SALT LAKE CITY - As Mitt Romney drove from his mountain home to downtown yesterday morning, he saw the Olympic caldron ablaze for the last day.
"I liken it to the feelings of taking my last son to college," said the president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. "It's easy to fall into a deep melancholy."
Instead, he said, he'll concentrate on accomplishments and "the incredible experience."
Last night, with fireworks lighting the sky from one end of town to the other and the air filled with music, the 19th Winter Games closed. Four years from now, in the mountains of Italy, the skiers, skaters and sliders will gather to write a new chapter.
But for 17 days this month, the world's athletes wrote a script filled with drama and triumph, and a little skulduggery sprinkled throughout. World records fell, and dark horses shocked the field.
The Americans and Canadians took home more medals than ever before. Australia won its first two Winter Games medals - both gold. A Scottish housewife coolly made an impossible shot and clinched the gold medal in curling.
"It has been a wonderful journey these past two weeks," said Sally Rehorick of the Canadian Olympic Association. "Sometimes, you want it to last forever."
Unlike the opening ceremony on Feb. 8, which was filled with ceremonial pomp, the closing program at Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium was more like a cross between the Ice Capades and a dress rehearsal for the Grammy Awards.
Bobsled driver Brian Shimer, who won a bronze medal in a memorable fire-on-ice run to end his 16-year Olympic career, carried the American flag.
Boy band *NSYNC performed an a capella version of the national anthem, as Vice President Dick Cheney watched from a private box.
The Olympic flag passed from Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson to Sergio Chaimparino, the mayor of Turin, Italy, host of the 2006 games.
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge called the games "superb," and thanked the athletes, volunteers, security forces and, finally, Americans.
"You have reassured us that people from all countries can live peacefully together," he said.
Rogge avoided the practice of his predecessor of rating the games during the closing ceremony, but in an interview hours before, he called both the Salt Lake Games and the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney "exceptional."
Rogge also said the world would not remember the controversies at these games: the judging of the pairs figure skating competition and the stripping of two athletes of their medals after failed drug tests.
Three years ago, Romney took over the SLOC, a group rocked by a bidding scandal and awash in poor morale. The group righted itself, only to face, perhaps, its biggest challenge after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Some people thought the games should be canceled. Others predicted countries would stay home.
But organizers and the federal government pumped $310 million into security, nearly one-third of the entire operating budget, to assure the world that the Winter Games would be safe. A total of 2,532 athletes from 78 nations came, making these the largest Winter Games ever.
"These are the best [games] I have been in," said Canada's Marc Gagnon, a three-time Olympian and double gold medalist in speed skating.
Germany ended up winning the most medals - 35 - but the United States finished just one back, exceeding its goal by 14 medals.
American men ended a 46-year drought without a bobsled medal by winning silver and bronze in the four-man event. The women took the gold in the inaugural two-man event.
But perhaps more importantly, the U.S. team showed diversity on the medals podium.
Vonetta Flowers, a track and field standout, became the first black athlete to win a Winter Games gold medal when she teamed with Jill Bakken in bobsled. Four days later, bobsledders Randy Jones and Garrett Hines were members of the team that finished second in the four-man event, earning the distinction of being the first African-American men to win Winter Games medals.
Derek Parra became the first Hispanic-American to win winter gold, and stood atop the podium last Tuesday with his hand over his heart and tears streaming down his face as the national anthem played.
"I think it shows anything is possible, no matter where you come from," said the 5-foot-4 speed skater. "I won in a European sport, in a sport of giants."
Some athletes were inseparable from their medals.
"I think I'm going to carry it in my pocket," said Alisa Camplin, the tiny spitfire from Australia who won the gold medal in freestyle aerial skiing. "Although it's so heavy, I'll have to have my pants pockets double-seamed."
Others said they will take home more.
"Salt Lake will be in my memories forever," said Gagnon of Canada. "I hope we inspired people."