U.S. Athletes Help Build Team For Tomorrow

By Doug Williams | Sept. 12, 2013, 12:42 p.m. (ET)
Keith Gabel competes in snowboard cross at the Winter Games NZ at Cardrona Alpine Resort on Aug. 18, 2011 in Wanaka, New Zealand.

Keith Gabel is riding his snowboard toward the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, but he’s discovered his board can take him other places, too.

By riding it, he’s getting a chance to help others.

When Gabel recently learned he will be one of 12 Olympic and Paralympic athlete ambassadors on the United States Olympic Committee’s Team for Tomorrow outreach program for 2013-14, he was thrilled.

“I’m really excited,” said Gabel, the world’s No. 3 ranked Paralympian in the men’s lower limb impairment class in standing snowboard cross. “It’s such an honor. Hopefully, I can use my snowboarding as a vehicle to help wherever I can. I think this is really big, and it’s cool I have this opportunity. The pleasure’s all mine.”

Each year, the USOC selects a team of athlete ambassadors for Team for Tomorrow who will work with a variety of youth-focused programs to spread the positive messages of Olympic and Paralympic ideals, living a healthy lifestyle and using sports to make a positive difference.

The Team for Tomorrow program was started in 2008, and since then 45 athletes have been selected as ambassadors. In addition to Gabel, the other athlete ambassadors for the 2014 Games are:

  • Marissa Castelli, pairs figure skating
  • Julia Clukey, luge
  • Brianna Decker, ice hockey
  • Billy Demong, Nordic combined
  • Meghan Duggan, ice hockey
  • Susan Dunklee, biathlon
  • Jazmine Fenlator, bobsled
  • Jimmy Joseph, wheelchair curling
  • Debbie McCormick, curling
  • Simon Shnapir, pairs figure skating
  • Jessica Smith, short track speedskating

Not only will each ambassador give his or her own time to meet with boys and girls at organizations such as the YMCA, but also the athletes will serve as captains of the Team for Tomorrow program, helping to educate other athletes and getting them involved as well, particularly after the Winter Games when they have more time to participate.

Athletes are selected because of their past experience doing community service work, or their desire to get more involved, said Lindsay Hogan, the USOC’s Director of Communications. Representatives from each of the national governing bodies for their sports can nominate athletes, or athletes can apply.

When Gabel received an email from the USOC asking if he would be interested, he enthusiastically said yes.

Gabel has worked with coaching young athletes in the past, and also has given his time to a non-profit group called Peach’s Neet Feet, a group that donates custom, hand-painted shoes to children fighting serious illness or with disabilities. But, he said, he would like to do more, and Team for Tomorrow will give him that chance.

Specifically, Gabel would like to spread the message about staying positive to achieve good things.

Eight years ago, Gabel’s left foot was crushed in an industrial accident, and eventually his left leg was amputated below the knee. Since that time, however, Gabel has had a terrific snowboarding career and stands a good chance of making the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team. In June, Gabel won an International Paralympic Committee World Cup event in Slovenia, and in 2012 he earned a silver medal at the world championships and an X Games gold medal.

He’s not yet certain where he’ll be doing his community outreach work with kids — perhaps in Colorado Springs or Winter Park, Colo., where he will be spending most of his pre-Paralympic training — but he’s eager for it.

“I would like to spread the word about not only the Paralympics, but also the power of positivity and perseverance,” Gabel said. “Me being a disabled athlete, that’s played a big role. My mantra has always been the power of positivity will always persevere. And you know, alongside that you’ve got to adapt and overcome. That works on both levels, not just on the adaptive side of things, but everyday life.”

Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir skate at NHK Trophy
Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir compete in the pairs short
program at the ISU World Team Trophy at Yoyogi National
Gymnasium on April 12, 2013 in Tokyo.

Shnapir and Castelli, who began skating together in 2006, won the 2013 U.S. pairs championship in January and are working toward making the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team in Sochi. But as focused as they are on Sochi, each was eager to be an ambassador.

“We put our names in and hoped for the best,” Castelli said.

When they learned they’d been selected, Shnapir said he and Castelli were very happy.

“I think we’re both excited to give back and looking forward to some of the opportunities this program will present for us,” Shnapir said.

In the past, they’ve done some work in the Boston area, where they train, in community fundraising shows for organizations such as The Jimmy Fund, which raises funds for adult and pediatric cancer care and research. But Castelli said this is an honor that will allow them to connect with kids about going after their dreams and working hard.

“Practice and never give up,” she said of what her message will be. “As far as for me, for figure skating, things are very demanding and it takes time, and if you don’t allow the time to grow and to learn, then you’ll never see success in sport or anything you’re doing, like in school.”

Added Shnapir: “It’s a great opportunity to show people what we’ve done and what others can do with hard work and determination.”

Hogan said a common message from athlete ambassadors to kids is “the Olympic values of friendship, excellence and respect, and teaching important life lessons through sport.”

She also said Team for Tomorrow gives athletes a chance to connect with young lives, something many Olympians and Paralympians are seeking.

“We’ve found our athletes are incredibly civic-minded,” Hogan said. “They’re looking for opportunities to give back, and many of them do amazing things outside of Team for Tomorrow. This is just the vehicle to bring the full team together and give everyone an opportunity as an Olympian or Paralympian, to give back to their communities.”

In 2012, the 10 athlete ambassadors gave approximately 40 hours each to the program. Then, after the Olympic and Paralympic Games last summer, 10 more U.S. athletes came aboard to work with the program in 20 communities in 13 states. Since its inception, approximately 150 athletes have donated more than 400 volunteer hours.

Dana Meinerth, sports and recreation specialist at the YMCA of the USA, said athletes with Team for Tomorrow have filled “dozens of our locations with hope and inspiration.”

“In 2012, we saw former YMCA kids return as Olympians and remind us that regardless of age, income or background, everyone has the opportunity to learn, grow and thrive,” she said. “We are thrilled to be teaming up with Team for Tomorrow again in 2013 and look forward to working with these incredible winter athletes to once again motivate our communities and inspire our members.”

Through the years, Hogan has some great memories of seeing athletes participate in the Team for Tomorrow program. She remembers going with some in 2010 around the Washington, D.C., area with First Lady Michelle Obama, and recalls how the kids’ faces looked when they had the chance to wear and hold Olympic medals. She also has seen how Paralympic athletes have been so open with boys and girls about their disabilities.

“Some athletes on school visits have actually taken off their prosthetic legs and let the kids look at them or hold them and touch them,” she said. “It’s this exposure to new things that open up eyes and understanding of the world.”

In addition, some athletes have worked on Habitat for Humanity projects, and she has seen families so grateful for their help.

“There’s really endless touching moments that come out of this program,” Hogan said.

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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