Aspen Olympians come together to talk experiences on Tuesday at Wheeler
As Jeremy Abbott put it, there is no normal trajectory to reaching the Olympics. But when you come from the same community, one that has a drive and passion for athletics like Aspen does, there are bound to be similarities.
“I’m just so lucky to be back and surrounded by these amazing athletes that had a similar journey that I did,” Abbott said. “A lot of our stories will actually be very similar because we are all lucky enough to call this town our home.”
Abbott, an Aspen-born figure skater who competed in the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics, was one of five local Olympians to take part in a panel discussion Tuesday at the Wheeler Opera House. It was the final Time Travel Tuesdays event put on by the Aspen Historical Society.
Along with Abbott were snowboarders Chris Klug and Gretchen Bleiler, cross-country skier Craig Ward and alpine skier Beth Madsen. Longtime Olympics announcer Greg Lewis had been scheduled to take part as well, but a weekend injury on the mountain forced him to miss the discussion.
Noted big mountain skier Chris Davenport moderated the event. While not an Olympian himself, Davenport did spend the past three weeks at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
“It is an honor to be up here on the stage,” Davenport said during the introductions. “With a fresh perspective on the Olympics, I get to sit here on the stage with people who are more famous than me as Olympians.”
The panel covered a myriad of topics, from how each of them got into their respective sport to their journey to becoming an Olympian to their favorite memories. The verbal odyssey covered multiple decades, from Ward’s experience at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, to Madsen’s 1988 Olympics appearance, to more recent competitions like the 2014 Games in Sochi.
For all, there was a universal theme of having the drive from an early age to want to put the work in to realize their dreams.
“I didn’t know how I was going to become an Olympian, but I knew I wanted to become an Olympian,” said Bleiler, recalling herself as a 7-year-old girl living in Ohio who developed what then seemed like a ridiculous dream of becoming an Olympian. “I really went through a lot of ups and downs and injuries and I really learned a lot about myself. By the time I actually got there, I felt like I was prepared to be at the Olympics.”
Bleiler, who won Olympic silver in 2006 in the halfpipe, shared a similar journey as Klug in that both fell in love with snowboarding before it was an Olympic sport. Klug, an alpine snowboarder, was the first American named to the U.S. snowboarding team in 1998, the first year the sport joined the Olympics.
“You definitely had the feeling you were competing on a different level,” Klug said. “Representing your country for the first time was definitely a different experience than just representing your sponsors and your family and your hometown. Marching behind the Stars and Stripes was pretty special.”
Aside from winning Olympic bronze in 2002 after receiving a liver transplant in 2000, Klug said among his favorite memories from the Olympics was getting to carry the World Trade Center flag in the opening ceremonies that year in Salt Lake City and walking out to the respectful silence of thousands only a handful of months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Bleiler’s favorite story was a little less heavy, and involved her, teammate Hannah Teter and coach Ricky Bower nearly missing finals during the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy, after they decided to take some fun laps after qualifying earlier that morning.
“Little did we know the mountain was blocked off everywhere. You couldn’t really freeride this mountain,” Bleiler said. “So it was this crazy adventure getting to finals, where we weren’t sure if we were going to make it for practice on time. It was so much fun and it just put us back in the spirit of snowboarding and the spirit of why we were there.”
It all worked out, as Teter won Olympic gold that year with Bleiler finishing second. And that was part of the ultimate message each Olympian had to the upcoming generation. That it’s not about the medals won, but about the journey to that starting line.
“What I learned leading up to those games was how to enjoy the experience,” Bleiler said. “Don’t want it so much that you don’t enjoy the journey.”
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