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The Power Of Sport Shines At U.S. Olympic And Paralympic Assembly

By Brandon Penny | Sept. 27, 2014, 9:07 a.m. (ET)

Olympians and Paralympians in attendance at the 2014 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Assembly awards dinner pose for a group photo on Sept. 26, 2014 in Chicago.

Amy Van Dyken-Rouen gives the keynote speech at the 2014 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Assembly awards dinner on Sept. 26, 2014 in Chicago.

CHICAGO -- Amy Van Dyken-Rouen understands the power of sport.

The power of sport changed the swimmer’s life when it propelled her to six Olympic gold medals at the 1996 and 2000 Games.

Fourteen years later, the power of sport changed her life again, but in ways she could never have imagined. After an ATV accident, Van Dyken-Rouen woke up in a hospital and found herself paralyzed. She had a concussion, four broken ribs, four broken vertebrae and two dislocated vertebrae.

“The power of sport is why I am here today to talk to you,” Van Dyken-Rouen said at the 2014 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Assembly awards dinner Friday night in Chicago. “Without being strong mentally and physically, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Tapping into that power of sport, she fought her way through eight hours of rehab each day to return home from the hospital earlier this month.

“People who were there with me had no idea what they were doing and I kept telling them, ‘This is how we used to train,’” she said in her keynote speech. “Except this time I wasn’t there to train for a gold medal for my country. I was training for my life and to be able to be here."

There was perhaps no better keynote speaker for this year’s assembly, themed “Power of Sport.”

Van Dyken-Rouen spoke to a crowd of roughly 300 members of the Olympic family — the largest event she has been part of since the accident — many of whom are Olympians or Paralympians.

After explaining how the power of sport has impacted her life, Van Dyken-Rouen quoted actor Christopher Reeve, saying, “‘A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure despite overwhelming obstacles.’ Every single Olympian and Paralympian is a hero. Every single one of them has obstacles they have to overcome to do what they do. … Thank you to the Olympians and Paralympians for being the heroes you are and continue to be.”

Willie Banks gives his acceptance speech after receiving the Olympic Torch award at the 2014 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Assembly awards dinner on Sept. 26, 2014 in Chicago.

One of the heroes in the room was Willie Banks, who received the Olympic Torch award Friday for his positive impact on the Olympic Movement. Banks is considered one of the greatest triple jumpers the U.S. has produced, competing at three Olympic Games in the 1980s and 18 international competitions total.

“When they told me about the award, I was shaking to the core because you don’t expect these kinds of things — especially somebody like me because I wasn’t a huge star,” Banks said. “To be recognized for the amount of time I spent away from my family and the long times in hotels and airports, it’s a great feeling.”

His athletic accomplishments include setting the world record in 1985 and holding it for a decade. He is also well-known for popularizing the triple jump by encouraging the crowd to clap as he prepared for his run-up, a tradition that Friday’s crowd acknowledged by beginning that rhythmic clap during the presentation of Banks’ award. The 58-year-old was quick to humor his audience by hopping up from his seat and taking three jumps in front of the stage.

It’s Banks’ accomplishments off the field of play, though, that are most impressive. He served 11 years with the U.S. Olympians and Paralympians Association as both president and vice president. He continues to serve on the USOPA board of directors and is also a member of the Olympians for Olympians Relief Fund. Banks is a member of the USA Track & Field board of directors and a founding member of the foundation board. He formerly served as vice president of The Athletics Congress, chairman of the Athletes Advisory Committee and was president of the USATF Alumni Association.

And his work is nowhere near finished.

“I want to make it bigger,” Banks said when asked about his future goals for the Olympic Movement. “I want people to consider the Olympic Movement to be the pinnacle of sport, to be the center of the universe of sports, to have the Olympic flame shine brighter.”

Joining her fellow Olympian as an honoree was Kristi Yamaguchi.

The 1992 Olympic figure skating champion was selected as the Rings of Gold individual recipient, primarily for her work in early childhood literacy development.

“Coming from the U.S. Olympic Committee this award means so much because I know the USOC’s ideals and its standards, and to have that recognition is humbling. It also reinforces the work that we do for Always Dream,” Yamaguchi said via telephone. She was unable to make it to the dinner due to the aftermath of a fire at an Illinois air traffic control center Friday morning.

Yamaguchi founded the Always Dream Foundation in 1996 after working with the Make-A-Wish Foundation during a figure skating tour and seeing the impact she could have with children. The program has impacted more than 1,200 students and their families in underserved classrooms in California, and is now expanding into Arizona and Hawaii.

She also remains very involved in the figure skating world, having created the Always Strive scholarship, awarded annually to an individual or pairs team that reflects the dedication, potential and character of an Olympic hopeful.

“Now I consider myself a fan of the sport,” Yamaguchi said. “Obviously I lived it, but stepping back and watching the new generation I’m just a fan of what they’re doing. I always like to make myself available to any of them if they have any questions or are looking for something I can offer from past experiences. It’s fun to see them and get to know the skaters on a more personal level. I think a lot of us Olympians understand what each other is going through, so if you can lend any sort of advice it’s always fun.”

The Rings of Gold program award went to the University of Central Oklahoma Endeavor Games. UCO has served as a Paralympic Training Site since 2005 and Olympic Training Site since 2009, offering programs in archery, powerlifting, sitting volleyball and track and field.

Founded in 2000, the Endeavor Games is the largest multi-sport and multi-disability event in the United States. The 15th edition of the Games, held in 2014, attracted more than 300 competitors from nearly 40 states in archery, cycling, paracanoe, paratriathlon, powerlifting, shooting, sitting volleyball, swimming, table tennis, track and field, and wheelchair basketball.

In her thank-you speech for the award, Katrina Shaklee, executive director of wellness center at UCO, noted the impact Endeavor Games has on a variety of athletes, saying, “From the parent who said it was wonderful for his daughter to meet others like her to Jeremy Campbell, the athlete who showed up to see what Endeavor Games was all about and went on to become a three-time Paralympic champion.”

Lucas Euser (left) and Taylor Phinney pose for a photo after the 2014 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Assembly awards dinner on Sept. 26, 2014 in Chicago.

The final award winner was new to the Olympic family, but seemed to fit right in.

Lucas Euser received the Jack Kelly Fair Play award presented by BP for his selfless decision to assist his friend, two-time Olympian Taylor Phinney. Phinney was leading Euser on the first descent at the 2014 U.S. National Road Cycling Championships. As the duo prepared to make a left-hand turn, a race official on a motorcycle crossed the road in an attempt to create a clean line for the riders, but Phinney and Euser were too fast.

Forced to take immediate action to avoid the oncoming official, Euser and Phinney lost control of their bicycles and crashed. Euser managed to take an outside line and lay his bike down before crashing into a cement barrier. He walked away relatively unscathed and turned his attention toward Phinney, who lay underneath a guard rail on the opposite side of the road.

Euser abandoned the race and attempted to comfort Phinney until medical assistance arrived.

“It wasn’t an active decision for me; it was just a reaction,” Euser said. “And I think that’s something I’m most proud of is that my whole life I’ve trained myself to act that way. In times of crisis and in times of traumatic events, that’s the way I choose to act and that’s what I’m most proud of.”

Euser’s act embodied the Olympic values of excellence, friendship and respect, and it is no surprise he hopes to become an Olympian himself in road cycling in two years’ time.

“This is an amazing honor. Someone once told me, ‘In order to find success, you have to surround yourself with brilliance,’ and tonight this room is shining,” Euser said of his introduction to the Olympic family. “And it’s not just because of these chandeliers, it’s because there’s amazing people here. To share this story with this community means the world to me.”