I took a deep breath, gripped the long metal shaft in my hands, and shifted the strap on my shoulder. On a cue from the staff member near the opening, I began to walk forward, step by step. All of a sudden my ears heard a loud roar as I stepped into sight of 60,000 screaming people. I heard an echoing voice announce, "The United States of America," followed by, "Les Etats-Unis d'Amérique." English and French. The two official languages of the Olympic Games, I recalled in the back of my mind. As I focused on placing one foot after another carefully on the ground, I reflected on the events that brought me here, to the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
I grew up in the water. My mom moved to Phoenix, Arizona almost immediately after I was born, leaving my father in the miniscule, rainy town of Forks, Washington. At a young age I discovered that I was plagued with an almost crippling clumsiness. I failed at many dance lessons and volleyball games all before I turned five years old. Then, my mom enrolled me in swim lessons at the local pool. As I advanced in lessons I realized that in the water I never fell once. I grasped at that fact and in a few years mastered all four strokes.
When I was eight I joined the swim team to compete and advance my swimming ability. I had to be careful diving off the start blocks, but once I was in the water I sped along faster than any other girls my age. That year I won many races and even advanced to the state finals in the fifty meter breaststroke. I took second.
The next year I was in a more advanced level, competing against both nine and ten-year-olds. I continued the same dominance, and my mom began to realize that I was rather exceptional at swimming. Unbeknownst to me, she researched different training facilities and coaches, hoping to help my skill develop so I could compete on the world stage one day.
My mom moved us again, this time to Austin, Texas where she had secured a position for me to train at the Longhorn Aquatics Center, one of the premier facilities for Olympic-level swimmers. While training at the center under head coach Randy Reese, I decided that my strongest stroke was the breaststroke, and we began to focus on that. I trained long and hard, lifting weights and swimming miles in the pool each day. I didn't go to school anymore but instead had a private tutor.
My earlier success continued and I qualified for junior-level worldwide competition for the United States. I swam in the 100 and 200 meter breaststroke races and the breaststroke leg of the 400 medley relay. I regularly finished in the top five in all these races, and my name was already becoming known to the swimming world.
At fifteen I began competing on the world stage with all of the great swimmers. I traveled around the world competing in different meets and even the world championships. I began to set my sights on the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
I trained hard and strong for the next two years and, at seventeen, competed in the U.S. Olympic trials. After swimming harder than ever before, I qualified for two individual races – my two strongest – the 100 meter and 200 meter breaststroke.
I was so excited for my first Olympic games and couldn't wait to compete in the same pool as the most famous swimmers in the entire world, especially Michael Phelps. I had heard he was attempting to win eight gold medals in eight races to top Mark Spitz's record of seven. I was in awe that he could have a serious goal of winning eight gold medals; I would have to work hard to just win one!
Eventually it was two weeks before the Olympic Games and my emotions were over the roof. I was completely excited and nervous and worried and about five-hundred different emotions. But I was ready. It was my time to show the world who Bella Swan was.
However, it was not to be so. That day, the world decided that I shouldn't compete in Beijing. My out-of-the-pool clumsiness took hold, and I fell down the stairs of my house, breaking my leg. The doctors told me I couldn't swim for nearly two months.
I was heartbroken. But, like a good teammate, I headed to Beijing and cheered on all my teammates. I smiled and screamed as Phelps won his eighth gold medal and watched in awe as Dara Torres won a gold medal while in her forties. Yet though it all, I couldn't help but remember and grieve over the fact that it could have been me in that pool. It could have been me standing on that podium and smiling for the whole world.
After returning from Beijing and waiting for my leg to heal, I once again poured my entire self into swimming. I may not have been able to compete this year, but I would be even stronger and faster than before for swimming in London.
I forced my mind out of its memories and once again focused on the present. I gazed around me, noticing all the people cheering and screaming just for us. It was late in the night; the United States was late in the alphabet and thus nearly at the end of the Parade of Nations. Despite the late hour, I was full of energy, and it seemed that the crowd felt the same way. This was a special moment in history. Pieces of these next couple of weeks would be remembered forever.
