Olympism is a powerful thing. It brings together family, friends and fans to support athletes in achieving their Olympic dreams. And it helps change the world. Norwegian speed skater Johann Olav Koss is evidence of that.
A remarkable collection of Olympians were on stage recently at the Joe Quinney Winter Sports Center at the Utah Olympic Park, each of them motivated by their passion to help change the world through Koss' Right to Play organization. And it's working.
On stage were nine Olympic gold medalists all Park City-connected including swimmer Summer Sanders, speed skater Eric Heiden, aerials skier Nikki Stone and downhill racer Picabo Street, along with World Cup aerials winner Emily Cook. They were there for a screening of Frank Marshall's highly acclaimed film on Right to Play, tracing the history of the program and the impact it is having globally. Each of the athletes on stage talked tearfully about how it has channeled their passion and leveraged their status as world class athletes into helping kids.
"As an athlete you're often asked to support programs," said Park City resident Sanders, who won four swimming medals in 1992 including two gold. "This program is very special to us personally."
Koss came to Lillehammer 20 years ago prepared to win Olympic gold. He won three each with a new world record. He also came prepared to use that platform to help kids.
One of those medalists from 1994 was Picabo Street, who won Olympic silver in the downhill. She went on to win gold four years later in super G. Now, Street focuses her lifelong passion for kids in Right to Play.
"I had not really been aware of Johann before the Olympics in 1994. But during the Games, I was in awe of him and the support his country was giving him," said Street. When he parlayed that into Olympic Aid, it was almost too much to handle. He believes he became an Olympic champion to do this.
"Right now it's one child at a time," Street continued."But Right to Play is making the kind of difference the world will recognize. Right to Play has given me an opportunity to make a difference on a global scale. It has extended my arms to reach to 23 countries and over a million kids a week."
Park City's Nikki Stone won Olympic aerials gold in 1998. She tells the story of playing with her daughter,who asked, "Mommy, what are you most proud of that you've accomplished in sport?" It was pretty heady stuff for a five year old. Probably surprisingly to many, Nikki didn't talk about her gold medal. Rather, she talked about a 2004 trip she made with Right to Play to Sierra Leone.
"I was pretty nervous before our first session with kids at a detention center," said Stone. "But at the end, I noticed that each one of them touched their hearts before extending their hands to us. I later learned this was a gesture of boundless respect and gratitude. You could feel the change in their attitude. We had given them hope.
"The day I won my Olympic gold medal was because of the belief I had in myself. Those simple handshakes from the kids in Sierra Leone said to me, 'I now believe in myself, too.'"
Parkites can join our community's adopted Olympic champions in supporting Right to Play through www.righttoplay.com/usa .
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.