Send-off honors Olympic athletes

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— The Steamboat Ski area has coined a phrase: "When athletes gather in Italy, it's called the Winter Games. When they gather in Steamboat, it's called Tuesday."

In reality, any day of the week applies, because Steamboat Springs has ties to 56 Winter Olympians who have made 95 Winter Olympics appearances --nd counting.

Every four years, the Winter Olympics send a collective chill through the community's spine as residents watch family members, friends and neighbors make history on an international stage.

Four years ago, 5,000 people gathered for an Olympic send-off party in Steamboat. The community's support resonates with its athletes.

"There is a reason why Steam--boat has so many Olympians, and it's not because we have exceptional athletes or anything else," said Johnny Spillane, a 2002 Nordic combined Olympian and 2006 Olympic hopeful. "It's because we have an entire town working hard toward the same goal."

This year's Olympian Cele--bration and Send-off will pay tribute to Steamboat's Olympic heritage. It will begin at about 8:30 p.m. Friday at Brent Romick Rodeo Arena in downtown Steamboat. It will include a presentation of past and present Olympians, a fireworks display and the lighting of Steamboat's 15-foot caldron.

The send-off will conclude with a Hootie and the Blowfish concert at the rodeo grounds. The entire event is free. Parking is limited, so people are encouraged to take public transportation or carpool.

Rick DeVos, executive director of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, said Friday's send-off is special to homegrown Olympians, such as Spillane, and to those Olympic hopefuls who just recently began to call Steamboat home, such as snowboarder Tyler Jewell.

"For anybody who has moved to this community at any point in their lives, they are blown away that a community this size has an excitement level surrounding a high-level winter event like this," he said. "This reinforces why they love Steamboat."

Four years ago, the Olympic Celebration and Send-off closed Lincoln Avenue. This year, the ceremony is near Howelsen Hill, appropriate because the downtown mountain is where Olympic dreams have been and continue to be born.

Just hours before Friday's send-off, the country's best freestyle skiers will compete for four Olympic spots. One mogul skier and one aerialist, male and female, will head to Turin, Italy, for the 2006 Winter Olympics in February. For them, Friday's Olympic send-off will mean something special.

"These athletes have worked so hard to even be poised to be where they are now," DeVos said. "This is their life and passion. I'm excited for them personally. For some of them, their dreams will come true."

-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley, call 871-4208 or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com

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