Fresh from serving on the official U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, two-time Olympic medalist and three-time World Champion women’s hockey player Caitlin Cahow is sharing her observations about the people, politics and stories surrounding the Games with NewNowNext.
It certainly has been an interesting two months.
On December 17, I was sitting at my desk, preparing for a final exam in constitutional law, when I got an email from the White House. Attached was a press release listing the Official White House Delegation to the Sochi Olympic Games, and I was on it. Though I had known for a few days that this was coming, there is really no way to prepare for the moment your president asks you to represent both him and our country.
The nerves that day, and the next as I sat my exam, were nothing compared with what was coming. Immediately after I left my exam I went to a television studio and went live with several media outlets. The question on everyone’s mind: How did it feel to be a part of the president’s message to Russia?
While I had been open about my personal life for a number of years, I never saw myself as a public figure when it came to advocacy. I was active in the LGBT community, with the You Can Play Project and as a chair of the LAMBDA Legal Society at Boston College Law School, but I was hardly well known for that work. When the world’s focus began to shift to Russian policy in anticipation of the upcoming Olympics, the issues hit home for me on a personal level.
I have been very fortunate to grow up in a safe and accepting environment, none more so than my hockey community. The more I began thinking about LGBT issues in Russia, the more guilty I felt about how little I had spoken out and been honest about my life. I had the opportunity and the platform to make a difference, and I hadn’t engaged it during my playing career. So I chose to speak publicly about my thoughts concerning human rights, politics and the Olympics.
I had no idea the White House would be paying attention.
It didn’t take long for the media to latch on to the message of the delegation—though overall, the interpretation by the press has been severely myopic. I did not go to Russia solely representing the LGBT community. I am proud to be a member of that community, but this moment and this message extends far beyond one group. We are bringing a message of universal equality, which knows no classifications and refuses to discriminate for any reason.
Most importantly, we are choosing to focus on a positive, constructive discourse. Despite many efforts to assail motives and assign political jabs, we refuse to be dragged down into misunderstanding and intolerance. We are able to do this because we firmly believe in the power of sport to bring out the best in each of us for the greater good of humanity. Our goal is to serve that ideal.
Team USA at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics. (Photo: Getty)
The focus of the Olympics should be and will be on the athletes. They have earned it, and we will all benefit from the grace, sportsmanship, power and inspiration they demonstrate with each performance. To become good enough to compete at this level, you can’t allow anything to distract you from your goals and dreams. I know from personal experience that when it’s the Olympics, you are not going to let anything dissuade you from bringing your absolute best. So while I want athletes to have every chance for success, I also believe that the conversations that are taking place around the world between many different people, will not mar the athletes experience.
They will, however, have a lasting effect in the same spirit of the Olympic movement. We are incredibly proud as a delegation to be witnessing the dreams of our remarkable American athletes. And we hope that the all-encompassing nature of the Olympic spirit can accommodate the dreams of so many around the world who are fighting to be treated with dignity and respect.
Cahow with Brian Boitano, Janet Napolitano, Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors
and Ambassador Michael McFaul at the opening ceremonies in Sochi. (Source: Twitter)
I approached our arrival in Sochi with a certain amount of anxious anticipation: I was excited, but I was also a little guarded. The security threats and the buildup to our participation kept me on my toes, but as soon as I saw the first smiling volunteer at the airport, I knew I was at the Olympic Games as I have always known them. The Olympic volunteers spend years preparing for the Games. Their training process is rigorous, and their pride is fierce. They are completely devoted to the success of the Games and an indispensable part of the welcoming committee.
This same overwhelming hospitality met us at every venue, hotel and checkpoint (of which there were many). There is no doubt in my mind that the Russian Federation left nothing on the table when it came to security, often requiring multiple security checkpoints to enter the venues as well as tickets and credentials synched to our passports. The ring of steel felt to me like the safest place on the planet.
Equally, the American and Russian support staff that we had as a delegation didn’t take any chances. It is a humbling experience for your country to take such care in protecting you. We had a fantastic security detail, which accompanied us around Sochi. Each and every one of us recognized the significance of our delegation and we each played a role in its success—whether you were speaking in front of a camera, driving our van or running advance.
The devotion of our detail made me think about the servicemen and women who risk their lives every day to keep us safe. I am so grateful for their sacrifices and in in awe of their selflessness. They are the true heroes wearing our nation’s colors around the world around the clock. The greatest part is that we didn’t experience any problems, difficulties or confrontations. Our delegation was very visible at all events, and we felt nothing but welcome during our stay. I knew early on that this trip would change my life, and if I can change one mind or make one person feel understood, safe and supported, our mission will be a success.