A year ago I got an e-mail from WTF (World Taekwondo Federation) Canada reminding me to apply to volunteer for the Pan Am Games. I was walking back to my hotel in Bellevue, Washington one afternoon in January when the e-mail offering me a position came. I started getting excited right then and there. I was going to be on the Field of Play Crew for Taekwondo!
…And then the e-mails started coming in reminding me of all of the training I would have to do – first on-line, and eventually in person – before the Toronto 2015 Games would begin. This wasn’t going to be like the Canada Open, where you show up and do what you are told. We had to do several hours of on-line training (about the games in general, and about Taekwondo (and the other martial arts) in particular. We had to watch videos, read manuals, spend an afternoon going down to the UDAC (Uniform Distribution and Accreditation Centre) to pick up our uniforms, and then an entire day of in-person training at our actual venue (in the case of Taekwondo that is the Hershey Centre most of the time, but this week it is the Mississauga Sports Complex).
We came in the week before to set up the mats in the practice arena, and there were volunteers all the way through that week, but the games are two weeks long, and the Taekwondo component is only four days. For me, the Games started Sunday.
It is hard to explain just how great an honour it is to be here. I was assigned as a Marshall. My job (not just me – there were twelve of us) had the job of holding anything that the athlete was not going to take into the ring. When the athlete came into the prep area (backstage) we meet them with our large box. They give us their accreditations, and put anything into the box – hats, chains, shoes, drinks, whatever. We escort them through the verification area – they are checked top to bottom with metal detectors and more – and then wait with them to get called into the arena.
The progression into the arena is regimented: Flag Bearer (a fellow volunteer) then the athlete, then the coach, then the team doctor, then… ME. Yes, I was part of the progression into the arena, which means I was on TV… a lot. I followed the athlete into the arena, waited until he walked on to the mat, and then sat right behind the coach. What an incredible experience!
Some of the athletes wanted to talk, some of them wanted to be left alone. Either way was fine. No matter what they wanted I accommodated them. Most of the coaches and doctors chatted with me, but I was very careful to stay out of the athlete’s way because I didn’t want to disturb them. However EVERYONE I worked with got a little gift… a keychain, a lanyard, a pin, something. Every morning I went to Dollarama and bought $25 worth of tchotchkes to give out… a little memento. I got a lot of thank-yous, a lot of smiles, a few hugs, and a few pins. It was worth every penny!
At the end of the match, win or lose, I was waiting with my box to join the progression out of the arena. Some of the athletes stopped to talk to reporters, many shook hands or took pictures with fans, and then we were out, behind the scenes again. I took their armour from them, gave them their little gift, and wished them luck going forward. I escorted them back to the Training Area, and that is where I left them.
This was, obviously, not my first rodeo. I have worked at several Taekwondo tournaments, not to mention the Junior Maccabiah in Montreal. But like the rest of the volunteers, this was my first time at the Toronto 2015 Games. It was a blast, and I will remember it forever.
I noticed two things that warmed my heart. Firstly the athletes… they are kids. They are the best in the world (or among them), and most of them aren’t much older than my son. Maybe that is more an effect of my getting old than of them being young. The second thing was the sportsmanship. In the ring they were trying to kick each other in the head, but behind the scenes, and even on the mat before and after the match, they were hugging, shaking hands, and joking. I don’t know if that has more to do with the fact that we are all martial artists, or if it is that they are athletes; whatever it is, it was great to see. Losers congratulated winners, winners consoled losers. It was great.
Certainly one of the great highlights – in a week replete with them – was being in Rafael Alba’s corner for both his semi-finals match and his Gold Medal match. I was his marshal for the semi, and his coach asked me to join them again for the finals. As cool as it is to escort the athlete into the arena, and to sit in his corner as he (or she) fights, there are few cooler experiences than when he hugs you after the match; I stood quietly to the side as he spoke with reporters from ESPN and other networks, and then backstage, right after he took off his chest protector, his coach took a picture of us. Yes, this picture was taken less than three minutes after he won the Gold Medal in the 80kg division. He shook my hand and hugged me again, and then I rushed him back to the training area to change into his track suit that he would wear on the podium. I may have been dirty, but I will never forget that moment, Watch for Rafa in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio… He’s going to win there too!
I don’t know if I will be able to volunteer again – Rio is in a year, and that would be an expensive prospect. This was, for me, likely a once in a lifetime opportunity. And what an experience it was. Thank you to everyone, and keep fighting!