Local clubs launch Olympic dreams
Ryan Summerlin February 8, 2014
Turn on the TV to watch the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and chances are pretty good you’ll see a Park City athlete featured prominently on your screen.
On the alpine hill, you’ll be able to watch Ted Ligety and Megan McJames shred the Sochi snow. You’ll see snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg getting massive air off the slopestyle jumps. Head over to the ski jumping hills and you’ll see Parkites Sarah Hendrickson, Lindsey Van and Jessica Jerome competing in the first Olympic women’s event. On the bobsled track, Park City native Steven Holcomb will be racing around the curves at breakneck speed, trying to defend his 2010 four-man gold medal.
Add in all the athletes who train here during the offseason, and it’ll be nearly impossible not to see a familiar face.
So, what is it about this mountain town, home to less than 8,000 residents as of the 2010 census, that causes it to produce and attract so many Olympians?
"Obviously, we have fabulous venues – that’s certainly number one," Axis Freeride executive director Chris "Hatch" Haslock said. "Number two, we have some of the best clubs in the country."
And don’t count out the long tradition of skiing that has become a staple of the community’s identity, Park City Ski Team director Jesse Hunt added.
"It’s the history – not only the history of the World Cup, but the history of the Olympics," he said. "This is a community that’s committed to sports and you see that every day in the sports programs that are going on. There are people out there that believe in the experience and they support the experience for the kids."
Another factor that must be considered, according to Robert Lazzaroni, the Park City Nordic Program manager, is the general fitness level of the entire town.
"Park City is a very healthy community," he said. "Everybody is moving, so people want to cross-country ski in the wintertime, and they want to run, they want to jog, they want to be healthy."
But it isn’t just access, athleticism and an appreciation of the past that spawns Olympic-level athletes. It takes a certain amount of high-quality coaching to move these athletes from the youth levels on to the U.S. National Team.
Fortunately for Park City youngsters, everywhere you turn there’s a former Olympian or World Cup coach handing out pointers.
"We have a number of former top coaches and U.S. Ski Team athletes and even a former Swedish National Team athlete on our staff," Hunt said. "Getting that high-level athlete knowledge into the program has been great."
And the coaching talent doesn’t just focus on the elite athletes, Lazzaroni added.
"We are super lucky here at the Utah Olympic Park on the ski jumping side to have as our head coach Alan Alborn. He’s been coaching eight years and is a three-time Olympian," he said. "So, the guy who brought [Van, Hendrickson and Jerome] to the highest level, and will hopefully lead them to the podium next week, will be the same guy handling the program for the six- and seven-year-olds. There is a very, very good connection between the youngest ones all the way to the top."
Combine all those factors and Park City gives athletes a great opportunity to make a mark in the world of winter sports. But, ultimately, the motivation to be the best must reside within the top-level athletes.
"It’s desire," Hunt said. "If you want to use Megan McJames as an example – she trained outside the [U.S. Ski] Team this year, on her own, to make it back to the team. It’s such a great story because she had such desire. She knew that she had potential that was unfulfilled. She was certainly the underdog in that scenario, but she managed to overcome it and managed to ski well enough in the World Cup races to earn an objective [Olympic] selection.
"Those stories, they talk about the dedication, they talk about the commitment, they talk about the desire – that’s really what you see in all these top-level athletes."
Passion plays a big role, too, Haslock adds.
"The number one thing is a true love of the sport," he said. "They’re so happy to be training that the training doesn’t even seem like training – they’re out there doing what they love."
So, check out the Park City athletes in the 2014 Olympics as they fulfill their dreams. But be sure to stay tuned for the 2018 Games as well, when some fresh Park City faces are almost certain to make Olympic debuts.
And, when the Sochi Games are over and done, don’t be surprised to see Olympians flock back to Park City, preparing themselves for another year of competition. They’ll also be out on the slopes, the jumps and the track, sharing their experiences and trying to impart their wisdom to the next generation of Olympic hopefuls.
"When Billy Demong got a gold [medal in Nordic combined] in 2010, he was the flag carrier at the closing ceremony," Lazzaroni said. "I think he landed back in Salt Lake at 3 a.m. The next day at 9 a.m., he was on a track with our kids with his medals and he was speaking to the kids. That went a long, long way. We hope he brings more medals back, but whatever happens, he’ll be skiing with our kids the next day – I know that. We see him all the time on the trails here."
"Same with women’s ski jumping. They were here when we had a competition with the 6- to 9-year-olds. The ladies are there and they are helping and they are cheering. They did that before the Olympics and I’m sure they’ll do it after the Olympics."
That, Lazzaroni said, might be the biggest factor of all in Park City’s Olympic success.
"When you speak about motivating the kids, that’s perfect," he said. "The parents can say what they want – it doesn’t matter, they are parents. Coaches have a little louder voice, but they are coaches. When it comes from an Olympian, coming with or without the medals, that goes much, much further."