Olympics have inspired a wave of young local athletes
NORWALK — As the likes of Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps soared and swam to Olympic glory in Rio de Janeiro, their exploits are inspiring legions of young athletes almost 5,000 miles away in Fairfield and New Haven counties.
One of the most-watched sporting events in the U.S. created a surge in participation in Olympic sports at local athletic complexes during and following its two-week run in Brazil. Coaches and managers at those sports centers said they are heartened by the increased turnout — and they want to use the excitement about the Olympics to develop sporting interests long after the games ended.
“We’re getting more phone calls because of what Simone (Biles) and the Olympic teams have done,” said Pat Riemersma, CEO of the Westport Weston Family YMCA. “The Olympics truly does spark interest and awareness.”
Many athletic establishments have seen an immediate impact from the Rio games, which occured last month.
At the Westport Weston Family YMCA’s Gymnastics Center in Norwalk, registration for this year’s gymnastics camp tripled projected numbers.
“They’re crazy about the Olympics,” Sally Silverstein, the gymnastics center’s director, said of participants.
The YMCA fielded many calls for its fall swimming and gymnastics programs.
At the Chelsea Piers Connecticut complex in Stamford — which offers 15 Olympics sports, including swimming and gymnastics — enrollment in its swimming camp jumped from 89 percent of its target level at the start of August to 118 percent two weeks later.
The dominance of American athletes, such as Biles in gymnastics and Ledecky and Phelps in swimming — the trio won a combined 13 gold medals in Rio de Janeiro — has fueled the interest.
“When you see somebody who is competing and does well, that’s when we get the influx of phone calls,” said Greta Wagner, Chelsea Piers Connecticut’s executive director. “I think the parents get inspired, and the kids get inspired. The phone rings and enrollment goes up.”
At the CrossFit Westport gym in Norwalk, the Olympics did not register any meaningful increase in new queries, according to membership director Heather Reardon. But she expects such a surge from a different source: the start of the school year, freeing up morning time for parents to get back into shape at the gym.
“Part of the CrossFit program we do, in addition to the cardio element, (is) a lot of Olympic lifts — we’re doing clean and jerk, we’re doing snatches,” Reardon said, referencing two Olympic weightlifting categories. “We had a (new) mom here this morning — she was able to do the Olympic lifts.”
Athletic directors and coaches said they want to see the excitement generated by the Olympics become long-term commitments by young athletes.
“You can think of it as a relay. They (the Olympians) do the first job of getting interest,” said Jamie Barone, Chelsea Piers’ aquatics director and head swimming coach. “Our job is to foster that interest and take it from an interest to something that they enjoy doing and, when they get to high school, that it’s something they’re truly passionate about. It should be something that they want to do because they love it, not because the Olympics come on.”