The USSA Center of Excellence was a sea of pink on Sunday as nearly 150 young girls spent an afternoon with Olympians, having the time of their lives and forging their own Olympic dreams. Through the glitter on their faces, the flowery tutus they crafted and the pink streaks in their hair, what stood out was the determination in their eyes and the smiles on their faces.
Fast and Female is designed to empower young girls through sport, building confidence and leadership. It began as a project of the Canadian Cross Country Ski Team in 2005, spearheaded by 2006 Olympic sprint champion Chandra Crawford. It was a record turnout for the third annual Park City workshop coinciding with the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team's annual fall camp, with athletes from alpine skiing, freestyle skiing, skicross, biathlon and speed skating joining in as Athlete Ambassadors.
"We can be successful in anything we do in sports or something totally different. If we keep our bodies healthy and strong, our minds confident and believe in ourselves, we can dominate," World Champion cross country skier Kikkan Randall told the girls. "Today, we're all about being together and having fun."
Randall's own story is a model for the type of spirit Fast and Female instills in young girls. "When I was your age I was trying every sport you can imagine," she told the attentive group. "In high school I decided cross country skiing was the sport I loved the most.
"When I told people my goal they thought I was crazy. I told them, 'This is my dream, I believe I can do it. I know it's going to take some hard work but I'm going to chase after it.' I made sure I trained every day and made sure I was eating right because my body's like a racing car and has to have the right fuel. I made sure I got enough sleep each night, which was hard with homework and training. I worked hard and stayed true to my dream. And I got to represent the U.S. at the Olympics."
As the girls broke into groups for a series of fitness stations, the energy was contagious. They found their strength doing push-ups with each other, broke out into crazy gyrations dancing with World Champion Jessie Diggins, and learned speed skating moves from Olympic medalist Kimberly Derrick. But where they really found their confidence was on the trampoline, learning a sequence of tricks and vaulting into the foam pit (the hands-down favorite station) all under the watchful eye of two-time Olympic medalist Shannon Bahrke.
"I was working with the 10 year olds," said U.S. cross country champion Sadie Bjornsen. "They were so excited and enthusiastic to learn about all the individual sports. One little girl asked if it would be possible to do all the different sports together. That is one of the messages we are really working on! We want girls to be active, have fun, try everything and find their path after they learn to enjoy being outside and active."
Cross country skier Holly Brooks paired up with skicross star Langely McNeal for a weight sled challenge. It was nordic girls versus alpine girls for a fun teamwork exercise and a great challenge. Yes, the nordic girls won.
While the afternoon was all about having fun, it was also designed to address a known issue of girls dropping out of sports at a rate two times that of boys. Fast and Female is about empowerment and building confidence through interaction with amazing role models. The girls were spellbound as the role model ambassadors told their stories.
And inspiring as the athlete ambassadors were to the young girls, those same little girls had a profound impact on the veteran athletes.
"I walked out of the Center of Excellence Sunday with the biggest smile on my face," said Langley McNeal, America's top-rated skicross athlete. "The energy from the girls was infectious. For me, I was just thrilled to be one of the Athlete Ambassadors helping to empower and inspire young girls through sport."
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.