By Brandon Penny | Aug. 28, 2014, 8:01 a.m. (ET)
U.S. Youth Olympic weightlifter Deirdre Lenzsch participates in the Culture and Education Program's healthy cooking workshop at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China.

NANJING, China – Athletes who competed at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, are leaving with more than just an understanding of healthy competition. They are leaving with a healthy respect for other cultures, a healthy knowledge of Nanjing history and, perhaps most importantly, a healthy amount of tips and tricks for healthy cooking.

The roughly 3,800 athletes from more than 200 nations who took part in the Games this month gained those skills and more through the Culture and Education Program, a key component of the Youth Olympic Games that sets them apart from any other Games.

The CEP, which began at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010, aims to provide athletes with “the opportunity to learn about the Olympic values, explore other cultures and develop the skills to become true ambassadors of their sport,” according to the Nanjing 2014 website. The CEP in Nanjing was based around five main themes: Olympism, social responsibility, skills development, expression, and well-being and healthy lifestyles.

"Participating in the Youth Olympic Games is not simply about sport and performance,” said IOC President Thomas Bach. “It is also about meeting people of other cultures and backgrounds, learning about important skills in an athlete’s career and about experiencing the Olympic values."

Young Ambassadors from 104 nations were responsible for promoting the CEP and encouraging athletes to take part in the activities. USA Triathlon NCAA and Collegiate Coordinator Jessica Luscinski served as Team USA’s Young Ambassador in Nanjing.

“The Culture and Education Program is so important for Team USA because, especially coming from the U.S., we aren’t exposed to other countries as much as the rest of the world is because of our geographic location,” Luscinski said.

“To get our athletes engaging with other countries and learning life skills like time management and safe sport, as well as the importance of anti-doping, anti-betting and anti-gambling, has given them a cultural education that is unparalleled to any other situation that they might be exposed to at this age.”

The Nanjing Games featured more than 200 CEP activities. A few activities took athletes outside of the Youth Olympic Village into a Nanjing forest for a team-building scavenger hunt or atop the City Wall of Nanjing to fly kites and create Chinese inscriptions. On-site activities in the village included a healthy cooking workshop, “Chat with Champions” sessions featuring Olympic medalists, music for stress relief and media training.

Meanwhile, a constant highlight at the village was the cultural booths, where athletes learned about and interacted with customs from all nations represented at the Games. While the cultural booth of China was a mainstay through the 13 days of the Games, the majority of the booths changed over four successive time periods, representing different continents: Europe (49 booths), Africa (52), Americas/Oceania (59) and Asia (43).

“It’s an incredible experience for our athletes to get out of their comfort zone, to have them hearing multiple languages, seeing multiple customs, and for people seeing the way we do things,” Luscinski said. “I think the CEP teaches athletes to put themselves out there. I have loved seeing Team USA athletes push themselves and be friends with kids from other teams and learn different words or try new foods. That’s so important because they’re athletes and they know how to compete and they know how to train, but we’re also trying to teach them how to be ambassadors of sport and that’s what this program helps them do off the field.”

As the Youth Olympic Games have developed, so has the CEP. For the first time, a record 70 percent of the activities took place in the village this year, allowing athletes easier access to taking part in the program both during and after their competition days.

Team USA took full advantage of both the on- and off-site portions of the CEP, with the 92-member delegation participating in more than 2,500 CEP activities over the course of two weeks.

“Our athletes have been awesome in regards to emerging themselves in the CEP activities,” Luscinski said. “It’s fun to see them taking the initiative and signing up for the different programs. As a result, you’ll start to see in the dining hall eating with other teams and talking to other teams around the village. They’re learning a lot and their eyes are being opened to what it means to be an Olympian off the field and how to represent your country and yourself.”

Luscinski said that the most popular CEPs included the three off-site programs, which almost every member of Team USA participated in, and the healthy cooking workshop. The workshop was filled to capacity at each of the twice daily sessions, with some athletes attending as many as four times.

“They’ll come to me and say, ‘Jess, I cooked salmon today,’ or, ‘Today was curry,’ or, ‘I made frozen yogurt,’” Luscinski recounted. “The healthy cooking program teaches athletes the value of sports nutrition, which is an essential component to competing at this level, and they walk away with basic and simple recipes they can make at home.”

While Team USA athletes are leaving Nanjing with new recipes, open eyes and several CEP prizes — and perhaps a medal or two — they are also leaving with 91 new friends who they cheered their hearts out for during the 13 days.

“When athletes are done competing they’re participating in the CEPs, but they’re also going out and supporting the other U.S. athletes,” Luscinski said. “You’ll see rugby players out and about doing all the CEPs, but you’ll see them at a different sport venue each day. They’re balancing it well, which is a life skill they need to develop. To have these young individuals developing these skills with as much professionalism and maturity as they have been is just outstanding.”