The Olympic spirit returns

16th Winter Deaflympics welcome global athletes

By Mike Gorrell, The Salt Lake Tribune

Sports will shine a spotlight on deaf culture when the 16th Winter Deaflympics begin Friday in Salt Lake City.

About 365 deaf and hearing impaired athletes from 24 countries will compete through Feb. 10 in five sports at venues in Park City, Midway and Salt Lake City. Two Utahns are among them: snowboarders Jeff Pollock and Carina Crosby. Three-thousand spectators are expected.

Salt Lake City now becomes the first city in the world to stage three sporting events sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee - Olympics, Paralympics for athletes with a physical disability and the Deaflympics.

"There's a special spirit with the Olympics, and the Deaflympics carries that same spirit," said Dwight Benedict, 2007 Deaflympics organizing committee chairman. "We chose Salt Lake City for the same reason the Olympics came here in 2002 - because of the facilities."

The University of Utah's Huntsman Center will be the site of Saturday night's Opening Ceremony. The Closing Ceremony is Feb. 10 at the Salt Palace Convention Center, where nearly 50 companies and nonprofit groups also will display goods and services for the deaf community Friday and Saturday.

Sports competitions will be at Park City Mountain Resort (Alpine skiing and snowboarding), Soldier Hollow (cross country skiing) and Steiner Ice Center (hockey and curling). Nightly medals ceremonies also will be (at Steiner.

Pulling it together has not been easy, particularly since organizers faced marketing limitations because the U.S. Olympic Committee was adamant about protecting its exclusive rights to the "lympic" brand. But, as Benedict noted, "we're used to the challenge. We face many barriers throughout our lives. But that never stopped us."

Organizers have raised close to $1.4 million to stage the games through sponsorships, most significantly Salt Lake-based Sorenson Communications, which provide communications services, including ground-breaking videophones.

Sorenson, whose ranks include former Olympic organizer Dave Johnson, helped secure Mary Rusznak to serve as chief operating officer. A veteran of nine Olympics, including 2002, Rusznak developed a system to transport participants between sports venues and three downtown Salt Lake City hotels - Little America, Red Lion and Sheraton - as well as a ticketing program at Little America and Steiner Ice Center.

Other Utahns stepped forth to showcase deaf culture.

Three dozen Intermountain Health Care employees will handle medical issues. Roughly 325 sign language interpreters were enlisted. The U.S. Postal Service created a postmark to honor the occasion. Videophones are being installed at Salt Lake City International Airport, competition venues and hotels. Three deaf artists will put on programs in Salt Lake Valley schools.

Hundreds of students from the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind - and their families - will participate in the Opening Ceremony. Its theme, "Inspiration Within," is a takeoff on the 2002 slogan, "Light The Fire Within."

Lori Rupp, a Cyprus High School teacher and coach of the University of Utah's Crimson Line and cheerleaders, choreographed the show for 150 dancers, dubbed "Inspiration Performers." Her assistants included several Crimson Line members majoring in speech therapy, communications disorders or American Sign Language.

For Opening Ceremony Producer Jim McNeil, whose United Concerts career has been built around loud rock acts, the experience has been eye-opening. "This is a very different undertaking, just trying to rethink what a show looks like knowing that we'll have probably 80 percent of the audience non-hearing," he said. "We've had some good conversations with deaf people saying 'No, this is not what we want,' and gone back to the drawing board to find out what will work and be meaningful for everybody."

Park City Mountain Resort officials went through a seminar to help them anticipate better what deaf visitors might want.

"They'll go into Legacy Lodge and want something to eat or need something at a ski shop, so we're trying it make it easier for them," said race department manager Karen Korfanta.

But her main focus will be on "providing a good environment for them to perform at their best."

Students at the Soldier Hollow Charter School also are working on ways "to welcome them and make them feel at home."

Said Principal Chuck Weber: "We emphasize language in our school. Our kids are all verbal and count on that as the only way to communicate. For our kids to recognize the difficulty others go through without that capacity, and to see how [deaf people] can communicate quite well using other language capabilities, will be a wonderful learning experience."

From The Salt Lake Tribune. Reprinted with permission. Back to Article List