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2010 Winter Olympics: What is the legacy of an Olympic Games?

VANCOUVER — Lacy Schnoor might have continued to use her athletic abilities in gymnastics or track if Salt Lake City had never hosted the 2002 Winter Games.

Noelle Pikus-Pace saw herself running track or playing softball in the Olympics until her mother agreed to drive her 45 minutes from Orem to Park City so she could decide if she liked the sport of skeleton.

And BYU's Shauna Rohbock and Utah Valley University's Chris Fogt were content to finish their college careers as track athletes when they graduated, until someone asked them if they'd like to use their speed to compete in the sport of bobsled.

For all of these athletes, their affection for the sports that earned them a spot on the 2010 U.S. Olympic team was fueled by the opportunity to develop their skills at actual Olympic venues and training facilities.

So forgive Frank King if he savors Canada's first gold medal on Canadian soil Sunday night when Alexandre Bilodeau won the mogul competition with a tiny bit of an "I-told-you-so" attitude.

"We had a dream in Calgary 22 years ago, and we knew we were not going to be the biggest medal-winning country at our Games, but we had a dream that our children would be affected by what they would see in Canada in the winter sports arena," said King, chief executive of the Calgary Organizing Committee for the 1988 Winter Games. "The true legacy of the Games is the seeds being sewn in the hearts of our children."

Natalie Lambert understands just what King is talking about when he connects Bilodeau's medal with the efforts in Calgary. She grew up in Montreal, site of the 1976 Summer Games, and was just breaking into the international scene when her country hosted those Calgary Games.

"It was over-the-top amazing," said Lambert, chef de mission or leader of the 2010 Canadian Olympic Team and a two-time Winter Olympian. "I will never forget walking into that stadium, with goose bumps. I am still talking about it 22 years later. … I have no doubt our athletes will be doing the same thing 22 years from now. … I have never seen anything like what we've seen here."

She believes the success of Canadians in Vancouver will inspire a whole new generation, and maybe more importantly, give them access to state-of-the-art training facilities.

Mike Plant, chef de mission of the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team, understands opportunity — living near a 400-meter refrigerated track lured him away from a baseball diamond and a basketball court to the more obscure sport of speedskating.

"I was really good at those," said Plant of the traditional sports. "But there was something about this individual pursuit of excellence that is going to be determined by your commitment and how much you put into it."

So he took advantage of that track and earned himself a spot on the 1980 Olympic team where he was teammates with Eric Heiden, who won five gold medals at those Games, a feat that has not been repeated in 30 years.

The ability of U.S. cities to host the Olympics gives all of the sports a lift because so many people are paying attention.

"When the Games are in the states, the activation of sponsors is going to be a lot greater," he said. "Kids are going to see a lot more Olympic marketing."

They'll also see some of those sports the media tends to ignore three out of four years — like speedskating, nordic combined or biathlon.

"There are a lot of athletes here who saw somebody doing something and they were inspired or intrigued by it," Plant said.

And while it's one thing to be exposed to new sports, it's another to see people from your home state or hometown being competitive in those endeavors.

"We are able to provide more opportunity today," Plant said. And more access for athletes translates into success in competition.

"If you can find a way to sustain a pipeline of athletes, something like what we do in Major League Baseball … we can sustain competitive excellence," he said.

The overall goal in hosting the Games in U.S. cities, however, isn't just an effort to build facilities that will make athletes more successful. It's also about helping Americans of every ability level to connect with the Olympics in a tangible way.

"We don't want to just continue to be competitive in the medal race, we want to continue to provide opportunities for kids to live Olympic dreams and to achieve Olympic success," Plant said. "That success continues to churn and inspire other kids, who say, 'Hey! I want to go out and do that!' How many gymnasts got into that sport because of Mary Lou Retton?"

Sometimes it is seeing someone you know is just like you that inspires you most. When asked why she gravitated to skeleton, Pikus-Pace said it was the accessibility of the track and seeing the friends she trained with revel in Olympic glory in 2002 that convinced her she could do it too.

"It absolutely makes a difference," said Jeff Robbins, CEO of the Utah Sports Commission. "Hosting the Games in Salt Lake City led to a lot of interest in athletes wanting to get involved in the Olympic movement, in all disciplines."

e-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com