A Fire Still Lit Within: Celebrating the Ten-Year Anniversary of the 2002 Winter Olympics

My skis point toward Champion, a moguled black diamond ski run at Park City’s Deer Valley. A thousand feet below, the colorful, ant-size children of ski school move helter skelter atop winter’s white blanket in front of the Snow Park Lodge.


At the run’s edge, a sign marks the spot: the 2002 Winter Olympics Freestyle Moguls competition happened here. Right now, no one is carving corners through the web of bumps that drops to the bunny hill. I’m not about to, either—I have the reaction time of a slow loris and get my kicks on blue-square groomers—so I wait for someone with more gumption than me.


A woman with two blonde braids flying behind her helmet whooshes past, when her skis tip into the steeps, her body bends at the knees and hips. Each time she curves around a mogul’s convex edge, a handful of snow balls up and sprawls to the side. By the time the little snowballs stop rolling, she’s moguls ahead. I can feel her energy, the energy of this place. No doubt, the Winter Olympics lit a fire that still burns at Deer Valley.


Opening to the World


“Before the music cued, I told myself to soak it all in,” recalls Willow Withy, a Utah native who now works as a graphic designer and yoga instructor in Las Vegas. Willow was a junior in high school and a competitive figure skater when she performed in the Winter Olympics’ Opening Ceremony.


“We practiced for months, and the choreographers continually reminded us of how many people would be watching. I remember anticipating nervousness and responsibility. On that night, though, I had no nerves. I felt humbled and happy. I was one stroke in a grand masterpiece, but it was the most captivating sensory experience of my life.” The Opening Ceremony captured roughly half the planet’s attention, too, as an estimated 3.5 billion people tuned in to glimpse Olympians and watch glittery performances.


Preparing for the Olympic Endeavor


When the kindergarten version of Willow was taking her earliest laps around an ice rink, Salt Lake City was already thinking Olympics. The city wanted to host in 1932, but Lake Placid, New York did instead. In 1998, the city got pretty close. In the end, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the corporation that organizes the Olympics, chose Nagano, Japan. Salt Lake City came back bigger and badder with its 2002 bid, winning in a landslide.


The IOC awarded Salt Lake City with the games in 1995, giving it roughly six years to get its Olympic act together. The planning effort, chiefed by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and, eventually, Mitt Romney, was immense, requiring the management of a $1.32 billion budget, 700 employees, 26,000 volunteers, and 14 competitive and non-competitive venues.

At each venue, preparing for the Olympic endeavor offered equally complex challenges. Coleen Reardon is Deer Valley’s Director of Marketing and she remembers those days well, “Once Deer Valley was named a venue for some alpine and freestyle events, we ramped up our logistical planning in a major way.”


Though Deer Valley had hosted local and regional competitions, becoming an Olympic venue required a massive step up. “We had a short time to become an international-quality venue. The United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) helped us develop our venue, and we partnered with community members and contractors to put logistics in place. It was an exercise in bringing everyone at the resort together too,” Coleen says. “From marketing to guest services, from the groomers to the parking lot attendants, everyone helped make the Olympics happen.”


Seventeen Days of Snow and Security


The first day of the Olympics, February 8th, 2002, dawned cold and sunny in Salt Lake City. “We had the greatest snow on Earth, and we brought it to the big stage,” says Nathan Rafferty, President and CEO of Ski Utah, the marketing firm owned by Utah’s 14 ski resorts. “I was proud of our state. We blew people’s socks off with the snow, the venues, the weather, the airport, everything. It’s hard to remember a single downside of those 17 days.”


Because of terrorist attacks on United States’ soil less than five months prior, the 2002 Winter Olympics tripled its security budget to $315 million and made Salt Lake City one of the planet’s safest places. Fifteen thousand soldiers and law-enforcement officers representing 60 local, state, and federal agencies successfully protected the more than 2,300 athletes and 80,000 daily, on-site spectators.

When it comes down to it, the Olympics are all about world-class athletes pushing each other to lofty heights. These Winter Olympics did not disappoint. Tom Kelly, the USSA’s Vice President, Communications, recalls, “The United States went in with a big goal for the time, to win 10 gold medals.”


