By Brandon Penny | Sept. 14, 2019, 2:19 p.m. (ET)
U.S. Olympians and Paralympians pose for a photo at the 2019 U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Assembly on Sept. 13, 2019 in Colorado Springs, Colo.

 

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – It is the focus of every athlete. It is why they do what they do. It is what they will remember most, long after their athletic career has ended. It is what makes them who they are on and off the field of play. It has the highest of highs – and the lowest of lows.

It is the journey.

The theme of the 2019 U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Assembly is “Journey Toward Excellence,” which is what approximately 250 members of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic movements focused on over the course of four days at The Antlers Hotel and the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee headquarters this week.

And that journey was on full display at Friday night’s dinner as six awards were presented to athletes, National Governing Bodies and programs that have made profound impacts on the movement.

They were presented by a handful of athletes who represent various stages of the journey and shared stories of their own journeys throughout the night – from track cyclist Gavin Hoover, who this summer earned two medals at the Pan American Games and hopes to make his Olympic debut next year; and water polo player Ashleigh Johnson, who has sights set on her second consecutive Olympic gold, two-time Paralympic wheelchair rugby player Chuck Aoki, who is striving for his first gold after earning silver and bronze, four-time Olympic medalist fencer Mariel Zagunis, who is vying for her fifth Olympic team – this time as a mother; to Para alpine skiing and track and field legend Chris Waddell, who competed at seven Games and earned 13 medals.

Zagunis’ journey toward excellence began when she started fencing at age 10, though it could be said that hers truly began at birth; both of her parents were rowers on the 1976 U.S. Olympic Team. She has gone on to become the most decorated fencer in U.S. history, a legacy that includes four Olympic medals and 14 world championships medals.

She presented the Jack Kelly Fair Play Award to a fellow fencer who is in the early stages of her own journey.

May Tieu’s first multisport Games experience came last fall at the Summer Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018. The then-17-year-old earned the nation’s first medal of the Games, a bronze in women’s foil, but she did something off the piste that, though at the time she thought nothing of and calls “only natural,” would end up being far more profound.

When opponent Grace Senyo of Tonga arrived at the competition with foils that would not pass inspection, Tieu offered up one of her own. Tieu went on to fence Senyo twice on her journey at the Games.

“Thank you to everyone who has ever given me or someone else their equipment, during practice or competition, for making sportsmanship not special, but regular and expected,” Tieu said during her acceptance speech.

“I share this award with all of you.”

Donna de Varona, whose journey has been far longer than Tieu’s, having entered the Olympic family at age 13 when she competed in swimming at the Olympic Games Rome 1960, received the Olympic Torch Award, which starting next year will be renamed the USOPC Torch Award, one of many nods to inclusion the organization has undertaken this year.

De Varona joined a list of recipients of the award, which was first presented in 1965, that reads as a who’s who of her friends and colleagues.

“A transcendent athlete, and an even greater catalyst of change, who has fought for a lifetime to give others the opportunity to shoot for perfection, the primal and to strip ourselves bare to seek our essence,” Waddell said of de Varona.

The two-time 1964 Olympic swimming champion has played a pivotal role for all athletes, whether it be through her groundbreaking broadcasting career or serving as a pioneer for women in sports, which included advocating for Title IX and being a founding member of the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Her speech reflected on her journey, starting with 1960 Olympic basketball champion Walt Bellamy lifting her onto his shoulders at the Opening Ceremony of those Games at a time when “African-American didn’t touch white.”

“Over many years, the movement has survived boycotts, doping scandals, corruption and more. Now, once again, we are convening to find solutions to the challenges of this era,” she said.

Acknowledging the issues that the movements face today, de Varona walked through the turmoil she has witnessed, ranging from the civil rights era and navigating a male-dominated world, to the creation of and pushback against Title IX, which offered women elite sports scholarships for the first time, and the creation Amateur Sports Act of 1978.

“Your collective task now — as you all know — is to stay ahead of the challenges; to regain trust by being transparent, innovative and bold; to create new initiatives and programs that inspire collaboration,” de Varona said to the room in closing.

