August 1, 2008
Taking one for the TEAM.
As I checked in at the United counter at SFO, I politely asked for an upgrade to Business class. Apparently, I'm an 'elite' member- I have no idea what this means, but it wasn't enough for a $700 upgrade. It did, however, afford me an upgrade to Economy Plus in the exit row with a full 5 feet of leg room in front of me.
When I arrived at the gate, I was surrounded my Team USA. It seems the US Olympic Committee bought the majority of the seats for my flight. Athletes competing in Track and Field, Judo, and Gymnastics were everywhere along with members of the International press. It was at that moment sitting among muscular bodies outfitted in Nike gear, that it became real.. I'm going to the Olympics.
We boarded the flight and I was stoked about my seat, 12 hours of comfort ahead! This is where empathy got the best of me. Ahead of me in the Economy section was a 6'6" Long Jumper in a seat that literally could not fit his long legs. We hadn't even taken off and he was extremely uncomfortable. He asked the stewardesses for an upgrade, but they refused.
I pictured this guy going for the gold and missing it by an inch because he had just gotten off of a 12 hour flight that killed his legs. So before I realized what I was signing up for, I offered him my seat. He was shocked and jumped (pun-intended) at the opportunity.
As I moved up to the Economy section, I found myself sitting next to more Track and Field athletes. Across the isle from me was Lopez Lomong, seated to win the gold in the 1500 meters. More impressive than that, was his life story that he proceeded to tell me over the next couple of hours. (http://lopezlomong.org/)
Born in Sudan, he was separated from his family at 6 years old. He moved to a camp in Kenya and lived there for 10 years until he was adopted by a couple from upstate New York as a Lost Boy of Sudan. So at 16 he moved to America, learned English in 6 months, and started running. His running got him a full ride scholarship to Northern Arizona University, and now he's a professional athlete for Nike. He always brought back his success to the fact that he hopes to use it as a platform to help the kids in Africa, especially Darfur.
As we exited the plane and he was ushered into the Chinese fanfare, I stood in the long line at customs and told him that I'll be cheering him on.
So it seems, like most things, when we think we're making a sacrifice, we get so much in return. I know Lopez Lomong, he told me his life story, I taught him how to barter in China, some Chinese history, some Mandarin phrases, and plenty of small talk...we go way back.