Fewer but not lesser: A look at Steamboat’s summer Olympians
Steamboat Springs has produced nearly 100 winter Olympians, more than any other town in North America. That fact is everywhere, plastered on websites and informational boards across town.
Steamboat has also produced summer Olympians, who appear on some lists but not others.
Steamboat Resort has an online list titled, “Steamboat Olympians: a full list of the Olympians who came out of Steamboat,” but none of the summer Olympians are listed.
“I really wish that there was a little more awareness of the summer Olympians,” said Steamboat Springs native and Olympic rower Anne Kakela. “Because it gives those kids who are not successful in winter sports the idea of, ‘Oh, I can use this and transition to something else, or I can be successful at other sports’ and it doesn’t boil down to being a winter Olympian.
“That has become in the last couple years, one of the hardest things for me. I take it really personally, since I was born here in Steamboat, fully raised here. I just wish there was more appreciation and acknowledgment, because I think there’d be more of us.”
There are six total summer Olympians with ties to Steamboat, but just three grew up here.
Rich Weiss was Steamboat’s first true summer Olympian. He competed in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in the men’s K-1 slalom, or kayak slalom, where he took 16th. A year later he earned silver at the World Championships. He made the Olympic team again in 1996 and traveled to the Atlanta Summer Games where he finished just shy of a medal in sixth.
He was in medal contention, but friend Pete Van De Carr recalls an unfortunate call that pushed Weiss off the podium.
Sven Wiik, 1948, Gymnastics
Sean Colgan, 1980, Rowing
Rich Weiss, 1992, 1996, Kayak
Anne Kakela, 1996, Rowing
Fred Honebein, 1996, Rowing
Blake Worsley, 2012, Swimming
In slalom kayaking, there are suspended gates, rather than gates in the ground like skiing. If a kayaker touches a gate, a few seconds are added to their time.
The judge called a touch on Weiss, but it was later learned through a video review that a splash caused the gate to move rather than Weiss.
“When he was interviewed about that touch afterwards and they revealed the gate was just splashed, he just kind of shrugged it off and said, ‘Well it’s just the nature of the sport,’” Van De Carr said. “’Sometimes you get called for that and sometimes you don’t.’ I was so impressed and awed by how grateful he was to be in that position in the first place.”
The first Steamboat athlete to medal was Nelson Carmichael in 1992, who earned bronze in moguls.
Weiss’ success on the river came at the peak of the whitewater rage in the Yampa Valley. Wave Sports was based out of Oak Creek and the river was littered with kayaks, according to Van De Carr. The Yampa River Festival continues to host slalom kayak races, which back in the day, would draw some of the best participants in the world.
In addition to medals, Weiss earned his doctorate and started his own business, Weisswater Associate, which did environmental consulting.
In 1997, Weiss died in an incident on the White Salmon River in Washington. He’s commemorated with Dr. Rich Weiss park along the Yampa River.
“I can’t emphasize enough how humble he was and how grateful he was to have a community that supported him like Steamboat Springs did,” Van De Carr said. “He was definitely my hero.”
Anne Kakela and Fred Honebein
Anne Kakela and her eventual husband, Fred Honebein, also traveled to Atlanta where they both competed in rowing. Kakela was born and raised in Steamboat, while Fred trained here for a bit. Now, the pair live here with their son, Beck, 16, and daughter, Anja, 13.
Both boasted a bulky resume of accomplishments before becoming Olympians, earning World Championship golds in the years leading up to the Summer Games.
Going into the Olympics, both the men’s eight and women’s eight teams were medal favorites, but they fell short. The women earned fourth and the men finished fifth.
Twenty-five years after sharing that Olympic dream together, they both remember the games with mixed feelings.
“Everybody imagines, they have the vision of themselves winning the medal,” Honebein said. “But when it doesn’t happen, the what-ifs come in. That haunts a lot of people.”
Losing out on a medal soured the Olympic experience for sure, but Honebein has many good memories as well. He said watching Muhammad Ali light the Olympic flame was unbelievable.
Kakela and her teammates still discuss what could have gone wrong that day, but try not to dwell on it. It was disappointing, but it’s in the past.
“I remember the people I was with every day,” Kakela said. “I don’t know if I think of the Olympics that frequently. It was more the journey to the Olympics that really sticks with us.”
Now, they are raising teenagers, which has opened their eyes to the pressure that exists to become an Olympian in Steamboat, specifically a winter Olympian. Their son, Beck, attends school in Tennessee, and despite his parents encouraging him to do any other sport he got into rowing. Their daughter, Anja, tried ski jumping but is more into horseback riding now.
She’s still figuring out how, but she is determined to get to the Olympics. At 13, she still has plenty of time to figure it out and so many options to consider, something Kakela and Honebein wish more Steamboat kids were told.
“There should be more,” Kakela said. “There should be more of us. There really should be.”
Blake Worsley is the most recent summer Olympian to come out of Steamboat. He grew up in Steamboat, swimming under his mom, Patti, the Steamboat Springs Swim Team coach. The Canadian-born swimmer swam for the University of Denver in college, made the Canadian national team, then qualified for the 2012 Olympics in London.
At the Summer Games, he finished 17th in the men’s 200-meter freestyle, and helped the 4×200 freestyle relay take 14th.
Worsley isn’t as well known an Olympian as some winter athletes, but Worsley chalks that up to competing for Canada.
“That said, I’ve always felt so welcomed. Steamboat’s my home town,” Worsley said. “We moved there when I was 10 years old. That’s where I grew up. It was so nice to be covered throughout my career because people kept tabs and talked about it when I was in town. It made me feel really special that I was so welcomed in Steamboat for doing what I did.”
Almost 10 years removed from his Olympic experience, he remembers the people he met and shared time with more than the details of his performances.
“I think there could be more summer Olympians for sure,” he said. “As long as we’ve got good programs up there for athletics and we keep supporting younger generations, I think there definitely could be a lot more.”
A few others
There were two other summer Olympians who have Steamboat ties.
In 1948, Sven Wiik attended the Olympics as part of the demonstration gymnastics team. A demonstration sport is one performed for promotional purposes, rather than medal contention. Wiik also coached the 1960 U.S. Olympic cross-country ski team in Squaw Valley, California. The next year, he moved to Steamboat where he built Scandinavian Lodge and created the Steamboat Ski Touring Center on a golf course not far out of town. Wiik’s daughter, Birgitta Lindgren and her daughter, Kajsa, continued to run the facility.
In 1980, Sean Colgan was named to the Olympic heavyweight eight rowing team, but the games were boycotted that year. He competed in what is known as the Olympic equivalent regatta, in which the American team finished second.
Colgan lived in Steamboat at the time he was selected for the Games and continues to fund the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, but resides in Florida.
To reach Shelby Reardon, call 970-871-4253, email sreardon@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.
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