Kelly Day woke up the morning of her 29th birthday to find a text from her friend Rafael, a Brazilian native whom she met four years before at a bus stop in Australia:
“Hey happy birthday! Are you coming to Rio for the Olympics? You should come and stay with me!”
The Westfield, Indiana native’s life-long passion is travel; she visited 34 countries in her 20s and has since then made it her mission to visit every city that has hosted the summer games. Since acquiring a map in sixth grade, she fills it with stickers of the countries she visits.
Every time she visits a new country, a new sticker is placed on the map. During her years of travel, her map filled with dozens of unique places, but there was one goal that she had yet to achieve.
Go to an actual Olympic Games.
“Visiting the cities after (the Olympics) happened; I could do that. Going to the Olympics — that just seemed like too big of a thing,” Day said.
For some reason, the woman who wanted to see every Summer Olympic host city didn’t think going to the actual Games would be tangible.
As she thought about the text from Rafael, which she received in October of 2015, she said she thought to herself, “What is my last year of my 20s going to look like?”
Then she made a decision.
In 2016, she wasn’t going to watch her long-time celebrity crush and NBC Sportscaster Bob Costas tell her stories of the Olympics from her living-room television like she did as a kid; instead, she was going to live it for herself.
One hour after waking up, she purchased a ticket to the Opening Ceremony in Rio de Janeiro.
For months, Day didn’t let the fact that she was actually going to the 2016 Summer Games sink in. It wasn’t until Aug. 5, when she walked into the Opening Ceremonies with approximately 78,000 other fans from across the world, when it finally sank in.
“That was the moment when I realized, ‘I’m in the Olympics. I’m really here. This is really happening,” she said. “I didn’t believe that it was going to happen until that moment.”
As the ceremonies began in Maracanã Stadium and the 207 nations carried their flag in front of the rest of the world, she could barely contain herself.
And when the torch was lit at the end of the nearly four-hour event, she lost it.
“I sobbed. Because it hit me that never again and never before have I been in a room of so many international people from different backgrounds, different religions, different countries,” Day said. “We’re all coming together for this one moment, and it was magical.”
The rest of her Olympic experiences were just as magical.
The long-time Purdue fan was there when the former Boilermaker pair of Steele Johnson and David Boudia took silver in the synchronized 10m platform. While she waived her Purdue flag in the crowd, Boudia spotted her, nudged to get Johnson’s attention and pointed at her. Together, they lifted their right hands and gave her a ‘Boiler Up!’, a hand motion known by all Purdue fans and a moment she won’t soon forget.
“I felt like I had won the gold as an Olympic spectator. I had done my job as an Olympic spectator,” she joked.
(Audio by Tony Sandleben)
Originally, Day’s travel goal consisted of visiting 30 different countries before she turned 30 years old, and as she came closer to achieving it, she realized that there was a pattern in the places she visited.
“I started realizing, ‘Hey, I’m already halfway through all of these countries that have hosted the Olympics,’” she said. “That’s when I officially made the goal that I was going to visit all of (the Olympic host cities).”
There was always something special about the Olympics in Day’s mind: the sense of unity and international competition had fascinated her since she was a child. Visiting some of the previous host cities allowed her to remember some of her fondest memories growing up, and she decided she wanted to see them all.
During her travels, she shared her adventures with the seventh-grade students she taught at Westfield Middle School. During class, she would use foreign currency that she acquired from different countries and calculate the exchange rate into U.S. Dollars.
Her students this past year really got involved during her trip to Rio. In the months before she would travel to her first Olympic Games, her students helped her pick another city to visit in Brazil before traveling to Rio de Janeiro. They researched, debated and picked a place for her to visit before the games: Buzios.
The first thing people see when they walk into her classroom are the flags and maps from the places she has seen.
A unique scene for a math class.
“No one expects that. When people meet me, they do not think math teacher. My students always think that they’re in the wrong spot on the first day,” Day said jokingly.
More than 5,000 miles away, Day’s students have stayed involved with her journey to Brazil through her Instagram account and her online blog — fillingmymap.com — named after her sticker map she first received around 18 years ago.
As a teacher, she hopes that sharing her experiences of travel will help inspire some of her students.
“When I was in sixth grade, I wanted to fill my map… and now that map resides in my classroom to inspire my seventh-grade students,” Day said. “(Students) who have never been anywhere, who have never met anyone who had been a world traveler.
“Hopefully to inspire them and say, ‘If I can do it, you can do it. I’m not anything special; you just have to have faith in yourself and just go. Just do it.’”
For six months last year, Jay lived in Helsinki, Finland, after winning a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching from the U.S. Department of State.
While there, when she wasn’t working on her research, she began to write for her personal online blog, and people took notice.
“It has been shared 950,000 times, so I’m like 50,000 away from a million, so that’s really cool,” she said. “It’s just like, really? That many people want to listen to what I have to say? I really just can’t believe that.”
WIBC Radio in Indianapolis also took notice and asked Day if she could blog for its website while she was in Rio.
She doesn’t know what the future will hold with the Indianapolis radio station, but she plans to remain blogging — not to make money but for herself.
“I know there [are] ways that people make money with blogs. I haven’t figured that out, and I don’t really care to,” Day said. “It’s more of a way for me to process my thoughts about travel and education. I just do it for me, and thankfully a lot of people enjoy it too.”
For now, Day doesn’t plan on stopping her travel goal. She only has four locations to see before achieving it, but a new location will arise every four years.
At the time of this publication, she still has to see Los Angeles, Montreal, Mexico City and the origin of the Olympics: Athens.
She is saving Athens for last, calling it her “crowning jewel” in her traveling goal.
Robby General is a Ball State University student and writer for BSU at the Games, a group of 50 journalism students traveling from Muncie, Indiana, to Rio for the Olympic Games. Follow them at bsuatthegames.com, @bsuatthegames on Twitter and Instagram, and BSU at the Games on Facebook.