This summer, I have been otherwise engaged. Work was put to one side and I took on a different role, as an Olympic Volunteer at the London 2012 Games. I can remember when London won the Games back in 2005; I was still teaching and pondering how on earth it would work. Life changed though and in the back of my mind, I kept wondering how I could get involved.
In my younger days, I had been a world class sailor, in fact for most of my teenage years I was the best girl in a boat in the UK and probably Europe. My name was on GB selection lists. It is with regret that due to my teenage desire to break free of parental control and damaging my back, that instead of progressing in the sailing world, I left it all behind. So in my heart, this was my one last chance to be an ‘Olympian’ of any sort. I can remember saying to Dave, ‘I’m going to volunteer for the Olympics.’ He could have said no, he could have mentioned the amount of money I wouldn’t be earning, that I would be leaving him to work while I had fun, but he didn’t. He supported me from the start and for that I am eternally grateful, as I am to my parents and my son’s other Grandparents for their unwavering support. As I filled in the application back in 2010, I had no idea what I would be doing, but to be honest, I thought it would be sailing related and nowhere near London. How wrong I would be!
When I was finally called for interview in July 2011, I had already convinced myself that I was not going to get a role. Through social media, I had started to read of people’s invites to interviews and every time I saw one, my heart sank … it was obviously not going to happen for me. When the email landed in my inbox, I cried tears of joy. It may sound ridiculous and rather pathetic, but this desire to be involved was so deep, that it was a journey that was both emotional and nerve wracking. Taking the train to London and the Excel Arena was the start of many repeated trips to London, and many sightings of Eddie Izzard (real and on film), athletes, Seb Coe, Paul Deignton and many other people without whom there would have been no Olympics in the UK. All these things created even more excitement in me, could I really be there?
I came back from the interview with my usual feelings of, disappointment with some of my answers, confusion about whether it was enough and the numbers ringing in my ears, 250,000 applications for 70,000 places. I figured the odds weren’t bad but they weren’t great either. Of course, the other piece of information I had was my role, a Driver at the Olympic Park. A driver?? Me?? I pootle around in my tiny Hyundai i10 in Devon, long gone are my days of fighting London traffic. Why London? Surely I should be at Weymouth and Portland? Secretly, I was really pleased, I’d be at the heart of the action but where on earth was I going to stay, questions and more questions but as yet I didn’t have a confirmed role.
Like everyone else I had to wait a long time to hear if I had been accepted and there was a moment when I thought I had blown it. I am sure Dave will remember a tearful phone call one afternoon, after I had scored a dismal performance in the online driving assessment. I had made a real mess of it. It seemed my observation skills were rubbish, when confronted with a computerised test. I sat on my hands and resigned myself to being thrown off the programme. However, my position was confirmed and after a long wait, in February 2012, I travelled up to London to Wembley Arena to attend my first introduction to being a Games Maker (or Olympic Volunteer). Nothing is ever easy though and as I travelled up on the train the previous day, the temperature dropped and there were warnings of snow! If you don’t live in the UK, you possibly haven’t experienced our response to an inch of snow, generally it’s mayhem! The following morning, I trudged through the snow to the underground and set off for Wembley. As I walked from the station to the Arena, I was genuinely proud. It was a huge thing to be part of this show. Even though the British Media, at this stage were determined to run the London 2012 Games down, I could feel a sense of excitement and a desire from everyone to do their very best and so my journey began.
In May, I got my first glimpse of the Olympic Stadium, I was at Stratford at the Fleet Depot for the first part of my Driver training … laid out in front of me were 200 brand new, shiny BMWs! However, we weren’t just let loose in them, we were being assessed on our ability to negotiate our way around London and prove that we were safe to do the job. Oh my! Luckily I didn’t land the car in a ditch or drive into any London cabbies. There were a few glitches; the wonderful and cleverly designed BMW SATNAV system didn’t work for anyone, I had not understood anything about how to get the car out of the Depot as the transport hub was not accessible, as the bridge to it was being replaced, and as for the radio communications, I had no idea how that worked at all. With one more training day, spent without an instructor, running around London with other mad Games Makers, I still wasn’t even convinced that on my first day, I would find my way into the Depot! But the months were ticking by and of course, our beloved Tour de France stood between me and the Olympics.
