Last week at the Park Meadows residence of Mike Engel, reigning FIS Cross Country World Cup sprint champion Kikkan Randall and her teammates gathered for a send-off celebration. For most of the dozen team members, it would be their last night in America until spring -- they were heading off to camps in Canada and Finland before starting a grueling five-month global circuit in Sweden.
Randall joked about how she was introduced to the crowd as a veteran but, in reality, she still felt like the wide-eyed 19-year-old who stood on the starting line at Soldier Hollow with visions of gold in her mind. That 2002 moment was the starting point for a long-term plan.
Her unprecedented results over the past decade have bred more success from her teammates. "This is the most exciting time ever to be a fan of U.S. cross country skiing," said Randall. "We have all started to believe. We have a chance to win and win as a team."
The supporters who gathered to send off the team shared a common trait of Parkites -- a willingness and desire to help athletes achieve their goals. Success doesn't just happen. It takes public backing -- from dollars to spare bedrooms to plain and simple moral support.
Veteran Liz Stephen has her own community of support where she grew up in Vermont. But when she's training in Park City for five months a year, she has a new family. "Mike Engel has been my Park City dad for the last four or five years and I am so very grateful," she said. "It makes a huge difference feeling and being supported in whatever you are working to pursue. The Park City community has opened its doors and arms for me in many ways."
This summer the women's team went to Sweden to train in a unique ski tunnel with the Swedish national team. The Swedes arrived with chefs, masseuses, dozens of staff. The Americans came with just their team, their coach and, as Kikkan laughed, "We came with spirit."
That spirit is a game changer. Unlike major Scandinavian teams that have strong government funding, the U.S. Ski Team relies on its fans. But the one thing not lacking is spirit. That was plainly evident last January when four U.S. women -- sans an ailing Kikkan Randall -- combined for a best-ever U.S. relay finish in the Czech Republic.
Spirit was also pervasive earlier in the month when more than a hundred Park City-area young girls gathered at the Center of Excellence for Fast and Female, a workout clinic designed to motivate girls. "Park City, as a community, seems to really get into it," said Stephen. "And we, as ambassadors, certainly love being able to interact with the local girls and get a chance to inspire them."
There was a special spirit pervading the room in Park Meadows last week. You didn't just see it in the eyes of the athletes, but you saw it in those of the supporters. When Kikkan deftly hefted the heavy Joska crystal globe as she spoke, every eye in the room was focused with pride on the role they played as fans of the team.
One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing and snowboarding, Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president, Communications for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. A Wisconsin native, he and his wife Carole Duh have lived in Park City since 1988 when he's not traveling the world with the team. Each week he'll take you Behind the Gold to tell you the inside story of our nation's top skiers and snowboarders.