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An Olympic effort

Army of Chippewa alumni support team USA

Contact: Heather Smith


​​​​By Cynthia Drake, M.A. '08
Reprinted from Centralight Summer​ 2016

Hearing "The Star-Spangled Banner" when you're in another country can be spine-tingling.

Anyone who has ever attended the Olympic Games or traveled with a team abroad can't help but talk about the rush they feel at the opening ceremonies and again each time Team USA athletes lean forward to accept their medals. It's a deep, loyal pride felt by hard-working athletes and their throngs of supporters.

"That gets the chin quivering a little bit," says Kelly Skinner, M.A. '02, one of several CMU alumni working to make big things happen for our Olympic athletes as they prepare to compete this summer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"I totally get caught up in the moment. I believe myself to be a patriotic person, but when you're in a foreign country and you see that flag go up, that's a dream that just came true," he says.

For so many people involved in the 2016 Rio Games, dreams will come true. And that's in no small part due to the love, drive and commitment of Skinner and other Central alumni working behind the scenes and around the globe. ​​​​​​​​
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Skinner has been involved with the Olympics since 1995, and time and again, it’s CMU alumni involved in that organization who credit Skinner with their career trajectory. 

 “There’s a rumor that Kelly is secretly building a Chippewa army to take over the whole USOC,” one alum jokes. It’s no rumor, Skinner says. “I flat out say it to people.” 

 Skinner had been working in sales in the early ’90s, but he had a dream to get involved with athletics promotion. He started working on his master’s degree at Central and heard of a CMU alumna who had interned with the Olympic weightlifting team in Colorado Springs, Colorado. 

“Because she had done so well, weightlifting was where I ended up going,” he says. “A CMUer had knocked it out of the park, so I had a chance. She did that for me, so I can do it for others.” 

 Since then, Skinner has made it his personal mission to get as many qualified CMU graduates in front of the Olympics organization as possible. 

“We have a soup-to-nuts story here about what we’re doing,” he says, referring to the broad scope of activities that CMU alums are involved in throughout the Olympics. “And it’s going to all come together down in Rio.”

When Olympic athletes need to train, they may choose one of three USOC Training Centers: Chula Vista, California; Lake Placid, New York; or the flagship training center in Colorado Springs, where Justin O’Connell, ’08, M.S.A. ’12, is based. 

 As assistant manager of the training center, O’Connell schedules the facility’s gyms, pools and other spaces, and he makes sure teams such as track and field and swimming are able to train when they need to. Some teams, such as women’s wrestling, stay year-round in Colorado Springs. Other teams are more decentralized. 

“I think it’s really unique to work with athletes in this environment,” he says. “I’ve gotten to meet athletes from every single country in the world.” 

O’Connell says he’s inspired by the average Olympic hopeful –the one who is busting his or her tail and working toward qualifying for the team. 

“A lot of athletes are actually broke,” he says, adding that they dedicate their lives to their sport, forgoing school, work and other pursuits. 

 Like O’Connell in Colorado, Nathan Kopp, ’11, works at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. The 155-acre outdoor summer sports training facility is home to track and field, Paralympic track and field, men’s and women’s rugby, men’s field hockey, BMX, and Paralympic tennis. 

 “I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the best sprinters in the world, such as Allyson Felix, Dawn Harper and Jeneba Tarmoh,” says Kopp. “I really cherish the fact that I get to see the side of athletes that the media and general public don’t get to see.” 

Though neither O’Connell nor Kopp will travel to Rio, they’ll both be cheering on the athletes who trained so hard in their facilities. 

“I am looking forward to seeing all of the athletes I work with every day compete on the largest stage in the world,” Kopp says. “I’ve seen the hard work and dedication they have put in over the last four years, and it’s their time to shine.” 

Other specialized training facilities around the U.S. serve Olympic athletes, too. Before gymnastics Olympian Jordyn Wieber competed during the 2012 Summer Games in London, she had been training with CMU alumnus John Geddert’s Twistars USA Gymnastics Club in Lansing – since she was 3. 

 “Olympians are a rarity in the sport of gymnastics,” says Geddert, who attended CMU from 1976 to 1980. “Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of gymnasts will earn a spot on the Olympic team.” 