July was the month of cycling really, Dave, James and I shouted loudly for the Sky team, watched our heroes from the side of the road and spent our days wallowing in the notion of the first British Tour de France winner. However, our days in France came to an abrupt end when James decided to leap across a river, trip over a tree stump and land on his knee. The resulting gash meant an early return to the UK. We missed seeing Bradley Wiggins on the final time trial but we were home in time to watch it on the TV. But for me there were other logistics to consider, I had to get to London and start my work at the Games!
July 25th, I am in London on my own in my motorhome. It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind. Dave has vanished off to Switzerland to work, James is in Devon with his Grandparents and I am preparing for my first shift. It’s the first time I have worn the uniform. I am feeling decidedly conspicuous at 5.50am walking along a main road to the station. In fact, I feel daft. I am convinced that I look ridiculous and just hope that there are a few other volunteers at the station. There are none! I am frantically looking at my schedule, I have got the right day and even though the Games haven’t started there are other people working surely. Once at Stratford, I am delighted to say the purple and poppy brigade of volunteers can be seen everywhere, of course I had no idea how the volunteers like myself would be appreciated by everyone who saw them, but I can say I had a sense of pride that I was part of the ‘gang’. For the first time since training, I arrived at the Olympic Park, it was overwhelming and I am not ashamed to say, that as I strode through the gates for the first time, I burst into tears. It was such a momentous thing to be chosen to help your country put on such an event. To be part of a team that had one goal, to make the Games a success was a privilege but it had seemed such a long journey and now here I was, about to embark on my first shift.
The reality bites. As I walk into the depot, I am handed a lunch voucher, packed lunch bag, a bracelet, a folder, a radio and a set of keys. Whose idea was it to have a bag only big enough to smuggle a hamster in? I watch as the more seasoned drivers are walking in with backpacks. Lesson no’1 learnt, bring a bigger bag. I join a team of 19 other drivers and we sit and eat breakfast together. I get chatting to a lovely chap who has already done 11 shifts, he seems to know what he’s talking about. Alarmingly he tells me that the SATNAV has been hopeless, my stomach does a jump. No, I don’t want to hear this. I need to have confidence that the thing can get me out of East London. I have no idea what I am doing in East London, in fact, I am not even sure I know how to get the car out of the Olympic Park!
We are sent to our cars, the radio controller tells me, that she knows it’s my first shift and she is going to put me with someone who knows what they are doing. I must have sighed rather loudly and not realised I had pushed the talk button, as she laughed at my relief. So my first adventure, to terminal 1 at Heathrow. Well I know Heathrow! Thank goodness. I set off with my colleague leading the way. He drives a lot faster than me but I am in such a nervous state that I resolutely keep my speed down. £30,000 of BMW that has only done 300 miles and it’s not mine and they warned us about scratches on the alloy wheels … arrrrrggggg. I have lost my leader, he went through a yellow light and I am stuck, at the Tower of London! Well there are worse places to be stuck I suppose. I know roughly which direction I am heading, so I get in the Olympics Lane (oh yes those were good, East London to Heathrow in about an hour, normally that would take at least 2 or 3!) and head west, in front in the lane going at about 5mph is my colleague, all is not lost, or at least I am not.
The Olympic Lanes actually take a fantastic route through London. I love it, as I drive past the Tower, past Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Birdcage Walk, right in front of Buckingham Palace, along Constitution Hill to Hyde Park Corner and then off down the A4 past Harrods, the Natural History Museum and on to Heathrow. If nothing else, it would be good to have something to tell clients as we sat in the traffic. At Heathrow, there is the usual mayhem and vast amounts of traffic. I get myself parked up and wait with the other drivers. We are lucky enough to see a few teams arriving at the terminal. They all get onto designated London buses and coaches and head straight off to the Athletes Village, while we wait for individual clients who need a lift. I am hoping my new found friend who has led me across London, bought me a coffee and has chatted to me about his family, work, holidays and so on is not about to get sent away without me. It was a hopeless thought. He is soon back on the road with his clients and I am next in line.
