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Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie: “It felt like an out-of-body experience”

Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie represented the Bahamas in track and field at the 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, winning 4x100m relay silver in 1996, 4x100m relay gold in 2000 and 200m bronze in 2004. In both 2004 and 2008, she carried her nation’s flag at the Opening Ceremony, while at Rio 2016, she got a further taste of the ceremonies, as coach of the Bahamas track and field team.

The great thing about track and field is that it comes in the second week of the Games so that means we have the opportunity to go to the Opening Ceremony because we have plenty of time to recover. But the strange thing about being an athlete at the opening ceremony is that for huge chunks of the ceremony, you’re behind the scenes so you don’t get to see what the crowd in the stadium or the viewers watching on television see. But having said that, being a part of the opening ceremony is always incredible.

For so long, I had dreamt of being in the Olympic Games and finally, in Atlanta in 1996, I made it. I was so excited to be there. That is what every athlete dreams about, it’s the pinnacle of sport and it’s where dreams are made. And I went to the University of Georgia which was just down the road from the Olympic Stadium so that made it even more special. For so long, I had wanted to be at an Olympic Games and finally, I was there – it was a dream come true. And I got the chance to meet some amazing people in Atlanta including Muhammad Ali, which was absolutely incredible.

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To go to the Closing Ceremony in 1996 as a medallist was unbelievable and at the time, it felt like an out-of-body experience. It’s such a blessing to be at an Opening and then to see the Games through until the Closing Ceremony. I remember at the Closing Ceremony, they showed the Games being passed onto Sydney, where they were going to be four years later. I think it’s similar for so many athletes – if you’ve won, your goal is to go back in four years and repeat that and if you haven’t won, the goal is to go back and get that medal that you want so much. I remember seeing the pictures of the 2000 Games at the Closing Ceremony in Atlanta and I remember thinking – ‘I’m going to be there and my goal is to be on the podium’. So that gave me motivation going into the next four-year cycle.

Getting the chance to go to Sydney in 2000 was great – I love the Australian people and I love the accent too. Every time you go to an Olympic opening ceremony or closing ceremony, you take something different away from it and it really warms your heart. It gives you extra motivation and an extra push going forward too. And to win Olympic gold at those Games was just amazing – that was a first for me and a first for our country.

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To be flag-bearer in 2004 was truly amazing – it’s such a privilege. It makes you think that you’ve done something really special that your country has considered you worthy of this honour. At the Ceremony, I remember just being all smiles and just thinking ‘wow’ over and over. As I was waiting to go into the stadium, I was definitely nervous - I was telling myself: ‘don’t trip, don’t fall, make sure you smile, represent your country well’. You know that there’s thousands in the stadium and millions of people watching at home so you definitely want to do a good job. But I tried to take it all in and enjoyed it to the max – I loved it.

To be nominated to carry the flag for a second time in Beijing in 2008 came as a complete surprise to me. In my mind, it had been a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I think it’s good to give other athletes the opportunity so, after Athens, I thought someone else would be given the chance in 2008. And I even remember making the recommendation that someone else should be given the flag in Beijing so when I was told it was me again, I couldn’t believe it.

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When I was asked to be flag-bearer for the second time, I remember crying and being soft-hearted and thinking ‘wow, you guys trust me and love me that much? Of course I’m going to accept it’. I think that I was able to appreciate it much more the second time. And I know most athletes wouldn’t admit this but I’m going to – I remember looking to see where the television camera was in the stadium so that I could look straight into it and wave and smile and shout ‘hey mom’. It is just an amazing opportunity and experience.

What’s so special about the Bahamas team is that we’re always pretty small, so in many cases, the athletes know each other well. Many of us have been at multiple Olympic Games together, so our team is a bit more intimate than some others which makes it a different experience. We’re all so proud to represent our country.

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In Rio, I was there as a coach rather than an athlete and that was so special for me. There was no stress, which was great. When I was an athlete, I always enjoyed the Opening Ceremony, but I was so focused on performing that there was always some pressure but as a coach, I was able to fully relax. I think it was even more special being there as a coach, although I wouldn’t admit that to the athletes. And the way the organisers set the Opening Ceremony up in Rio was great because we were able to sit in the middle of the stadium and watch the show. Each opening ceremony is an incredible opportunity to be in the presence of amazing athletes and each host country is different, but they’re all equally fantastic.

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