RED HAT SOCIETY|
Anne made history in her last Winter Olympic appearance. She became the first woman over 50 to complete in the Winter Games and the first woman to ever compete in 6 Winter Olympics. But she credits "Red Hatters", members of the Red Hat Society, for inspiring and playing a major role in her achievement. In an interview for NBC she stated, "My country is the Virgin Islands, but my nation is women over 50."
The tale of her relationship with Red Hat Society members could fill a book. The stories below are just two chapters in the continuing saga.
Any Color But Red
Our team was small, never more than two athletes on the World Cup race circuit at a time. Often it was just me. As a result I had more responsibility than my fellow competitors on the international race circuit. I was team captain, financial planner, fund raiser, equipment manager, travel coordinator as well as athlete.
There were times when the responsibilities were a bit overwhelming, but there were certain advantages to being a team of one. For example, when it came to selecting the team uniform and race gear I pretty much got to make the final decision. Basically my sole criteria for my suppliers of clothing and gear was any color but red.
It seemed as if every major country participating on luge race circuit had red as one of its national colors. The US, Canada, Austria, Italy, Russia, France, Poland, Great Britain, and even Latvia with their maroon jackets, all sported the color red. Often at World Cup races when all the team officials and athletes assembled alongside the luge track it was it was difficult to tell one nation from another in the sea of red.
Although the Virgin Islands colors are Caribbean blue and gold I was happy with anything as long as it wasn’t RED.
In the spring of 2003 while I was making an appearance in the US and signing my sport trading cards for the crowd. A lady came up to me after reading my bio on the back of my autograph card. She asked whether or not I would be going to the Torino 2006 Olympic Games. It was a common question and I had not yet decided whether to pursue another Olympics. It was going to be tough work both physically and financially so I waffled saying the issue was still in the air.
As the autograph session continued, the lady returned to ask my age. It seems that if you are an athlete no question regarding vital statistics is out of bounds. So I told her I had just turned fifty.
Then she inquired if I had ever heard of the Red Hat Society. Since I hadn’t, she launched into a full description of this “national disorganization.” However, I must admit as soon as she mentioned the color red, she lost me. Any article of clothing with that color simply did not interest me. My attention focused once more to the cards I was signing for the people still waiting in line.
Not to be brushed off, this lady began quoting a poem that had inspired the formation of this group for women over the age fifty. Then she explained that she was the “Queen” of a local Red Hat Society Chapter. I politely nodded and just kept signing cards.
Before she left she promised to invite me to one of her chapter’s functions. When the autograph event was over I forgot all about the Red Hat lady. But she didn’t forget about me, two days later there was an email invitation to a Red Hat Chapter dinner in my inbox and I was still in town.
My curiosity was peaked. Just what was this society? A quick search on the internet took me to the official Red Hat Society website.
At first glance it looked very interesting, but I was a bit skeptical. I mean really, a disorganization that boasts Queens could hardly be taken seriously.
There was a feature on the website where you can check to see if there are any chapters nearby. After plugging in the local zip code, thirty five chapters within a ten mile radius popped up on the screen. At random I picked eight of them and sent a message saying that I was an Olympic athlete temporarily in the area and would love to meet some local women.
Then I entered the zip code for my hometown in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. To my great surprise, there was a chapter there. I sent a note off to that chapter’s “Queen”, but confess that I did not expect any reply.
That same day Penny Bellas, Queen of The Red Foxes of Oakton, Virginia, called me. “You have just been made an honorary member of our chapter,” she said. Although I wasn’t quite sure what the meant, it seemed like a nice gesture.
Not long afterwards I received an email from Jane Clemo aka “Palm Bonnet”, Queen of the Caribbean Palm Bonnets in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. She asked what type of information was being sought and if I would be visiting the island soon. I wrote back explaining that I actually lived in St. Thomas and we shared the same mailbox service.
Jane responded saying, “Oh, you’re that Anne”. It seems that with my racing and training schedule I am never in one place very long. Although my home is in St. Thomas I hardly get to spend more than a month there at a time. So my neighbors rarely get to see me. However, Jane immediately welcomed me into her chapter.
