Young athletes reach new heights |

Young athletes reach new heights

A couple of USSA rookie team members make their way across a plank bridge on an obstacle course at the National Ability Center on Thursday as part of the USSA Rookie Camp activities. Sarah Brunson/USSA

It was somewhat odd to see 28-year-old Olympic halfpipe skier Angeli VanLaanen climbing the obstacle course and participating in a rope bridge activity at the National Ability Center alongside the other 34 USSA Rookie Camp athletes.

Designed to introduce new members of the U.S. Ski Team to the resources available to them through the national team, as well as prepare them for media interactions and the rigors of a tough competition schedule, VanLaanen seemed like she was there to teach the class, not learn.

After all, the 2014 Olympian speaks to the media like a pro and has a lot more competition experience than most of her teenage counterparts at the camp.

But, among all the young athletes at Rookie Camp, no one appeared happier to be there than VanLaanen, whose road to Sochi was tougher than most. After a lengthy battle with Lyme disease, which caused her to miss three seasons of competition, VanLaanen said she was thrilled to be able to call herself a U.S. Ski Team athlete.

"It’s a novelty to be 28 in this group," she said. "There’s a lot of youth and youngsters coming up as rookie team members. But there are a few of us that made it to Sochi and now are being named to the team (like Karly Shorr and Julia Krass). It’s really exciting. It shows that perseverance makes anything possible.

"I’ve dreamed about being on the freeskiing team and being a part of what they do and having the opportunities they provide. It took some time to get there, but I finally did and I’m extremely excited about the year to come."

Who knows what VanLaanen can accomplish over the next Olympic cycle now that she has overcome Lyme disease and won’t have to worry about financing her own way to the Olympics?

"I did all of it on my own my whole road to Sochi," she said. "It was a lot. Having the support of an entity like this is just going to make it easier for me to focus on my athletics."

She said she’ll be even stronger mentally this time around, too.

"I’ve been back at it for almost two years now and I’m just so grateful to be back here healthy doing what I love," she said. "The biggest challenge for me was mentally overcoming the doubts I had about returning to the sport after battling Lyme disease for so many years. I wasn’t sure if it was possible.

"Being able to rely on my body and see that it was there to perform well when I needed it to was a huge milestone for me as a human being and as an athlete. I’m just really grateful for the whole opportunity it gave me a great perspective on life."

The obstacle course and rope bridge were activities organized by the Military Mentorship Program, something USSA executive vice president of athletics Luke Bodensteiner said the organization hopes will motivate its young athletes.

"Really, we did it because there are a lot of parallels between being an athlete and someone serving their country in the military," he said. "There’s a lot of exchange of motivation on both sides and there’s a lot of respect going both ways. We want to talk to the athletes about resilience and overcoming challenges. [The athletes] are really viewed as ambassadors, not only for their sport, but for their nation. They may not realize that yet because they’re so young."

Robi Powers, a U.S. Army veteran and the driving force behind the Military Mentorship Program, said it’s important for both athletes and military personnel to share their stories with one another.

"Jen Householder, chief warrant officer second class in the U.S. Army, is a two-tour, Middle East-deployed UH60 helicopter pilot," he said. "She herself has had to work through post-traumatic stress. She’ll be sharing not only her story, but most importantly, time."

Bodensteiner added that having young USSA athletes hear stories like Householder’s is an important part of Rookie Camp.

"We have such respect for the personnel in the military," he said. "It was one of those elements last year that created a lot of motivation, but also this sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself."

For the 28-year-old VanLaanen, who may one day be one of the USSA athletes invited to a military base to share her story, soaking in everything USSA has to offer is something she’s waited to experience for a long time.

"I’m finding out about the things the team offers and I’m making some new friends," she said. "I’ve met some really cool people that I might not otherwise have met."

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