The joy and pride of watching my best friend live out her Olympic dream

A couple Sundays ago while out for my daily pandemic walk, I got a FaceTime call that has left me smiling ever since.

One of my oldest friends was on the other line. She held up a sign: “I’m going to the Olympics!” it read. Tears streamed down my face.

I met Jennifer (JJ) Hawkrigg, who is competing for Canada in alpine snowboarding, when we were just 11. Her mum recently dug up a letter she wrote to herself that year.

“I am in grade seven right now and I can’t wait till the rest of the year goes by,” she wrote to herself.

“I am on the field hockey team and I am going to try out for the volleyball team next term. Outside of school, I play hockey, snowboard race, soccer and basketball.”

“My dream is to go to the Olympics. But it probably won’t happen.”

Not many of us have dreams that big. I certainly don’t. But I’ve had the unique pleasure of watching one of my best friends chase and fulfil her dream, and it’s been just as sweet.

JJ would be the first to tell you it hasn’t come easy: Years of missing school, parties and events. Spending months away from home, travelling to a new country every few days to compete against the world’s top athletes. Injuries, setbacks, moments wondering if it’s all worth it.

I’ve always seen JJ as a professional athlete. But more than that, to me, she’s just a great friend. Someone I’ve travelled with, who has cheered on my and others’ successes as much as hers, who loves to gossip over a glass of wine as much as I do.

This year’s Games are not the ones JJ expected as an 11-year-old. Many have questioned whether the Olympics should be happening at all.

In year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes are kept inside a “closed loop” away from the rest of the country where they get tested for the virus daily. There are no fans in the stands.

JJ’s amazingly supportive family — who I know would love to be there — will be cheering her on at home.

Growing concerns over China’s human rights abuses have prompted some countries, including Canada, to keep their diplomats at home in protest. Athletes were urged to boycott the opening ceremony. Canadians have been told not to speak ill of China while they’re there.

But underneath these very legitimate concerns, it’s still the Olympics: the biggest sporting event in the world — one that little kids dream of and work toward their entire lives.

More than half of Canada’s 215 athletes are making their Olympic debuts. One of them is my pal JJ. This year’s team, the third largest in Canadian history, also has the most women ever with 106 competing.

The Olympics have never been my dream. I’ve tried snowboarding once, and I’m awful at it. But in a way, it feels like I’m there too. This was especially true the other day when JJ FaceTimed from her room in Zhangjiakou, the ski resort 200 kilometres from Beijing where snow sports are being held, to show off her Team Canada gear.

This year when I watch Canada’s athletes compete, I’ll be thinking of JJ and all the other first-timers who’ve been dreaming of this moment since they were young. I’ll also be thinking of their friends and family who, like me, get to experience this incredible feeling of joy and pride from the sidelines.

JJ will be competing in women’s parallel giant slalom on Monday night Toronto time at 9:40 p.m. Cheer her on with me!

Lex Harvey is a Toronto-based newsletter producer for the Star and author of the First Up newsletter. Follow her on Twitter: @lexharvs