This past week more than 430 cross country skiers from clubs across America gathered at the Olympic venue of Soldier Hollow for the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships. Many of those climbing the snow-covered trails were only kids having fun in the sport 11 years ago when the Olympics came to Utah. Still today, though, Soldier Hollow and the many other legacy venues continue to pay dividends and have made Utah a Mecca for winter sports athletes.
The Olympics were just a dream back in the late '80s in Utah. Then U.S. Ski Association President Howard Peterson, who now runs Soldier Hollow, brought an idea to the USOC to select a U.S. candidate city that would be willing to commit to long-term venues to preserve the Olympic region as a center of sport for kids. Now, nearly 25 years later, that vision is a clear reality.
Last month, a snow-starved Soldier Hollow turned the snow guns onto its cross-country trails to develop a tiny course for a FIS Nordic Combined Continental Cup. The Utah Olympic Park did the same to provide early-season ski jumping training plus aerials at the Super Continental Cup. Next month freestyle skiers will converge on their favorite Deer Valley Resort while freeskiers will join snowboarders at Park City Mountain Resort for the Sprint U.S. Grand Prix.
What motivates venue managers at places like Soldier Hollow is providing an opportunity for athletes to achieve their dreams. Last month, Olympic medalist Todd Lodwick needed help. An illness had taken him out of the top of the World Cup standings and he needed an international event to get back. Thanks to the UOP and Soldier Hollow, he got that chance - winning three straight and heading back to the World Cup.
For many, the U.S. Championships at Soldier Hollow were a time for reminiscing. "I love racing at Soldier Hollow, said Torin Koos, who won two gold in the first three races. "I have a lot of good memories here. This is where I really started to become a skier. I made my World Juniors here and raced my first World Cup here and Olympics and won my first national title here. I love racing here. It's just a scenic place. They have the best tracks in the world here - it's great competition. I'll remember this place for the rest of my life."
For Park City native Rosie Brennan, last week was a homecoming of sorts. Now racing for Anchorage Pacific University Nordic, Brennan returned to Soldier Hollow and won her first U.S. title. "It's great to be back home and have my friends and family able to watch."
Few past Winter Olympic sites have carried the legacy like Salt Lake City. Lillehammer's 1994 venues remain quite active. Lake Placid has evolved well over time. But no others match the diversity and vibrancy that remains across literally all of the 2002 venues. It's what attracts athletes to Utah, enhances the quality of life here for kids, and was a motivating factor for the USSA to build its Center of Excellence in Park City.
Watching athletes like Todd Lodwick and Torin Koos succeed is a huge motivating factor for the hundreds of volunteers and staff who give of themselves to make events like the U.S. Cross Country Championships such a success.
"It's a lot of work for our staff and volunteers," said Peterson at last month's Continental Cup. "But knowing that they've given an athlete a chance to have success - that makes it all worthwhile."
That dream from the '80s of a winter-sports playground in Utah has definitely come true. From the tracks and trails of Utah's legacy venues to the new clubs for kids and Youth Winter Sports Alliance, the 2002 Olympic Winter Games live on proudly.
One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing, 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.