Kragthorpe: Utah’s Olympic impact keeps registering
Published: February 2, 2014 07:02PM
Updated: February 2, 2014 12:16AM
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Kurt Kragthorpe

Organizers of the 2002 Olympics were determined to create a lasting impact, building facilities that would remain functional long afterward.

Even so, their vision could not have included a wooden luge track in a small town in Connecticut.

The impact of Salt Lake City’s Olympics is clearly evident in the venues that remain in play for elite and recreational athletes alike. Yet the effects go even beyond the Utah Olympic Park, the speedskating Oval and Soldier Hollow.

The 2014 Games will serve as a Utah landmark, in this sense: The current generation of Olympic contestants is the last one that universally will remember 2002. By 2018, the U.S. team will include athletes who were toddlers in those days. They will have lived and trained in Utah, in many cases, and certainly will have heard the stories about Bode Miller and Sarah Hughes and the rest of the 2002 cast, but they won’t necessarily cite those Games as their inspiration.

Sochi is another story. Everybody involved in the upcoming competition from an American perspective has a deep connection to 2002. And there could be no bigger monument to Utah’s staging of the Olympics than the 750-foot facility that helped Tucker West become a 2014 Olympian.

The foresight and follow-through of the 2002 planners and the Utah Athletic Foundation are impressive, taking advantage of a $75 million endowment to keep the newly built venues. Yet the true legacy of those Games is about more than facilities, it is about how they inspired future Olympians.

Or, in one notable case, how a makeshift luge track came to be built in a backyard 2,200 miles from Salt Lake City.

Park City’s Ted Ligety was a forerunner — basically, a course tester — in the slalom as a 17-year-old skier in 2002. Four years later, he became a gold medalist.

Jessica Jerome and Lindsey Van filled similar roles in ski jumping, only hoping that women someday would be included at an Olympic level. Sarah Hendrickson was just 7 then, but she soon started jumping and now can take advantage of the successful drive to have women’s ski jumping added to the Olympic program.

Chris Fogt was a track and field competitor in Alpine who watched the 2002 bobsled event and eventually applied his running ability to become an Olympic push athlete.

They’re certainly not alone. Athletes in every sport, from multiple countries, can point to 2002 as the time it all started for them, the moment when Olympic pursuits began to drive and focus their life’s efforts. And that’s exactly when 6-year-old Tucker West and his father, Brett, started hammering nails in Ridgefield, Conn.

The story will only get better if West ever wins an Olympic medal. That’s unlikely to happen this month, considering he’s the youngest member of the U.S. luge team at 18 and is undistinguished internationally. Yet just getting him to this point is a tribute to the spirit and impact of 2002 Games. It’s one thing to have sustainable, practical venues remain useful and quite another to have the father of an inspiring luger build his own track.

Complete with lights, automatic icing spray and a public address system, the Wests’ facility was sufficient to help get Tucker started in the sport and eventually take him to a U.S. luge training center in Lake Placid, N.Y.

“All I did was what any dad would do — try to plant some seeds in their young children and throw some water on it,” Brett West told NPR.

Utah’s 2002 Olympics were responsible for creating, nurturing and growing all kinds of hopes and dreams. Every four years, that lasting impact is measured — and maybe never more so than this month in Sochi.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt