As Pyeongchang Olympics begin, legacy of 2002 Games still resonates in Park City

Ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson is among the Park City athletes who were inspired as children by the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Park Record file photo by Tanzi Propst |

Sixteen years ago, the 2002 Olympics could have easily gone elsewhere. Thankfully for local athletes, it didn’t.

Instead, Salt Lake City beat out Anchorage, Alaska, during the United States Olympic Committee’s site selection process by two votes, and earned the chance to impress the world.

Without a doubt, that decision changed Park City’s culture — from its structure to its values — but for athletes, it transformed the alpine town into an internationally renowned athletic hub, boasting world-class venues and instruction facilities. With another Winter Games set to begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Friday, Parkites will be able to watch the lasting effects of the Games as dozens of athletes represent Park City on the world’s biggest stage.

“In 1992, they started opening the venues — the ski jump, the freestyle pool, Soldier Hollow — all these venues started to coming online,” said Tom Kelly, chairman of the Alf Engen Ski Museum and vice president of communications at U.S. Ski and Snowboard. “Kids started flocking here from all over the country.”

Though there was already a tradition of alpine skiing, ski jumping and Nordic skiing in the area, the new venues, like the Utah Olympic Park and Soldier Hollow, brought talent from across the country, such as aerial skiers Nikki Stone of Boston and Eric Bergous of Montana, who came to train on the water ramps at the Utah Winter Sports Park and went on to win gold medals in 1998.

Following the construction of the facilities, Park City became one of two locales in the U.S. with a bobsled, skeleton and luge track, one of a small handful of aerials training centers, and one of six towns in the U.S. with ski jump hills.

“These venues instantly transformed the community,” said Kelly, who also writes a winter sports column for The Park Record. “The culture turned to focus on this group of athletes that came to town.”

In the lead-up to the 2002 Games, the atmosphere reached a frenzied state. Stands were erected around Park City Mountain Resort, Soldier Hollow and Deer Valley Resort.

“It was really busy, but it was a very exciting time in Park City,” said Emily Fisher, executive director of the Youth Sports Alliance and who at the time was a coach with the U.S. Ski Team. “We … hosted Olympic trials at Deer Valley on New Year’s Eve and on Dec. 30 the building crew was putting the last bolts into these stands for the Olympics, and the very next night there were 10,000 people in those stands. It was incredible to see the infrastructure go in and to have the Olympics in your town was amazing.”

The athletic performances were just as impressive.

“Any time you have a big event in the community, you have a certain amount of people who say, ‘I’m getting out of town for that.’ I don’t think anyone felt like that (for the 2002 Winter Games),” Kelly said. “People who were here for that are never going to forget that, and I think if you talk to people on the street, you will hear amazing recollections of what they did 16 years ago. … Where were you on the day that Ross Powers led a sweep in men’s snowboarding? There were some super memorable moments that took place right here in our community.”

The United States took third in medals overall with 34, including 10 golds, and Park City residents had a front-row seat.

Jim Shea and Tristan Gale took first in men’s and women’s skeleton respectively, after the sport was reintroduced from a 54-year hiatus. Danny Kass and Jarret Thomas followed Ross Powers to a sweep in men’s halfpipe snowboarding, while snowboarder Kelly Clark took first in women’s halfpipe.

Travis Mayer and Shannon Barhke took second in the men’s and women’s moguls, while Joe Pack took second in men’s aerials.

Jonny Moseley changed the sport of moguls by performing the Dinner Roll, thereby asserting that inversions were part of the natural progression of the sport. A few miles away, Jill Bakkan and Vonetta Flowers took first in the two-woman bobsleigh race.

In turn, those performances and others inspired youngsters in Park City to try the sports they had seen.

“You had this whole generation of kids who had grown up in this town who had seen the stars of the sport and wanted to be like them,” Kelly said. “Ted Ligety, Joss Christensen and Sage Kotsenburg all won gold, who went to public school (here).”

And in its wake, the 2002 Games helped provide support for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard’s Center of Excellence, which opened in 2009 after years of fundraising and drew athletes from across the U.S. to train for Nordic combined, ski jumping, alpine skiing, slopestyle skiing, freestyle skiing and cross-country skiing. In addition, Park City’s prominence in the ski scene still draws athletes from around the nation to compete on elite clubs in the area.

“I remember when I was 7 years old and I walked up from my house to watch the men’s ski jumping event,” said Sarah Hendrickson, a pioneer in women’s ski jumping who graduated from the Winter Sports School in Park City and has a strong chance to medal in Pyeongchang. “That’s when I fell in love with ski jumping. It was something technical that I wanted to be a part of. I’m basically a result of the 2002 legacy that Park City and Salt Lake have continued to develop for younger athletes.”

Madison Olsen, a Park City native who will compete in aerials in Pyeongchang, told a similar story.

She said the Olympics were a cultural presence as an athlete growing up in Park City. “My family watched the aerial event in 2002, so I think that sparked my Olympic dream,” she said, adding that living in Park City “was definitely helpful.”

“We have an amazing facility at UOP, so I was able to train here and live with my family rather than moving away, and I still went to Park City High School, which was great,” she said.

The 2002 Olympics also spurred the creation of the Youth Sports Alliance, which focuses on continuing the legacy of the Winter Games by facilitating access to winter sports for young athletes through programs that allow them to sample different sports. The organization provides scholarships for those who wouldn’t be able to afford the sport on their own.

All told, 54 athletes with ties to the YSA will compete in the Winter Games this year.

“If alpine isn’t a fit, you can try Nordic jumping, cross-country skiing, or hockey, or figure skating or luge, or skeleton or bobsled,” said Fisher, YSA’s executive director. “Eventually I think one of those sports will stick, and the kids can work hard and get better and learn life lessons through sport. … The gold medals are amazing but I think having 2,500 youth get out and play is more important.”

Had Salt Lake City never been named an Olympic host, Kelly and Fisher said, the town would still be a world-class resort destination, but it would miss that breadth of athletic options.

“I think it would be a definitive cachet missing from the community,” Kelly said. “Sometimes it’s those little missing pieces that make or break a community. I’m sure it would be a great community, but I’m sure it’s better because it has that little bit of Olympic history here.”

And unlike other places that have hosted a Winter Games, Park City’s Olympic facilities have never fallen out of use, in part because they can draw from a large metropolitan area, and also because of the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation’s commitment to providing athletic services.

With Salt Lake City exploring the prospect of hosting another Winter Games, the future has seldom looked brighter for Park City athletes.

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