Student Goes Down Under for Study Abroad, Learns More About Himself

I had never been out of Vermont for more than a week, and here I was planning to spend six months in Australia. I was heading over there alone, leaving behind everyone and everything I knew. Australia is the home to the deadliest insects, sharks and reptiles in the world, but also the home of some of the most beautiful beaches, animals, and vacationing spots around the globe. I chose to study at the University of Queensland, located on the outskirts of Brisbane, Queensland. Granted I was going there to learn, but I had ulterior motives luring me to the sunny river city where the motto is “beautiful one day, perfect the next.” At the time I made my decision to attend UQ, I couldn’t help but think what it would be like to be in Australia during the 2000 Olympic Games. I had never been to the Olympics, and I had always dreamed of such a thing. Initially, I solely wanted to be there during the Olympic buzz and taste the atmosphere and hype surrounding the Games. In the long run, it turned out that I was smack dab in the middle of it. I was granted an opportunity of a lifetime.My six months in Australia were like nothing I have ever experienced in my life or even dreamed of. I was thousands of miles away from Vermont and by myself, but I had a lot to do to keep my mind off home. I was leaving Vermont as a way to challenge myself and also to enjoy myself. Through persistence and initiative I was able to land a volunteer position on the staff of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field team. The team was in Brisbane for a month before the Games, training and getting oriented to Australia. The Director of Elite Athletes for USATF, Mike Conley, granted me the position of “attach??” and introduced me to the team and staff.Mr. Conley has accomplished many feats in his long career, including a gold and silver medal in the triple jump. He is a hero of mine and is considered one of the greatest and most consistent jumpers of all time; so it was an honor for me to meet and work with a man who I have always admired and attempted to emulate.I did several minor jobs for the team such as organize public transportation, run errands, rake the pits for the jumpers, and inform the athletes, staff and family on activities in Brisbane. The majority of my time was spent observing and hanging out with the athletes. Day after day, a few athletes and I would come back from practice and play ping-pong and video games all day.It amazed me how down to earth and friendly the staff and athletes were. I was treated with a tremendous amount of respect and kindness, as if I was actually part of the Olympic team. They did everything they could to make me feel comfortable. They provided me with everything from an all-expenses paid weekend on a resort island, to including me everywhere they went, to numerous USATF officially licensed clothing and apparel. However, that was only the beginning.One of the highlights of my trip and the highlight for many of the staff and athletes was a trip I helped organize to Steve Irwin’s zoo – TV’s The Crocodile Hunter. Over 75 of us were bused to the zoo with much anticipation, and we were not let down. We were greeted in the petting area where everyone who wanted could pet kangaroos, camels, hold koalas, pythons, giant boa constrictors and lizards, but best of all get a picture taken with Steve Irwin himself. As Steve appeared, the mass of athletes and staff went silent and the cameras began flashing.He welcomed us with the typical “g’day” and wished the team luck in Sydney. As his greeting ended, Steve was swarmed by eager picture taking fans. After everyone captured the moment with the eccentric bloke, Steve brought us to the crocodile pit for a private “croc feeding,” where he teased and fed the 14-foot long man-eater.I watched nervously as “The Crocodile Hunter” became the hunted and the jaws of the reptile came clamping down near his shins. It seemed lucky to me that he made it out alive. He bid farewell to us as he walked off to film his TV show. It is a good feeling to know that I was behind the most memorable times in Australia for many exceptional athletes and people.Soon after our visit to the zoo, the team left for Sydney which meant that I was left behind. But I wasn’t far behind. As the Games started I was on my way down to Sydney to hopefully catch a glimpse of the “Greatest Show on Earth.” Without a track and field entry ticket to my name, the team graciously gave me some premier tickets. Through their generosity, I was able to see eight sessions of tremendous competition.I attended such acclaimed events as the 100-meter finals, the 200-meter finals, the 400-meter finals, the relay finals (400-meter relay and the 1600-meter relay), and many other preliminary rounds and finals. I had seats as close as the front row for the 1600-meter final, to credential area seating only, and a few top tier seats. Although there were no world records at the 2000 Games, I was able to witness first-hand the successes and scandals of the Olympics for the first time. History unfolded in front of my eyes. For two weeks straight I was a spectator as Marion Jones tested the limits and contended for five gold medals. I watched the fastest man on earth, saw Cathy Freeman’s victorious run for Aboriginal pride and saw drugs contaminate the Olympic Games. The scandals are not the lasting image that will be imprinted on my brain; it will be the amazing moments I shared with these phenomenal athletes on their pursuit for gold. Throughout their stay in Brisbane and Sydney I got to know several Olympic athletes.I became personal friends with Olympians such as Alvin Harrison (gold in 1600m relay, silver in 400m) and Calvin Harrison (gold in 1600m relay), Savante Stringfellow (long jump competitor), Kenny Evans (high jump finalist), Melvin Lister (long jump competitor), and Hazel Clark (800m finalist).I became acquaintances with numerous others medal winners and competitors, made contacts with writers from the Associated Press and USA Today, rubbed elbows with sports legends Carl Lewis and Evander Holyfield, and even got to wear Calvin Harrison’s gold medal. The time spent in Brisbane spanning between Aug. 21 to Oct. 1 produced so many memories for me. Going into the Olympic experience all I wished for was to watch Michael Johnson, Marion Jones, and Maurice Green practice for a month. Those high profile athletes never showed up, but the more laid back atmosphere gave me a chance to do things with the team that probably never would have happened if they had been there. It turned out better than I ever could have imagined. Although the Olympics were the highlight of my life and my Australian experience, I was only half way through my trip. Everything after that just seemed ordinary and boring. But I experienced so much on my trip that I had never even pondered in all my 21 years.? I went scuba diving in Cairns on the Great Barrier Reef.? I snorkeled on numerous spots out on uninhabited islands.? I made friends with people from as close as Bennington, Vermont and as far as the Philippines, Sweden, England, Brazil and Germany. ? I walked through tropical rain forests.And, I made it home safely. It was the best time of my life, but it had to come to an end sometime. I am just glad that I was able to have a chance to do all of those things. I adopted a foreign culture for six months that will stay with me for the rest of my life, and something that will never be forgotten. I always complain about being unlucky… but I guess I was just saving my luck up for that trip.