Boston Marathon bombing was a meaningful “where were you” moment

As I examine the recollections of my short 25 years in existence, there are a few “where were you” moments that I can clearly remember. For the most part, they are sports moments. Some of them are wonderful and others still pain me to think about.

But as vividly as I remember the plays at home plate or the shots from the blue line, they didn’t change my life. In the grand scope of existence, they were meaningless beyond a few cherished memories and fodder between some friends and a round of beers.

 Yesterday I added a new “where were you” moment, one happening within sports but outside of the usual context. It was the bombing of the Boston Marathon. Those grisly events on Boylston St. mattered and I found myself considering the situation more than I thought I would.

I found out about the bombing while walking home from the grocery store. I was listening to the radio. It was Pittsburgh sports talk, but it briefly cut out to report the events at the Boston Marathon. After 15 seconds, it was back to regular programming.

I hurried back to my apartment and turned on the television. The images of the race immediately made me think of November 2011.

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My first notable “where were you” memory occurred 20 years ago. I remember sobbing in my parent’s living room after the Pittsburgh Pirates lost to the Atlanta Braves in the 1992 NLCS. Although I was only 5, I’ll never forget Sid Bream sliding into home plate, narrowly avoiding the tag of Spanky Lavalliere, thus ending my night and the ability of the Pirates organization to ever win again.

Most recently, I recall sitting at the end of a bar in New York City, nervously slugging a Honey Brown lager when the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Detroit Red Wings in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup finals. Marc-Andre Fleury’s leap across the goal mouth to snuff out Nicklas Lidstrom’s shot in the game’s waning seconds will forever exist in my head, readily available for access on a daily basis should I need to smile.

 But as depressing and joyful as those respective nights were, they weren’t real life. Because after all, sports are merely a diversion from the things that really matter, regardless of how much happiness or grief they cause us to feel.

 In actuality, it is the other “where were you” moments, the real-life instances that truly matter. These are the events that can alter people’s lives. They are life and death. They mold the world and drive change, whether it is social, economic, environmental, or what have you. For older generations, the Kennedy assassination conjures vivid descriptions easily remembered at a moment’s notice, as does the moon landing or the fall or the Berlin Wall. For me and my generation, Sept. 11, 2001 does the same.

 My memory of the attacks is as clear as the skies were that day. I was sitting in Mr. Lewis’ classroom in eighth grade with a room full of my peers and a few teachers. We watched the television mounted on the wall as the second plane horrifically glided into the second tower. It felt like a movie. I remember exiting the building later that day and craning my head upwards to observe an immaculate sky, devoid of clouds and any air planes. Even in cow country Pennsylvania, it was unusual and unnerving to witness that stillness above.

 Still, New York City felt like a world away and though I’ll never forget that day, I didn’t feel like I was part of it, even if I was standing under the same empty sky as those people in New York. I didn’t know anyone who died in the towers or on the planes, so it didn’t drive much emotion from me.

That always bothered me to an extent, because I should have felt patriotic, or sad or something. But I didn’t feel much. In retrospect, I may have been too young and naive to feel the emotion that I probably should have, so when the planes fell out of the sky and the buildings crashed down, it didn’t shake the ground beneath my feet.

 But yesterday felt different.

 The Boston Marathon bombing served up a very startling real-life “where were you moment” that I can’t help but feel linked to. It happened in a city no different than the one I live now and there was no reason those bombs couldn’t have burst in the Big Apple.

 I found myself tearing up at the sight of the horror, and that surprised me. Although I see murders and other tragedies on the news nearly every day, I feel disconnected to most of it, even if those events happen close to me. I’m used to seeing reports of violence and devastation but it never conjures any real emotions. I don’t know whether that’s a product of my desensitization from seeing news reports daily or it’s just a general lack of interest in a violent and harsh world I can’t relate to. I’ve never been victim to tragedy. I’ve never bared witness to terror.

 But after I saw the pictures and the footage of bloody sidewalks and terrified crowds and crying children and shattered windows and misery and anger and pain, I couldn’t help but react differently this time. It made me feel a little more human. This time I had a connection to what I was watching, albeit one conjured in my head.

