John F. Russell: Olympic-sized memories something to hold onto |

John F. Russell: Olympic-sized memories something to hold onto

John F. Russell

— There is no question the Olympic Games left a lasting impression on Steamboat Springs native Annie Kakela.

After 20 years, she still feels the joy that came from 83,000 cheering fans as she made her way through the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, and she still feels the pain of the disappointment that came when her boat, packed with eight of her teammates, placed fourth a few days later on the rowing venue on Lake Lanier.

“You never forget,” Kakela said. “You have to find a way to distance yourself from the disappointment, but it stays with you forever.”

The same will be true for the hundreds of athletes who show up in Rio de Janeiro next week for the Olympic Games.

Kakela’s words of advice? Make sure not to let a poor performance leave an iimpression that will taint the games for a lifetime. In her case, she refuses to allow a single moment of disappointment to define her perspective of the Olympics she worked so hard to get to in 1996. Instead, she chooses to remember she was part of a team that collected a World Championship medal in 1995 in Tampere, Finland, and that her team was a favorite to win a medal in Atlanta.

But she also understands the Olympics don’t always turn out the way we expect, and on the day the Americans were expected to earn glory, it was Romania who took the gold, Canada who raced to a silver and Belarus who pocketed the bronze. The Americans placed fourth, just one spot from an Olympic medal, and that is something that can stay with an athlete for a lifetime,

It’s a moment Kakela and her teammates have lived with ever since, but she insists she will never let that disappointment taint her Olympic experience. She prefers to focus on all the great things the team accomplished leading up to the games and the thrill that came from putting on a red, white and blue uniform and competing at home that year. She will never forget how much attention the team received, the fans who cheered them on and the young women who looked up to her as an athlete.

“It was awesome,”Kakela said. “I will never forget walking into the opening ceremonies, and I will never forget what it was like to represent our country right here at home.”

Kakela also tries to remember that the odds of winning an Olympic medal are long and that her odds of earning a seat on the American boat that raced at the 1996 games were even longer. She understands she grew up in a town with a long history of producing Olympic athletes, but she also keeps in mind that almost all of them competed during the winter.

She is one of two summer Olympians born and raised in our town and is on a short list of all the Steamboat athletes who have competed at the Summer Olympic Games. She said she is used to being overlooked, at times, in Ski Town USA and understands the light rarely shines on Steamboat’s contingent of summer athletes.

The short list includes kayaker Rich Weiss, who competed at the 1996 Summer Olympics, and swimmer Blake Worsley, who represented Canada in the 2012 Games in Canada. Sven Wiik, who competed in gymnastics when it was a demonstration sport in 1948, also lived in Steamboat. However, of the athletes on the list, only Kakela and Weiss were born here, and Weiss died at the age of 33 in a kayaking accident on the Salmon River in Washington State.

Kakela grew up in Steamboat Springs skiing in the winter and riding horses in the summer. She had always hoped to make it to the Olympics but had planned to do it in an equestrian event.

When she headed to Dartmouth after graduating in 1988 from Lowell Whitman School (now known as Steamboat Mountain School), she had hoped to earn a spot on the college ski team. Instead, she discovered rowing and was immediately hooked on the sport.

She rowed for Dartmouth in college and, later, made the U.S. National Rowing team. She went on to become part of a dominant U.S. rowing squad that enjoyed international success and a place of prominence as it headed into the Olympic Games. After retiring, Kakela remained involved with the sport, coaching at the college level and working with U.S. Rowing to recruit new athletes into the program. She coached at the 2012 Olympic Games in London and cherishes all of her Olympic memories.

Kakela described her days as an athlete as a time she never wants to forget. She said that, when the athletes step into the spotlight next week in Rio, those memories will come flooding back, and through the three weeks to follow, she knows the athletes who are competing will create new memories that will all become part of something much bigger.

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966

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