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Hearts of Olympians: A Countdown Series to Vancouver 2014


Aug 4, 2018
Chapter 1: Good Odds
Tat Hieu Nguyen
Sport: Alpine Skiing

Odds of making the Winter Olympics: 1:1,000,000,000​

"Look at him go!" Father laughs behind the camera, scooting backward on his butt as Tat unsteadily waddles towards him. Tat gurgles and laughs, Mother helping guide him along. She's clutching him underneath his armpits, letting him take his first steps assisted. With arms outstretched, Tat takes one unsure step after another. Step by step by step. His legs are shaking like the cartoon film Mother always put on "Bambi" which he absolutely loves, but of course, Dumbo is better, and who could forget the Jungle Book?

"Come here, little prince!" Father encourages. "Come to the camera! Come on, champion! You can do it."

Tat waddles harder, laughing with Mother as she helps him along.

"Faster, faster!" Mother urges, kissing her son on the scalp. "Hurry, before daddy can get away."

Only about a meter away, Father cracks, taking a step forward and scooping up his excitedly screaming son in his arms.

"Gotcha," He cries, blowing raspberries on Tat while he squeals. "Gotcha, you little speed demon!"

Odds: 1:485,000,000​

Tat is sure he doesn't like the snow when he hears about it for the first time. He likes it hot. Vietnam is hot. Why should he enjoy the snow? He'd probably never ever see it, only hearing about it in school (which he kinda despises), watching it on TV (where the quality sucks), or hearing about his rich friends who've taken trips to Switzerland. When Father comes home to Mother and Tat, proudly talking about how the University is reassigning them to Russia for research, Tat begs to stay. He hasn't seen it and he already know, he hates the snow. His friends are here. His school is here. His home is here.

Father and Mother are too busy packing boxes to notice.

When Tat sits in a snow pile and looks up wondrously at the white flakes drifting down from the heavens, slowly turning among themselves and landing on his nose, he can't help but giggle to himself.

He loves the snow! He loves the cold!

"Where are you from?" A girl his age asks in heavily-accented English. She is dressed in bulky snow gear, a scarf wrapped up to her nose. She plops down in front of him. Underneath her snow cap is a fringe of black hair.

"Vietnam," Tat replies, in equally accented English.

"Oh." The girl looks around, then back at Tat. "You see snow before?"

"No." Tat answers. "It's cool."

"It sucks. Everything about the cold sucks."

"Well, I think it's cool." Tat argues.

"Well, I'm sure it sucks." She says before sticking out a mitted hand. "I'm Natalka."

Tat looks at Natalka's hand, then up at Natalka, then back at her hand. He shakes it.


Odds: 1:300,000,000

He's sliding left and right, but he's in control. There are bumps and ragged chunks of ice sticking up out of the newer snow. He tries to avoid them as they pick up speed, but one is right in his way! He can't go around and he grits his teeth, straightening his skis. He goes right over the top of it and launches, sailing through the air!

"Woohoo!" He cheers.

Despite landing awkwardly, he quickly restores his equilibrium and accelerates once more. He lowers his head, remembering what he was taught. Be more aerodynamic. Flow like a leaf on the wind. Shooting out of the debris field, he flies into the fluffy powder snow. His favorite part... but he can't dwell on it now.

Gotta beat her. Gotta beat her. Gotta beat her!

Deep into the snow, he relaxes his legs so his feet rise up underneath his hips. He shifts his weight and turns the skis effortlessly. He arcs left and right in long, linked curves, building speed and plowing through snowdrifts that explode and showers his face in their cold embrace. He whoops in exhilaration. This is what he lives for. He never feels more alive when the cold wind is in his face. Building on his lead, he points the skis straight down the steep pitch, straight into the final part of the run.

He wasn't turning now. He wasn't arcing or shifting his weight, no. He was going straight-line downhill, bent over his skis for balance. The skis hissed and gasped as he zoomed over the groomed snow. Thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy kilometers an hour. One twitch of his knee and that would spell disaster. Seeing the lift up ahead, he brings his legs up underneath him to cushion his slow down as he coasts towards the lift, panting heavily.

