|Bree Schaaf and Emily Azevedo compete in heat two of the
women's bobsled competition at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter
Games on Feb. 23, 2010 at the Whistler Sliding Centre.
|Bree Schaaf and Emily Azevedo celebrate after the final run of the
women's bobsled at the FIBT World Championships on Feb. 19, 2011
in Koenigssee, Germany.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Wearing an Olympic medal around your neck is something few people get to experience.
A handful of kids from the Boys & Girls Club’s E.A. Tutt branch in Colorado Springs recently had that opportunity last week.
Emily Azevedo, a member of the 2010 U.S. Olympic bobsled team, a strong contender for the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team that will compete in Sochi and longtime Boys & Girls Club volunteer, took time out of her busy training schedule to host 16 children at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
The hope, Azevedo said, was to allow the kids to experience what it means to be an Olympic athlete and “to show them what my day job is."
Azevedo is involved with a program called In the Arena, which works to pair elite athletes with youths in underserved communities.
“I chose to work with the Boys & Girls Club because I felt like it was a good way to take a step back from my training and myself and get involved in a community that has given so much to me during the six years I’ve lived here,” Azevedo said.
Azevedo recently spearheaded a pen-pal initiative at the Boys & Girls Club that paired kids with Olympic and Paralympic athletes. During the five-week program, the kids exchanged letters with resident athletes from the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Fifteen athletes participated in the program, writing letters each week and answering the children’s questions.
Friday marked the first time the children met their pen pals in person. After a tour of the facility, the group bonded over lunch in the athlete dining hall.
“My original idea was just to get athletes more involved, and to make a personal connection,” Azevedo said. “I thought it would just be a cool, fun thing for the kids to interact with the athletes. It just turned out to be so much more."
Earlier this year, Azevedo emailed numerous athletes she knew at the OTC, asking if they would be interested in participating in the pen-pal program.
The response was overwhelming.
“At first, I just got a couple of responses,” Azevedo said, “but it really took off from there."
The program was initially intended to be a learning exercise for the kids, helping them learn how to write letters in different formats.
“We wanted them to learn how to write a business letter, a friendly letter and a thank you note,” Azevedo said. “The athlete was supposed to answer the letter in the same format. It was intended to be like a learning exercise for a class in school."
Azevedo didn’t expect that the program would transform into something much more personal and important for the kids and the athletes as well.
“It really blossomed from there,” Azevedo said. “After the athletes received their first letter, and then sent a letter back, the whole thing sort of took a different turn than what I had expected."
Friendships started to form between the athletes and the kids, both of whom were inspired.
“One week we asked them to write a letter talking about what they (the kids) wanted to be in life, and what their goals were,” Azevedo said. “It was supposed to be just ‘get to know you’ stuff, but the kids really opened up and a couple of the letters were really quite touching."
|Boys & Girls Club member Michael's letter to Paralympic swimmer
Anna Johannes about his goals
Michael, a Boys & Girls Club member and participant in the program, was thrilled at the opportunity meet his pen pal, Paralympic swimmer Anna Johannes.
“I’m so excited and happy,” Michael said. “She’s really cool, and I feel so honored to get to meet her today. I think I’ve got the best pen pal of all."
Johannes earned a bronze medal in the 4x100 medley at the London 2012 Paralympic Games — a medal that Michael got to try on for size.
“I got to wear her medal and get my picture taken with her,” Michael said. “That was the highlight of my summer."
Even though she spearheaded the program, Azevedo doesn’t yet have a pen pal of her own.
“I’m going on (competitive) tour in the fall,” Azevedo said. “I’m going to try to start and maintain a pen-pal relationship during the competitive season and see if that’s a realistic possibility for other athletes as well.
“It can be tough on tour when you’re wrapped up in the competitive world. I’m hoping that having a pen pal during the competitive season would give the athlete an outlet and a connection that reinforces the notion that there’s more to the world than what we’re doing competitively."
A University of California, Davis, graduate who hails from Chico, Calif., Azevedo is interested in expanding the program to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif.
“I’m hoping that the athletes there are just as inspired by the program as we were,” Azevedo said. “It would be great to have athletes at the other training facilities getting involved with the kids and giving back to their community."
Azevedo hopes that the impact of the program will extend far beyond the pen-pal initiative.
“When you’re competing at this level, you truly are role models for these kids,” Azevedo said. “Hopefully our influence will make a difference and have some sort of positive impact in their lives.
“We want to show them that, with determination, you can do, and be, whatever you want.”