The four Aspen athletes traveling to Sochi, Russia, for the Winter Olympics received a send-off Wednesday as the day’s first flurries fell at Gondola Plaza.
Ice skater Jeremy Abbott and cross-country skiers Simi Hamilton and Noah Hoffman were represented by family members, while freestyle skier Torin Yater-Wallace appeared onstage to share a few words with the crowd. The 18-year-old Aspenite is a five-time World Cup and six-time Winter X Games medalist. He will compete in his first Olympics despite suffering two broken ribs and a collapsed lung in the first of five qualifiers. He hadn’t skied for 51/2 weeks until last week.
“It feels good to be skiing again, and I’m super-thankful I got the fourth spot on the team,” he said, adding that he will fly to Sochi on Tuesday as he prepares for skier halfpipe, a first-time Olympic event.
Abbott, a four-time national champion, finished ninth in men’s figure skating at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The 28-year-old Aspenite plans to retire this year.
“He’s leaving it all on the table, no regrets,” Abbott’s sister Gwen Abbott Asmussen said. “He’s going to leave it all to faith and skate his best and hopefully bring home the gold.”
Hoffman, 24, will compete in four cross-country events, while the 26-year-old Hamilton, who competed in the Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, will appear in two. Hoffman is America’s No. 1 distance cross-country skier and will compete in the 15-kilometer, 30-kilometer, 50-kilometer and the team relay races. Hamilton will compete in the freestyle and team sprints.
In 2010, Aspen sent more Olympians to Vancouver than any other town in the U.S., with seven. One of those athletes was snowboard racer Chris Klug, who facilitated Wednesday’s event. He explained to Yater-Wallace that in 2002, he was the last athlete to qualify for the Olympics in Salt Lake City, where he won a bronze medal.
“Sometimes, getting that stressful Olympic qualification out of the way sets you up perfectly to go there and really go for it and put some icing on the cake,” Klug said.
Yater-Wallace, Hamilton and Hoffman are all products of the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, with a respective 12, eight and seven years of experience with the club. AVSC Director Mark Cole asked the crowd to think about the sacrifices these athletes have made over the years.
“These guys weren’t winning all the time, but they were convinced that, in fact, they could be the best in the world,” Cole said.
Mayor Steve Skadron, on behalf of the Aspen City Council, declared February 2014 to be Aspen Olympians Month.
“The city of Aspen has long valued the balance of mind, body and spirit, with these local athletes exemplifying the physical achievements of the body, the competitive drive of the mind, as well as the Olympic spirit,” Skadron said.
Aspen Skiing Co. CEO Mike Kaplan echoed Skadron’s remarks, saying Aspen always has been a community that embraces athletic excellence, whether it’s locals comparing lap times on Highland Bowl or racing up Tiehack in the morning.
“I think it’s just so fitting that we have such strong representation at the Olympics,” Kaplan said. “I know it makes me feel proud and honored to live here.”
After Yater-Wallace stepped off stage, Klug brought up the scattered “U-S-A” chants that erupted during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address on Tuesday. Then he led Aspen’s own chant in sending off its four Olympians.