Olympians Give Back

Jay Weiner May 07, 2010

(to see more photos of Olympians who give back, go to this link):

They get sweaty. They get injured. They earn accolades. They win medals. U.S. Olympic athletes receive all sorts of stuff as they train, when they compete and after they excel.

But, then, they give a lot too.

In the aftermath of the most successful Olympic Winter Games in Team USA history, many American athletes have been giving back to people, to causes and to organizations far from their international fields of play.

“The Olympics are about accomplishing your dream,” two-time short track speedskating Olympian Allison Baver said. “Once you reach that dream you realize how many people that you’ve influenced, and you feel a responsibility to pay it forward.”

Getty Images

Speedskater Allison Baver is building the building the Off The Ice Foundation.

Before and after winning a bronze medal in the 3,000-meter relay at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Baver has dived into her passion: helping children and families in need. In the months before the Winter Games, Baver organized a group of short trackers based in Salt Lake City to aid families during the Christmas season, and not just with a toy here or a turkey dinner there. She and other skaters acquired a washing machine, a dryer, clothes for teens, an iPod and ice time at the Olympic Oval, among other things, for kids and families affiliated with the Utah Youth Village.

That was just the beginning of it. Baver is in the process of building the Off The Ice Foundation, a personal mission to teach young people “life principles,” such as passion, confidence, will and determination. Her hope is to develop a global curriculum that will center around sports – roller skating, ice skating, and other activities – but that will teach kids other life skills. Her hometown of Reading, Pa., will be one of the targeted communities, as well as North Philadelphia, one of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods.

“It’s not to teach people how to be an Olympic speedskater,” Baver said of her “huge” vision for the foundation, “but how to be healthy.” Her goal: to raise several million dollars.

* * *

Baver’s energy and concerns fit into a culture of giving among a host of Winter Olympic athletes.

For example, snowboarder Hannah Teter vowed in Vancouver to give her $15,000 silver medal bonus to aid earthquake victims in Haiti. Entrepreneurial Teter also developed a women’s underwear product, “Sweet Cheeks,” and has said she will contribute money from sales of this apparel to Doctors Without Borders for their work worldwide.

Like Baver, Apolo Anton Ohno, the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian of all time, has formed his own foundation, and he is partnering with The Century Council in Los Angeles encouraging kids to adopt a healthy lifestyle and to refrain from underage drinking.

Getty Images

Speedskater Apolo Anton Ohnon as The Century Council in Los Angeles.

Many athletes, such as four-time Olympic hockey player Angela Ruggiero, freestyle skier Emily Cook and Vancouver two-time silver medalist Julia Mancuso have supported the work of Right to Play, the international sports human rights organization.

Some Olympians have signed on for the U.S. Olympic Committee Team for Tomorrow Humanitarian Relief Fund program that is partnering with Habitat for Humanity. Biathlete Haley Johnson is among them, and she and a host of Team USA teammates have signed on to support Team GreenLaces, an organization spreading awareness of global warming, an environmental issue that particularly affects winter athletes.

Read more here:

Among other Vancouver Olympians who have endorsed Green Laces are biathletes Lowell Bailey, Lanny Barnes, Tim Burke, Laura Spector and Sara Studebaker, lugers Brian Martin and Erin Hamlin, and cross-country skier Andy Newell.

Nordic combined gold medalist Bill Demong, the Team USA flag bearer at the Vancouver Closing Ceremony, has been active in environmental issues too, circulating a petition among Winter Olympians to support Earth Day.

Speedskater Chad Hedrick, who picked up a bronze in the 1,000 meters in Vancouver, has been organizing and playing host to the “Go For The Gold” golf tournament for four years. It benefits Special Olympics of Texas and heading into to this year’s event, held in April, the tournament had raised more than $200,000.

Giving back, it seems, has become a full-time Olympic event.

* * *

Soon after the conclusion of the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games, Alpine skiers Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn, two of the most recognizable stars of the Games, took their giving back to the online auction and shopping website, eBay. Five-time Olympic medalist Miller auctioned his signed Olympic helmet on eBay to help raise money for Pam Warman, a former U.S. Ski Team technician, who was diagnosed with breast cancer. It raised $8,100.

Vonn made an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’s widely viewed daytime TV show and auctioned off a signed pair of skis and poles. The $1,575 auction proceeds went to the American Red Cross Haiti Relief Fund. Earlier in the season, in another eBay auction, Vonn contributed her signed race bib from the Cortina d’Ampezzo World Cup for Haiti relief. The bib sold on eBay for $8,600.

But there was another, more somber Vancouver Winter Olympic auction on eBay. Three-time Olympic luger Tony Benshoof made it happen. Benshoof was at the Whistler Sliding Centre’s track on February 12 for his final training run when minutes earlier Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili took his fateful test run that ended in tragedy and his death. An international competitor for 20 years, Benshoof was shaken as was the entire Olympic community.

A week or so later, during a chat with U.S. luge team manager Fred Zimny, Benshoof sought to find a way to help Kumaritashvili’s family. Zimny and Benshoof came up with the idea of placing Benshoof’s Team USA luge uniform on eBay, and then to contribute the proceeds to the Kumaritashvili’s parents. Benshoof’s suit sold for $2,383.

“It was the least we could do,” Benshoof said. “For a Georgian family a few thousand dollars is a big thing.” Per capita annual income in Georgia is $4,500.

At the time the auction launched on eBay, Zimny said: “We hope we can in some small way show the Kumaritashvili family that Nodar will remain in the hearts and minds of those in the luge community…[We] wanted his family to know that the U.S. luge team honors Nodar as a fellow Olympian.”

* * *

Erika Lawler was moved by a more local need. A native of Fitchburg, Mass., the Team USA ice hockey forward was contacted about participating in a charity hockey game for a 10-year-old boy named Corey McGrath. He had suffered a brain aneurysm. Among the others playing in the game were former NHL great Ray Bourque, a 1998 Canadian Olympian.

“All the money that we raise will go help Corey’s family pay their medical bills,” Lawler said recently after she spent time with the boy, who is recovering nicely. “He looks really good. He’s a great kid.

“You see kids a lot less fortunate than you are and realize that we are so lucky to have had the Olympic experience,” she added. “Anything we can do to help out kids, in any circumstance, and not just athletically, it makes their day. I think it is part of our responsibility to help out. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be.”

Lawler also has plans to donate some of the stipend she received from women’s ice hockey team sponsor Qwest for producing Podcasts to various causes. Among them: she has sponsored a Boston Marathon participant who ran to raise funds for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“It’s only right that I give back,” Lawler said, echoing the ideas and actions of a host of other members of Team USA.

Jay Weiner is a freelance sports journalist based in Minnesota. He has covered eight Olympic Winter Games and seven Olympic Games.


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