Every four years around this time, their memories surge: The good, the exciting, and the bittersweet.
But above all, the honor of having been an "Olympian."
These are the stories of four former Winter Olympians from our area whose Olympic spirits soar again as they recall their experiences and follow the ongoing Games in Sochi:
The girl from Acton
Pam Fletcher, an Acton girl who grew up to win a World Cup downhill ski race and become an Olympic medal hopeful, still feels the thrill of marching in the opening ceremony in Calgary in 1988. She remembers the United States team marching into McMahon Stadium just before the host Canadians.
"So the euphoria was building," she says. "There were so many U.S. fans in the stands, so the energy for us, and then the Canadians ... well, the applause was thunderous."
Hearing that thunderous applause, Fletcher's thoughts turned to everyone who helped bring her to that moment. All the sacrifices by her family and support from her extended family at the Nashoba Valley Ski Area in Westford, which her father Alan began building the year she was born.
"When you do make the Olympics, that all runs through your head," says Fletcher, 25 at the time. "All those who helped you along the way. You sacrifice so much to get there, but so do a lot of other people sacrifice to get you there."
A few days later, in one freak moment, Fletcher's dream of an Olympic medal was shattered. All that work and sacrifice, and she never got the chance to race. After one final practice run, Fletcher was skiing on a narrow trail back to the main lift at the Nakiska downhill course when she collided with a course worker who was not supposed to be there. She suffered a spinal fracture of the right fibula. As it turned out, the downhill was soon afterward postponed to the next day due to high winds.
Fletcher, on crutches, remained in Calgary for several days to cheer on her teammates and make the best of being an Olympian. "I was there representing my country and I took pride in the fact I made the Olympic team," she says. "You have to put your best foot forward."
She left before the closing ceremony in order to have her leg examined and plan her rehab. She still treasures the Olympic ring and case of $20 Canadian sliver coins on which Olympic events are depicted that each participant received.
Fletcher went back to three more Olympics as a commentator. She provided analysis for CBS' coverage of Alpine skiing in Albertville, France, in 1992 and in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994. She worked for the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, conducting interviews shown on the Jumbotrons at event sites.
"It's a lot of bittersweet emotions," says Fletcher, 51. "I think about my own experience (broken leg in Calgary) but I'm also excited for all these kids who are (competing in Sochi)."
Trouble in Austria
Bobby Miller still feels the chill of marching in the opening ceremony in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1976. The chill is not just from recalling the excitement of a 19-year-old kid from Billerica playing hockey for his country.
He was also freezing.
"I remember we wore some cheesy pea coats and these (thin) boots, that if I stepped on a dime, I could have told you if it were heads or tails," says Miller, recalling with laughter the USA uniform for the opening ceremony.
The speedy center out of the University of New Hampshire suffered a back injury early in an 8-4 first-round victory over Yugoslavia. Miller did not feel 100 percent until later in the tournament.
He also famously did not make it to the closing ceremony. State Department intervention was needed to bring Miller back to Billerica following a melee inside a tavern in downtown Innsbruck after the U.S. lost its chance for a bronze medal by losing 4-1 to West Germany. (The U.S. wound up fifth.) Looking for his parents, Miller wandered into a private party downstairs at the tavern. "This drunk had bumped into me two or three times," recalls Miller. "Finally, I pushed him ... so all hell broke loose."
Several of Miller's teammates jumped in.
Miller, who required "five or six stitches in the forehead," and teammate Gary Ross were detained by Austrian police. (Their State Department incident report, an unclassified document, can be found on WikiLeaks.)
Miller can laugh about it now.
He went on to play seven seasons in the NHL, four with the Bruins, including playing in the 1978 Stanley Cup finals against the Montreal Canadiens.
Despite the disappointing loss to the West Germans, "a team we had beaten handily twice in the pre-Olympic tour," and his international-incident exit from Innsbruck, Miller considers having played in the Olympics "an honor." This was before NHL players took over Olympic hockey, back when U.S. collegians took their best shot at the mighty Soviets, hoping for a miracle.
"How many 19-year-old kids get to see some of the things I got to see, playing the game I love?" says Miller, 57.
