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Living legacies: How eight homegrown athletes trace their Olympic roots to the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games

KEARNS — Watching drivers search for parking spots in the field next to her Kearns neighborhood was as close as Jerica Tandiman came to seeing an Olympic event when Utah hosted the Winter Games in 2002.

“The parking for the speedskating (oval) was in the fields next to my house,” said the now 23-year-old. “I didn’t have tickets, so the kids in my neighborhood, we’d all wave at the cars as they were coming and going, just being little kids.”

That — and watching the torch relay run through her neighborhood — were enough to instill an Olympic dream in the PyeongChang-bound speedskater when she was just 7.

“Watching how excited everyone got when the torch came through at the high school, I knew it was something cool,” said Tandiman, who made her dream a reality last month when she made the 2018 Olympic team. “You could feel the excitement in the air.”

A few months after the 2002 Winter Olympics, her mother signed her up for the Utah Olympic Oval’s Learn to Skate program, where the self-described tomboy fell in love with one of winter’s most grueling sports.

“I knew right away,” she said, laughing. “I would always look forward to Learn to Skate. It was my favorite part of the week. I’d try to get my homework done as fast as I could so I could get to the rink faster. I had a love for skating at a very young age.”

Tandiman isn’t the only member of the largest Olympic team (242 athletes) ever assembled, whose gold-medal goals took root sometime between learning to tie her shoes and understanding multiplication tables. At least eight of the 14 Utahns competing in PyeongChang this February found opportunity and inspiration because of the legacy left by the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Games.

That legacy included more than facilities and youth programs. It also included the transformative experience that comes from seeing — and feeling — Olympic dreams realized.

Learning to fly

William Rhoads flies off the jump for his first jump during the Olympic qualifying ski jumping event at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017. | Adam Fondren, Deseret News

“I’d have to say it was probably the Olympics in 2002,” said Park City native Will Rhoads when asked why he chose to pursue ski jumping as a child. “I was 7 years old at the time, checking out the events and kind of in awe of the sport. Right after the Games ended, they built some small hills, and I was really excited about the whole thing. I got involved in Learn to Fly programs on Friday, when I could go up and jump.”

In addition to Tandiman and Rhoads, Salt Lake figure skater Nathan Chen, Park City ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson, South Jordan luge athlete Taylor Morris, Park City cross-country skier Rosie Brennan, Park City aerial skier Madison Olsen and Park City ski jumper Abby Ringquist said their Olympic aspirations were born during the 2002 Games. They were able to pursue their dreams because of the myriad youth programs aimed at luring budding athletes into the nontraditional sports featured in the Winter Olympics.

The programs that introduced them to everything from luge to ski jumping offered them opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have had.

“I don’t think I would,” Tandiman said of whether she’d have set her sights on the Olympics if she hadn’t grown up in the shadow of the arena where U.S. skaters like Derek Parra and Chris Witty earned gold. “That was a big factor in it. The Olympics being in Salt Lake, them building the rink near my house, all of those things came together, and I’m just really lucky that it worked out that way.”

Ski jumpers Hendrickson, Rhoads and Ringquist were all introduced back then to the sport that has made them Olympians this year.

“I remember when I was 7 years old, and I walked up from my house to watch the men’s ski jump event,” said Hendrickson, who earned her second trip to the Olympics at the trials in her hometown on Dec. 31. “That’s when I fell in love with ski jumping. I thought it was so unique, so beautiful and something technical that I wanted to be a part of. I’m basically the result of the 2002 Olympic legacy that Park City and Salt Lake have continued to develop for younger athletes.”

Ringquist actually watched her brother, who is two years older than her, participate in the 2002 Games as a forerunner, testing the jumps before the Olympians compete.

"The Olympics coming here when I was 12 was such a big deal and I really idolized the male ski jumpers competing," the 28-year-old said. "I didn’t even realize there weren’t any women out there at the time. I was very jealous of my older brother because he got to be a test jumper and was up there with all my heroes."

Go figure

Nathan Chen performs during the men's free skate event at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, California, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018. | Ben Margot, Associated Press

Nathan Chen was just 3 when he began taking figure skating lessons at the same rink where he won his first event of the 2017-18 season. As he signed autographs for the youngsters who clamored around him, he said it was surreal to consider how far he’s come from those first skating lessons.

“It’s a little weird,” the 18-year-old two-time U.S. champion said after winning the Salt Lake Invitational in September. “I mean, considering I was that little kid asking the adult skaters for their autographs and now, it’s like, you know, flipped and it still feels weird, but it’s cool.”

Chen’s two older sisters skated in Salt Lake’s Opening Ceremonies, and he said he’s not sure he’d have seen his Olympic hopes as a real possibility if he hadn’t been exposed to it from the start.

