Joel Reichenberger: Who should count as “Steamboat” Olympians? | SteamboatToday.com

Joel Reichenberger: Who should count as “Steamboat” Olympians?

Bryan and Taylor Fletcher hold up the torch after lighting the Olympic flame in Steamboat Springs in 2014. The lighting of the flame was the finale of a sendoff event for athletes heading to Sochi, Russia for the Winter Olympics.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The final answer to the question I've been asked more than any other in the last six months is "15."

There will be 15 "Steamboat" athletes at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, but what exactly that means seems to be up for debate.

What is a Steamboat athlete? Do we as a community count the right people or is it just a race by the town — or various entities in the town — to run a number up as high as possible to win the "most Olympians" imaginary crown?

Who should count and who shouldn't?

For the record, the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club keeps the most precise tally of "Steamboat athletes," and the only real rule is having trained with the club.

Whether it's for six months or six years, they count the same.

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That rule eliminates some of the more famous faces of the town, including Billy Kidd, Steamboat's most famous Olympian who's not, by the rule, a "Steamboat Olympian."

At the other end, the rule includes athletes who spent little actual time in town, and a few who may not have spent any. If a veteran athlete hires the right coach, he or she makes the list no matter where "home" is.

In reality, it's hard to find any particular qualification that includes all the "right" athletes.

There was a tremendous outpouring of support when snowboard cross competitor Mick Dierdorff was named this week to the U.S. Olympic Team. Dierdorff learned to snowboard in Steamboat, learned to race in Steamboat, graduated high school in Steamboat and even played for the high school football team in Steamboat.

No one would argue with his "Steamboat" resume, yet he was born elsewhere and lives now in Park City, Utah.

In reality, every story is different and that makes it impossible to draw a line.

Bryan Fletcher checks many of the same boxes Dierdorff does, but was actually born in town. He hasn't lived full time in Steamboat for more than a decade, however, and graduated high school in Utah.

Jaelin Kauf was born elsewhere, learned to ski elsewhere, grew up elsewhere, but came to Steamboat when her family was looking for a place for her and her older brother to refine their moguls skills.

She attended all four years of high school in Steamboat and lived in town for a few years before making the U.S. Ski Team and moving to Park City.

Is six years and a high school diploma enough, or is Steamboat unfairly claiming Jaelin Kauf's success?

She had some thoughts.

"I definitely consider myself a Steamboat athlete. … Steamboat really changed me as an athlete and kind of made me the athlete I am," she said. "That’s why I’d consider myself a Steamboat athlete. Steamboat takes so much pride in having those athletes and building them up, and I take pride in being a Steamboat athlete, as well. It definitely influences young skiers."

The key elements for me are all in there.

There's no line to be drawn, no test to be taken. Steamboat's unique in its embrace of the Olympics and of Olympians, and that itself creates more Olympians.

Jaelin Kauf walks into Olympian Hall at the base of Howelsen Hill as a teenager and sees flags hanging from every inch of the ceiling representing people who stood where she was standing, dreamed what she dreaming and achieved it and it all seems a little more realistic.

Bryan Fletcher as a child skis and jumps next to Todd Lodwick and Johnny Spillane and all of the sudden competing on the World Cup and going to multiple Olympics isn't so insane, not when you can look over your shoulder and say, "Those guys did it."

Certainly no one from my hometown of Andale, Kansas ever decided they could be an Olympian in Nordic combined.

An athlete can train anywhere and can pay rent anywhere, but Steamboat offers a unique well of inspiration, and it's one many of the 15 have tapped.

We didn't track how long they lived in town, ask whether they know the best place for happy hour on a Tuesday or even survey all 15 for their thoughts on Steamboat, and we're not going to pretend.

Vic Wild is an Alpine snowboarder racer from Washington who now lives in and competes for Russia. He spent several years of his journey living and training in Steamboat Springs. We're not going to pretend you'll bump into him buying milk at the grocery store, but there's no question Steamboat played a part in his story.

It played a part in all 15 of these stories, a bigger part in some cases than in others, but a part nonetheless.

If you don't believe it, go to the 2018 Olympian Send Off from 4:30 to 6:45 p.m. Saturday at the base of Steamboat Ski Area and see for yourself.

It'll be cheesy, I promise, but it'll give you that buzz, too, that moment where you look around at a community gathered together, you see the athletes on the verge of realizing their dreams and you think for a second, "this is a very cool place."

Most of these athletes have or had other hometowns. Other newspapers write about them as "locals," as well they should. We're all a summation of our experiences, of the people we've known, the experiences we've had and the places we've lived. No matter where they call home, they've got a bit of Steamboat in them, and the town should be proud of that.

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9.