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Another legend in sport, Connie Paraskevin, received the individual Rings of Gold Award for her work with the Connie Cycling Foundation. A five-time Olympian and one of only 10 U.S. Olympians ever to compete at both the Summer and Winter Games – cycling and long track speedskating, in her case – Paraskevin founded the CCF in 2005. It has since introduced more than 6,000 kids to cycling, which in turn has provided them with life skills such as confidence.

Paraskevin was presented the award by Hoover, whose journey began with the CCF.

“Connie embodied the Olympic ideals in everything she did – from how she spoke to us, to how she expected us to carry ourselves,” Hoover said.

“Connie believes that sport and the pursuit of excellent can change all children’s lives – not just the few, like me, who go on to pursue their Olympic dreams. The lessons I learned through CCF have impacted every aspect of my life. Even though I left the program at age 16, it’s still Connie’s voice I hear in my head, and I know I’m not alone.”

The program recipient for the Rings of Gold Award was The Hartford’s Ability Equipped in partnership with Disabled Sports USA. The Hartford’s three-year $2.2 million contribution aims to increase the capacity of community grassroots organizations and bridge the gap to elite sport opportunities by identifying, supporting and empowering nearly 250 athletes.

“Playing adaptive sports is one of the most liberating feelings in the world,” Aoki said as he presented the award. “And as child with a disability, your life can feel incredibly boxed in and limited at times.

“The Hartford's Ability Equipped program gives kids with disabilities the chance to feel free, to feel like they belong, to meet and compete with other kids who look just like them, and to experience the possibilities that having a disability brings, instead of the limitations.”

Meanwhile, two NGBs were recognized for their progressive achievement in diversity and inclusion within the movements.

US Speedskating earned the Advancing D&I Award based on the largest growth in diversity metrics among National Governing Bodies and High-Performance Management Organizations during 2017-18, while USA Triathlon was selected by its peers for the second consecutive year as the D&I Choice Award winner for its Historically Black Colleges and Universities Engagement Program.

“I don’t think I chose water polo; I think it chose me so that I could be the living and breathing example that a young black girl can dream and see herself competing at the highest level,” said Johnson, the first African-American women’s water polo player to compete at the Olympic Games, as she presented the awards.

“Every sport needs strong role models – and it needs them in different communities with people from different backgrounds. More than anything, I want to do my part to continue building a positive narrative for black people in aquatics.”

The journey of the evening concluded with a keynote address from Jill Ellis, head coach of the U.S. women’s national soccer team who this summer became the first ever to lead teams to two Women’s World Cup victories.

Ellis said that her journey to becoming USWNT head coach began when she watched the gold-medal game of the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996 in person as a fan.

“It was intoxicating and I was hooked,” Ellis recalled. “I said to my friends on the ride home, ‘I want to be good enough to do that some day,’ and my dream was born.”

Her team’s journey, however, to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup trophy began at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 when, at her first Games as head coach, the team fell to Sweden in the quarterfinals for its lowest finish in program history at a major tournament.

Ellis explained the defeat through text messages: Win a game and you receive roughly 45; win a World Cup and receive 100; lose and receive one.

Fortunately, that one was from her father, an eternal optimist who said: “Own it, build it, believe it!”

She heard him loud and clear – interpreting that message as, “Be accountable, be better and get up” – and allowed that to serve as the turning point for the team.

“When you own and acknowledge the low points, you have a shot at hitting the highs,” she said.

She returned to the U.S. to face her bosses and instead of presenting a review of what happened in Rio and where they went wrong, as expected, she showed them a plan for the 2019 World Cup and what the journey to victory would look like.

The players – and their coach – were recommitted and worked harder than they had before and aimed to be more prepared than any other nation. Ellis and her colleagues look at more than 40 new players from all levels of the U.S. Soccer pipeline. They changed and tested new tactical alignments, modernized their style and harnessed their strengths.

They did what they knew needed to be done to have the ending they wanted on their journey toward excellence.

“From 2016 until the World Cup, we had been tested, stressed, failed, and grown,” Ellis explained. “I am not sure if we’d taken a different path we finish as champions.”