Both Penny and Jane independently emailed me to say that they had written to “Sue Ellen” to tell her about me. I had no idea who “Sue Ellen” was. Within a matter of days a phone call came in from “Hatquarters”. (I mean really, “Hatquarters?,” this was just getting to be too much!) It was then I discovered that Sue Ellen was the founder and Queen Mother of the Red Hat Society.
An invitation was extended for me to attend the national “Red Hat Rodeo” event in Texas within a few weeks. Sue Ellen wanted to introduce me to the convention attendees during the Opening Night festivities.
Before I knew it, I was standing in front of nearly 5,000 women all wearing purple clothing and red hats of every size and shape imaginable. Nothing had prepared me for this. I had not even said a word, and the ladies were on their feet applauding me. As a group they seemed like a huge living organism with red and purple feathers floating everywhere. I was overwhelmed. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to say to these women.
I still had not made a decision about continuing my athletic career. To be sure, luge was a love of mine, but I was already fifty and no one had ever competed in my sport at that age. So I spoke about what would happen IF I went to the next Olympics. Not only would my record as the oldest in the Games be broken but I would also become first woman to participate in six Winter Olympics. Almost as an aside, I said that IF I went to next Games, I would be the first female Winter Olympian over the age of 50. The ladies stood up applauding once again.
As a joke, a friend of mine had suggested painting one of my old helmets red and dared me to take it up on the stage. That helmet was stashed in the podium. After explaining to the ladies that the rules would not permit me to wear a Red Hat in competition, I continued by saying, “IF I go, there’s nothing that says I can’t wear this.” Then I pulled out the helmet and put it on. The ladies went nuts, they were on their feet cheering and applauding for several minutes.
Now what was I going to do? Obviously, it meant a great deal to these Red Hat ladies that one of their own would compete in the Olympics. But it was not my intention to make a commitment to go to the 2006 Olympics much less wear a RED Helmet.
After my brief talk, Red Hatters surrounded me in front of the stage. For the rest of the convention women kept coming up to me saying that they were going watch the Olympics just because I was going to be there. That’s when it dawned on me that I was in a unique position to do something that no other woman had ever done, not only participate in the Winter Olympics over the age of 50, but in fact represent not only a physical country, but the female citizens of the world who were also over 50.
Upon my return home, there was a message on my answering machine. “Hello, this is Queen Linda Glenn from Luck, Wisconsin. What do we have to do to get your butt to the Games?” The following weeks I could not go to my mailbox or open my email without receiving a note from a Red Hatter somewhere encouraging me to continue in my sport. A question that I had used to propel me in my sport early in the 80’s kept creeping into my mind. “Why not?”
Less than six months later I sat on my sled at the start of my first World Cup race of the season. I was right where I wanted to be. Doing what I loved to do. The Red Hat ladies had convinced me that my age should not keep me from continuing to participate in something that I enjoyed.
It turns out that season, when the other national teams ordered race uniforms they had also requested any color but red. That year I proudly sported a brand new helmet it was the only red hat on the track.
Taking a Cue from the Red Hatter
Lake Placid, NY, December 2005. The 2006 Torino Winter Olympics were less than eight weeks away. Only the top thirty women in the world would be invited to compete in the Olympic luge event. Rankings would be based on the first five World Cup races of the season. Lake Placid was hosting the fifth and final qualifying race.
Although I was currently in the top thirty, several athletes were in position to bump me out. I had to finish this race in order to secure my berth on the Olympic Team.
Two weeks earlier there had been break in the grueling World Cup race and training circuit. Many of the Europeans stayed home for a few days of rest. The Canadians and others flew early to Calgary, Canada to train for the fourth World Cup, which would be hosted there.
I had opted for a week of extra training in Lake Placid. My experience on the relatively new track was extremely limited so additional training time on the course would invaluable.
