To anyone who still wonders how much the Olympic presence means to Colorado Springs, far beyond monetary value: You should have had lunch Monday at the Antlers Hilton.
If you had, you wouldn't be a skeptic anymore. In fact, if you didn't wipe your eyes at least once by the time it was done, you were in a tiny minority. For the 400-plus people who did attend the first Olympic Family Luncheon sponsored by the Colorado Springs Sports Corp., this event was like an exhilarating concert.
There was the opening act, a wide array of introductions that confirmed how numerous the Olympic and local leaders truly were, and also included some athletes, topped by figure skater Rachael Flatt.
Then came the first set, U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun providing an optimistic update — appropriately so, given the city's most recent investment to keep the USOC here at least 30 more years. And the dividends already are coming: hefty sponsorship money, more high-level individual donors than ever, support for local parks and recreation ($125,000 went to the city Tuesday), USOC staff on many nonprofit and civic boards. He added some refreshing news, an ambitious plan in the works for turning the Olympic Complex's visitor center into much more of a tourist attraction — even a destination.
As Blackmun put it, the athletes' inspiring stories are the movement's most priceless possession, "and one of the best things we can do is to help them tell their stories."
Not somewhere else. Here, in Colorado Springs.
Following Blackmun was the headliner, one of America's most beloved Olympic stars of the modern era. Speedskater Bonnie Blair, unspoiled by the fame from her five gold medals in four Winter Olympics (1984, '88, '92 and '94), came with her first gold medal in her back pocket and her appreciation fully intact. It helped that her sister, Mary Polaski, and family have lived here since the 1970s, and they filled a table for this event.
Blair spent 45 minutes sharing old stories. She started coming to camps at the Olympic Training Center in 1979, long before she captured America's affection. She recalled staying in old barracks without air conditioning, then enduring "hikes" up Pikes Peak in just five hours, cycling up Ute Pass to Divide ("the ride back down was much better"), and running around the entire Memorial Park four or five times in one workout.
On the flip side, she talked about the thrill of the OTC's "countdown clock" to the next Olympics, "and how it always made my heart go pitter-patter."
What you have to know is, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other athletes with similar memories here. But not many make it to the top of the Olympic podium.
And when Blair describes those moments, even now at 47, she chokes up. Her raspy voice falters and the tears flow as she talks of being "so lucky, so blessed."
You listen to her, though, and you also realize the toughness that makes a champion. Especially when she recalls how she spent years chasing Scandinavians and especially East Germans, until the day when she caught up with them, two years before the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. "After that," she says, "I knew I needed to look past them. Then I was only looking at the clock at the end of the straightaway."
Blair could've gone on for hours, but she knew when her time was up. She finished by telling everyone how fortunate they were, living in this place. How she goes to other cities and mentions the training center, and people know where it is, wanting to visit here all the more.
In other words, Colorado Springs has ambassadors without our even knowing it. That's what happens when you can call yourself America's Olympic city.
It truly is worth celebrating. Not just at an annual lunch, but every day of the year.
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