Soldier Carries WTC Flag at Olympic Opener
By Brian Lepley
National Guard Bureau
SALT LAKE CITY, Feb. 11, 2002 It was an offer two-time Olympian Sgt. Kristina Sabasteanski couldn't refuse.
U.S. biathlon team leader Steve Sands had a request for the Army World Class Athlete Program soldier Feb. 7.
Army Sgt. Kristina Sabasteanski was one of eight athletes chosen to carry the World Trade Center's American flag into Rice-Eccles stadium during opening ceremonies of the XIX Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City Feb. 8, 2002. Photo by Petty Officer 1st class Preston Keres, USN.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"I was sitting at breakfast the day before opening ceremonies and the team leader says 'How would you feel about carrying the World Trade Center flag?'" she said. Sands nominated Sabasteanski as the biathlon team's pick to represent skiing athletes. It didn't take long for her to say yes.
"I was speechless. I was like, wow! It was so exciting," she said.
The tattered flag was recovered from the WTC ruins after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in New York City. It was carried into the 19th Winter Olympics opening ceremony at Rice-Eccles Stadium here Feb. 8 by eight athletes escorted by New York City firefighters and Port Authority police.
"It was pretty emotional," Sabasteanski said. "You're feeling 'Wow! This is the World Trade Center flag and it represents the power of America, that we can come back.' Then you're thinking this flag was what was left of 3,000 lives. You're feeling somber. One second you'd be inspired, elated, and the next you're choking back tears."
The flag's appearance left the crowd of 55,000 spectators and 5,000 ceremony participants in respectful silence.
The crowd pleaser of all Olympic opening ceremonies, however, remains the parade of athletes. Representing 77 countries, more than 2,300 athletes had the spotlight as their nations' names were announced. With only 234 medals to be presented, marching into the stadium at the ceremony represents the highlight of the games for 90 percent of the Olympians.
"I waited 12 years to walk into an Olympic games opening. Last night was so perfect," said Spc. Mike Kohn of the U.S. bobsled team. "I'm fortunate enough to represent this country in the games as an athlete and a soldier. It doesn't get any better than that."
The WCAP athletes joined more than 200 other American Olympic team athletes, coaches and officials in a pre-ceremony pep talk from President Bush.
"Last night being next to our commander-in-chief was just overwhelming for me," Kohn said. "I just can't stop smiling, I'm really enjoying this. It was just such a moving experience."
Sabasteanski is on her second consecutive Olympic team. The opening ceremony in the United States was different from Nagano, Japan, in 1998.
"That was amazing in Japan, but then I was like, 'Wow, I actually made the Olympics!' Now I'm in my own country and these Americans are cheering for everyone here," she said. "It was one of the biggest highs of my life."
Sabasteanski and Kohn are two of the 12 Army athletes and coaches at the Olympics. Kohn teams with fellow WCAP athlete Spc. Doug Sharp as a pusher on the USA 2 bobsled. Dan Steele of the Oregon Army National Guard and Chicagoan 2nd Lt. Garrett Hines of the Army Reserve, both former WCAP members, are also bobsledders.
Coaching the women's bobsled team are Spc. Bill Tavares and Sgt. Tuffy LaTour. The driver of the women's USA 2 sled is Spc. Jill Bakken. All three are WCAP members.
WCAP athletes on the men's biathlon team are Spc. Jeremy Teela and Sgt. Lawton Redman. National Guard Sgt. Kara Salmela joins Sabasteanski and WCAP's Spc. Andrea Nahrgang on the women's squad.
(Brian Lepley is reporting from the Olympics for the Army Community and Family Support Center, Alexandria, Va.)