Tat didn't mean to beat her. He never really has before. He's always happy to see her win. He likes seeing the giant smile on her face when she wins, even when she's gloating and boasting. He likes the conciliatory pat on the back that has maybe been lasting a little longer than necessary as of late. He didn't actually want to beat her.

Which is why they're both taken aback when it happens.

Tat guilty waits for her, a strange feeling of regret mixing with euphoria in his stomach. His teeth are chattering from the adrenaline dump as well as the cold, but he could hardly care for the cold at this point. He loves the snow.

Despite the fact that she didn't win, Natalka looks beautiful. Her face is bright from the cold and the exercise, her hair is windswept and tangled... especially since she doesn't wear a helmet ("After all, I never fall!), which is a look that Tat is sure that only he gets to see, and a huge smile is on her lips.

"That was amazing," She praises, her voice loud and happy. "The way you took that last line was incredible. You've been practicing a ton, haven't you? You totally smoked me!"

"I've been practicing a bit," Tat replies slowly, trying to comprehend her mood. Natalka is the sorest of sore losers. Not that she ever loses a lot. "I've been just taking some time on my technique and getting good body position for those corners."

"It worked!" Natalka cries, radiating glee. "It totally worked."

"That's cool," Tat mumbles. Natalka frowns, taking her goggles off. Tat can't look at her. He turns around and starts to walk away.

"Tat?" Comes her voice. "What's wrong?"

She grabs his arm.

He doesn't want to turn around and face her. How is he supposed to explain that he wanted that pat on the back and the way she sympathetically-but-not-really said "better luck next time". But, when her hand grips his arm tighter, he turns around because it's not in his nature to say no to Natalka Sokolov.

Which is why he doesn't refuse when her lips meet his and mash forcefully against them.

Wait... Natalka is kissing him?

Her hand is still on his arm while the other loops around his neck, and that's when Tat realizes his eyes are open so he makes the conscious decision to close them, leaning into her as his arms hang uselessly at his side, holding onto his ski poles.

When they pull away from each other, Tat wishes that he had no eyes so he couldn't see the look of horror in her expression that was probably mirrored in his.

They both run off in separate directions.

Odds: 1:100,000,000​

Father doesn't normally complain about a lot of things, so when he complains about his head hurting, Tat and Mother are curiously worried. It's nothing though, right dad? Sure thing, son. That's the way it'd go and Father would squeeze Tat on the shoulder and let him get back to his homework.

So, it's when Father is cooking and he suddenly falls unconscious that they finally call the ambulance and take him to the hospital. But, Father is the strongest person he knows. He's as healthy as a horse. He's going to be fine, right, doctor? I'm sure it's nothing. We'll just keep him here fo some tests, then he'll be right out. That's the way it went, so Tat goes and texts his girlfriend, Natalka.

When they say it's brain tumors, Tat doesn't quite know what to do. He takes some time off from after school and weekend skiing trips to spend time at the hospital. His skis collect dust in the closet, but it doesn't matter, because once Father becomes healthy, he'd be able to put them on and race Natalka again (she beat him the last time so he can't end on a losing note anymore).

When the health bills start mounting, Tat sells the snow gear that he meticulously saved 8 months for. He takes a job at a local coffee shop to help in any way he can, spending his own money on food, electricity, and water usage and giving the rest to Mother.

When the Doctor says nothing can be done anymore, Tat sits there in silence.

When the Doctor says I'm sorry and leaves, Tat asks Natalka to help bring Mother home. They're both crying but Natalka agrees. Mother hasn't been home in days, alternating from sleeping in the hospital waiting room to sitting by Father's bed. It's time that she had a break. Tat can hand;e the rest from here.

Tat is there when Father breaths his last words. He quickly comes to Father's bedside, clasping onto his clammy hand.

"Cold." Father whispers.

Tat decides he hates the cold.

Odds: 1:200,000,000

Losing the job at the Embassy, they go back to Vietnam, a country that is now foreign to him. The government simply pays for a plane ticket and nothing else. To purchase a small hovel in the middle of Saigon, Tat does the only thing that he thinks is reasonable.