When asked about the specifics of American performance, Tom begins, “There’s Joe Pack, the hometown hero,” Pack is the Park City native who won the silver medal in the Freestyle Aerials competition at Deer Valley. “And, what about Bode Miller, who came back down from one ski to save his life and earn silver?” says Kelly referring to Bode’s near crash in the high-speed Alpine Skiing Combined event at Snowbasin from which he recovered and won a silver medal. “We were proud when we hit the 10 gold medal mark, and proud of each of our athletes,” concludes Tom.


Standout performances occurred among dozens of international Olympians, too. The men’s and women’s Canadian hockey teams made what can only be called a gold-medal sweep of the games. Australia won its first two golds: Steven Bradbury in Short Track Speed Skating and Alisa Camplin in Freestyle Aerials. Both of these gold medals were also remarkable because they were the first-ever won by a southern hemisphere country at a Winter Olympics.


Local Love


“It was a blast to hang out at Park City Mountain Resort during the Olympics.” This is how Park City resident and occupational therapist Leanne Seckinger remembers the games. “I was there during the Giant Slalom, and I can’t forget seeing those skiers fly down the mountain.” Though security was tight, locals and pros still mixed it up. “I rode the Payday lift with Austrian and Czechoslovakian athletes doing their warm-up runs.”


Nathan Rafferty and Coleen Reardon both think that locals contributed to Olympic success. “It’s in our culture to be volunteers,” emphasizes Nathan, “Utahns not only donated their time in droves but we also welcomed everyone into our state. The people of Utah are great hosts.” At Deer Valley, Coleen and her staff keep a volunteer database for resort events that was birthed during the Olympics. Of that database, says Coleen, “It has about a thousand people on it. We couldn’t have done the Olympics without them.”


An Olympic Hangover


“During the games, we worked hard,” remembers Reardon. “When it was over, I’ve never been more tired in my life.” She adds with a laugh, “It was worth every minute.”


Coleen wasn’t the only one worked over by the 2002 Winter Olympics. “I had an Olympic hangover,” says Willow Withy. She performed, too, in the Closing Ceremony and says, “Being part of the Olympic community and its energy was intoxicating. We all probably went through some withdrawal, transitioning back to reality.”


Reality is where it’s at in the modern, post-Olympics world. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC), the organization that oversees the process by which United States’ cities place bids on hosting the Olympics, has been pushing bid cities to design infrastructure that outlives Olympic Games. “We call them legacy venues,” says Tom Kelly, “The USOC has been asking for these plans from potential host cities since the 1980’s.” He continues, “The fact that Salt Lake City made plans for most of its venues after the games is, I think, a large part of why it won the 2002 bid.”


Nathan Rafferty speaks to another reality of Salt Lake City’s post-Olympic world, “We’ve always had a great ski product in the minds of locals, with our snow and accessibility. But the Olympics put Utah skiing on a different shelf.” Nathan pauses for so long I being to think he’s recounting all 10 years since the games, “It’s like this. The games took us from being in the same section of the supermarket to being at eye-level with the big boys, the Aspens and Vails. At the time, I wondered what Utah would do with that.”

A Legacy Lives On


“Because the USSA has been Utah-based for going on 40 years,” says Tom Kelly, “this state has long been a place for athletes to train. We have these great Olympic venues to train at now, and Utah is using them and other facilities for clubs.” Utahns are no strangers to winter sports clubs, which help kids acquire progressive skill sets and abilities in their chosen sport.


Leanne Seckinger’s six-year old daughter just happens to be better at figure skating than most kids her age. Because of her talent and the fact that she can’t get enough of being on the ice, she’s been welcomed into the figure skating club environment. Twice a week, she visits the Park City Ice Arena for drills, lessons, skating time, and off-ice games. “The club has older girls who are shepherding her,” says Leanne, “I’m all for it, as long as she wants to be there.”


While many of the 2002 Winter Olympics venues host clubs, training opportunities, and local competitions, a couple knock their post-Olympic participation out of the ballpark. Park City’s Utah Olympic Park is a prime example. The Utah Olympic Park hosted a slew of events in 2002, including Bobsled, Luge, Skeleton, Ski Jumping and the ski-jumping portion of the Nordic Combined competitions. Today, several for-profit and non-profit organizations and clubs train at the Utah Olympic Park. As well, the park continues to host to national and international-level competitions.