I was extremely proud to have been chosen as the flag bearer for my country. It was one of the greatest honors I could have received. I also wondered at the team's thinking. Why choose one of the clumsiest athletes in the nation to carry the flag? I couldn't come up with an answer. So I settled for continuing to concentrate on my feet. Left. Right. Left. Right. One step at a time.
After a couple minutes of this, I had reached the other end of the stadium and began to round the curve. I gazed to my left and noticed that U.S. athletes were still entering the stadium. Hundreds of athletes had come, all hoping to fulfill their dreams of winning an Olympic gold medal. The highest honor in all of sports, I sadly noted that most of these athletes would never even reach the podium.
I promised myself that I would not be one of them. I was ready. It was my time to shine, and I knew that I had a serious chance of even winning gold. I decided that I would win a medal for my country, a medal to represent the dreams of every athlete, showing what could be accomplished with simple determination and effort.
I finally took a break from my awe-stuck gazing and dreams to look around me at my close friends. They surrounded me at the very head of the United States Olympic team. My friend Alice walked gracefully to my left, almost dancing in her excitement. She held the hand of her boyfriend Jasper, who walked along calmly despite the pixie pulling his hand around with her dancing walk. I turned my head to the right to look at my friend Rosalie, attracting the attention of many of the males in the stadium with her graceful, strutting gait. She pulled along her fiancé Emmett, who matched her strut with his own powerful swagger.
I focused on each of my friends in turn.
Emmett – the big, bulky weightlifter. Stronger and more powerful than most men in this world, yet as fun and friendly as a giant teddy bear. I had met Emmett through Rosalie after they began dating, and we had hit it off immediately as he swept me up into a big bear hug.
Rosalie – the incomparably gorgeous and graceful diver. Her unusually long form for her sport caused her dives to appear even more impressive. Rose had it all – yet still preferred to fiddle around with cars and have fun with us. We had met at a swimming and diving invitational when we had been warming up at the pool complex at the same time.
Lithe, graceful Alice. Perfectly tine, yet with a strength not noticeable at first glance. The United States' star gymnast. Always dressed to perfection, she loved to give me makeovers and attempt to hide all the damage on my hair from the pool water. Somehow, impossibly, she was always successful. Like Emmett, I had met Alice through Jasper. They had already been dating for years before I met both her and Jasper at the pool.
And finally, Jasper. My fellow swimmer. His tall frame and long limbs rivaled Michael Phelps. Phelps was only swimming in a couple races this year, so Jasper, the rising star, was in the spotlight instead. He would be competing in six races, and it was quite possible that he'd win gold in all of them. Few swimmers were of his caliber and could even dream of beating him.
Even though we were on the Olympic swimming team together, I constantly looked up to him for his incredible strength, talent, and poise.
Alice noticed my wandering eyes and glazed-over expression and called out a warning.
"Watch your feet, Bella!"
I had practically begged her to make sure I didn't get caught up in the moment and trip, to my eternal humiliation. That could be embarrassing to the entire nation. I still didn't know why I was picked to be the flag bearer. Any one of my friends would be a much more obvious choice. They were all much better-looking than me and could walk without tripping, too. Definitely the sort of person that should be the head of the American procession. I couldn't think of any reason why someone would choose me, let alone the majority. I had a sinking feeling that my friends may have pushed votes away from them and onto me. They gave me too much. I wasn't even sure why they chose to be my friends, and then they kept doing things like this on top of that. Putting me ahead, buying me clothes, and more. It was way too much. But I had learned that resistance was futile and had learned to simply be grateful. Complaining just made it worse.
We had nearly finished circling the stadium by now and were about to enter the center field where all the other athletes had gathered. I stopped walking and took out my camera to take some pictures of my own as we waited for the final nation, the United Kingdom, to enter. I knew the cheering, already loud, would reach a deafening level when the home country entered.