He sells his skis.

He doesn't mind. After all, he hates the cold.

Tat goes back to school and brushes up on his Vietnamese. Despite never using it so extensively, he eases his way back into the city. He's not sure what he wants to do once he graduates. He never really knew. Without Father there to guide him, he's lost. Natalka does what she can to help, but she's thousands of miles away.

For the first time in his life, he's slowed down.

Odds: 1:150,000,000

Price gun in his hand, he applies a sticker to can after can. THWACK. THWACK. THWACK. The fluorescent lights of the supermarket is too bright and migraine is building in his head. Mother is still home, bedridden with the loss of her other half. Tat understands. When Natalka isn't here, it feels like a part of him is gone. They talk every day but it's not the same. From the television set near the front of the store, he hears the reporter talk about the upcoming Winter Olympics. They're still years away, but the government has announced they intend to send athletes and are running qualifiers in Hanoi and Saigon. There are talks of honor, of national pride, of respect.

Tat imagines himself doing that. Like the people on TV. Skiing down a perfectly groomed mountain and taking perfect lines. Standing on the medal podium, proudly holding up a gold medal. Coming home to a parade and meeting the president and THWACK, THWACK, THWACK.

He hates the cold, remember.

That night, he calls Natalka just as she's coming home from ski team practice. She answers the phone, excited to hear his voice.

He breaks up with her.

He feels empty.

He wants to cry.

He goes to sleep and goes to work the next day.


Odds: 1:700,000
Mother passes away. The Doctors aren't quite sure what it was, but Tat is fairly sure it was a broken heart. Tat sits down on the couch, still wearing the suit that he bought two days ago... the one that is too short and too stiff. He looks at the ash container on the table, not quite sure what to do with it. Mother and Father are in there, permanently intertwined in the afterlife.

He packs it away.

He packs a lot of things away.

The tiny hovel that he bought with his skis suddenly feels huge for him when he's done. Tat is pushing the last box away when something catches his eye. It's his old stuff from Russia. On a whim, he opens the box. At the top is a picture of them... Natalka and him. Arms linked together at the top of a mountain, ready to zip on down at the speed of light.

Not a care in the world...

He tracks down the person who he sold his skis to and buys them back with his meager savings. He applies to the Vietnamese Alpine Skiing Team the next day.

Odds: 1:4,000
The joint try-outs are in Russia. They're still building the artificial snow facility that the team will be practicing in back in Vietnam. Tat is at the top of the mountain, waiting for his number to be called so he can make his dry line... his try outrun.

"Tat?" Says a woman from behind him.

He looks up.

"Natalka..." He whispers.

Her black hair that had once reached her elbows is now shoulder-length. The girl that he had grown up with and fallen in love with is still the same, though. They stare at each other, both unable or unwilling to say anything. He broke her heart to save his... but broke himself too. The more that they stand there, the more convinced Tat is that Natalka is his other half and was always meant to be his other half.


"TAT NGUYEN!" A coach yells. "Time to make your run!"

He looks at the coach, then back at Natalka.

"Watch out for the snow near the bottom," She advises. "It sucks."

"I love the snow," Tat responds, rising to his feet.

"I know you do," She says, giving him a quick kiss. "Give me your best run."

Tat goes and does.

Odds: 1:50​

He's not quite sure if he won or not, but his chances are good. That night, he and Natalka catch up at a pub that the teams frequent. They're at a quiet section of the restaurant, reminiscing.

When they get word that they made it, he asks her to marry him.

She agrees and asks for a Winter wedding.

He can't say no. After all, he loves the cold.

Odds of going to the Olympics: 1:1​

President Ngo is going down the line, shaking the hands of the athletes. When he gets to Tat, Tat bows deep in deference.

"That's quite enough," Ngo laughs. "I should be the one bowing. This is a tremendous achievement for you. You will do your country proud."

"Thank you, Mr. President," Tat replies.

President Ngo shakes Tat's hand, squeezing it. "I hope you love the snow."

"I do, Mr. President." Tat chuckles.