That was the plan until the electricity went out during a windstorm. The refrigeration on the track was shut down. As the ice disappeared so did my scheduled training sessions.
While the loss of track time was disappointing, it didn’t worry me. My trainer and I headed to Calgary, where a good placing in that race was anticipated. It was home to my first Olympic competition in 1988. Plus, I was the only athlete to have competed in every World Cup there. A strong finish in Calgary meant the possibility of skipping the return trip to Lake Placid.
This was to be my last appearance in Calgary as an athlete. As a result it was a very emotional week, perhaps too emotional. The race was a disaster. In the first run I did what is known in luge as “ping-ponging”, hitting first one side of the track then the other. I finished last and in the process fractured my foot. My Olympic fate would now have to be determined in the final qualifying race.
While all the athletes arrived in Lake Placid on time, the sleds did not. Thus the number of race training sessions was cut. That just added more pressure to the already intense event.
On my second and last training day, the unthinkable happened; I had three crashes in three runs. Never in my entire career had that happened. I was stunned. Pressure continued to mount. If I didn’t complete the two race runs, I would be out of Olympic contention.
That night using visualization techniques I mentally raced over and over down the track. Every line through each curve was carefully scripted along with each action, reaction and steering cue. It was the only way to prepare since there was no more official training.
In the start house on race day you could hear a pin drop. This was it, the final chance for Olympic qualification. It was make or break time for several athletes. The normal pre-race chatter had all but disappeared. Since I had crashed the day before, my fellow competitors kept their distance, knowing how critical my next run would be. But that only made things worse.
The thought of all of the friends and family who expected me qualify for the Olympics filled my mind. As the only athlete from the Caribbean, my image was already on the 2006 Virgin Islands license plate. Uniforms, tickets, accommodations and accreditations had been secured for several team officials. It was assumed that my qualification would be automatic since I was already a five time Olympian. I knew better.
This next run would either propel me to the Olympics or be the last of my career. My head was reeling. Even during warm-up, it was obvious that my body and muscles were wound tight.
The race started. The start house was still. As my number in the order drew near, I picked up my helmet. It was red in honor of women over the age of fifty. Women, many of whom were members of the Red Hat Society, had supported and encouraged me to pursue this Olympic dream. The goal was to break the 50 year age barrier at the Winter Olympics.
While pulling on the helmet, a thought hit me. The Red Hat Society was about “Fun and Friends”. My Red Hat friends, women who were in so many respects just like me, would still be with me no matter how I finished. They inspired me in a new way, a way I can’t explain even today.
Relax. Only two complete runs were needed. After two and a half decades and five Olympic competitions, racing was second nature to me. Luge was something I loved to do. I closed my eyes and once again visualized sliding down the course. However this time I placed some new verbal cues into the visualization that detailed every thought, move and action through all of the curves of the track.
It was bitter cold as I moved outside for the official weigh-in of the sled and athlete. All the officials were afraid to say a word. A couple of sliders had already crashed on the rock hard ice course. The athlete in front of me started and I positioned myself on the sled to wait for the green light. However, my tensions eased as thoughts turned to the red helmet and a smile formed as I mentally visualizes and rehearsed the new cues that I had placed into my mental script. The green light came on, the countdown started, the face shield pulled into position and I was off.
Flying down the track my mind was constantly thinking ahead directing my course. Following the actions rehearsed again and again in my head, the sled was soon exceeding 60 mph. I was prepared for each curve and knew exactly what had to be done every thousandth of a second. The new cues that I had just added came through loud and clear.
Sailing through the finish, there was a huge smile on my face. I had conquered the track. Even though one more run had to be made, I knew my Olympic spot was secured.
The pressure was off and my confidence was back.
The red helmet had reminded me of something forgotten amidst all the long hours of intense focus, pressure, training and preparation. What were the new cues in my visualization? Only two words had been added to my race script, yet they enabled me to qualify for an unprecedented sixth Olympics. Those words now play a daily role in my life. Whenever my hard work is done, I always take cue from my red helmet and thus the Red Hat Society – “have fun”.
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