Into the darkness they marched, arms linked, eyes wide. Flashes popped, thousands of tiny supernovas spangling the humid night inside Athens Olympic Stadium. Beth Alford-Sullivan, a track coach, walked in a row of eight as the U.S. team entered for the opening ceremony of the 2004 Games.
She waved an olive branch given by someone among the throngs lining the way to the stadium. American flags rippled in the stands. Onward, the enchanted team waded through the roars, toward the field to join their peers from around the world in celebration.
“I don’t think I stopped smiling the whole time,” Alford-Sullivan said.
But the real party happened afterward. Back at the athletes’ village, Greek music filled the dining commons. Olympians, still in their parade uniforms, mingled and danced across the floor — no interpreters needed.
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“It was literally 2:30 in the morning, and it was just absolutely one of the best moments in time, to see everybody in their garb, so proud, and to have the Olympic spirit so strong,” Alford-Sullivan said.
The scene would have been hard for her to imagine two years earlier. Then again, when the USA Track and Field official phoned, she couldn’t think clearly at all. She was five years into her current job as the Penn State women’s track and field and cross-country coach.
One call added the Olympics to her résumé.
“I was in complete shock,” she said. “I actually said, ‘Are you kidding?’ I thought for sure someone was pulling my leg.”
From an early age, she wanted to be in the Games. She ran for the University of Minnesota, and there the dream faded in reality’s cold light.
“I didn’t have a gift, talent-wise, to make it there as an athlete,” she said.
Instead, the gift came from her peers, who apparently admired her performance on the 2001 World Championship staff enough to tab her for the Olympics. Alford-Sullivan, now 42, was so overjoyed she immediately called her parents and best friend to share the news of her forthcoming trip to ... Beijing.
So she was four years and a few thousand miles off, as her friend gently noted. Who could blame her for being thrown a bit? She had just received the top honor in her profession.
“From the Olympic trials to the Olympics, it’s about five or six weeks that you get to know these people and realize that you’re a primary point person in their lives, at the highest stress point in their lives,” Alford-Sullivan said. “Their dreams are based on this, and they’ve poured their hearts and souls and sweat and tears into making the team, and now here it is and you’re assigned to these kids.”
Nowhere did she feel more awed than at the opening ceremony.
She transfixed, stood wrapped in the din, soaking in every minute. Having one of her Penn State stars, Connie Moore, with her on the team made the night even better.
On the stadium field, soon-to- be fierce competitors wandered and chatted like conventioneers.
Alford-Sullivan found herself talking to Allen Iverson, LeBron James and other U.S. basketball players. With a game the next day, they were dragging from the late hour and heat.
“So we track people were giving them stretches and trying to help them out a little bit,” she said.
By lending a hand in the women’s marathon, she caught an exciting race.
She volunteered to camp out at the finish line and monitor the progress of the American runners. On the Jumbotron, she watched in disbelief and joy as Deena Kastor, an old friend, moved through the pack on a brutally hot day.
As Kastor ran into the stadium to claim the bronze — the first U.S. women’s marathon medal in 20 years — Alford- Sullivan and the marathon coach rejoiced together.
“Deena was just in shock, her hands on her face, just absolute shock that she was earning this medal,” Alford- Sullivan said.
Another celebration stayed with her as well.
On an Athens tour, she had gotten to know the track coach from the east African country of Eritrea. He brought only three athletes, but one took the bronze in the men’s 10,000- meter race.
“He was just over the moon and just jumping and jumping,” Alford-Sullivan said. “He had no cell phone, no access to anything. So he asked, ‘Can I use your cell phone to call our president?’ And he called his president.”
She still laughs in delight at the memory.
“It was absolutely fantastic,” she said. “You just made these intense friendships over a short period of time.”
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.