|Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski attend the Oscars held at Hollywood
& Highland Center on March 2, 2014 in Hollywood, Calif.
NEW YORK -- New York’s Times Square is 5,300 miles away from Sochi, Russia, but Team USA flags waved and cheers rang out at Manhattan’s Aspen Club as alpine skier Jon Lujan carried the U.S. flag into the 2014 Paralympic Opening Ceremony.
The rustic hideaway tucked in the heart of New York’s Theater District was a cozy setting for sponsors, donors and members of the U.S. Paralympics community as they gathered around big-screen TVs to watch NBC’s live broadcast from Fisht Olympic Stadium.
“It’s time to turn our attention and support to the inspiring 80-person strong U.S. Paralympic Team,” Lisa Baird, chief marketing officer for the United States Olympic Committee, said in her welcome. “You’ll see some of the most inspirational athletic performances you will ever see.”
As they watched, party co-hosts Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, fresh from their star-making turns as NBC’s knowledgeable and fabulous figure skating commentators, thought back to their own opening ceremonies.
Lipinski, who won ladies’ figure skating gold at age 15 at the 1998 Nagano Games, remembers marching into the stadium as a “surreal” moment.
“You’ve trained for it for so long and now it’s all actually happening,” she said. “After all of that hard work, you’re coming in with your teammates, representing your country.”
“These are all elite competitors,” Lipinski continued. “Yes, they face some special challenges and obstacles, but this is also a moment to celebrate what incredible pure athletes they are.”
Weir, a three-time U.S. champion, represented the U.S. in the 2006 Torino Games and the 2010 Vancouver Games.
“There is nothing like having your nation called,” Weir said. “Following under your flag and hearing the cheer from the audience is magical. It gives me goose bumps when I think about it still. It’s the greatest feeling of accomplishment.”
Over nine days, athletes from 45 nations will show their competitive mettle in five sports: alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, sled hockey and wheelchair curling. Every moment of the action — and estimated 149 hours — will be streamed live on TeamUSA.org, with NBC and NBC Sports Network combining to air 50 hours on television. It is more coverage than any previous Games, summer or winter, in history.
Baird called the coverage a watershed for the Paralympic Movement.
“This has been made possible through the generous underwriting of six sponsors: BMW, BP, Citi, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Procter & Gamble and The Hartford,” she said. “They have helped these athletes achieve their competitive excellence and, in doing so, helped them to inspire all Americans.”
According to Mitch Poll, the USOC’s managing director for partnership marketing, the unprecedented coverage is the culmination of a years-long process for the USOC’s business team that intensified after the 2012 London Paralympic Games.
“Some of our sponsors saw the tremendous coverage in the U.K. of the Games, and they came back and said, ‘We want to be a part of that in the U.S.,’” Poll said.
“For all of our Team USA athletes, Olympic and Paralympic, their journeys are what attract people,” he continued. “Every single one has a story that is profound and moving, and the more we can share those with people, the more they will understand why the athletes are so special.”
Viewers will meet many of the 80 U.S. Paralympians over the upcoming days. Here are just a few storylines to follow:
Alana Nichols, a wheelchair basketball player and alpine skier, is the first U.S. woman to own Paralympic gold medals in both the summer and winter Games. In Vancouver 2010 she won four medals, including golds in downhill and the giant slalom. She hopes to duplicate the feat in Sochi.
Retired Army staff sergeant Rico Roman lost a leg after his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb and took up sled hockey while rehabbing at San Antonio's Brooke Army Medical Center. He and his teammates are aiming to become the first nation to defend Paralympic sled hockey gold.
Golden girl Tatyana McFadden, a 10-time summer Games medalist in track & field, builds on her feat of winning the four major marathons – London, New York, Boston and Chicago – by competing in three Nordic skiing competitions in Sochi. Her exploits have earned her the nickname “The Beast.”
Flag bearer Lujan, who served in the Marine Corps for more than eight years, makes his Paralympic debut. A four-time national champion, he injured his back during a mission in Iraq in 2003. Surgery damaged his spinal cord, leaving him with nerve damage and paralysis in his legs.
Double amputee Amy Purdy will contend for a medal in the inaugural snowboard cross competition next Friday. A few days later, she competes with pro dancing partner Derek Hough in the season debut of Dancing with the Stars.
TD Ameritrade’s involvement in the Paralympic Movement began when Dedra DeLilli, director of corporate sponsorships and social media marketing, spearheaded sponsorship for visually impaired alpine skier Danelle Umstead, who competes in Sochi with her husband, Rob, as her sighted guide. Umstead won two bronze medals in Vancouver.
“We’re using social media to tell her story and support her throughout her journey, hopefully to the podium,” DeLilli said. “It’s wonderful for all of America to see Danelle and Rob work as a team; it inspires all of us, and it’s a great opportunity for families to get together and cheer on these athletes.”
With such extensive coverage of the 2014 Paralympics, the USOC business team predicts even more corporate support in the months and years ahead.
“After this broadcast package, brands will realize the power of helping to tell these athletes’ stories to a variety of audiences,” said Dave Mingey, President of GlideScope, a consulting group that works with several of the Paralympic sponsors.
“Post-Sochi, I think we will find the brands will help fund and grow the Paralympic Movement to an even greater degree. The more exposure we can get for these incredible elite athletes, the more sponsorship we will attract.”
The Opening Ceremony, titled “Breaking the Ice,” centered on the Paralympics’ ideal of breaking down barriers. Like the Olympic Opening Ceremony last month, it celebrated Russian history with ballet, music and historical tableaux. Most of all, it highlighted the triumph of the human spirit.
Weir, the two-time Olympian, thinks he knows a bit about what the athletes felt as the spectacular display of fireworks swirled around them.
“Of course you have your individual goals, but if your dream is to go to the Olympics, that Opening Ceremony is when it becomes real,” Weir said. “You just have this amazing feeling of weight lifting off of you, and knowing you did it. After the years of blood, sweat and tears, it’s the moment.”