SOCHI, Russia — Palo Alto, Calif. native Brian Martin traveled the world for years, competing at countless elite events in his sport of luge. However, nothing ever compared to the rush of emotions he experienced the four times he marched into an Olympic stadium behind the American flag.

“It is different when you put on the red, white and blue for country,” said the now-retired Martin, 40. “You're part of something that is much bigger than you are.”

The Olympic flame will flicker to life Friday as a global audience becomes captivated by the start of the 17-day sports festival that marks the culmination of lifelong dreams. And as U.S. athletes help launch the quadrennial extravaganza, say those who've been there before, they will be filled with a sense of pride, patriotism and accomplishment that almost is beyond words.


“Athletes may go three years and 50 weeks where they are just competing for themselves,” said author David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “At that opening ceremony, you become something else.

“You're an American.”

They have earned the right to take a breathtaking walk into Fisht Olympic Stadium, where they not only will represent more than 300 million fellow citizens, but also an idealized vision of America — hardworking, determined and, perhaps most important, winners.

These days, it often seems like our country can't agree on anything. But when the 230-strong U.S. team — ranging in age from 15-year-old freestyle skier Maggie Voisin to 46-year-old curler Ann Swishelm — takes center stage, many Americans will focus on what we share in common.

The red state-blue state divide, temporarily, will disappear. Even if we don't fully understand some of these sports — really, what is a halfpipe? — we will be united as we rabidly cheer on athletes who are the embodiment of our national ethos, better known as the American dream.

And don't think for a minute that the athletes are oblivious to what they stand for, or the energy emanating from back home. Monterey bobsledder Nick Cunningham, 28, said the chills he felt at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics are replicated only when he dons his Army National Guard uniform.

“Every time I put it on, I get that (same) feeling it's not about me anymore,” said Cunningham, the driver of USA-2. “It's about the country.”

The moment that truly sinks in comes during the traditional Parade of Nations, said Sunnyvale native Brian Boitano, who skated in three Olympics and won the gold medal at the 1988 Calgary Games.

“You're at the opening ceremony and you're looking around and thinking, 'Wow, this is really happening,' ” he said of the 1984 Sarajevo Games, his first Olympics. “You realize that it will be part of you forever. So many people dream to be in this position.”

For years, Bret Hedican did. As a 9-year-old, he watched the famous 1980 Miracle on Ice hockey team win a gold medal and told himself: Someday, I will be an Olympian. He never stopped believing, and in 1992, he was among Team USA as it marched in the opening ceremony at Albertville, France.

“It was just surreal to be walking into the stadium representing the United States of America,” said Hedican, a two-time hockey Olympian who now is a San Jose Sharks broadcaster.

He has another reason to remember that day — he met his future wife, figure-skating gold-medalist Kristi Yamaguchi, of Fremont, at the opening ceremony. The Bay Area couple will be in Sochi: Hedican as a radio commentator and Yamaguchi working for NBC.

“We just think there is something very special about the Olympics, and it's not about awards,” he added. “It's about being passionate in your sport, representing your country and being proud.”

That strain of nationalism is not exclusive to Americans, of course. As Sharks star Patrick Marleau of the Canadian Olympic team begins to recite the usual phrases of honor, pride, privilege, he stops himself to say he knows they sound trite.

“But all those words really do have meaning,” said Sochi-bound Marleau, who also was a member of the 2010 Canadian team that won the gold medal. “You feel all of that.”

Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Marleau's Sharks and Team Canada teammate, embraces the symbolism behind the words.

“You're representing everything that Canada stands for,” he said. “People will be watching how we look, how we act, how we compete.”

Americans athletes understand those expectations, said mogul skier K.C. Oakley, of Piedmont.

“The Olympics are a unifier for a country,” said Oakley, who missed making the team because of a leg injury. “Every one of the millions of Americans who turn on their television sets during the Olympics will feel the emotions of sport.”

Growing up, Martin was of those viewers. Then in his Olympic debut at the 1998 Nagano Games, he was the one with “USA” on his back.

“To be on the other side of the camera, you feel that weight,” said Martin, a two-time medalist in luge doubles.

But U.S. Olympians in Sochi also will know that we're all in this together.