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Former Dutch phenom gets 2nd shot at Games

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It's a second chance at Olympic glory that's been 50 years in the making for Sam van Amen.

A half century ago he was a promising 18-year-old speed skater for Holland. The phenom earned a spot on the Dutch Olympic team and traveled to Oslo for the 1952 Winter Games.

It was the first of what promised to be many Olympic trips for Sam van Amen, who was on skates the minute he learned to walk.

"In Holland everybody skated," said Geanie van Amen, Sam's daughter-in-law. "You skated from town to town. That was transportation."

While outmatched in Oslo by better, more experienced skaters, Sam van Amen was expected to eventually do great things for Holland.

But when his parents met missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints his Olympic dreams ended.

The van Amen family converted to the LDS faith then picked up and moved to Salt Lake City.

At 19, in lieu of training in Holland, he found himself in Utah working as a toolmaker and taking a wife. Instead of becoming an Olympic star, Sam van Amen had a family and raised five children at his Sandy home.

"You lose one dream, you gain five," he says.

Now, nearly a half century since the Oslo Winter Games, 68-year-old Sam van Amen has another lease on his Olympic dream.

Along with 655 other volunteers, he will be a National Olympic Committee assistant during the 2002 Winter Games. The program is run through the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and provides liaisons to every team competing in February.

The assistants are based out of the Olympic village, where athletes will be housed during the Games. They serve as translators, chauffeurs and problem-solvers for every Olympic team.

"We have some great volunteers," said Kevin Carrillo, program manager for the NOC assistant program. "We were fortunate to have at least one native speaker in all the languages we needed."

For van Amen, the chance to volunteer at the 2002 Winter Games fills a void created when he exited Holland. "They say it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said, "and I believe that too."

The Olympic world has changed dramatically since the Oslo Games.

Corporate sponsors didn't exist in 1952, and the Oslo opening ceremonies didn't cost a dime. "You could bring your whole family for free," he said.

In 2002, corporate logos will be splashed on uniforms. Front-row tickets to Salt Lake's opening ceremonies cost $885 at face value.

The former Olympian has definite feelings about all that. Corporate money, he says, has tainted the Games. "You were so happy when they sewed the national flag on your shirt. Now they have the Nike sign or whatever. It's so commercialized now," he said.

Recently, SLOC President Mitt Romney told volunteers including van Amen that they are the lifeblood of a successful Olympics.

Romney was enthused when thousands of volunteers showed up for SLOC's first volunteer training session after terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"Some wondered whether (the volunteers) would turn out. We had two sessions. They were the two largest sessions out of the 10 we've held," Romney said. "Salt Lake City and Utah are ready to hoist the banner high."

Sam van Amen is also ready. He's been ready for 50 years.

E-mail: bsnyder@desnews.com