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Team USA Athletes Tell Us Which Athletes Have Made A Difference In Their Sporting Careers

By Lisa Costantini | Oct. 27, 2018, 11 a.m. (ET)

(L-R) Chris Mazdzer celebrates with Summer Britcher at the Winter Olympic Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 15, 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.


Oct. 27, 2018, is National Make A Difference Day. In honor of this annual holiday – observed on the fourth Saturday in October – we asked 18 Team USA athletes to tell us about the athlete who has made the biggest difference in their sporting career. Find out who they had to say, and then share your story on social media with #MakeADifferenceDay.

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1) Danny Barrett, Rugby
The player who has made the biggest impact in my life is [Cal rugby’s] Robert Paylor [who suffered partial paralysis after getting injured in a championship match]. Rob has shown that through injury the game can end at any minute for you, but at the same time, through recovery and rehab you’re only as strong as yourself and what you put into things. The strength that Rob has shown has been big for myself, as well as people around the world.

2) Brittany Bowe, Long Track Speedskating
I would have to say Bonnie Blair. She’s a legend in our sport and I’m honored that she’s been a part of my career. She’s been a mentor and a friend, so she’s had a big impact on my career.

3) Summer Britcher, Luge 
I would say Chris Mazdzer. Coming up with Chris as a role model on the team, not only was he helpful as far as the athletic aspect went, but he’s a huge role model because he serves on the USA Luge board and he serves on the International Luge Federation board, where he’s an athlete rep. He has all of these things that he does where he advocates for other athletes, and he encouraged me to voice my opinions. Having someone who says, hey, it’s okay to have an opinion is nice.

4) Caeleb Dressel, Swimming
I don’t think it’s one certain person, I think it’s picking and choosing certain aspects that certain people have across the sport — even outside the sport. I think Michael Jordan’s flu game, Muhammad Ali when he’s standing over Sonny Liston in that famous picture. There are so many great athletes; I don’t think you can narrow it down to just the sport of swimming. I think it’s about writing your own story and having your own puzzle pieces to fit together.

5) Keith Gabel, Para Snowboarding
My teammate Mike Shea. He’s made a huge impact on my life. We compete against each other, but we’re also really good friends. He’s been there for me when I was down and out, when I didn’t think I could do something; he’s always been the guy who’s been like, dude, you’ve got this. He’s always been there to pick me up when things didn’t go right, and he’s always encouraged me when things continue to go right. He’s been super supportive.

6) Erin Hamlin, Luge 
I think my teammates, the other women’s singles athletes, because I stuck it out to become a little bit of the old lady on the team. The last few seasons they kept me young and they pushed me hard because they got really fast, and I had to stay on my toes. I think if I hadn’t had that competition with my own team, I wouldn’t have stayed as competitive as I did this long in my career. Because I never let my guard down with my own team, which together we pushed each other and that competitiveness made us a force to reckon with. That’s been really cool.

7) Daryl Homer, Fencing
[Former saber fencer] Peter Westbrook showed us how to win, but beyond that he’s shown us what it is to be principled and graceful. It's not his 13 national championships, six Olympic teams or Olympic bronze medal — it's his character, his commitment to giving back, and his spirit that entrances us. It's never just been about Peter — but about the Peter Westbrook Foundation, helping us reach higher heights, helping us reach more children, teaching us to function as a unit. That is the difference Peter has made in all of us. His legacy goes beyond the Olympians he helped create. It reaches our families, the next generation of fencers, our friends, and our communities. We're thankful and grateful.

8) Jessika Jenson, Snowboarding 
I really look up to my teammate Jamie Anderson. She’s just so calm and relaxed and you just watch her and you know she’s doing what she loves. That’s inspiring.

9) Cullen Jones, Swimming
The person who was a pretty pivotal person for me was actually Michael Phelps. In 2006, I was swimming a race in Charlotte and in the 50-meter freestyle I got second to him by, I think, about a tenth. He looked over at me and said, ‘Wow, finally we have our fourth swimmer for the 4x100 free relay.’ And at that time the U.S. had just lost to South Africa in 2004, and in 2000 the Australians won, so it was huge for him to look at me and say I was going to do that fourth leg to try to get that title back. I took it to heart. I went and trained my butt off, and in that same year that summer we set the world record.

10) Chris Knierim, Figure Skating
The obvious answer would be [my wife and skating partner] Alexa, because I think we both influence each other in ways to grow and develop as people and as athletes. 

11) Hilary Knight, Ice Hockey 
I would say Billie Jean King was a trailblazer for all women. Some of us are the first benefactors, so it’s incredible to have that dialogue and equality in sports.

12) Andrew Kurka, Para Alpine Skiing
Tyler Walker. My very first race camp he was my mentor. He has shown me everything. He actually just retired after PyeongChang, after he won his first two silver medals at the Games. I’m sad to see him go, but I’m thankful for everything he’s shown me throughout my entire career. He’s also the reason why I was able to pull a gold in PyeongChang.

13) Keturah Orji, Track and Field
Serena Williams would definitely be the athlete that has made a difference in my life as an inspiration and a role model. As a triple jumper, my body doesn’t fit the typical shape labeled to women in my event. Being that this has been an issue Serena has had to deal with throughout her career gives me the utmost admiration for her. She has shown true greatness by performing at the highest level while battling difficult circumstances and numerous negative comments about her body, attitude and skin color. 
I constantly remind myself of how Serena has responded to adversity by dominating the sport. Every time she steps on the tennis court she gives 100-percent effort, and her fans can see that.

14) Alex Rigsby, Ice Hockey 
Probably a past teammate, Jessie Vetter. I think she was just really incredible in my journey to becoming a member of this team. We trained together, and I just listened to her experiences and her just making sure I was having a good life balance outside of hockey.

15) Alexa Scimeca-Knierim, Figure Skating
[My husband and skating partner] Chris has had the most positive impact in my life. It’s a unique answer for us because we are athletes and we are so close — we use that relationship to better one another.

16) John Shuster, Curling 
I honestly think it was Maddie Rooney, who was the goalie for the women’s U.S. hockey team. Our curling team was watching them in their gold-medal match against Canada. I saw her laughing between shots in the shootout, and that’s something that stuck with me. In the most pressure-packed moment of her entire life, she was just sitting there enjoying the moment. It reminded me that when we were going out there in our semifinal game against Canada, to just go out there and enjoy the moment and not take it too seriously. And every time I found myself getting nervous during that semifinal game, I just kind of looked around and started smiling, because I learned that from our goalie who was maybe stopping the biggest shot in the U.S. women’s hockey history.

17) Jillian Williams, Sitting Volleyball
One athlete who has left a huge impression on my heart is my current teammate Kaleo Kanahele Maclay. Kaleo is always someone that no matter what time of day or night I can call her. 
Being so new to the sport and team, 2018 worlds was my first big tournament overseas with all of my teammates. It was an amazing experience that was full of every emotion possible. When I became overwhelmed, Kaleo was my person I went to and she gave me three words of advice that I hold on to every day. She looked me straight in the eyes and said, “You are human.” Those words remind me every day that mistakes are okay and that is how I will learn — and emotions are normal to have and okay to let out. Not only as an athlete but as someone growing in life and faith these words remind me that, “I am human,” and to never give up.

18) David Wise, Freestyle Skiing 
My first experience as an Olympic athlete was with Shannon Bahrke, who’s now Shannon Happe. I grew up skiing the same mountain as she did. I skied the same mogul courses. I skied with her. When she went to the Olympics and won a silver medal, it made it real to me. I thought, if she can do it, maybe I could, too.