Mike Mastrullo, a year younger than Miller, grew up in Billerica chasing after Miller throughout youth hockey. After playing hockey and majoring in organizational behavior at Brown University, Mastrullo in 1979 found himself a defenseman for the Muskegon Mohawks of the International Hockey League. His teammates included Jeff Carlson, who portrayed one of the Hanson Brothers in the movie "Slap Shot," a character not so loosely based on Carlson. Art imitated minor league hockey at that time.
"Some interesting characters," says Mastrullo. "I figured with my Ivy League education, it was a good time to instead go and experience the world."
This led Mastrullo to playing hockey overseas and to representing his ancestral homeland, Italy, in the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.
Mastrullo recalls the facilities in Sarajevo being nice, but there being more mud than snow in a city that eight years later would be ravaged by war. He remembers being at the rink watching legendary British ice dancers Torvill and Dean score perfect 6.0s on their way to gold. And he remembers watching the Soviet hockey team's 1-hour, 45-minute up-tempo skate the morning it played Italy.
"It was amazing how hard they worked (in the morning), then they beat us (5-1)," says Mastrullo. "After the '80 Olympics (when the U.S. upset the Soviets in Lake Placid) they were on a mission."
For Mastrullo, 26 at the time, those Olympics felt "a little bittersweet, but still an amazing experience."
Bittersweet because several teammates and friends who helped Italy qualify for the Olympics were dropped from the roster in favor of native-born Italians of less skill. Italy at the 1984 Olympics finished 1-4-0 in Group A play and ninth overall.
"Every four years it still brings back a lot of fond memories, and it brings back a lot of living-in-the-moment (lessons)," says Mastrullo, the hockey coach at Billerica High. "I appreciate it so much more now. Coaching makes me think about it."
Mastrullo thought he would get to other Olympics playing for Italy. But 1984 was it. He appeared headed to the 1992 Olympics in Albertville. But in December 1991 he suffered a knee injury during a pre-Olympic tournament in Moscow. His hockey career was over.
'I used to watch on TV'
Marc Pelchat feels an extra jump in his step when each Winter Olympics rolls around. He remembers around this time 16 years ago being outfitted for his USA uniform, receiving his Olympic athlete credentials and being briefed on security as he prepared to head off to Nagano, Japan.
"It was an exciting time," says Pelchat, 46, who grew up in Chelmsford and was an "out of shape" 25-year-old playing in a men's hockey league when he stumbled into speed skating at a Waltham rink.
Pelchat skated for the U.S. in the men's 500 meters at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano and in 2002 in Salt Lake City. At age 38, he missed making the 2006 U.S. Olympic team by 2/100ths of a second.
Pelchat arrived in Nagano in 1998 not confident about his medal chances but eager to soak in the entire Olympic experience. Before the opening ceremony, "the athletes were in staging areas for four or five hours getting ready to march in," recalls Pelchat. "Being in Japan, I wasn't sure what to expect. When we walked in, though, the crowd just erupted. I remember thinking, 'Wow, I can't believe this. It's me, here. I used to watch this on TV.' "
He placed 23rd in the men's 500 meters at Nagano. Four years later, Pelchat went to Salt Lake City believing he had a shot to medal. Wanting to maintain the feel of a normal week of preparation, he did not march in the opening ceremony.
"I'll never know if it was the right thing to do," he says. "I think it was the right thing because I had a great week of preparation, and I had a great start."
Pelchat therefore pushed himself a little harder in his first race -- only to slip and fall briefly, his dreams of winning a medal dashed in a hundreths-of-second instant. He finished 28th.
"The moment was just too big for me," says Pelchat, 46, a personal trainer now living in Wisconsin. "I couldn't control it. I think I wanted it too much."
Like Fletcher, Pelchat says he wanted it not just for himself but for all those who helped him along the way, including his coach, Guy Thibault, whose belief pushed Pelchat to the Olympics.
"If one of those things doesn't happen, I probably don't get there (to two Olympics)," says Pelchat. "Yes, there are a few ridiculous superstars (at the Olympics). But 99 percent of those guys are there just because they refuse to quit."
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