Rosanna Garcia has been to every Summer Games since 1984
At first it was convenience. Then, an excuse for a vacation. But now, a quarter of a century later, the Summer Olympics are one of Rosanna Garcia’s most treasured traditions. Quadrennially, the Daniels College of Business professor becomes a moth to the Olympic flame.
Garcia, who holds the Walter Koch Endowed Chair of Entrepreneurship, has been to every summer Olympiad (she’s not about the snow and cold) since Ronald Reagan was in the White House: Los Angeles 1984, Seoul 1988, Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, London 2012, Rio 2016.
“You have a feeling of patriotism, but you also have a feeling that everyone’s your friend,” Garcia said. “It really gives me faith in humanity, and I think that’s what makes it more special.”
Under normal circumstances, Garcia would have been en route to Tokyo this July, for her 10th Olympics. But the games, originally scheduled for July 24–Aug. 9, were postponed after an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
“I wasn’t disappointed,” Garcia said. “In some ways it was a relief. Everyone was worried about travel. I was glad they didn’t cancel it.”
Garcia’s first time at the Olympics was as a senior at the University of California, Santa Barbara, about 100 miles up the coast from the Los Angeles Games. With the world’s greatest athletes so close by, she figured she might as well go. She and her three siblings crashed on a friend’s floor.
She remembers sitting two rows up from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum track, watching the legendary Carl Lewis sprint his way to one of four gold medals. Next to her sat the non-English speaking parents of West German shot putter Claudia Losch. They celebrated together as she won gold.
“We felt like a family,” Garcia said. “We didn’t know them, couldn’t talk to them, but it was just so exciting to be able to celebrate somebody’s accomplishment and celebrate humanity.”
Four years later, she was on her way to South Korea—a location that never made her list of dream destinations. After living with a local family for a couple weeks, she knew she wanted to make the Olympics, wherever they were, a priority.
“It took us to a place in the world we would not have gone to,” she said of the Seoul Games. “We met people and were immersed in a culture I would have never experienced: the hospitality, the kindness, the politics. It was really interesting and eye-opening for me.”
Every Olympics, Garcia said, feels a little different. Some (Sydney) are better run than others (London). But a few things have remained consistent over the last 26 years:
- Garcia never pays for housing. With the exception of the 2008 Beijing Games, Garcia finds a local host with whom to stay. Sometimes it’s a friend of a friend. Other times, she has been matched with a family. In 1996, through a foreign exchange travelers network, an Atlanta lawyer offered his house while he was out of town. “He said, ‘I’m leaving Atlanta, you can have my apartment, here’s where you can find the key, have fun,’” Garcia remembers. “Never met the guy. The key was where he said it was going to be, and we spent one week in Atlanta at the Olympics at somebody’s house I never met. That’s what people do. It gives you faith in humanity again that people are willing to be so generous with strangers, and you really do get a sense that the world is a small place and people care about each other.”
- Garcia always devotes a portion of her trip to exchanging commemorative pins with others on the grounds. She estimates she has amassed at least 500 of them, from corporations, countries, teams and more. She walks around wearing a vest—one side displaying the pins she’s willing to trade and the other side displaying the mementos she will never part with, including a homemade pin from a little girl and an official pin from the Spanish handball team.
- She always attends track and field events (because they offer the most bang for the buck) and usually a soccer match, but she’s happy to branch out to see less familiar sports, too. The most she’s paid for a ticket is $500, to watch British tennis star and eventual gold medalist Andy Murray play at Wimbledon. “It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things,” she said. “I will never pay that much money for tennis tickets ever again, but it was Wimbledon.”
- After the Olympic flame is extinguished, Garcia always spends time traveling around the country, taking advantage of the emptier streets and the host city’s post-Olympic hangover.
Through it all, Garcia said, she has never had a bad or uncomfortable experience. She leans into spontaneity, rarely making structured plans and usually waiting until the last moment to purchase a flight.
“Every time we’ve gone, we’ve had some incredible experience that you could not possibly have planned,” Garcia said. She remembers the free lodging her Korean hosts offered her at time-share accommodations around the country. And there was the time she spotted swimming legend Dara Torres at a Sydney restaurant after her event, invited her over to her table and held her newly won gold medal.
“How do you walk into that?” Garcia said. “Only at the Olympics.”