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Sarah Hughes blog: Olympic Assembly inspires

Act of sportsmanship honored; Lysacek caps night with big announcement

Sarah Hughes with Jack Kelly Fair Play award winner Jenna Huff.
Sarah Hughes with Jack Kelly Fair Play award winner Jenna Huff. (courtesy of Sarah Hughes)

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By Sarah Hughes, special to icenetwork.com
(09/26/2011) - The seventh annual Olympic and Paralympic Assembly, held Sept. 21-24 in Colorado Springs, Colo., included all the constituents of the United States Olympic Committee. This meant the four-day summit full of meetings, presentations and other gatherings included athletes (both past and present), executives, members of the media, agents, city representatives and sponsors.

That makes it little surprise that one of the first people I ran into when going through the lobby on Friday morning was steadfast sports reporter Amy Rosewater. Amy, who has been on the figure skating beat for quite a while, was quick to turn the chat to figure skating. Colorado Springs, home of the USOC offices, is also home of the U.S. Figure Skating offices as well as the World Arena and Broadmoor Skating Club. A lot of the preseason excitement has been centered around Brandon Mroz's quad Lutz, which he landed Sept. 17 at the 2011 Colorado Springs Invitational. The video, posted to the U.S. Figure Skating YouTube account, was the second most-watched video on the channel only two days after posting it. (You can watch it here.)

Amy had gone over to watch Brandon practice at the Broadmoor Skating Club, his training base, the day before and said he was consistently nailing quad-triple combinations. Unfortunately, I couldn't make his second practice since it conflicted with a meeting, but the reports alone are encouraging enough to point to some potential rivalries this season on the men's side. Mroz's two Grand Prix assignments -- NHK Trophy and Rostelecom Cup -- are late in the season, so I guess I'll have to wait in anticipation with the rest of the skating world.

The foremost man in American men's skating right now, reigning Olympic champion Evan Lysacek, flew into Colorado Springs on Friday, not to compete but to accept the 2010 USOC SportsMan of the Year award.

The 2011 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Assembly awards dinner is what I had come into town for as well. My first time emceeing any event -- let alone one as prestigious as this -- was a bit nerve-wracking. I have become accustomed to getting my opening-night jitters out in Colorado Springs, as I did when it hosted three of the season-opening Skate Americas, but the awards dinner was different.

My job wasn't to try to do as many triples as possible, get the highest score or win the competition ... quite the opposite. The job of the emcee is to keep the evening running as smoothly as possible and do whatever you can to make the honorees shine. Luckily, this wasn't a hard job. The first award, the Jack Kelly Fair Play award, presented by BP, was given to 17-year-old high school junior Jenna Huff. Named to honor the late USOC president and four-time Olympic rower, the award annually recognizes an outstanding act of fair play and sportsmanship.

This past fall, Huff, then a high school sophomore, was trailing her closest competitor, a senior from a rival high school, during a regional cross country meet. As she came around the final turn, Huff saw her competitor faltering, seeming to be in a great deal of pain. Instead of passing her competitor and crossing the finish line first, Huff grabbed her arm and helped her competitor get through the last 50 yards of the race, pushing her one step ahead at the finish line.

The selfless gesture helped her rival's school team win the race and advance to the state meet. As photos of the race and Huff assisting her injured rival flashed on the screens adjacent to the podium, the room applauded. The 17-year-old North Carolinian charmed the audience with her acceptance speech -- and then completely forgot about her award and left it on the stage. Realizing she left the award on stage on my way back to the podium, I called her back. As she ran up to get it, she shared a laugh with the audience that captured the essence of how the Olympic spirit originated and foreshadowed the Olympic movement's underlying theme: strengthening the bonds of friendship through sports and fair play.

The next award, the Olympic Torch award, is presented annually to an individual in recognition of outstanding service to the U.S. Olympic movement. Recipient Christy Halbert is someone you will all hear a lot about in the next year. Dedicating her life to boxing, she has arguably been the most powerful voice in the movement to include women's boxing in the Olympics. Her hard work has paid off: the sport will make its debut next summer at the 2012 Olympic Summer Games. One of just six women to hold USA Boxing's highest coaching certification, she founded the Boxing Resource Center, a nonprofit that teaches Olympic-style boxing to kids and offers after-school tutoring in Nashville, Tenn.

