All it took was a glimpse of the Olympic flame to light a fire. Three decades ago, when Alicia Hanrahan was growing up in Southern California, her father took her family to cheer the Olympic torch as it passed through her neighborhood en route to the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Hanrahan only had to travel one city block to see the flame that day. She instantly knew she wanted a closer look in the future — and she will get it next week, after a much longer journey that landed her on the officiating crew for the women’s hockey tournament at the Winter Olympics. The South St. Paul resident is one of several Minnesotans who will work underneath the glow of the Sochi Winter Games caldron, doing jobs that allow the athletes to shine.
John Benton of St. Michael, who competed in curling at the 2010 Olympics, will be an analyst for NBC’s broadcasts of his sport. Minneapolis native Rohene Ward has choreographed the showstopping programs of American figure skater Jason Brown. The U.S. hockey delegation includes assistant coaches Todd Richards (Crystal) and Robb Stauber (Medina), as well as men’s team doctor Mike Stuart (Rochester).
When the Olympics begin Thursday, 27 athletes with Minnesota connections will skate, ski and shoot for medals. The Minnesota natives and residents filling other roles won’t get the glory, but they find just as much honor in their quieter corner of the Olympic experience.
“I found out on the day after Thanksgiving that I was one of the five [American on-ice officials] going, and I think my heart stopped for about 10 seconds,’’ said Hanrahan, 41, who will serve as a linesman in Sochi. “I always watched the Olympics on TV, summer and winter. And I always wanted to go, whether it was as an athlete or a spectator.
“It is a dream come true for me. But I’m also there to do a job, and I’ve trained for this for the last 14 years. I cannot forget that, and I will not forget that.’’
Hanrahan has been working toward the Olympics since she became an official in 2000. After starting her career in Ohio, she moved to Minnesota about four years ago because of the opportunities it afforded at all levels of hockey. While she still holds a day job in the logistics department at Nordstrom, most of her nights, weekends and vacation time are spent on the ice, officiating about eight college, high school and youth games per week.
Her path to Sochi began at USA Hockey officiating camps. Though Hanrahan was a latecomer to the sport — she didn’t learn to skate until she was 23, and her only playing experience came in a California women’s recreational league — she moved up the ladder briskly, earning international certification in 2006.
Hanrahan has officiated at two women’s world championships, where she learned to ignore catcalls in many languages and communicate via hand signals with colleagues who didn’t speak English. She has grown used to the scrutiny that comes with her profession, though she knows the Olympics — with its packed arenas and worldwide television audience — will be unlike anything she ever has experienced.
“I can’t lie and say I won’t be nervous or I won’t be thinking about it,’’ she said. “I’ll be very focused. But I’m also going to try and enjoy it the best I can, because when else am I going to have this opportunity?’’
Rohene Ward didn’t get to watch from a front-row seat as the performance he choreographed was unveiled last month. While his pupil Brown was bringing down the house at the U.S. figure skating championships in Boston, Ward was in Germany, on tour with an ice show.
Brown had never heard of “Riverdance’’ when Ward, his co-coach and choreographer, suggested a free-skate program based on the Irish step dance. By the time he got to Boston, he had mastered Ward’s symphony of intricate footwork, dazzling spins and athletic jumps. Brown’s performance earned a riotous standing ovation and a stunning second-place finish at the national championships, vaulting him past more seasoned competitors and onto the Olympic team.
Ward didn’t have an opportunity to see Brown’s skate until it popped up on YouTube, but he had envisioned it a million times. “In my heart, I was there,’’ said Ward, 30, who competed in four national championships and trained at Parade Ice Garden under coach Page Lipe. “It’s still surreal to me. Did I want to skate in the Olympics myself? Of course. But to help someone else reach their dreams, I feel blessed.’’
During his own competitive career, Ward did much of his own choreography. In 2008, he teamed up with Brown’s coach, Kori Ade, first in suburban Chicago and later in Colorado. Brown was only 12 when Ward started working with him, pushing him to be an athlete while shaping him into an artist.
This season, Ward was inspired by the spirit of the Winter Games to design a program that would challenge Brown to discover just how good he could be. Their collaboration has now been viewed more than 3.3 million times on YouTube.
A heavy schedule of ice-show performances will prevent Ward from being in Sochi, too, but his fellow cast members already are planning a party to celebrate the Olympic debut of his fancy footwork. “Page taught me to love the sport and to be an athlete,’’ he said. “The only way I can give back is to give that to someone else. With Jason, I shared my love of being an athlete and an artist. And he’s soaked it up like a sponge.’’
With practice, John Benton has gotten used to the rhythms of a telecast, such as feeling comfortable in front of the camera and learning how to work in tandem with a play-by-play announcer. It isn’t easy — but then, neither is curling, particularly at the Olympics.
Benton, 44, admitted it might be tough to remain completely objective while working as an analyst for NBC’s broadcasts of the Olympic curling tournament. At the 2010 Winter Games, he was on the ice as a member of the U.S. men’s team skipped by Duluth’s John Shuster. In Sochi, Shuster and teammate Jeff Isaacson will be competing again, while Benton describes the action for the American TV audience.
“This will be a whole different side of the game, one I didn’t experience in 2010,’’ said Benton, who also is director of curling operations at Blaine’s Four Seasons Curling Club and a national team coach for USA Curling. “It’s going to be challenging to not be part of the team, but I’m up for it.’’
He is among four Minnesotans to move from the elite-athlete ranks to the broadcast booth at these Olympics. Pete Fenson of Bemidji also will serve as a curling analyst, eight years after winning a bronze medal at the Turin Games. Three-time Olympian and former Gopher Natalie Darwitz of Eagan will be NBC’s studio analyst for women’s hockey, and Chad Salmela of Duluth — a former member of the U.S. biathlon team — will provide commentary on cross-country skiing and biathlon.
Benton had no television experience when NBC asked him to audition for a job as the analyst at last fall’s Olympic trials. His work there won him a spot on one of two broadcast teams for curling in Sochi. The sport, a popular TV presence during the Olympics, will be shown on four NBC-owned networks, and he expects to call two games per day.
After experiencing life as an Olympic athlete four years ago, Benton said he will miss the rush of competition. But like the other Minnesotans who are preparing, supporting and celebrating the athletes in Sochi, he is grateful to be part of the Winter Games in any capacity.
“It’s such an honor, I get a little bit emotional about it,’’ he said. “Just to be able to go to another Olympic Games is really special.’’