John Russell's sports column appears Sundays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com.
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Look in the shadows of our town’s rich legacy of producing top Olympic athletes and you will find that the tradition reaches beyond the ski slopes.
Longtime Steamboat Springs resident Mike Smith understands the legacy.
Smith, owner of Excel Gymnastics, hopes to inspire the same passion for the Olympics into a new group of athletes. But he isn’t looking for young men and women who will compete in the Winter Games. No, he’s hoping they’ll tumble their way into the Summer Games.
Building that summer tradition in Ski Town USA is no easy task. Truth is, producing elite-level gymnasts is a challenge no matter where you are.
“It’s tough, Smith says. “But then, it’s tough to make any Olympic team.”
But if you stop by Smith’s gym in the middle of the week, you will find dozens of young athletes training for their chance. Thanks to Smith and his gym, these athletes can continue to build the foundation for their sport’s spot in the Yampa Valley.
Who knows what Steamboat’s gymnastic legacy will be. But that is what Smith and the athletes at Excel are attempting to discover.
“Steamboat is a very athletic-minded community,” Smith said. “I think most parents and athletes have realistic expectations, but we want to be ready if that athlete walks through the door. We want them to have an opportunity to make it to an elite level.”
Smith’s programs and facilities offer a starting point for the gymnasts, and his passion for the sport fuels their drive.
This weekend, Excel Gymnastics provided a group of top-notch athletes with a stage during a Junior Olympic competition that drew 10 teams and more than 100 athletes to our town.
The athletes at the meet will have to share the spotlight. The sports calendar in Steamboat is packed with prep sports, Alpine and Nordic skiing and snowboarding. For some of us, the idea of our town hosting a gymnastics meet might seem a little out of place, but for these athletes, the walls of the gym represent home.
“Not every athlete in Steamboat Springs wants to go out in the cold every winter and be a skier,” Smith said. “This is an alternative for those athletes. But it’s also a great sport for any athlete. The skills an athlete learns in gymnastics can make them a better skier or a better snowboarder.”
Hidden in Steamboat’s list of former Olympians are a few warm weather exceptions. Athletes such as kayaker Rich Weiss, who competed at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, and the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta; and rower Anne Kakela, who competed at the 1996 Olympics. Sven Wiik represented his native Sweden at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, as a gymnast. Gymnastics was included as a demonstration sport that year.
Smith hopes that a few years from now, there will be a few more summer exceptions to add to Steamboat’s Olympic heritage.