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Former Salt Lake Olympic boss takes pride in Utah's Sochi success

Published February 22, 2014 2:08 pm

Training center • Utahns prominent in U.S. medal rush because state built facilities, Tom Welch says.
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Seeing so many Utahns competing in and winning medals at the Sochi Winter Games gratifies Tom Welch, Salt Lake City's original Olympic troubadour.

He envisioned results like this back in the late 1980s, when his Salt Lake Bid Committee led the charge for Utah to become the country's winter-sports capital, a training center for young athletes competing on snow and ice.

"The people of Utah should feel a lot of pride about what we've done for the Olympic movement — and what the venues are today," said Welch, now 69 and president and chief executive of Maverik Inc. "I feel a great deal of satisfaction and appreciation."

He already was promoting Salt Lake City's Olympic ambitions when a dismal performance by U.S. athletes at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary prompted the late George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees and a U.S. Olympic Committee vice president, to conduct a study to determine why.

"The findings were that the U.S. would never become competitive if we didn't have a winter-training center for all of the sports," Welch said. "When we saw that, that became the center of our bid."

Nine months after Steinbrenner's report came out in February 1989, 57 percent of Utah voters supported a referendum to divert $59 million in sales tax revenue to build Olympic-sport training facilities (a speedskating oval, a bobsled/luge track and ski jumps) without knowing whether the International Olympic Committee would ever award the Games to Salt Lake City.

Fledgling facilities were built, then upgraded to world-class status after the IOC picked Utah's capital in 1995 to stage the 2002 Games. All are in constant use 12 years later, augmented by a major investment the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association made at its Park City training center.

"Salt Lake will always be the best Olympics because of the legacy left after the 2002 Games," Welch maintained. He pointed to the accomplishments of homegrown athletes, such as skeleton silver medalist Noelle Pikus-Pace and multiple-medal-winning bobsled driver Steve Holcomb, as well as transplants attracted by the training facilities, from 2010 Nordic combined gold medalist Bill Demong to 2014 Olympic champions Maddie Bowman and David Wise (both skiing halfpipe).

Another veteran of Utah's early Olympic experience, Howard Peterson, shares Welch's sense of achievement.

"Other cities had the chance to prove to us they could step up and fulfill the promises to become a training center. Salt Lake did it," said Peterson, at the time a U.S. Ski Team official with influence over the USOC's criteria for selecting a candidate city for the Winter Olympics.

Now the longtime general manager of the Soldier Hollow cross-country facility in Midway, Peterson said he sees every day how Utahns have embraced winter sports.

"Here at Soldier Hollow, there are several hundred youth who ski two to four days a week," he said, giving them a chance to rub shoulders with would-be Olympians in training.

"Any time you talk to an Olympian, they'll tell you of a day when they met someone or talked to some famous athlete, and for them, that was the spark," Peterson said. "Then, 15 years later, they're on the national team or an Olympic medalist. That's how it works."

Welch is confident the trend will continue.

"There's enough usage that the venues will be maintained," he said. "Our grandchildren will be our future Olympic athletes — and they'll be using these venues."

mikeg@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sltribmikeg