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U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland Reflects On Experiences And Learnings From Her First Games

By Brandon Penny | Oct. 10, 2018, 9:27 p.m. (ET)

Sarah Hirshland (R) and Olympian and Young Change-Maker Ty Walker pose for a photo in the Youth Olympic Village on Oct. 7, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.


BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Sarah Hirshland is no stranger to sports. As a gymnast and figure skater growing up, plus a seven-year employee of the United States Golf Association (and avid golfer herself), she has been to her fair share of sporting events.

When it comes to the world of multi-sport Games, however, Hirshland is a newbie and the first to admit she’s still learning.

Hirshland assumed the role of chief executive officer of the United States Olympic Committee – the organization responsible for the training, entering and funding of U.S. teams for the Olympic, Paralympic, Youth Olympic, Pan American and Parapan American Games – in late August.

She has since been immersing herself in the Olympic and Paralympic movements and soaking up all that she can. Perhaps her biggest learning experience yet began Friday, when she headed south to Argentina for the Summer Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018, which marked her first Games.

Once there, Hirshland toured the Youth Olympic Village, met with athletes and staff, took in the competition (3x3 basketball, BMX, gymnastics, rowing and taekwondo, to be exact, plus the Opening Ceremony) and attended the International Olympic Committee Session.

Hirshland spoke to TeamUSA.org about her first Games experience prior to departing Buenos Aires.

As you prepare to leave Buenos Aires tonight, how are you feeling overall about your first Games experience?

Terrific! It’s a little bit difficult because I find that most people around me are comparing it to previous experiences, and I had no expectations, which in some ways is a nice gift to come in with no expectations. I’ve found everything has been really enjoyable and fun. I really was incredibly impressed with the atmosphere in the athlete village. There’s a very visible representation of the global nature and the pride and patriotism that you see with everybody there, and yet the interaction from people from all different countries speaking all different languages around a common understanding that is sport. In many ways that’s why I do what I do, so it was fun.

You came in with no expectations, but what were your biggest questions or curiosities heading into this experience?

The scale and magnitude of the experience, both for the athletes and for what I’ll call the administrators and the operators, if you will, and also how much we could expect from Argentina and the people of Buenos Aires. That’s what I was really curious about and I’ve been incredibly blown away by the energy you see from the residents and people who are natives here, who are really coming out to experience it all.

What was your impression of the Youth Olympic Village?

It was great. We went over Sunday morning, it was a gorgeous morning. There were a whole bunch of athletes running around the campus, and it was really buzzing with energy. It gave me a chance to visit with (USOC Vice President, Games Operations) Dean Nakamura, his team, see a little bit of our Sports Medicine in action and the way they were thinking about it. We did a little bit of very informal tours of what that is and how it works; my first experience doing it, so it was really neat. Then we spent time with (2014 U.S. Olympic snowboarder and a Young Change-Maker at the Youth Olympic Games) Ty Walker, understanding the Change-Maker program and what she’s doing here. She’s really dynamic and had a ton of energy, and it’s clear she could help make a difference in mentoring the young athletes, so her energy was pretty contagious. We then had a chance to meet with my counterparts from the British Olympic Association while we were at the athlete village, which was a great exchange of ideas and challenge that we all face together, so it was really productive.

Of the five sports you were able to watch in person, which was your favorite?

Everything was interesting in its own way. The rowing is really easy to watch here from a lot of different angles because there’s a bridge that sort of comes over the course, so you can watch from the side or from the bridge. I had the benefit of watching rowing with (1976 U.S. Olympic bronze medalist rower and IOC Vice President) Anita DeFrantz, who knows a thing or two, so I had an expert tour guide, which makes that pretty fun. The BMX saw both male and female and the 3x3 basketball saw both male and female, and it’s always fun for me to see both genders competing in a similar sport and just watching the distinctions and differences and similarities in the two, so those were great.

What did your time in Buenos Aires include outside of taking in the events and visiting the village?

An enormous amount of what I would describe as international relations. Obviously, the IOC had two days of its general session, which were really substantive, very agenda-driven meetings. I’ll call them meetings, but meetings with 200 people in the room. The discussions went through a variety of updates on future host cities and bid processes as it relates to the hosting of the Games, but also updates and reports on anti-doping, various IOC programs and the election of new members. It was a really good chance for me, as completely an observer in that process, to learn and watch how all of that works and how all these pieces fit together.

Having experienced your first Youth Olympic Games, why do you think they are valuable?

It’s interesting. Certainly, the experience for people of that age group to travel, in many cases, a long way, to a very foreign place and a foreign culture, and to do it with kids from 200 other countries – I don’t know how that could not be a pretty foundational learning opportunity, probably life-changing for some of them. I’d guess many of them will build friendships they’ll have for a long time. Also, the opportunity to compete on an international basis. There’s a natural level of importance that comes with international competition, and I’m sure a lot of these young athletes learn a lot about themselves both as athletes and people while they’re here. That’s a pretty powerful opportunity, for sure.

What surprised you the most about your first Games?

Probably just the reality that it’s all happening at once. There is no natural cadence of what to watch in any order. I found myself very quickly wanting to know: How is Team USA doing? What is Team USA doing? I was realizing that there’s a lot going on and we could have 10-15 different things happening all at once, none of them having any awareness of each other. You have to pick your focus and figure out where you’re going to be and how to make that work. Clearly the venues are spread out all over. Today I was able to go to one area and see multiple things. They’ve done a nice job of that in clusters, and I know that’s part of the overall strategy, but there’s a lot happening all at once.

What did you learn here that you will take with you as you return to the office and continue in this role?

It’s really powerful to get out of our own country. We have a lot to do in our organization, and a lot of opportunity in the role we play in sport in our country, but when you get out of your own country and you start talking to people from other places, there’s a very stark realization of the role we play in this broader global ecosystem and how important it is for us to keep pushing and to recognize that we have great privilege and incredible resources at our disposal. It’s not just financial; we have expertise, we have a level of sophistication, we have a level of corporate support and the support of the American people that is not a given in a lot of parts of the world. With that privilege comes obligation to figure out how do we set the standard and the example and use that in a very humble way to lead. You really feel it when you’re in this group.

Are there any final takeaways from your trip that we haven’t discussed?

I think the thing that’s the most frustrating to me as I leave today is recognizing how many of our folks are here and not feeling like I know what they’re all doing and that I fully appreciate what it takes, even from the Team USA side alone, for us to do what we do here. I had a little bit of exposure to folks in the athlete village, some of the Sports Medicine team, but we have a lot of folks down here, and how that fits together is something that I wish I understood better and I wish I had more time to see in action. That’ll take time, but I’ll get there.