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We're rooting for those NH Olympians whose stories we know

Special to the Union Leader

February 19. 2018 10:56PM
Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin trains Monday in Pyeongchang, South Korea, for Wednesday's alpine combine. (REUTERS/Christian Hartmann)

There’s a reason NBC’s Olympic coverage team spends months and millions pulling together the personal stories of Olympic athletes to share during the Games: it’s easier — and more satisfying — to root for someone when you know a little bit about the work, personal struggles and attitudes that have brought them to the point where they can fly down a mountain, leap across the ice, or twist and flip in seemingly impossible ways before landing gracefully on their feet.

“We spend a lot of time talking with our kids about how Eric was no different than you are when he was 10. Anna was no different than you are,” said Michael Saitow, the director of Loon Freestyle at Loon Mountain, and a coach there since the mid-1990s.

"Eric" is Eric Loughran of Pelham, a freestyle skier who competed in Pyeongchang in aerials. "Anna" is Annalise Drew, a two-time Olympian competing in halfpipe skiing. Both honed their early freestyle skills at Loon, and although they’ve moved on to other programs, both athletes return to their first home hill occasionally to act as guest coaches and meet kids who are, after all, really not that different than they were not so long ago.

For Saitow and other coaches who’ve had a hand in building the skills of Olympians, and for all the kids coming up through the ranks of a variety of winter sports, watching the Olympics becomes personal when there’s a familiar face on the television screen.

“There’s definitely more hype this year because of Eric and Anna,” Saitow said. “That connection makes it not just personal, but achievable. Every single kid has the same opportunity. It’s a matter of, are you willing to take it?”

Taking that chance and running — or skiing — with it is something Cami Thompson Graves has encouraged athletes to do for nearly 30 years at Dartmouth College, where she is director of skiing and the head women’s Nordic ski coach. Dartmouth has a slew of skiers, both Nordic and alpine, on the Olympic team this year.

“We strongly encourage our skiers to challenge themselves with goals outside of college skiing. That includes competing at national and international events every year,” Thompson Graves said. “It’s incredibly motivating for our current teams to know that athletes who were once in their shoes, and that they know, are now competing at the Olympics.”

Former Hanover resident Hilary Knight is shown in action Monday. The two-time silver medalist, and three-time Olympian scored one of five goals for the U.S. hockey team in their semifinal victory over Finland. (REUTERS/Matt Slocum)

Olympic dreams often start well before college, of course. Visit any hockey rink, Nordic center, or alpine ski area, and you’re likely to come across a kid who wants to be the next Hilary Knight, Sophie Caldwell, or Mikaela Shiffrin.

Knight — a former Hanover resident, two-time silver medalist, and three-time Olympian — scored one of five goals for the U.S. hockey team in their semifinal victory over Finland. The U.S. women go for gold on the rink in Pyeongchang on Thursday.

Caldwell, one of Dartmouth’s cross-country stars, helped the United States’ 4 x 5 kilometer relay team finish an impressive fifth place last week.

In the freestyle skiing events, Loughran didn’t make the cut for aerial finals, but Drew qualified fourth in halfpipe and will ski in the medal round. Other New Hampshire-connected Olympians continue to compete this week in alpine and cross-country events, as well as men’s hockey.

Ski racing superstar Mikaela Shiffrin has already notched one gold medal in giant slalom while narrowly missing the podium in her favorite event, slalom. She’s slated to compete in the alpine combine Wednesday night.

While Shiffrin is claimed by Colorado, where she lives now, and Vermont, where she graduated from Burke Mountain Academy, she also has New Hampshire ties, having lived for some of her formative years in Lyme. Regardless of where she calls home, the 22-year-old is a fan favorite.

One of those fans and Olympic dreamers is 12-year-old Emme Bell of Franconia, who races for both the recently crowned state champion Profile School and the Franconia Ski Club. Bell said she watches the Olympic skiers and tries to apply their near-perfect technique to her own skiing. But she’s keeping the closest watch on Shiffrin; she’s seen her compete live the last two years during the World Cup races in Killington, Vt.

“I’ve always loved watching her,” said Bell, who briefly met Shiffrin at the finish area in November. “Seeing her there just makes it so much more real.”

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