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Fellowship of the Rings

To strike a blow against international hatred, U.S. hockey player Kathleen Kauth did a simple thing: She shook the hand of an Olympian from Iran

It is the leastremarkable of acts. Someone crosses a floor, extends a hand, says hello. Atthese Winter Games it has happened every day: People meet, people move on. Butwhen it occurred at 3:45 p.m. on Feb. 7 at the Olympic Village in Turin,passersby stopped to watch. A woman, tall and blonde and nearing her 27thbirthday, led some friends over to a group of strangers. Smiles flashed; therewas some broken English, some nervous laughter. Cameras were pulled out, andsoon the athletes were posing for pictures. Hands fell on shoulders as theymoved closer together. They were Olympians, after all, and for some, that alonefelt like a small miracle. ¶ But that wasn't the half of it. ¶ When thethousands of athletes, fans, officials and reporters from more than 80countries gathered in Turin for the 20th Winter Games, it was not the best oftimes for world brotherhood. Olympics have been staged in the shadow of warshot and cold, of course, but these Games opened at a time when expertsseriously discussed whether one half of the planet could ever understand--muchless live in peace with--the other. The invasion of Iraq had made more enemiesthan friends for the U.S. The publication of cartoons depicting the prophetMuhammad in a Danish newspaper had helped touch off rioting by Muslims aroundthe world. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had said that Israelshould be "wiped off the map," had recently declared his intention toobtain material suitable for building an atom bomb.

Olympic spirit?At a corner in one high-traffic corridor of downtown Turin, someone had sprayedthe black graffito, no islam. And the five female curlers who composedDenmark's entire Olympic team arrived in Italy with a beefed-up security detailamid rumors of terrorist threats.

Three days beforethe Games began, there was a welcoming ceremony in the Olympic Village. This,too, is usually an unremarkable event: It happens two or three times a day,whenever enough of a nation's athletes check in. Gifts are exchanged betweenthe national Olympic committee and the mayor of the village; the nation's flagis raised, and its anthem is played. But on the afternoon of Feb. 7, about 20U.S. athletes were standing before a stage with the delegation of two athletesand three officials from Iran--a member of the Axis of Evil, as it was dubbedby President George W. Bush--and a half-dozen members of the team from Armenia.The U.S. flag went up first. When The Star-Spangled Banner was played, onemember of Iran's group mouthed a few of the lyrics, and at the end all theIranians applauded. After the Iranian anthem was played, the U.S. teamapplauded too.

What happenednext went beyond politeness. Kathleen Kauth, a U.S. hockey player from SaratogaSprings, N.Y., and some of her teammates approached the Armenian athletes, thenthe Iranians. Kauth might have been forgiven for wanting to stay away from theIranians, for not wanting to meet anyone representing a hard-line Islamicrepublic. Her father, Don, died after the second plane hit the World TradeCenter on Sept. 11, 2001.

Still, Kauthmoved closer to the Iranians. She extended her hand. She had thought about thisduring the playing of the Iranian anthem: The brotherhood of all athletes isthe Olympic ideal, sure, but these men represented what many Americans consideran outlaw nation.

"I waswondering what they were thinking," Kauth says of the Iranians. "I waswondering what they might be going through."

This should havebeen Kathleen Kauth's second Olympics. On Aug. 23, 2001, she beat out 25 otherwomen in an open tryout in Lake Placid, N.Y., for a spot on the U.S. hockeyteam. She hadn't been a favorite to make it. The first time Kauth pulled on herUSA jersey, she looked around the locker room and thought, I don't belong here.I think they made a mistake.

Only the seasonbefore, during her final year at Brown, Kauth had seemed to come into her own.Her father had sensed a change in her between her junior and senior years: Forthe first time she seemed ready to push herself. When, after graduating,Kathleen wanted to take prep courses for medical school and fight for a spot onthe Olympic team, Don helped make it work. He paid his daughter's livingexpenses in Boston and for her MCAT cram courses and her daily work with apersonal trainer. Kathleen adopted his philosophy: If you want something, goget it. She got stronger.

The day the teamwas announced, Don, a bank analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods--a bankingand finance firm whose offices were on the 85th floor of the Trade Center'sSouth Tower--skipped work to attend the announcement ceremony in Lake Placidwith Kathleen and her mother, Anne, from whom he had been divorced amicably in1995. Don cried and laughed when Kathleen made the cut. He hugged his ex-wifeand said, "This is what we did." He picked Kathleen up in the air, theway he had when she was little. She had never seen him so happy. "I guessit's unbelievable when your child all of a sudden becomes an adult," shesays.