‘Right Charlie 198, get your car in the middle here quickly, open all the doors and the boot, an important client is coming and you need to be ready!’ Oh no! This can’t be happening to me, it’s my first shift. I am standing like a meerkat, only I really, really want to get in a burrow and hide. Why couldn’t I have got the unimportant client? Out walks a man in suit with his wife and their 3 suitcases. He immediately shakes my hand, gives me a warm smile and introduces himself as the President of the Portuguese Olympic Committee (I can’t remember his name!). The two of us then begin the lengthy process of trying to get his suitcases in the car. They didn’t fit! The boot of the BMW couldn’t take his big suitcase. He seems unworried, tells his wife to hop in the back, he puts the suitcase on the seat next to her and promptly gets in the front next to me (‘please let the SATNAV work, please, if anyone is listening let it work,’ I’m hoping he can’t hear my thoughts). Off we go, with him and his wife asking me endless questions and all I can splutter out is, ‘It’s my first shift, so please forgive any errors.’ The President looks at me with a twinkle in his eye and says, ‘Don’t worry, I have done a lot of these, everything goes wrong in the first few days and it doesn’t matter if we get lost, I have lots of time to see London.’ He must have seen me visibly relax as he began bombarding me with questions again. Suddenly his phone rings, ‘I am so sorry, but I must answer this.’ Of course, I don’t mind at all, I am slightly embarrassed that he asks. After listening to him babbling away in Portuguese (which I hasten to add, sounds like Russian – good luck learning that one!), he apologises again and says, ‘I really did have to take it, it was the President of Portugal, he’s going to dinner with the Queen tomorrow evening!’
So that was how it all started, I had some very funny clients and some very odd ones. But there are a few good stories to tell. The Panamanian Volley Ball coaches, who wanted me to speed across London because they had missed their athletes getting onto the bus to Earls Court, were two of my favourites. As they sat in the car, they were telling me to go faster. I couldn’t of course; there are speed limits to adhere to. When I pointed this out, they seemed somewhat aghast, ‘You have speed limits?’ I pointed out the signs, they were slightly bemused. There was the wonderful, Gintare Scheidt from Lithuania, who had finished sailing at Weymouth and had gone to the Olympic Village to be with her husband, a certain Robert Scheidt (the Brazilian who beat Ben Ainslie to gold a few years back!), but he had won a medal and was partying and she had come 6th. She was very disappointed having won silver in Beijing. She fell asleep in my car, as I drove her to Gatwick but was lovely and handed me both the Brazilian and Lithuanian pins as she got out. There were the mad Namibians who had lost their entire team and hoped that when I dropped them at Terminal One, they would find their athletes inside (I was hoping so too, as there were rumours of boxers going missing!).
My other memories, consist of crying at the Dress Rehearsal for the Opening Ceremony ( I spent a lot of time crying, with joy I hasten to add!). If I needed any confirmation that Britain could put on a marvellous Games, it was all there. We didn’t disgrace ourselves; in fact we really did it rather well. I spent the most fantastic day in the Park on my day off, watching handball and then watching the cycling on the big screen, to see the Brits win more gold medals and Sir Chris Hoy put in his final Olympic performance. I stood by the side of the road to watch the Men’s Road Cycling Time Trial, and screamed at the top of my lungs when Bradley Wiggins took gold. I laughed with joy when my Ecuadorian clients, who were returning to the Olympic Park, cheered out of the windows of the car when Andy Murray took gold in the tennis. When everyone started to go home, it felt like one of the most significant moments in history had taken place and I had been there. I was one of the volunteers mentioned by Jacques Rogge and Seb Coe … that was me, I had played my part.
Finally, I had some days where I didn’t go very far, in fact I sat in my car and went nowhere. On one of those days, I had my picture taken with a Torch (which was cool). But there was one moment, a brief moment when I met an Olympian shook his hand and stared at his gold medal. Greg Rutherford, the Olympic Gold medallist in the long jump, just happened to be passing and stood to chat to me and my fellow drivers. I may never have won a medal, but I had been a lot closer than many ever would be. Simply magical, a memory to treasure forever.