While snow tubing or sledding satisfies most kids’ need for speed during cold winter months, 57 US teens have set their sights on something a little bigger—they will represent Team USA in the first-ever Winter Youth Olympic Games, held January 13 through 22 in Innsbruck, Austria.
The inaugural event, which will be held in alternation with the summertime Youth Olympic Games introduced in 2010, provides the International Olympic Committee with an opportunity to reach a younger generation of winter athletes while boosting their cultural awareness and togetherness.
“We’re refreshing the Olympic legacy,” says Georg Spazier, head of marketing and communications for the Innsbruck 2012 Youth Olympic Games. Innsbruck, one of the most famous winter sports regions in the Alps, hosted the Winter Olympics in 1964 and 1976. “Now we are the first city to light the Olympic caldrons three times.”
The Winter Youth Olympic Games will also prepare teens for future competitions. “This is a time where up-and-coming athletes can learn the challenges of staying in a village—distractions, prioritizations, security clearings, etc.—and realize that they are part of a big show and that there are many moving pieces,” says US Olympic Committee Associate Director of International Games Todd Allison. “I believe this will help them mentally prepare better for their first Olympic Winter Games.”
The event will bring together 1,059 top athletes ages 14 to 18 who represent 70 countries. They’ll compete in medal events across 15 sports disciplines, including alpine skiing and cross-country skiing, bobsledding, curling, figure skating and speed skating, ice hockey, luge, and snowboarding. (Search: How can I boost my performance on the slopes?)
For the 37 males and 20 females who will represent Team USA at the games, many are following in famous footsteps. For example, 15-year-old hockey forward Ryan MacInnis, who plays for the St. Louis Amateur Blues, is the son of Al MacInnis, a St. Louis Blues Hall of Fame defenseman and Olympic champion. Similarly, Shane Gersich, 17, of Chaska, Minnesota, is the nephew of Neal Broten, a member of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team. And 17-year-old cross-country skier Patrick Caldwell of Lyme, New Hampshire, is the son of four-time Olympic cross-country skier Tim Caldwell who competed in the 1976 Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck.
Other Team USA athletes to watch include curler Korey Dropkin, ski jumper Emilee Anderson, and Anna Kubek, who participates in biathlon, notes Allison. “The good part is that no matter where our athletes are on their development paths, they will be able to take the memories and cultural experiences back to their communities to share and teach the Olympic values," he says.
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Across the 63 medal events that will be held this week in Innsbruck, new team formats are being introduced as a way to promote the Olympic tenants of cross-cultural understanding and togetherness among these young athletes. For the first time, competitors in alpine skiing, curling, luge, figure skating, and ski jumping will feature teams made up of a mix of males and females and those composed of members representing different countries.
While most of the events at Innsbruck mirror those that will be on the program at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, the Youth Olympic Games will introduce several never-before-seen events. For example, an individual skills challenge among ice hockey players will be held for the first time in Olympic history. For the event, similar in format to the NHL All-Star Game’s SuperSkills Competition, the 15 best male and female hockey players from nations that did not qualify to compete in the men’s or women’s five-team tournaments will face one another in a series of skating and shooting drills.
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Other Olympic firsts include a slope-style event for snowboarders and a half-pipe event for skiers. During slope-style rides, male and female snowboarders will be judged as they perform a series of tricks down a course of man-made features including rails, boxes, and jumps. The event reflects the style of snowboarding that is enjoyed today by youth at terrain parks around the world. During the ski half-pipe, athletes will perform acrobatic tricks such as jumps and flips as they pass from one side of the snow-covered half-cylinder to the other.
“I think these events really fit the target age group well,” says Spazier. “Freestyle sports are really booming.”
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Running parallel to sporting events is the Culture and Education Program (CEP), which has been designed to raise participants’ awareness about health and well-being, social responsibility, skills development, and expression. Athletes will unite with Innsbruck’s teens at workshops such as Balance Your Act, a session that teaches how to effectively manage the dual demands of school and sport. Be the Chef, a 2-hour cooking seminar hosted by a professional chef, instructs kids how to cook a delicious and healthful dish from start to finish, while the Schuhplattln workshop showcases regional dance techniques.
“It has always been part of the International Olympic Committee concept to bring youth together in their sports, but this is a second pillar,” says Spazier. "It really brings out the Olympic values of friendship, respect, and excellence.”