Three days laterDon hosted a cookout for some of Kathleen's new teammates, filet mignon on thegrill. Then the U.S. squad left to play four games in China. Kathleen scoredthree goals and began feeling like she might actually belong. Don called one ofhis brothers and said, "My little girl is going to the Olympics!"

On the trip backfrom China, Kathleen met up with her older brother, Matt, in Portland. Theywere together on the morning of Sept. 11. Seeing the news of the World TradeCenter attacks on TV, Kathleen and Matt called their mom and said, "Where'sDad?"

He was at work."I knew right then," Anne says. "I knew he was dead."

It's hard forKathleen to sort out what happened next. She suffered a concussion. She didn'tplay as well as she had in China. Who knows how much of it had to do with 9/11and how much with being outclassed? On Dec. 4, U.S. coach Ben Smith releasedher. "I should have been cut," Kauth says. And, in truth, leaving theteam gave her time to grieve.

She became avolunteer assistant coach at Brown, and when the 2002 Games began in Salt LakeCity, she intended not to watch much. Then, in a hotel room in Hanover, N.H.,where the Brown team was staying for a game at Dartmouth, Kauth saw the openingceremonies on TV. Her former teammate Angela Ruggiero was one of eight U.S.Olympians carrying the flag recovered from the rubble of the Twin Towers, andsadness washed over Kauth again. Her dad's boss, Bob Stapleton, insisted thatshe go to Salt Lake City and bought her a plane ticket. She flew out by herselfand sat in the crowd for the U.S. victory over Sweden in the women's hockeysemifinals and the loss to Canada. But, Kauth says, "regardless of how manypeople are around, you're still alone somehow."

Anne Kauth, anEnglish teacher at Saratoga Springs High, and Don raised their four kids to askquestions. Rather than divide the world into camps--Muslim versus Christian,East versus West, good versus evil--Kathleen studied Islam in college, andafter 9/11 she read about the oil trade, the Afghan fight against Sovietoccupation in the 1980s, the roots of Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization.After Don died, his children talked about the Crusades and colonialism, and,Kathleen says, "very early on it became clear that--you know what?--thesepeople are not the cause of Islamist terrorism. There's something much biggerhere, and it very rarely involves the common person.

"Of courseyou go through a whole range of emotions, maybe even blame. But in the end, itdidn't take me that long to get here: The only thing to blame, really,is...." Kauth stops and looks away, her eyes going pink. She takes abreath, and now her voice is stronger. "If I had learned to hate from this?That's what killed my father. That's what killed all those people. Hating acertain group of people is as dangerous as it comes. That's really whathappened [on Sept. 11], and that's what continues to happen all around theworld. To let go of hate is the most important thing."

Eleven monthsafter her father's death Kauth decided to put off med school and give theOlympic team one last shot. Her mother asked if she was doing it for herself orfor Don, but Kathleen never gave an answer. While completing a graduate degreein public health at Boston University, she got up for 5 a.m. sessions with askating coach and then went to Canada to play for the semipro Brampton Thunderfor five months. She made the U.S. team in August 2003 as an opportunistic,havoc-wreaking forward. At no time--not when she blew out her knee playingtouch football a year later, not during five months of rehab--did Kauth worryabout being cut. "I've been through that," she says, "and I'm stillalive."

On Dec. 27, 2005,Kauth learned that she had made the squad that would go to Turin. "I knewher first thought was for her father," Anne says. "He got herhere." More than 30 members of the family made the trip to Italy. So didStapleton, Don's old boss. They were in the stands for most of the U.S. women'shockey games, yelling, "Come on, Kath!" each time Kauth neared thepuck. She played vital minutes but didn't score. During a win over Finland, heruncle Brian Kauth told how his brother Don had predicted that his girl would beplaying on Olympic ice.

"Four yearslate," Brian said, his voice cracking, "but he was right." Then heraised a hand to cover his eyes.

What were theythinking? Kauth spent most of her few minutes with the Iranian delegationtalking to an Alpine skier named Alidad Saveh Shemshaki. When asked about itlater, Shemshaki smiles. He and his teammate, 38-year-old cross-country skierMojtaba Mirhashemi, have been warned by their country's sports officials not todiscuss politics. "There's no Iranian or American when you're asportsman," Shemshaki says. "It's not important where you comefrom."

