Residents run for the border as Olympics open in Vancouver

February 16, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

Jo-Ellen Smith (center), a Cougar Mountain resident and Winter Olympics volunteer, cuts the ribbon at the Whistler, British Columbia, athletes’ village. Contributed

After the International Olympic Committee awarded the winter games to Vancouver in 2003, longtime Olympics fans in Issaquah hatched plans to attend. The games in nearby British Columbia mark the Olympics to open closest to Western Washington — closer than Salt Lake City, Utah, the host of the 2002 games, and Calgary, Alberta, the site of the 1988 competition.Local fans content to watch the Olympics unfold on television in years past instead searched for event tickets, added names to waiting lists and drew up travel plans to the province just a few hours north.

“My wife Cora and I have been together for 35 years, we have not missed following closely a Summer or Winter Olympics — our favorite being the winter games,” Joe Curre said. “And every time we’ve watched the opening ceremony, we have always said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to be there?’ So how could we not go to Vancouver with it being so close?”

Almost 60,000 people packed BC Place Stadium for the Feb. 12 opening ceremony — including the Curres.

“My husband and I have always wanted to go to the Olympics together,” Cora Curre said. “We love to travel, but I can’t think of any other event except the Olympics where you get to see so many people from other cultures in one place with a common goal — just the love of sports, competition and camaraderie.”

Kari Mattson got caught up in the speed-skating craze after watching Federal Way skater Apolo Ohno compete at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

“We never really knew much about short track speed skating until then,” she said. “There is something to say about the excitement and the thrill of this fast paced sport that became our favorite winter Olympic sport to watch.”

Mattson scored tickets to the men’s short track 500 meter and 5,000 meter relay finals after she learned Ohno planned to compete at the 2010 games.

“Being so close to Vancouver, this is something we definitely wanted to experience and be a part of this once in a lifetime opportunity,” she said.

Ken and Marci Lichtenwalter, both lifelong sports fans, thought the chance to attend the Vancouver games might elude them. They applied last summer to a ticket lottery, but received bad news in December.

“We’re just going to sit at home and watch them on TV like we always do,” Ken Lichtenwalter recalled.

With the opening ceremony just weeks away, the Lichtenwalters searched for tickets anew — with success. They secured tickets to hockey, speed skating, figure skating and ice dancing events, as well as accommodations.

“Now that it’s just north of us, we felt that it was something we could not pass up,” Ken Lichtenwalter said.

Eliza Jang, a native Vancouverite and Issaquah resident, watched her hometown transform in the years leading up to the Olympics. Although her itinerary includes no sporting events, Jang plans to partake in the cultural offerings — like a Wilco concert — staged alongside the athletic competitions.

Jang also worked at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, as a go-fer for the Dutch team. She planned to retrieve some of the collectible pins she collected then from storage to swap in Vancouver.

Jeremy Jensen and his family also plan to trade the colorful pins emblazoned with Olympics logos, mascots and sponsors.

“Pin trading is a really big deal at the Olympics,” he said. “It’s a really fun way to meet people.”

Jensen — a Utah native — and his wife, Carmen, attended the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Jensen started planning a trip to Vancouver not long after the International Olympic Committee awarded the games to the city in 2003.

“It was amazing to see my home city transformed and to interact with festive people from all over the world,” Jeremy Jensen said. “We are really looking forward to experiencing the festive and electric atmosphere again.”

Kristi and Barry Feder plan to return to the Olympics in the next few days; they traveled to Calgary for the 1988 games. Their itinerary includes hockey, skiing and speed skating events.

In 1988, the Feders stayed with friends in Alberta, who later moved to Redmond. The couples will attend the Vancouver events together.

“We really are looking forward to it,” Kristi Feder said last week.

Besides spectators, the locals at the Olympics include volunteer Jo-Ellen Smith, a Cougar Mountain resident. Smith said she values the decision to volunteer at the Olympics.

“I thought this would be the best experience in the world,” she said.

Fellow volunteers selected her to cut the ribbon at Olympic Village Whistler on Feb. 4.

Because events take place at venues across British Columbia, organizers opened a village in Whistler and another in Vancouver. Smith

The village buzzed to life in early February when athletes started to arrive in the mountain town.

Since Christmas, Smith has lived at her Whistler condo and helped ready the village for the arrival of hundreds of athletes in February. The tax accountant heads to her volunteer job in a distinctive blue uniform; the outfit earned the volunteers “Smurfs” as a nickname.

Smith will keep the ribbon pieces from the ceremony; organizers will engrave the commemorative scissors for her. The gig includes other perks: Organizers treated volunteers to a dress rehearsal of the opening ceremony before the real deal.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or Comment at

On the Web

Go online to the Vancouver Winter Olympics

Reporter Chantelle Lusebrink heads to Whistler, British Columbia, from Feb. 22-28. From the Winter Olympics, the reporter will talk with spectators and volunteers. Follow her on Twitter @clusebrink for updates.

Sammamish skier Yina Moe-Lange — a member of the Danish team — blogs about her experiences at the Winter Olympics.

Cougar Mountain resident and Winter Olympics volunteer Jo-Ellen Smith blogs about life in Olympic Village Whistler.

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