Aug 4, 2018
Chapter 2: Here I Stand
The Marine
Sport: Biathlon

This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

Thighs burning, the Marine charged through the jungle, shoving past biting and irritating foliage. Her spotter had abandoned her long ago, running ahead to set up his position. The Marine's eyes scanned her watch, taking an involuntary gasp of breath when she realized she was barely ahead of pace. Her sizeable lead that she had built up earlier on had all but disappeared.

My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.

High scores on the gun range had earned the Marine the title of "sharpshooter", and the Marine's continued aptitude for "sharpshooting" had earned her the opportunity to compete. It seemed that here, within the yelling and rules and straight lines of the Republic of Vietnam Marine Corps, the rich girl from Saigon had finally become the (wo-)man that she was always destined to be. A weapon who could dispense death at will.

Without me, my rifle is useless.

Slipping on the mud, she went to her belly next to the mound of dirt that was her spotter. He barely acknowledged the Marine.

"Target, three hundred meters. Foliage, due noon," The spotter said. "Fire when ready."

The Marine pushed down the bipod and secured it in the dirt. The Marine put her cheek on the stock, her abysmally high heart rate already slowing to a crawl.

Without my rifle, I am useless.

"Target acquired," The Marine said, adjusting the knob on her telescopic scope.

"Fire when ready." The spotter murmured.

I must fire my rifle true.

"Fire..." The spotter mumbled.

I must shoot straighter than my enemy who is trying to kill me.

"Fire..." The spotter repeated quietly.

I must shoot him before he shoots me.


The Marine squeezed the trigger of her tool.

"Hit." The spotter said, packing up his scope. "See you at the next target."

Here I stand.​

This is my rifle!

The Marine adjusted her scope, her rifle propped on a desk. The sixth-floor window was what was known in the Marines as a nest. A beautiful perch, with 360 degree view. The Marine and her rifle were one. She could shoot the wings off a bird at two hundred meters.

There are many like it, but this one is mine!

The Marine took aim. The militiaman was fifty meters away, walking in a lazy pace from left to right... perhaps 2 miles per hour. At this distance, the Marine couldn't miss. She looked through the scope, exhaling as was taught. In... and out.... In... and out. Controlled. Controlled. Slow the breathing, slow the heartbeat. Relax.

My rifle is my best friend! It is my life! I must master it as I must master my life!

All powerful. All controlling. The Marine alone, in the next thirty seconds, would decide the fate of another human being. Permanently. She was the master of her own life, her own destiny... and the master of his.

Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless!

Through the scope, the Marine watched the Target stop in his tracks, studying the ground. He bent over, picking up something the Marine couldn't make out. The Target flicked it away and continued walking lazily. The Marine targeted the side of his head. Still under seventy meters, the Marine would not miss. His destiny was decided. The cards were all revealed and he had lost his hand.

I must fire my rifle true!

The Marine fired.

I must shoot straighter than my enemy who is trying to kill me!

The Target flinched in her scope, raising his elbows and clutching his throat. The bullet had entered through his shoulder, ricochetting off a bone, and exiting out of his neck. The Target's scarf immediately became soaked with blood.

I must shoot him before he shoots me.

The Marine chambered another round and lay in wait.

Here I stand.

Mahogany draped with a yellow flag. A sniffling crowd. A clear day. Dress blues that were itchy and uncomfortable. A rifle that gleamed in the Sun and was far too polished for the Marine's liking.

"Detail... forward, march!"

The Marine and her Detail obediently marched forward as one unit.


"Detail... halt!"

The Marine and her Detail obediently stopped marching forward as one unit.


"Detail... left... face!"

The Marine and her Detail obediently turned left as one unit.



The Marine and her Detail obediently loaded.


The Marine and her Detail obediently aimed.



The Marine and her Detail obediently fired.

Birds in the distance. Crowd sniffling more. Mahogany covered in yellow. A Marine gone too soon.


The Marine and her Detail obediently cycled in the next round.





The coffin steadily lowered into the ground. The crowd began to sob. Mahogany covered in yellow gave way to green grass. Marines stood by, staring solemnly into space. A Marine had served, a Marine deserves rest.







Goodbye, Marine.