There is no question that the 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games has had a lasting impact on Utah residents. Was it the sense of pride in welcoming the world with open arms? Perhaps it was the unprecedented positive economic impact? Maybe it was the tears of joy and excitement we shared as our athletes won medal after medal.
Or, maybe it was the little tug we felt in our hearts each time the national anthem played as our athletes stood in honor on the podium.
In a recent conversation with Courtland Nelson, director of State Parks at the time of the Games and currently a Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation (UOLF) board member, he remarked on the overall spectator and participant experience in the Heber Valley during those Games. He described the opening day at Soldier Hollow, reminiscing about how the spectacular shimmering white blanket of snow covering the venue contrasted against the glorious blue-bird Utah skies.
He talked about the highly-successful Western Experience activities and the transportation of spectators via the historic Heber Valley Railroad — both of which further illuminated the uniqueness of our valley in the shadow of a competition that drew a crowd of nearly 100,000.
In The Wake Of 2002
Luke Bodensteiner, the chief of sport development for UOLF and the general manager of Soldier Hollow Nordic Center, is working to define Utah’s long-term goals for youth winter sport. Formerly an executive of U.S. Ski & Snowboard as chief of sport, Luke led three U.S. Olympic Ski and Snowboard Teams (2010, 2014 and 2018), overseeing athletes who won a record 53 Olympic medals. Now, he’s working in the Heber Valley to identify and implement best practices to cultivate a local culture that encourages our youth to be active in Nordic sport.
Prior to joining U.S. Ski & Snowboard, Luke was a cross-country racer for the U.S. Ski Team, competing in the Olympics in 1992 and 1994. As an ex-Olympian, Luke is excited to share his passion and focus on growing the local and national Nordic community. “We’re specifically focused on providing fun and accessible ways for people to discover and participate in cross-country skiing and biathlon,” he explains.
While Soldier Hollow is a world-class competition and training center, it caters to skiers of all types and experience, and is a great place to improve your skills and abilities. Youth programs, especially, are highly accessible for anyone in the valley, and all of the programs aim to ensure a high-quality, well-supported pathway for young people of every interest.
Luke points out, “Some want to learn to ski or to ski better. Some want the social aspects of being in programs with their friends, and learning the life lessons that youth sport offers.”
World-level competitions at Soldier Hollow are a great opportunity to showcase the sports of cross-country and biathlon to our valley and the world. The 2019 IBU World Cup was the first major biathlon event held at Soldier Hollow since the 2002 Olympics. As one of the nine stops on the IBU World Cup tour, Soldier Hollow hosted 180 athletes and 188 support staff from 29 nations and more than 500 volunteers from all over the country.
This event brought 5,000 spectators each day — 79% from outside Wasatch County and 7% from outside the U.S. Perhaps the most staggering result of this event was the television viewership of the international broadcast of the competition. The event was broadcasted to more than 50 million viewers around the globe with 42,896,32 hours of viewing world-wide.
Meet Our Local Coaches And Athletes
Zach Hall joined the Soldier Hollow team in 2016 and, as the biathlon program manager and head coach, is responsible for launching biathlon sports programs in the Heber Valley. As a former member of the U.S. Biathlon Team and an alternate for the 2010 Olympic team and 2011 World Championship team, Zach has a long history with biathlon as an athlete and a coach.
Zach is excited about the growing biathlon program in the valley. “The future is bright with Soldier Hollow continuing to develop its sport, public and corporate programs. On the near horizon are more world-level events and the very real possibility of another Olympic Games.”
Not long after Zach moved to lead the biathlon program, Sara Studebaker-Hall joined as the cross-country program manager. Sara is a biathlete who competed in two Olympic Games, three World Championships and over 100 World Cup competitions. In 2014, she helped lead the U.S. Women’s Biathlon Relay Team to a historic 7th place finish — the highest finish ever for the American women.
“I love staying involved in sport through coaching and program management, and being involved in the 2002 Olympic legacy that surrounds the Soldier Hollow venue,” Sara says. She has many years of coaching experience and is the biathlon representative to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee Athletes Advisory Council. She also serves as an athlete representative to the U.S. Biathlon Board of Directors.
Zach and Sara enjoy working together at helping young athletes achieve their goals. They met at Dartmouth College while on the ski team and now live in Heber with their one-year-old son. Zach and Sara, along with the other Soldier Hollow coaches, are committed to coaching at every level — from those looking to learn a new sport to those working toward competing at an elite level.
Those that develop an interest in becoming more involved with cross-country and biathlon can join the 50-plus Soldier Hollow team participants.
Local athletes Lina Farra, Kenyon Bethke and Sidney Bennion are making their way in the sport of biathlon. Last season, Lina, whose father was a cross-country ski Olympian in 1992, competed in Slovakia for Team USA at the Youth and Junior Biathlon World Championships. Kenyon and Sidney competed in Norway at the largest youth biathlon competition in the world, and Matthew Dalebout is hopeful to make the cross-country Junior National Team.
And if you think these athletes take it easy in the summer months, think again. Team Soldier Hollow works hard year-round. Sara explains, “Cross-country skiing and biathlon are fun but demanding sports and our team thrives because of the support we give each other.”
Whether you participate in winter sports simply to be outdoors, for fitness or even for competition, Soldier Hollow ranks amongst the best places in the nation to do so. While the buzz of a future Olympic Games is exciting for everyone, our local cadre of ex-Olympians will continue to serve the Heber Valley community with quality programs on the 16 miles of unparalleled cross-country trails at Soldier Hollow, meticulously groomed for all to enjoy.
As for our local cross-country and biathlon teams, Sara says it all: “We look forward to the hills being covered in white once more and putting on our race suits to represent the Heber Valley!”