I continued taking pictures of the sights around me and also of my friends. I was pulled in for a group picture with Alice and Rose as a small part of my brain distantly recognized the name 'Zimbabwe' being announced. I smiled and stared into the camera. As I blinked the flash out of my eyes, I suddenly heard an excited call, "The United Kingdom!"
As I had predicted, the entire stadium, which had previously been nearly asleep due to the late hour, suddenly woke up with a resounding cheer. The new level of sound remained for longer than that first instant. The sustained noise lasted for the entire time the British team rounded the stadium, a period lasting several minutes.
I couldn't wait for their team to complete the loop and the games to officially begin. I was excited to mingle with all the athletes and talk to these people from all around the world gathered in this one place at this one time. This would only happen one other time at the closing ceremony.
The British team finally joined the rest of us in the center of the stadium and the attention shifted focus to a podium on the outside of the group of athletes. I put away my camera after noting that Emmett had pulled out his video camera. The head of the British Olympic Committee approached the podium. He spoke a few words about how excited he was to host the Olympics in London. After welcoming the athletes, he surrendered the podium to the chair of the International Olympic Committee.
Jacques Rogge reiterated the welcome and encouraged all the athletes to remain healthy and drug-free after all the recent steroid scandals. After a couple of minutes, Rogge concluded and the immortal words were spoken, "Let the games begin!"
A group of representatives from London carried in the Olympic flag. They passed it off to six beefeaters waiting to raise the flag on the pole. With careful precision and not a smile or show of emotion, they attached it to the rope and hoisted the flag as the sweet sounds of the Olympic Anthem filled the stadium.
When the flag reached the top of the pole, the lights dimmed and a spotlight focused on a figure standing at the entrance we had come from earlier in the evening. I could faintly see that the figure was holding a torch in his hand. The Olympic flame had arrived after its journey around the world.
The figure posed for a couple of seconds as the entire stadium flashed from people taking pictures. Then he started to jog around the stadium. About a quarter of the way around he passed the flame to another figure, a woman who passed near where I was standing. I hoped Emmett got a good shot of this.
The flame continued to be ran around the stadium and passed off to new runners at quarterly intervals. Once the flame had traveled the entire distance of the stadium, it was passed off to one final bearer.
I noticed that this bearer had something akin to a heavy-duty backpack on his back. Just as I realized this, the backpack roared to life with a flaming glow. He lifted off the ground as I recognized that he must be wearing a jetpack. I thought this was a very creative way to light the Olympic torch.
The bearer flew upwards and above the stadium towards the modern, artful torch towering above us. The orange flame from the torch in his hand above him contrasted with the blue flames of the jetpack high in the air. The aerial torchbearer reached the torch and hovered next to it before touching the flame to the torch.
It lit up in a sudden, large flame that illuminated the stadium. The torch was lit. The ceremony was over and the games had officially begun. Members of the audience began to filter out of the stadium as athletes began intermingling and talking among each other.
I drifted slightly away from my friends to say hello to other athletes. As I wandered, I heard all types of languages. English, Spanish, French, Italian, Chinese, and many other languages I couldn't identify. I talked briefly with many random athletes that I ran into.
After speaking with a runner from Jamaica, I decided that I had pushed the bounds of my shyness enough for one evening. My swimming races began early into the Olympics, so I couldn't begin depriving myself of sleep already. I began meandering back towards where I had left my friends, hoping to run into them at some point.
As I wandered, I surveyed the crowd for any signs of my friends. Suddenly I thought a flash of coppery hair in the crowd.
NO! Why on earth was he even at the parade? Why did I have to see him of all people?
I attempted to keep walking to find my friends and prayed that I was simply imagining things. I felt like all my happiness and excitement for the evening had been drained out of me.
All at once he was right in front of me. Jasper's biggest competition. The poster boy and hottest celebrity from Britain. Everything I hated in a person rolled into one. And the one person I did not want to meet.