Geddert was head coach for the Olympic team in 2012 and the world team in 2011. This year, he will travel to Rio in support of an Olympic hopeful representing Trinidad and Tobago.

Skinner’s team has the crucial responsibility of setting up Olympic Village, where 16,000 people will live and eat. It includes a dining hall that can serve 10,000. His mission: make that environment feel like home for the U.S. Olympians. 

“These are brand new buildings, and you are the first tenants,” he says. “It goes from being a city where no one lives to being fully operational within 30 days. 

“We encounter all kinds of things. We’ll encounter broken toilets, keys that don’t work. Everybody’s schedules are different. We have to think strategically – being in one 18-story building is a new challenge, but it will be a fun one to think about how to put the puzzle together.”

As athlete services coordinator at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Kirk Waara, ’10, coordinates drug testing for 25 Olympic and Paralympic sports. 

 “It really keeps me on my toes to be ready for anything,” Waara says. 

 Though doping among athletes grabs headlines across the globe every year and continues to be controversial, Waara says he focuses on the USADA mission: to preserve the integrity of competition and protect the rights of athletes. 

“We aren’t in business to remove athletes from sport, but to promote clean competition and ensure a fair and level playing field for all athletes,” he says. “My biggest fear is an athlete losing out on an Olympic medal because they lost to an athlete who was doping and got away with it. That’s why I do my job every day – to prevent that from happening.”

Though she works with some of the fastest athletes on the planet, one of the most rewarding parts of the job for Talia Mark, ’06, involves inspiring children. 

As associate director of anti-doping and community programs for USA Track and Field, Mark works in a variety of challenging roles, but she gets excited talking about the organization’s RunJumpThrow program for children. It involves USA Track and Field athletes working with children worldwide to get them pumped about sports. 

 Through a Hershey sponsorship, the program and its curriculum are free for schools and other organizations. 

“Traveling abroad, we’ll go to children’s hospitals or juvenile detention centers,” says Mark. “There are hundreds of thousands of kids who get on the track with the athletes and see what it’s like to throw a turbo jab – a kid version of a javelin. Our athletes love to give back to the sport that’s given them so much.” 

When the program started about two years ago, the goal was to reach 1.3 million children by 2020. But Mark said it’s been so successful, they’ll surpass that goal three times.

When Lindsay Wyskowski, ’08, was 10 years old, she made a scrapbook of the 1996 Atlanta Games. By 14, she had amassed a VHS library of Olympic swimming: “That was the only time you saw swimming on TV,” she says. “I was really taken with NBC’s reporting – that drew me to the sports journalism side of it.” 

After graduating from Central, she took an intro to sport management class with Tera Albrecht, now a CMU associate athletic director. She mentioned the Olympics, and “I thought that was the coolest thing that anyone ever said,” says Wyskowski. 

She worked her way up, holding jobs with other teams before becoming the communications manager for USA Triathlon, the position she holds now. 

Wyskowski works with the media on behalf of Olympians and Paralympians, as well as the “everyday triathletes” who are involved in the sport. Team USA has only placed once in the Triathlon – a bronze in 2004 – but this year’s teammate Gwen Jorgensen is a gold-medal favorite. 

“She’s the No. 1 ranked women’s triathlete in the world. She hasn’t lost a race since May 2014,” says Wyskowski. “It’s going to be one of the best experiences I think I will have professionally and personally.” 

With a potential medalist on her hands, Wyskowski is preparing for round-the-clock media coverage and all the excitement that may bring from the sidelines in Rio. And she’s not alone – she’s got an army of Chippewa alumni right there with her.


Many paths to Olympic efforts 

Kelly Skinner, M.A. '02 
Master of Arts, sport administration

Justin O'Connell, '08, MSA '12
Bachelor of Applied Arts, sport studies major, accounting minor; Master of Science in Administration, sport administration

Lindsay Wyskowski, '08
Bachelor of Applied Arts, sport studies

Kirk Waara, '10
Bachelor of Science, sport studies

Talia Mark, '06
Bachelor of Applied Arts, integrative public relations

Nathan Kopp, '11, M.A. '13
Bachelor of Applied Arts, sport studies;
Master of Arts, Sport administration

John Geddert, 1976-80
Physical education/athletic training
(non-degree-holding alumnus)​


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