Young athletes inspired by speech |

Young athletes inspired by speech

When Ret. Major Jesse Stewart stood up and told his story to the first-year athletes at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s Rookie Camp on Thursday afternoon as part of the organization’s Military Mentorship Program in conjunction with the American300 organization, he mentioned how nearly every soldier, when deployed overseas, would stop what they were doing and watch a few major events — the Super Bowl, World Series and NBA Finals among them.

And, he added, every two years, the soldiers would gather around television sets and watch re-broadcasts of the Olympics, both summer and winter, on the Armed Forces Network.

As he told the story of his time with the Army Rangers, the room was silent as the athletes came to realize how much their sports mean to those overseas.

"It really helped me remember that, when I go out and race internationally, I’m racing for more than just myself," 17-year-old alpine skier River Radamus said. "I’m racing in honor of the dedication that so many put forward for our country."

"It makes me want to train so much harder," 16-year-old halfpipe snowboarder Chase Blackwell added. "It’s so inspirational how much they have to go through."

While Stewart was on a tour of duty in 2007, he was commanding a unit that lost many soldiers in battle. He said he speaks to groups like the USSA to preserve the memories of those who died for our country.

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"For me, personally, it’s about giving back in honor of the 22 guys that died from Task Force 300 back in 2007, 14 of which were mine," he said. "Forty-eight of the guys I commanded within Task Force 300 were wounded, including myself. It’s all about giving back so they’re forever remembered."

When Stewart told the story of how his best friend in the unit jumped in front of a suicide bomber, giving up his life to save Stewart’s, the retired major paused just slightly to keep his composure.

"I’ve told my story probably about 50 times to various audiences," he said. "This is the first time I’ve told it to an audience like this, though. I’ve had the opportunity to share the individual stories of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. It’s almost therapeutic to me to retell it. It’s part of my own personal healing from what I went through. It gets easier, but it still almost breaks me up every time I talk about it."

Stewart said he thinks there are more similarities between soldier and Olympians than with any other professional athletes. He said that, much like a soldier is driven to action by a love for his or her country, Olympic athletes are driven by a love for their sports.

"As Rangers, we go through very extensive training — from jumping out of airplanes to Ranger school to sniper school to a long-range surveillance course, etc.," he said. "It’s almost like we can relate to Olympians better than a National Football League player who gets paid to work out 12 hours a day in the offseason. These kids and adults [with the USSA] don’t get that — it’s much more of a sacrifice for them than it is for any NFL football player or Major League Baseball player out there that gets paid millions of dollars a year to do their sport. We can relate more in terms of the sacrifices we make to get ready for combat to the sacrifices they are making to become athletes."

Blackwell and Radamus were humbled to hear Stewart mention Winter Olympic athletes in the same sentence as Army Rangers.

"It was immensely enlightening to see that, even though we’re coming from such different worlds, there are a lot of similarities in dedication between the Army and the skiing world," Radamus said. "The dedication and courageousness they show by going into battles that they don’t know the outcome of is reassuring and inspiring to me."

"It’s totally different than what we do to compete," Blackwell added. "They are totally different challenges, but it’s similar in ways. Real-life challenges happen to everybody."

Stewart, who said the Nordic events are among his favorite Winter Olympic competitions, said he hopes the USSA athletes took away a deeper understanding of the power of their place in the sports world.

"The biggest message is with great authority comes great responsibility," he said. "In life, when we’re given a pedestal — either as a commander, where I had 116 guys looking up to me at every move I made, or as an athlete — you have two opportunities. You have the opportunity to be someone great and instill pride and vision in people, or you have the opportunity to be a dirt bag and be one of those athletes kids still look up to, but look up to for the wrong reasons."