackhammer and suffered a severe electric shock. Initially, the severe shock stopped my heart. In addition, I also sustained serious electrical burns and exit wounds over 15 per cent of my body, with major damage to both knees. Nearly a third of my knee compartments were disintegrated and due to the severe damage to both legs, doctors were recommending amputation. However, Dr Malcolm Lesavoy, a plastic surgeon from UCLA Medical Center, devised an innovative procedure and was able to help save my legs. It was a huge blow though – as a kid, I’d always been extremely sporty and I felt like that had all been taken away from me.
My recovery was a long road and a huge rehabilitation process, and during that I was, of course, not thinking about going to the Olympic Games. During my recovery, I had to accept what had happened to me physically and that’s why I went along and joined a local canoe club as part of my rehabilitation – the organisation and sport was a great fit for me. It was all about the inclusion, and that camaraderie helped fuel my fire to get myself back to a better lifestyle. Canoe paddling was a perfect match for me. It was an upper body sport and I had limitations with my legs in the aftermath of my accident. So for me to go through such a tough journey and to ultimately make it to the Olympic Games was incredible. It was difficult to believe that I was there competing in the Olympic Games and my dream came true.
At the Closing Ceremony in Atlanta, everything was getting wound up and I remember the part of the Ceremony where they were passing the torch to the next host city, which was Sydney. That was when the reality hit me and I thought I would definitely set my sights on another Olympic Games. So I took a photograph of the Sydney 2000 logo during the Closing Ceremony and when I got home, I put that photo on my wall and I remember looking at it on a daily basis and saying to myself – my goal is to compete in the Olympics in Sydney.
A lot can happen in four years but everything went relatively smoothly during that Olympic cycle, and I made the team for the 2000 Games. Just days before the start of the Olympic Games, I remember my team captain coming back from a Team USA meeting and saying to me: “You’ll never believe it, you’ve been selected to carry the flag at the Opening Ceremony”. I couldn’t believe it and in fact, I initially thought he was joking. But then it all set in.
It was so incredible to be selected as flag-bearer – I was so proud and honoured to be an American, and to be elected by my peers was just an unbelievable feeling. As I prepared to walk into the stadium, I was so nervous. You think nerves before competition are bad? You should have seen me before the Opening Ceremony!
As we were waiting to march into the stadium, an official was shouting “Team USA, get ready”, and I remember telling myself, whatever you do, don’t trip. My heart was beating out of my chest because I was so proud and honoured. I could see the huge TV screen and all of a sudden, the cameras were on Team USA. I remember taking a deep breath and looking behind me, and all I could see for a quarter of a mile was a sea of red, white and blue. That’s when all of the emotions hit me.
I walked out and was waving the flag and it was just an incredible experience. Carrying the flag is one of the most memorable moments of my life. Nowadays, when I go to various functions, lots of other athletes are introduced as Olympic champions and then they’ll introduce me as “Olympic flag-bearer” – it’s a unique honour and it’s an incredible feeling to be amongst such a unique alumnus of Olympians. There are so few Olympians who have ever been flag-bearers at an Olympic Games opening ceremony, so it’s quite incredible to be one of them.