I share these two award recipients and their stories with you because I want you to get a feel for the night and the diversity of the recipients. Lysacek was in esteemed company, and he did not disappoint.

The USOC started the SportsMan and SportsWoman of the Year award in 1974. Since then, only four female figure skaters have received the honor: Linda Fratianne, Tara Lipinski, Michelle Kwan and me. That may not seem like an impressive statistic, especially when you take into consideration that the award is given annually -- and has been over a 36-year period -- not just in Olympic years, but in the first 35 years of the award, only ONE male figure skater had been bestowed the honor: Scott Hamilton in 1981.

Until now. Until 2010. Until Evan.

Sitting at a table filled with U.S. Figure Skating executives there to support Evan and all his accomplishments over the past year, including Pat St. Peter, president of U.S. Figure Skating, and David Raith, executive director of U.S. Figure Skating, Evan rose to eloquently accept his award with an inspiring speech about the important role the Olympic movement plays in his life.

"Thanks, first of all," he said, "to the USOC for recognizing not just myself and my own accomplishments but also my sport, figure skating. This means a lot for my sport."

With a renewed dedication to training, Evan has been limiting his appearances over the past few months to prepare for the upcoming competitive season. His first assignment, Skate America, is less than a month away, and he will follow that up with Trophee Eric Bompard. Just a few miles from where Mroz has been doing all he can to prefect his quads, Evan spoke of his decision to re-enter the competitive ring after a year away from it.

"We know that Olympic moments happen even single day," he said about halfway through his speech. "As I tear myself from the ice each and every day, stumble my exhausted body into the locker room, I have a smile on my face. I take pride in knowing that no competitor of mine has outworked me. That I couldn't have pushed even a millimeter closer to my goal that day. That's my Olympic moment. Every single day."

As Evan's life and responsibilities to the sport changed, he has faced new challenges.

"I had to ask myself a question over this last year and a half: do I need that Olympic moment on the top of the podium again to feel fulfilled? And I realized the answer is no. I realized what I need is my Olympic moment every single day," Lysacek said. "Walking off the ice with pride. Knowing that I have pushed and worked toward something that means something to me."

And then it came. Officially.

"And for the first time, I'm announcing publicly," he said, "without trying to sound like I'm trying to make a grand statement of sorts, that I have set my sights on Sochi."

A grand statement couldn't be any grander. With his daily motivation to achieve personal excellence -- combined with a big announcement and bringing the figure skating community together to celebrate his honor -- Evan tied together the USOC's two main assembly focus points for this summit ("inspiration" and "community") in about 30 seconds less than it takes him to complete his free skate.

Let the season begin.

Additional Assembly Highlights

1936 Olympic champion in swimming, Adolf Kiefer, inventor of the modern racing suit, lane lines and current pool designs, electrified the room with stories about competing in front of Adolf Hilter in the 1936 Berlin Games.

"I'd like to tell you what has happened to me after that," he said after being denied his desire to push Hitler in the pool in 1936. "Number one, the good thing that happened to me was getting married. Married for 70 years to my wife...she came along," he said as everyone laughed.

"I'd like you to meet some of my children," he continued. "All of them athletes, all of them champions. Gold-medal winners in high school, champions in colleges and universities. Four children, 14 grandchildren, 13 great grandchildren, all of them swimmers. We had more children, but they couldn't swim."

At 93 years old, his love of swimming is stronger than ever. As he tells his kids, grandkids and anyone else in earshot: "Swim for health, swim for sport, just keep swimming."

Bob Costas delivered his trademark stellar keynote address at the awards dinner.

Also in attendance at the assembly:

  • Greg Louganis -- 1982 & 1987 USOC SportsMan of the Year, diving
  • Willie Banks -- 1985 USOC SportsMan of the Year, athletics
  • Janet Evans -- 1989 USOC SportsWoman of the Year, swimming
  • Apolo Anton Ohno -- Eight-time Olympic medalist, speed skating
  • Angela Ruggiero -- Four-time Olympic medalist, ice hockey

You can follow Sarah Hughes at www.twitter.com/SarahHughesNY and "like" her on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/SarahHughesNY.