Steamboat Springs Camden Wilkinson had an opportunity Wednesday that he didn’t think would ever be possible.
The Lowell Whiteman Primary School third-grader got to wear one of Johnny Spillane’s Olympic silver medals. Camden said it was fun. But the medal, he said, was heavy.
“It almost pulled my neck down,” he said.
In what is likely the beginning of a whirlwind tour, Spillane, a Whiteman Primary alumnus, visited the school in the afternoon. The U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team member recently returned to Steamboat Springs after winning three silver medals in the just completed Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.
After a brief introduction from his eighth-grade art teacher, Mike Ruzica, Spillane answered questions from students for more than 30 minutes in the school’s lunchroom.
Children wanted to know how heavy the medals are (a pound and a half), whether it was cold at the Olympics (not at all), if Spillane was tired after races (really tired), if ski jumping is scary for him (sometimes), what his favorite event was (team event), what it was like on the podium (an indescribable honor), if he prefers jumping or cross-country skiing (it depends on the day) and whether he’s been able to celebrate.
“We haven’t done anything,” Spillane said. “I can’t tell you how busy we’ve been since the last event.”
After the question-and-answer session, Spillane donned all three medals. The students’ mouths dropped open, and they gazed at him in awe for a moment before the room erupted in applause. Then the students jumped from seated positions on the floor to join him for a photo.
Spillane then signed autographs. As the students waited for him to sign pictures, clothing and even a scrapbook, his medals sat on the table. Students picked them up, and many put the medals around their necks.
“It was cool,” eighth-grader Dylan Parsons said. “Although it wasn’t mine, I kind of felt like what he would feel like there.”
Fifth-grader Nicole Zedeck barely could contain her excitement about Spillane’s visit to the school.
“I think it’s really cool,” she said. “It’s cool to meet an Olympian.”
Spillane’s mom, Nancy, who is Whiteman Primary’s head of school, said the students’ excitement throughout the day was obvious. She said they asked her about 50 times, “When is Johnny coming?”
Many parents of the more than 60 students were also on hand to hear Johnny Spillane speak.
Alan Rudolph’s daughter, eighth-grader Olivia, will compete in the Junior Olympics, which start today in Vail. He called Spillane’s visit to Whiteman Primary a “once in a lifetime experience” for his daughter.
“What an unbelievable experience to be able to sit here in a room with an Olympic silver medalist and to go on and compete herself,” Rudolph said. “It’s a great experience to live in a town like this, to be a competitive athlete in a town with people who excel at sports.”
At one point, while her son was answering questions, Nancy Spillane said she had to duck into the lunchroom’s kitchen because she was overcome with emotion — she was a self-described “mess.”
“My chest just swells with pride,” she said, and paused, “that he went to school here, that he grew up here, that this town has embraced his team and his sport. It’s pretty overwhelming.”
After all the students had left, Spillane said he was glad to be back in Steamboat, not only to see everyone after a successful Olympics, but just to be home.
“It’s fun to come back and share this with everyone who helped us get to this point,” he said.
Spillanes expecting 1st child in fall
Lots of people are congratulating Johnny Spillane these days, and not just because he brought home three silver medals from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Johnny and his wife, Hilary, learned a few weeks before the start of the Olympics that they were going to have a baby. It was welcome news for Johnny, who said it helped him put the Olympics in perspective long before he arrived at Whistler Olympic Park.
“There are things bigger in my life than what happens at the Olympics,” he said Wednesday evening. “This is so inspiring, and we are so excited about the news. It’s a very positive thing to think about, and it helped me realize that there is more to life than just performing well at the Olympics.”
The Spillanes are expecting the new arrival in September. Hilary said she is looking forward to becoming a mother.
“Oh, yeah, we are excited about it,” Hilary said. “This is going to change our lives, but it’s a change I think we are both looking forward to.”
Johnny said he has spent the past month adjusting to changes. He said things have been pretty busy since he won his first medal Feb. 14. He added another silver in the team event Feb. 23 and the final medal in his collection in the large hill event Feb. 25.
Since then, he has been on a nonstop media tour, talked to the president and had a chance to watch the gold medal hockey game last week.
Johnny Spillane said he was looking forward to traveling to the final World Cup of the season in Oslo, Norway, March 13 and 14. He said Oslo recently built a new jumping facility and that he is excited to give it a try.
The Nordic combined jumpers also plan to travel to Planica, Slovenia, March 18 to 24 for the Ski Flying World Championships. It will be the first time Spillane has taken part in the event, which is held on the biggest jump he’s competed on — HS215.
“Double the size of the big hill at Howelsen, and that would be close,” Spillane said. “The long jumps are around 240 meters.”
That’s roughly 100 meters more than the top Nordic combined athletes were jumping at the Vancouver Olympics — which was HS140.
— John F. Russell