There’s a really unique experience that forms around the Olympic games, where people who are normally on the other side of a TV screen are suddenly right in front of your face. It takes awhile for the shock to wear off, but eventually you get oddly used to seeing Jan Ebeling chatting on his cell phone outside Starbucks, and waiting for the crosswalk signal to change next to Rodrigo Pessoa. That said, over the course of our first 11 days here, there have been two experiences that stood out as quite notable for me.
The first took place on Day 1 of O.F.F. (Operation Foam Finger). We deployed the foam finger downtown in London proper, roaming around along the riverbank near Tower Bridge. I was instantly and constantly mobbed with people wanting a photo with the finger, and it was honestly a little overwhelming at first. Among the crowds were people of all nationalities, and English was not always an option (fortunately, when you’re dressed as a giant foam finger, people pretty much just want to pose with you, not talk to you).
Sarah before fans started gathering for photos.
One of the people who sidled up to me for a photo op was a young Japanese man with a familiar-looking bicep sleeve on. It wasn’t until later that I realized I’d posed for a photo with Japanese men’s gymnastics Olympic team member Kazuhito Tanaka! And I didn’t even get my own copy of the picture! #FoamFingerFail.
Kazuhito Tanaka of Japan competes on the rings in the Artistic Gymnastics Men’s Individual All-Around final on Day 5 of the London 2012 Olympic Games. (Photo credits: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images Europe)
The second encounter was much more of a win, and no less random and surprising. After a long day of watching/tweeting/photographing dressage, then shooting some SmartPak video and wrapping the USEF Network piece, I was borderline stumbling home and in dire need of food. It was 11:00 at night in sleepy little Greenwich, and just about nothing was left open. Just as I was beginning to seriously entertain thoughts of sugar packets and Diet Coke for dinner, I remembered that Kathy (USEF Network) and David (Network producer) had recommended a local falafel joint that was delicious and open late. With my will to live revived, I set off in search of the place.
When I found it, it was exactly as they described – a place you’d probably never consider entering, but that’s kind of how you know it’s great. I ducked in, quickly placed my order and collapsed into a chair next to the rest of the folks awaiting their late-night take-out.
The gentleman across the table from me started to chat me up, even though I was sure I looked positively bedraggled. And I suppose I did look as worn as I felt because he mistook me for a Team USA rider at the end of a long day. Really great to know that my “normal hair” looks like “helmet hair.” Le sigh.
After we straightened out that I was actually from SmartPak, he and I talked horses, supplements, nutrition and marketing, as he was the owner of a unique new feed company out of New Zealand. “Ah, a kiwi,” I remarked, “Congrats on your bronze.” (Just the day before NZ took home the team bronze in eventing.) He smiled and said thanks, and that it’d been great, though perhaps more so for his wife than him. “Oh, is she a rider?” I wondered aloud with a smile, thinking how much we female riders can bore our non-riding male counterparts sometimes. And that was when he informed me that his wife, in fact, was the owner of Flintstar, one of Team NZ’s bronze medal horses. And I’d bumped into him in a falafel takeout line. Only at the Olympics.
Jonelle Richards of New Zealand on Flintstar competes in the Cross Country phase of the Eventing competition of the Olympic Games. (Photo credits: Julia Vynokurova/Getty Images Europe)
Much like probably every horse at the games, Flintstar’s story is a bit unique. The bay thoroughbred was foaled in New Zealand and brought to the UK by Darnelle Price, wife of my falafel friend and sister-in-law of 4-star eventer Tim Price. As Tim and Darnelle started to realize Flintstar’s potential, Tim took over the ride to begin bringing the horse along for 4-star competition. However, in 2010 Tim broke his leg, so his training partner and fiancé Jonelle Richards took over the ride so the horse could continue progressing. Jonelle and Flinstar got on so well that even though he fully recovered, Tim never got the ride back. Then Jonelle and Flintstar made the team and took home Olympic bronze!