John F. Russell: Olympics more than just a phase

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On Friday, Annie Kakela sat on her couch in Corvallis, Ore., watching the opening ceremonies for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games on television.

It wasn't long ago that Kakela was chasing her own Olympic dreams at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta as a member of the eight-person rowing team.

These days, she is thousands of miles away from the Olympic stadiums of Athens, Greece, yet she feels somehow connected to the festivities that are taking place on the other side of the world.

Like so many athletes who grew up in Steamboat Springs, Kakela is a part of the Olympic heritage. It's a select group of elite athletes who have had a taste of the Olympics -- a taste that will last the rest of their lives.

In the eight years since Atlanta, Kakela has moved on with her life. She's now married, and she pursued a career in the corporate world before returning to her roots as an assistant rowing coach for Oregon State.

Kakela didn't win a medal in Atlanta. She said her team's performance at the games was a disappointment.

But she ranks the experience as one of the top five things she has done in her life. Her entire rowing experience ranks even higher.

She said the games gave her a confidence that still affects her life. Like the large majority of Olympians, she lives in anonymity. Nobody stops her for autographs, and she has no problems going to the mall or the post office.

But as the athletes in Athens paraded into the stadium for the opening of the Olympic games, Kakela felt chills.

During the next two weeks, there will be plenty of fireworks, expectations and disappointments on the playing field. That's why we all sit down once every four years to watch.

A few athletes will be elevated to national heroes and enjoy a life of fame and wealth. But far more will leave the games with little more than their memories.

Don't feel sorry for them.

For a few brief moments they danced in the best that sports has to offer and accomplished things most of us only dream of.

Years from now, after they've retired from competition, they will live with the knowledge that they are a part of one of the longest legacies our world has ever known. They will always be Olympians.

Note -- Kakela is one of four summer Olympians who were born here or have called Steamboat Springs home.

Sven Wiik competed in gymnastics in 1948 when it was still a demonstration sport.

Rich Weiss represented his country as a member of the U.S. whitewater team in Spain in 1992 and in Atlanta in 1996. Sadly, he died at 33 in a kayaking accident on the White Salmon River in Washington State.

Kakela's husband, Fred Honebein, also lived in Steamboat Sprins briefly after competing in the 1996 Olympic Games.

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