Don’t fear failure |

Don’t fear failure

Tom Kelly

Park Record columnist

One of the keys to the success of any great elite athlete is failure. That was the message Steamboat Springs High School graduates heard last weekend from their own hometown hero, Johnny Spillane.

Much like Park City, Steamboat has an intense pride in its Olympians. The self-proclaimed Ski Town U.S.A. takes credit for placing more athletes on Olympic teams than any other community. No argument it’s part of the culture in this northern Colorado cowboy town.

Spillane is one of the most decorated stars in U.S. Ski Team history. But when he retired this spring, one of the aspects that he was the most proud of was not what he accomplished, but what his team had achieved.

"When I started, we had no Olympic or World Championship medals," he wrote to the community in Steamboat Today. "Now the team boasts of three World Champions, two Olympic individual medalists and one Olympic champion."

Yes, Johnny is one of those champions a three-time Olympic medalist and World Champion.

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It was fitting that the Steamboat Springs High School Class of 2013 would select Johnny Spillane as its commencement speaker. Of the dozens and dozens of Olympians who had brought fame and excitement to Steamboat, Johnny was a favorite the ultimate role model for Steamboat’s Olympians of the future.

For all his success, what Spillane spoke about was failure. To many, the U.S. Ski Team’s surprise fourth-place finish in the Olympic Nordic combined team event at Soldier Hollow in 2002 was a great success a best ever and unprecedented accomplishment. But it wasn’t a medal. Worst of all, bronze was well within reach. The team finished nine-tenths of a second behind Austria. No one had them as favorites. But Spillane, Billy Demong, Todd Lodwick and Matt Dayton knew they had a shot. It was SOOO close!

It was a bitter disappointment, recalled Spillane. "But we learned the sun always rises the next day," he told the graduates.

Twelve months later, the sun was shining for Johnny Spillane. In spectacular fashion, he sprinted to gold at the World Championships in Italy. Hoisted on the shoulders of teammates Todd Lodwick and Billy Demong, Spillane paraded the American flag around the stadium in Predazzo, beaming proudly not for what he had done himself, but for what it meant for the team.

"How you respond will define you as a person," said Spillane in talking about adversity.

In Vancouver, Spillane again rose to the call, winning silver in the opening event. He would go on to win two silver medals and play a vital role in the bronze-medal team event.

Today, Johnny is enjoying retirement with his growing family in Steamboat Springs. He won’t be skiing in Sochi himself. But he knows that the USA will be taking yet another competitive team, including his longtime teammates plus new stars who grew up in Steamboat emulating him.

It’s been 11 years since the disappointment of 2002. But the lessons learned have paid great dividends for Spillane and his teammates, who truly grew to become Best in the World.

For Steamboat Today’s graduation coverage, go to:

To read Johnny Spillane’s retirement letter, go to

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.