I was touched by the Boston bombing because of the thought that it could have happened to me.

 In November 2011, I had gathered with a group of friends and thousands of strangers near the finish line on a chilly November afternoon. It was the day of the New York City Marathon. My roommate was in the race and I was packed in five or six people deep to see him finish. The sun was shining, just as it was in Boston yesterday. It had a celebratory atmosphere and parties were just as prevalent as competitors. It is a happy memory.

 My friend jogged by me as did many others, completing what was one of the most difficult but rewarding tasks of their lives. It was inspiring. A few runners began to stagger with the finish line in site. They were empty and though their hearts were willing, their muscles were weak. Some stopped. A few more resilient runners approached them, urging them to finish. “It’s not far now,” they would tell the depleted competitors. “You can do it.” They were proud people and I was proud of them.

 The crowd joined in with frenzy. Never had I ever rooted so hard for nameless strangers. Their heavy feet began to step again, driven by the thousands chanting their number. It was so redeeming to see folks in New York City forget themselves. In a loud and crowded city, it’s not uncommon for rudeness and indifference to act as rule, not exception, so to glimpse the opposite for a few hours restored a little bit of my faith in humanity.

 ****

 As I watched the replay of the bombs detonating over and over, there was one overriding thought in my head: What if an explosion happened at the New York City Marathon? What would have gone through the heads of my family if they found out a bomb went off near Central Park on marathon day and I was undoubtedly attending? It’s a sickening hypothetical made real and relatable by yesterday’s tragedy.

 Because of that hypothetical, the Boston Marathon bombing was the most visceral “where were you” moment I’ve ever had. Suddenly, the violent and alien world of tragedy didn’t seem light years away. I could relate.

 We’ll continue to hear news as the investigation in Boston rolls on and we’ll be reminded for a while about everything that took place. Future marathons will be altered and security will tighten at stadiums and races around the world. In time, the memory will fizzle and drift to the back of our minds. It’ll boil down to a “where were you” moment for most of us, just like 9/11 or Kennedy’s death. I can tell my kids about it someday and they probably won’t think much of it. It won’t be forgotten, but it’ll be just another tragic memory. It won’t change many of us.

 But I hope the memory of yesterday serves more of a purpose than just an afterthought. I hope it changes me, just a little. I want to remember my hypothetical. I want to remember that fear juxtaposed with my memory of the New York City Marathon. I want to remember how I thought it could have happened to me.

 When life is at its worst and I’m ready to give up, I want to remember it could be worse. I could have lost someone I loved and someone could have lost me. The only difference was that some sick person or people decided to plant explosives in Boston in 2013 instead of New York in 2011.

 Hopefully, it will remind me that I’m pretty damn lucky to have what and who I have. I hope it reminds me that I GET to watch the Pirates lose and the Penguins win. I hope it reminds me that I’m fortunate enough to reminisce about Spanky and Marc-Andre and that I GET to pretend that those things matter.

Where was I the day of the Boston Marathon bombing?

Hopefully, I remember that I was in New York City, and I felt the explosions from 200 miles away.

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Emotion Ties All Olympic Athletes, Viewers Together

When the opening ceremonies of the Olympics got underway on Friday night, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming amount of anticipation for the days to follow. As an invested sports fan and writer, there’s nothing better than having something to watch, non-stop, for 17 straight days.

Like most proud Americans, I enjoy watching the events in which the United States is favored – swimming, women’s gymnastics, and men’s basketball to name a few – but in the end, I want to watch everything.  Because regardless of their popularity, every Olympic athlete deserves our attention.

It’s been only four days since the massive Olympic cauldron was lit in London and I’ve already watched handball, basketball, swimming, archery, diving, table tennis, equestrian, shooting, fencing, water polo, badminton, volleyball, beach volleyball, boxing, soccer, gymnastics, rowing, tennis, weight lifting and who could forget, white-water canoeing slalom.

Outside of Olympic competition, I routinely watch three of the above-mentioned sports (basketball, boxing and tennis). But that’s one reason I love the Games so much. It’s not only the coverage of popular and mainstream sports, it’s also the display of the obscure athletes that shine on a world-wide stage only once every four years. Little known athletes and world-wide superstars share common ground here.