Deer Valley has extended the competition tradition, too. After hosting Alpine Slalom, Freestyle Aerials, and Freestyle Moguls events during the 2002 Winter Olympics, the resort has embraced the competitive spirit with almost-annual international freestyle competitions. Deer Valley has had multiple gos with International Ski Federation (FIS) Freestyle World Cups and has twice hosted the FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships.


“It was a lot of work to get up to speed on hosting international competitions,” says Coleen Reardon. “Now that we know how to do it, we absolutely love hosting.” When I ask Coleen about the future of competition at Deer Valley, without hesitation, she replies, “The world looks to us to host these competitions. We’re committed to the Olympic legacy.”


Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR) served as a venue for the Winter Olympics’ Alpine Giant Slalom, Snowboarding Parallel Giant Slalom, and Snowboarding Halfpipe events. According to Andy Miller, PCMR’s Communications Manager, being an Olympic venue was a game-changer for the resort. “It was a transformative moment. The 15-foot halfpipe used during the games has grown into the 22-foot Eagle Superpipe, one of the first of that size in North America. We now have three terrain parks, too.”


PCMR is future-forward in terms of creating an environment in which pros can train and compete. Says Andy, “We’re cultivating the Park City All Stars, a group of pros who associate themselves with and use the resort’s terrain.” And, last winter, PCMR went big by hosting the Slopestyle event of the FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships, in partnership with Deer Valley.


Snowbasin’s Olympic Flame


The Olympics’ Alpine Downhill, Alpine Combined, and Alpine Super-G events all took place at Huntsville’s Snowbasin. “You see ski events on TV, but never in person, in your backyard,” says Matt Murdoch. The Draper resident attended the Super-G with his wife, “The energy generated by spectators was intense. I still get chills when I think about it.”

Since the Olympics, however, the courses have not been competed upon again. These days, Snowbasin hosts a totally different national-level competition, the Dew Tour, which consists of snowboarding and freeski events. Mostly, Snowbasin lives on as a local legend. No fancy resort lodging, no uber-glamour, just a lot of locals having fun. There are, of course, developmental clubs for kids on the mountain, too.

Is it a travesty that Snowbasin hasn’t hosted international competitions since the Olympics? Not according to Nathan Rafferty, “It’s the world’s best day ski area. It’s not a destination resort, so there are no hotels, no mountain homes. Snowbasin is landscape left for the locals.”

What about that killer downhill course? Nathan’s answer, “Hosting downhill events is a tough beast. The course runs top to bottom in the resort and requires a huge amount of grooming. Snowbasin stepped it up for the Olympics, but I can’t imagine a day-use resort hosting downhill events on a regular basis. With Snowbasin, the legacy is there in the locals.”


To Infinity and Beyond


When I ask Tom Kelly about the future of Utah’s winter recreation industry and culture, he says, “We won 10 gold medals in 2002, then 21 golds in Vancouver eight years later.” Excitement builds in his words as he speaks, “The United States becomes more competitive with each international competition. Because of the 2002 Olympics, we have even more training facilities. And, we’ve got clubs cropping up around those facilities and elsewhere. That’s the future.”


“Since the Olympics, we’ve seen a 42% increase in skier days,” says Rafferty, “we’re nowhere near capacity on the mountains, but we are struggling with transportation Especially adequate, safe transport in and out of Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons.” “In the nearest future, we have to solve these transportation issues.”


And, what’s next for the resorts themselves? Coleen Reardon says hosting freestyle competitions at Deer Valley is changing their guest demographic, “We had 8,000 people at the FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships last February. Many were young folks, late teens and twenty-somethings. New people are visiting Deer Valley, and we like that.”


One cannot converse about the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah without a discussion of whether or not Salt Lake City will host them again. On the day I looked down Deer Valley’s Champion ski run, my friend, who was visiting from Montana, posed it. Everyone asks; they can’t help it.


Though it’d be unusual for a city to host a second time, it isn’t unprecedented-London, England will host its third summer Olympics in 2012. Rumors are currently floating around the Beehive State that its capital city has expressed interest in hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics. But, should it? Nathan Rafferty weighs in, “ I’d love to see the games come back. But the idea makes me nervous. The stars were aligned for the 2002 games. Everything went off without a hitch. That’s the highest of standards to live up to.”

We all watched the Olympic Flame burn bright at the 2002 Winter Olympics. It still burns hot, it seems. See you in 2022?

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