Olympians receive a hero's welcome

Event also serves as forum for Colorado Ski Heritage project

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— Wyatt Wilson, a young Winter Sports Club athlete just learning to jump off the K-18 ski jump, walked around the Howelsen Hill Lodge Wednesday night looking for Olympians. He was carrying a sheet of paper with colorful mug shots of all 16 Steamboat 2002 Olympians on it, most of which had autographs next to them. Wilson's dreams and his identity as a young Steamboat athlete are closely connected to those Olympians.

"It passes generation from generation," he said.

Looking again at the picture of the Olympians, he said: "It's probably once in a lifetime."

Thirteen of the 16 Olympians Steamboat sent to Salt Lake City this February showed up at the rodeo grounds Wednesday as the community welcomed them home. The Welcome Home Olympian Celebration took place just after the Nordic combined cross country race at the Chevy Truck U.S. National Championships.

As the sun set under dark clouds at the rodeo grounds, the Olympians looked out at the crowd of more than 100 people and thanked them for their support. The moment did not quite have the magnitude of the Olympic send-off Feb. 2, in which thousands gathered in the middle of Lincoln Avenue to witness the lighting of Steamboat's Olympic cauldron, but the evening was nonetheless special, athletes said.

"The support of the community is unbelievable here," said Ann Battelle, an Olympic freestyle moguls skier.

Bill Demong, who won the Nordic combined national championship Wednesday, talked about the send-off as an important moment in his Olympic experience.

"This town showed some heart with that send-off and with all the (Olympic volunteers) in the green jackets," Demong said.

Jed Hinkley, another Nordic combined skier, said seeing familiar faces at the Olympics reinforced to him just how strong local support is for the athletes.

"It's great to go to an event with 20,000 people, yet everywhere you look there's somebody from Steamboat," he said.

After the ceremony, the athletes went back to the Howelsen Hill Lodge to sign autographs. The Colorado Ski Heritage Project committee made a presentation about the project to put plastic on the ski jumps at Howelsen Hill and encouraged locals to make donations. The committee is awaiting word from the Department of Local Affairs on whether it will receive a grant from the state Energy Impact fund for $1.2 million for the jumps. Private donors have already pitched in about $400,000, said committee Chairman John Adams.

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