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An unvorgettable experience

As the Vancouver Winter Olympics near an end, one of a handful of elite Grand Forks athletes ever to compete in one savors his memories of those golden times eight years ago.

That would be Don Barcome Jr. He skipped the Grand Forks rink bearing his name to the World Junior Curling Championship in Moose Jaw, Sask., in 1977, a team that included younger brother Earl.

Then 15 years later, Donny Barcome competed with the Tim Somerville rink representing the United States in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. That team did not medal.

Life has been so good for Donny Barcome. His father, Dr. Don Barcome Sr., rose to be president of the International Curling Federation. His mother, Shirley, might have been the greatest ambassador/promoter for curling the world has seen.

Life has been so bad for Donny, too. Both of his parents died from cancer. He's in the sixth year of his own battle with it. "It's not a fair fight," he said.

Yet no one has enjoyed the 2010 Vancouver Olympics more than Barcome, especially watching the Lamoureux twins of Grand Forks star for the U.S. women's hockey team.

The memories of his Olympic experience burn as brightly as the Olympic torch, illuminating his soul on his darkest nights.

"I've competed in five world championships, multiple national championships, but being in the Olympics is like something you've never done," he said.

He wore the colors of his country a few scant months after the devastation of 9-11 rocked the land.

Bobsledder Brian Shimer, competing in his fifth Olympics in 2002, told Barcome that the other four didn't compare in total to 2002.

"Maybe it was because of 9-11," Barcome said. "Maybe it was because it was in the United States. A lot of the Europeans were pretty mad there was so much patriotism going on."

The patriotic fervor came from the top. "President Bush gave us hats that said, 'let's roll,' " Barcome said.

Patriotic magnetism

The roll began in Opening Ceremonies. "We had to walk 3 or 4 miles to go into a building to wait, and it was cold," Barcome said.

What happened next quickly warmed him. "There were mounted police with us, but fans kept reaching over and high-fiving us," Barcome said.

They reached the stadium for the grand entrance.

"These little kids came off the stage, and nobody knows why, but out of 50-60 kids, about a third of them ran to me and jumped on me," Barcome said.

Skier Bode Miller had asked Barcome to walk in with him, so Barcome could get on TV. Miller was a star, Barcome, well, he was a curler.

But the kids mobbed him, perhaps recognizing him from a national TV ad for Office Depot he did for the Olympic hype.

"Another 20 feet, and we were in the stadium," Barcome said. "I don't know if my heart was beating. Bode Miller and Brian Shimer and all those veterans of the Olympics, they were shell-shocked. It was like being inside of a speaker at a rock concert."

Inside the stadium, he shook hands with President George Bush and hugged the president's wife. He blessed the president for rallying the country from 9-11. The president thanked him for wearing the colors of his country with pride and dignity. Laura Bush gave him a hug and a kiss.

Dealing with disease

His battles to succeed as a curler pale in comparison with his fight with cancer. He was diagnosed with cancer of the lower tongue six years ago. He's had 25-30 surgeries, and the radiation rotted his jaw away.

So doctors took part of his leg bone to rebuild his jaw. He can laugh about that. "If I run off at the mouth, which I've been known to do, it's not my fault. I've got my leg bone over there."

He once dreamed that if he put his time in and worked his tail off in curling, he might become a champion.

That's not so certain with cancer. "They gave me 10 percent chance to live six months when I started out," he said. "God wasn't ready for me then. I'm a lucky guy."

And maybe so. "I thank God every day, and I try to do a good deed every day, to help somebody. I got that from my mom. She'd see one little sliver of positives, she'd jump on that.

"We're like that . . . we're North Dakotans."

He asked his mother when he was 10 if he could get a tattoo. He wanted the Olympic rings as his tattoo, even though curling wasn't an Olympic sport at the time.

When he made the Olympics in 2002, he got that tattoo. It's placed over his heart.

Virg Foss, who wrote sports for the Grand Forks Herald for 36 years until his retirement, writes a weekly column for the Herald. Contact him at virgfoss@yahoo.com or at (701) 772-9272.

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