The Olympics is the great equalizer.

As much as I enjoy watching familiar faces at the Games, I take equal satisfaction in watching the performances of the unrecognizable athletes who may never again have a chance to be in the lime light. These are the skeet shooters, table tennis players and kayakers who train every day of their lives for one moment in the sun, to represent their country and show the world that just because you never heard of them doesn’t mean they aren’t important.

From a monetary standpoint, it’s clear that one sport doesn’t mean more than another in the Olympics. The worth of a 2012 Olympic gold medal for the 10 meter air pistol event is equal to the worth of a men’s basketball gold medal – about $644. And using the United States Olympic Committee medal bonuses as an example, the amounts of $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze applies to the full gamut of U.S. athletes, regardless of sport.

But more importantly, all Olympic athletes share the pride of representing their country and the backing of their country’s citizens. And when it comes to emotion, the Games provide a level ground from which athletes of all sports fall or ascend from.

When U.S. gymnast Jordyn Wieber fell just short of qualifying for the individual all-around final on Sunday, you could see and feel her devastation. She said “it was a little bit of a disappointment” but the hollow longing in her eyes was palpable. It was more than slight disappointment.

It was agony.

This was the event that she was supposed to own. She knew it and the rest of the world did, too. Weiber was the reigning all-around champion and was heavily favored to win the event, but a wobble on the balance beam and a slight step out of bounds during the floor event dropped her to third place behind fellow Americans Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas. Because a rule states only two members of a country’s team can move onto the final 24, Weiber could not advance. As the U.S. team exited the arena and started doing interviews, Douglas beamed her trademark smile from ear to ear. Raisman cried tears of joy. Wieber wept to the contrary.

It made for terrific television from both an entertainment standpoint and that of identifiable human emotion. It felt very human to experience the conflict the team was going through. Sure, the American group was pleased that two of its members made the final, but at the same time, the team shared the emotional burden of Wieber’s uncanny shortfall.

I found myself identifying just as much with the emotions of German fencer Britta Heidemann when she lost the gold medal in overtime of the women’s individual epee event on Monday. Although this event received next to no press attention, Heidemann was the defending Olympic champion in the event, winning gold in Beijing in 2008, and that made her one of the favorites to bring home the gold again from London.

Admittedly, I know very little about fencing and even less about the specific Olympic events within it. But I didn’t need to know anything about the sport to realize how much it hurt Heidemann to lose gold in OT.

After coming from behind to force a sudden death stage, it seemed like Heidemann held the momentum advantage. But as she aggressively advanced and struck toward her foe, it wasn’t her weapon that touched first. Green lights lit up on the stage, a visible sign of her demise.

After exchanging gracious kisses on the cheek with her opponent Yana Shemyakina of the Ukraine, Heidemann quickly paced into the shadows of the arena, away from the searching cameras. There wasn’t much time to examine the expression on her face, but a split second was all it took to recognize her despondency.

Britta Heidemann moments after her gold medal defeat. (Screenshot from NBC)

In contrast, Shemyakina tore her mask off in celebration after landing the winning blow. A deep and joyful embrace of her coach was followed by her acknowledgment of the roaring crowd, while she wrapped herself in the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag.

Heidemann displayed a smile during the award ceremony; after all, she earned a silver medal for her efforts. But you have to think that it was something of a mask, covering up the disappointment of being within one strike of winning back-to-back golds.

That’s what made it fascinating. How did she really feel after losing the gold, but still achieving silver? Were her emotions of disappointment greater than those of achievement, despite the grin?

 

The human element made it great, not the pure sporting perspective.

It is these moments of indescribable joy and unthinkable disappointment that make the Olympics so captivating. Whether they are the most famous athletes in the world or the least known competitors of little-talked about sports, they encapsulate the raw emotion that anyone can appreciate.

Ultimately, what links the big-time Olympic athletes, no-name Olympic athletes and average people watching on television is pride in our respective countries and the emotion generated by the drive to win Olympic hardware.

Because when our Olympians – recognizable or not – win medals, so do we.

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