By Gary Sheftick and Tim Hipps
Army News Service
Sixteen U.S. military athletes and four coaches are representing the United States in six different sporting venues: shooting, fencing, boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, track and field and the modern pentathlon.
The athletes marched into a new stadium in east London after more than two hours of music and production that showcased the heritage and transitions of Great Britain from a “green and pleasant land” through the industrial revolution to the digital era.
“Once it got going, it was amazing,” said Spc. Justin Lester, a member of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) and an Olympic competitor in Greco-Roman wrestling. “You could feel it all the way through your body when you walked into the stadium. It was everything and more than you could imagine.”
One facet of the ceremony that intrigued local residents of London was the involvement of Queen Elizabeth in a production scene that featured actor Daniel Craig as James Bond. The legendary British agent entered Buckingham Palace to pick up Her Majesty and take her to the stadium via helicopter.
British newspapers said it was the first acting scene for Queen Elizabeth in her 60-year reign as monarch. The media speculated that she may have been persuaded to participate by one of her favorite filmmakers, Danny Boyle, who was overall artistic director for the night’s production.
After the Bond scene on the big screen, a helicopter hovered above the stadium and two parachutists jumped out, one purportedly Bond and the other the queen. Moments after the parachutists glided across the stadium and down, Queen Elizabeth addressed the audience from her royal box, welcoming everyone to the London Games.
“It was a great experience,” said Staff Sgt. Josh Richmond, an Olympic shotgun shooter in the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit. “I had an idea that it was going to be very exciting, but didn’t know to the extent of how much fun it would be.
“I walked next to (Team USA basketball player) Kobe Bryant almost the whole time. It was great, because even though he has been through everything there is in sports, he still had a look on his face like, ‘This is so cool.'”
Another part of the night’s production that audience members described as “amazing” was a skit titled “Pandemonium.” Giant smoke stacks rose from the center of the stadium to depict the rapid industrialization of the United Kingdom during the 19th century, when it was the first nation to undergo the Industrial Revolution that changed the world.
In all, more than 7,500 volunteers participated as cast members in the ceremony’s productions, including hundreds from the National Health Service. Many of the NHA professionals played medical workers in a skit that depicted childhood nightmares, famous British bedtime stories and medical care for youth.
One new technology incorporated into the production was an “audience pixel screen” extending around the stadium seating area composed of 70,799 small panels mounted between the seats. Each panel had nine LED pixels controlled by a central computer which manipulated their multi-colored lights into complex images and special effects.
“Walking into the opening ceremonies was the ultimate high,” said Navy Reserve Petty Officer 1st Class Sandra Uptagrafft, who also is an Army spouse. “I still get goose bumps thinking about it now. To walk the opening ceremonies with my husband hand-in-hand just made it that much more meaningful and something I will carry the rest of my life.”
Both Sandra and her husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Eric Uptagrafft, compete in shooting for Team USA. Sandra finished fifth in the 10-meter air pistol event July 28th and shoots again in the sports pistol event August 1st. Her husband, a member of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, competes in men’s prone rifle August 3rd.
“It was quite an honor – it’s always fun to get that opportunity” to participate in the opening ceremony, said Army Olympian Staff Sgt. John Nunn who is competing in race walking, a track and field event, August 11th. After marching around the track, he stood in the center of the stadium for the remainder of the ceremony with thousands of athletes from more than 200 nations.
The Olympic Torch ceremony was accompanied by a fireworks display that shot up from along all the walls of the stadium to provide a bowl effect. The ceremony ended with Paul McCartney singing “Hey Jude” as actors and audience members alike held hands and swayed in unison.
“Opening ceremonies totally rocked,” Nunn posted on his Facebook page. “What a great time. They had grade-school kids line the 1k walking route into the stadium, cheering us all on. The torch lighting was unique and pretty cool. And to end it all, Sir Paul sang ‘Hey Jude.’ Needless to say, that was a very cool evening. It’s 2:00am and I’m going to bed. … Welcome to the 2012 Olympic Games.”
WCAP shooter Army Sgt. 1st Class Daryl Szarenski skipped marching in the opening ceremony because he competed the next morning in the men’s 10-meter air pistol event across town at the Royal Artillery Barracks. He did not, however, totally miss the experience.
“I fell asleep watching it on TV,” he said. “And we’re on the ninth floor, so we could see what was going on from the balcony. At about 11:15, I fell asleep, and the fireworks woke me up later.”
The fireworks signaled time for athletes to return to competitive mode.
“Now that the ceremony is over, it’s time get down to business,” Richmond said. “I have been training hard and getting ready for a long time. I feel good about where I am at. I just have to stick to the game plan, not do too much from here until the day of the match, and there will be plenty of time to experience the Olympics after I am done.”
Michael Molinaro of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit contributed to this article.