A few of us stood in our parade of nations outfits next to the stage where the parade of nations was to end. As an athlete, the road to standing in this place and wearing this kit is both long and expensive. We competed at championship events in the last year and did well enough to make TeamUSA. Then, we had to fund our training, nutrition, and travel costs to make it to Romania, the site of this year’s world championships. All of us are at a strong level of fitness, and the only thing between the world championship festival starting and our races were a lot of nerves and the commencement at the parade of nations.
For nearly everyone in attendance, our sports are not Olympic sports, even though we all hope that one day that duathlon, aquabike, and aquathlon will be. This competition is the end of the line for our sport until that day comes. This event is special. Once we are done and numeric titles are distributed, all medals earned here end with the phrase, ‘in the world.” 10th place back home isn’t bad. “10th in the world” means a lot more.
Our TeamUSA manager was present, as he always is at the start of these events. He has worked with Olympic triathletes and TeamUSA athletes for years. He organizes athletes in the same manner a cowboy might try to herd cats, providing last-minute support for the minuscule issues. Training as much as we all do means we all have a lot of weird quirks, and we all need no explanation that sacrifice is a pre-requisite to success. Tim had plans that he had made and vetted with his peers, and he revealed them to the athletes when necessary. Since opening ceremonies were the next item for all athletes from all countries, he got everyone’s attention and spoke.
“Everyone, listen up! Jeff Gaura is going to be our flag bearer this year. His work with the refugees is good stuff.” He handed me the flag as the applause started.
I have no idea what he said afterward. I couldn’t release the words from my mouth to express the impact his two sentences had on me. I could only let out a small smile, and to hide my tears, I put my hands on my hips and looked at the sky.
Instead of pondering the generational honor that just came to me without prompting, I continued to look up. We were near the center of a medieval castle, and about us were blue skies and clouds. It was late afternoon, and the Romanian Summer was upon us. The air was warm and breezy, even inside the castle. This moment was the high point of all my years of training for and racing for TeamUSA, but there was a special part of it that I could only partially understand. My mind shifted from the present, and I reflected on the people I had met in the last few days. After all, the Ukrainian refugees were what was special and different.
I remembered the faces of some of the refugees I met a few days earlier as I looked up. I imagined snow falling on the ground when they arrived here in early March as they fled for their lives from their native land. Now, some of them get to be in a parade in the middle of summer. Indeed, whatever change I was feeling inside me was fractional compared to what these women and children had experienced. After all, I woke up and trained in a safe environment every day, and I had communication with my loved ones if I wanted to. They had neither these last four months.
I allowed myself to have a small laugh as I considered how my mind would draw pictures of this moment and compared it to the refugee children’s drawings in art class. No way could even one person on TeamUSA conclude that they understood what they were going to. I committed to Romania to race, but at that moment, I knew I was here not just for glory and sport but to rewrite a moment in time.
As Tim finished his announcement and the congratulations were complete, I left the group with my friend Kimee to find the Ukrainian refugees. A woman stood by the entrance to the medieval castle holding a phone with my picture on it. I approached her, and she could see that I was the guy she was looking for. She smiled and thanked me with her limited English. Then, she introduced the children to me. I hugged the children and gave each child and woman a shirt to wear that showed a picture that was half US flag and half Ukrainian flag. After putting them on, we escorted them back to the TeamUSA contingent as we awaited the parade start. Several athletes agreed to hold one of the children’s hands as we walked the path in front of us, and eventually, we all crossed the stage together as the USA contingent was introduced.
There were perhaps 60 nations that had sent athletes to compete at this year’s world championships. Every country in the world knew what was happening in Ukraine, yet none had made an effort to express their support of the Ukrainian people at the parade other than us. I should not have been surprised at what happened next, but I was. No other nation received the volume of applause TeamUSA did when athletes crossed the stage proudly holding the hands of the refugees.
There is no greater honor at an international sporting event than to be the flagbearer for your nation. You stand at the front of your delegation and hear the announcer call out your country as the next one on the stage. “U” is one of the last letters of the alphabet, so we would spend a lot of time awaiting our turn. It filled my heart to see several other athletes reach into their pockets to give me money to help the kids and take the time to talk to the refugees and acknowledge that they are people. Later, I brought up what we were doing with the manager of Team GBR, and he showed interest in wanting to help them as well.
I am removed from the parade a few days, and I have already competed in one world championship. I am sore from racing, but I am recovering nicely. Tomorrow afternoon, I am heading to the refugee camp with a lot of cash to help them restock their supplies and give away two Ukrainian bibles given to me by one of my athletes. I imagine I will hear some more stories and perhaps give out a few hundred more hugs while I am there. I am grateful to know that my grocery shopping spree for the entire refugee camp will make a difference.
I am glad that I didn’t stop at “raising awareness,’ and conclude that I was doing a good thing. Too many people conclude that raising awareness is the best they can do. I think more is possible and part of our responsibility as humans to help one another. The Golden Rule doesn’t end in the church. It only starts there. These people need more than someone to raise awareness. They need food, hygiene products, water, and clothing. Tomorrow, I will show up with all of that, thanks to the help of a lot of you.
Lastly, and most importantly, I will pray with them. Their circumstances may kill them, but they still are temporary circumstances. Their permanent situation shall always be their relationship with Eternity. People like these and circumstances like theirs made me write a book about that relationship.
I am already friends with a couple of them on social media, and I am posting photos. Smiles are scarce for them, and they cost nearly nothing to share.
The cost of being an athlete doesn’t end with your sport. The expectations are bigger than you are. Always.