It's late onThursday night, Feb. 16, in a hotel lobby in Sestriere. Shemshaki andMirhashemi are agog over being at these Olympics. Back in Iran the two men livein Shemshak, a two-chairlift ski resort about 25 miles outside of Tehran.Shemshaki, who owns a dump truck and rents it out, has skiing in his genes: Hisfather, Ali, competed at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. He died after hefell while building a chairlift when Alidad was nine.

Alidad, now 34,is ranked about 1,000th in the world in the slalom and acts like it. His eyeswiden at the mere mention of Bode Miller. "It's just enough for me to behere with him," Shemshaki says.

Still, his awe isnothing compared with that of his teammate. Mirhashemi, who drives a bus forski tours out of Tehran, is only the second-best cross-country skier in Iran,behind his 31-year-old brother, Mostafa, who competed at the '02 Olympics andexpects to do so at the '10 Games. Mostafa ceded his place to his brother thisyear so that Mojtaba would have the chance to experience an Olympics. "It'sfamily," Mojtaba explains. "It's normal in Iran."

Shemshaki carriedthe Iranian flag into the stadium during the opening ceremonies because, hesays, he is younger and taller than Mirhashemi. Mirhashemi laughs. Then hesays, "To carry the Iranian flag is to show the world Iranexists...."

"Rememberwhat we were told!" Shemshaki interrupts. "Don't talk aboutpolitics." Then he says, "I cried. I couldn't control myself."

Early the nextmorning, Feb. 17, Mirhashemi finishes 91st in a field of 97 skiers in the 15KClassical, nearly 14 1/2 minutes behind gold medalist Andrus Veerpalu ofEstonia. At the finish he falls to his knees and buries his face in the snow.Waiting to congratulate him is Eisa Saveh Shemshaki, who is Alidad's cousin andIran's chef de mission in Turin. Eisa was there when Kauth introduced herselfto Alidad. "It was a great emotion," he says. "We are allsportsmen. It was a big family."

A reporter notesthat in the opening ceremonies Iran marched into the stadium just minutesbefore Israel. "Iran doesn't recognize Israel," Eisa says. "It'snot a country." Told of Kauth's comments about hatred, he replies, "Iam very sorry her father died for the politics America started. All the hatestarts with American politics."

So maybe nothingchanges. Maybe even the most remarkable gesture these days is fated to fadeinto insignificance, remembered as just another handshake or smile. Athletesare just athletes, after all; it's the officials and politicians, the old men,who make the rules.

Still, if theseOlympics, bloated and far too expensive, allow for two strangers to try tounderstand each other, perhaps that helps balance the ledger. The U.S. women'sice hockey players didn't cross paths with the Iranians after that first day,but before all the athletes from all the nations marched into Olympic Stadiumfor the opening ceremonies, Shemshaki, emboldened by his meeting with Kauth,made his way over to Bode Miller and said hello. "I got a picture too!"Shemshaki says, suddenly looking 11 years old. "I'm very happy."

Anne Kauth paid$1,000 for her seat in the stadium that night. She could've watched the openingceremonies on TV; she knew she'd see her daughter plenty at the hockey games tofollow. But the fact is, nobody close to Kathleen expected her to be a big starfor the U.S., which would go on to win the bronze medal. For her teammates andfor the family that can't help but see her as an embodiment of her father'sdream, Kauth's Olympics had nothing to do with scoring or winning. It was allabout walking in with her teammates, at last.

Kathleen hadexpected to think of her dad and to cry some and to hear the usual plea forpeace among all nations; she remembered the somberness of the 2002 Games, thefirst Olympics after 9/11. But just before the U.S. team was announced at thestadium, something odd happened. Kauth's heart began to beat faster. All theathletes began to walk, but the pace was too stately for her, too slow. Thenight air, the thousands cheering--it all got to her, and she felt anexhilaration she had never known before.

More thananything, she needed to push past everyone else and go fast. She was stillalive, wasn't she? Kathleen Kauth wanted to feel that. She wanted to runforever.

"Hating a certain group of people is as dangerousas it comes," Kauth says. "To let go of hate is the most importantthing."

When Kauth made the Olympic team, says her mother,"I knew her first thought was for her father. He got her here."



THRILL OF A LIFETIME Iran's Shemshaki (left) and Mirhashemi were happy just to be in Turin.



[See caption above.]



A NEED TO KNOW After 9/11 Kauth read widely to try to understand the deep causes of terrorism.



GRIP OF PEACE Kauth (center, with Shemshaki) says she wondered what the Iranians were thinking that first day.



SPELL BOUND Kathleen's boisterous family rooting section in Turin made sure that everyone knew how to write her last name.