PORT HURON, Mich. - The opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics is just nine days away, and the athletes won't be the only ones living out their Olympic dreams.
A woman from Port Huron won't be competing for a medal, but she's heading to the Olympics as a referee.
When Melissa Szkola first stepped foot on the ice, she was wearing figure skates. Her Olympic dream was to become Michelle Kwan, but she said she couldn't be more excited to be heading to Pyeongchang as a referee.
"I started skating at 19 months," Szkola said. "Maybe before, but that's the first picture I have."
Szkola grew up in a skating family in Port Huron. Her brother played hockey, she and her sisters figure skated and her parents curled.
"Everybody was on the ice," Szkola said.
In college at Oakland University, she traded her figure skates for hockey gear to play on the club team. As a graduate student at Wayne State University, she played in a recreational league, where she met her future husband, Jim, who was also a hockey referee.
"We were watching a Wings game," Szkola said. "He had his yearly seminar and asked if I wanted to go."
She agreed and went to her first officiating seminar, which included two nights of classroom and on-ice instruction. Szkola was hooked, but it was rough early on.
"My first game was almost my last game," she said. "The guy I was with didn't make it easy. I felt I had no place out there."
But encouragement from her husband and her friend kept Szkola lacing up her skates and donning the stripes.
"If you really want this, go for it," Szkola said. "There are people to help you. That turned everything around. That's the day I said, 'I want to go to the Olympics.'"
Much like the athletes, officials train for the Olympics. For 10 years, Szkola has traveled the world, going to development camps and tournaments to hone her craft. All the white, higher-ups in USA Hockey were watching, evaluating and ranking officials.
In August, there was a selection camp for all potential Olympic officials. Szkola felt she had done all she could and, in November, she got the call.
"I got a phone call at work," Szkola said. "Luckily, I was there alone with the dog, because I cried."
Szkola was one of four women picked, and one of seven Americans chosen to officiate in the Olympic Games.
But once she gets to South Korea, Szkola won't represent the United States. She'll be an unbiased official.
"I don't know what emotion I'll feel, but I bet when I see the Olympic flag, I'll cry," Szkola said.
It's a different dream than the one Szkola grew up with, but one that still includes the Olympic rings. She said it's just as special.
"I'm excited for after the Olympics and to bring it all back and share it with younger girls and hopefully inspire them," Szkola said. "That if they don't make their dreams today, those dreams can change and be equally amazing."
Szkola leaves for the Olympics on Feb. 6. Per the rules, she won't officiate any of the Americans' games. If she attends their games, she can't show bias.
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