“This is an Olympic town,” he said. “A lot of sports blossomed out of (the Games). This facility was built because of that, and it really goes to show that having something like this can really make anyone from any town grow up and be anything they want.”

Feet first

Taylor Morris, of the United States, takes a curve during a World Cup luge event in Lake Placid, New York, on Friday, Dec. 15, 2017. | Peter Morgan, Associated Press

Taylor Morris knew he wanted to be an Olympian long before he knew anything about luge.

“I remember watching Michael Johnson win the 200 and the 400 at the Atlanta Games,” said Morris, who made his first Olympic team through World Cup points this season. “I said, ‘This is what I want to do. I’m going to do everything in my power to do this.’ I changed a lot about my life to make that possible. When I saw Michael Johnson in a milk commercial, I started drinking more milk. I passed off my donuts to my little brother so I could be healthy like the athletes I saw. I was very determined to try and emulate these guys.”

Morris was in the sixth grade when his father showed him a newspaper ad, inviting youngster to try a luge camp. Organizers blocked off a street near the University of Utah and let the youngsters slide on inline skate luge sleds.

Out of more than 1,000 children, about 40 were invited to a one-week on-ice camp in either Park City or Lake Placid.

He participated in the Park City camp and was one of the handful invited back to participate in a developmental camp. “At 11 years old, we were driving him up to Park City six days a week so he could go train,” said his father, Brian Morris.

Taylor said he dedicated himself to luge because he loved it, and he loved where it might take him.

“I knew at a young age, I wanted to be an Olympic athlete,” he said. “This was an outlet to go do it.”

Head over heels

United States' Madison Olsen (15) jumps during a practice run at the World Cup freestyle aerials event at Deer Valley resort Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, in Park City, Utah. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Madison Olsen never saw herself as an Olympian until she sat in the stands at Deer Valley watching the 2002 Games.

“I watched the aerial event with my parents, and that kind of sparked my Olympic dream,” the 22-year-old first-time Olympian said. “Being a Park City kid, I first started skiing moguls. But I was always drawn to the aerial aspect of moguls. I just wanted to go and do bigger and cooler tricks. … I grew up training at the Utah Olympic Park in the summertime.”

She trained alongside Olympic athletes, and it made those daydreams seem like real possibilities.

Nordic exposure

For Rosie Brennan, it was a combination of being exposed to the Games and her family’s decision to open their home to a Nordic combined athlete training in Park City.

Because the Park City schools took a three-week break, Brennan was able to immerse herself in everything Olympic.

“It was a blast,” she said of the 2002 Games and the festivities that accompanied them. “I loved every bit of it. I was in seventh grade, and both of my parents were working. My brother and I had to entertain ourselves, so we’d take the bus to Main Street and watch the big screen TV.”

Brennan wasn’t a skier when she and her family went to the cross-country events at Soldier Hollow.

“That was so fun that my mom went back to Smith’s and asked if they had more events,” she said. “It’s funny thinking back now because I barely knew what (cross-country skiing) was.”

Transformative impact

United States Olympic Winter Games slopestyle skier McRae Williams poses for a portrait at the 2017 Team USA Media Summit Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, in Park City, Utah. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

And while other Utah Olympians said the 2002 Games aren’t directly responsible for their pursuit of gold, they certainly bolstered both inspiration and opportunities.

“First of all, I never thought I’d start competing,” said freestyle skier McRae Williams. “Then, second of all, I definitely never thought (freestyle skiing) would be in the Olympics. It’s crazy to see how this all unfolded.”

The 27-year-old slopestyle skier, who was named to his first Olympic team two weeks ago, watched Park City’s Joe Pack win silver, thanks to a friend and mentor who would go on to win silver in aerials in Vancouver, Jeret “Speedy” Peterson.

“It was really cool having grown up in Park City, being born and raised there, to see that kind of transformation, the impact it had on the community,” Williams said. He participated in an “aerial recruitment camp” that allowed him to try his tricks in the pool at the Utah Olympic Park. While he didn’t pursue aerials, that camp experience exposed him to the sport that earned him a trip to PyeongChang.

The road to the 2018 Winter Olympics has been different for each of these local athletes, as is the manner in which they earned their place on the U.S. team varied. Some earned a trip to the Games through consistent international performances, while others claimed a spot through Olympic trials.

And then there were a few who were named to the team by U.S. coaches after years of sacrifice and hard work.

“Our coach, Todd Ossian, called me and said, ‘Congratulations, you’re on the Olympic team,’” Olsen said. “I just started crying. I told my parents, and they couldn’t have been more excited. They couldn’t believe it. They were so happy. They’ve been so awesome through my whole career supporting me and believing in me. There were a lot of tears.”