For Utah’s Pyeongchang Olympians, 2002 lit their fire within

Sixteen years later, Salt Lake City’s Winter Games have been a catalyst for a new generation of Utah athletes<br>

(Courtesy Photo) Jerica Tandiman watching the Olympic torch relay in Kearns.

From her home in Kearns, a young Jerica Tandiman could look out and see the Olympic skating oval. When the Olympic torch passed through her neighborhood, she went to the local high school to get a glimpse of it. When the Games started, the field next to her home filled with cars, a temporary parking lot, for spectators from around the globe.

And when the world had come and gone from Salt Lake City, Tandiman finally went inside the venue for the first time, changing the course of her young life.

“I fell in love with the ice,” she said.

(Courtesy Photo) Jerica Tandiman, center, skates at the Olympic Oval in Kearns.

So 16 years later, Tandiman will walk through Olympic Stadium when the torch is lit in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Friday. For the speedskater and a number of other members of Team USA — including 13 athletes from Utah — it will be the realization of a dream that was sparked in Salt Lake City.

From the skating oval to the slopes to the ski jumps, Utah’s impact on this month’s Winter Olympics is undeniable. More than 1,000 athletes from all over the world come here to train and compete every year. And for a handful of them, they wouldn’t be competing in South Korea if not for childhood experiences they had back in 2002.

“That’s when I fell in love with ski jumping,” said Sarah Hendrickson, the Park City native who four years ago in Sochi, Russia, became the first woman to ever jump in an Olympic Games. “I thought it was so unique, so cool and something technical that I wanted to be a part of. I’m basically a result of the 2002 Olympic legacy that Park City and Salt Lake has continued to develop in younger athletes.”

As organizers in Salt Lake gear up for another potential Olympic bid, this time with their sights set on 2030, they will point to the venues built for 2002 and which are still used today — for competition and recreation alike — as proof that the state’s first foray into the Games was a success.

A small group of officials from the Salt Lake Olympic Exploratory Committee will be in Pyeongchang this month, meeting with international leaders, and continuing to make their case for a future bid — something they have done since the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy.

“It’s being ahead of the curve and meeting with people,” said Jeff Robbins, head of the Utah Sports Commission. “It’s reinforcing our message that we’re ready, willing and able [to host the Games again], and educating people.”

For the next three weeks, however, all eyes will be on the athletes in Pyeongchang.

“We do like to celebrate this group,” said Colin Hilton, president of the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation. “… This is encouraging, and it’s reflective of the fact that we are going to find those gems in our community who will go on to represent us and do great things in the next Games. That will be the fun thing, to see some of these athletes that we know will compete [and] feeling validated about executing on a vision that Utah had in the early ’90s.”

In his binder, Hilton keeps a list of the athletes, homegrown Utahns and transplants, who train full-time at the facilities built for the 2002 Games. The number is in excess of 50.

Park City’s Madison Olsen isn’t sure why her family got tickets to watch the aerial skiers compete when she was just 7 years old. “I think they all wanted to see some sweet jumps, I guess,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t know. Random. Coincidence.” But now they will be watching the 22-year-old Olsen compete in that very event this week as the Games open in South Korea.

(photo courtesy Alice Chen) A young Nathan Chen, seen here at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex, skates with his sister, Alice, and older brother Colin.

Salt Lake’s Nathan Chen, a medal favorite in figure skating in Pyeongchang, was 3 when his two older sisters participated in the Opening Ceremony at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Later, he made his mother promise she’d take him to the Salt Lake City Sports Complex to learn to skate himself.

“It’s cool. I think having the Olympics in a relatively small town helped people realize that the Olympic dream is something that they can attain, and it’s cool that a lot of athletes have been born from that, and I hope that continues on in the future,” Chen said.

He added, “It’s been a really fun journey since 2002, since I’ve started. This is definitely where I wanted to be. This is all that I dreamed of, and I’m really happy I took all the right steps, I put in the work to get myself where I am now. And it’s all happening so fast. It just seems like I first stepped on the ice” after the Salt Lake Olympics.

Growing up in Park City, slopestyle skier McRae Williams spent a lot of time learning new tricks at the jumping pool at the Utah Olympic Park. There, he met and befriended an aerialist, Jeret “Speedy” Peterson. The Olympian gave the boy two tickets to the qualifying and final aerial events.

“I was able to go and watch first-hand,” Williams recounted. “It was kind of a little omen in itself, some foreshadowing of what’s to come even though I didn’t understand it at the time.”