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Olympic athletes give back

Tess Civantos | Thursday, September 2, 2010

Three gold medalists, two from the U.S. Olympics team and one from the Paralympics team, encouraged Notre Dame students at a panel on Wednesday to fight for their dreams – and to give the fruits of their success back to their communities.

Sponsored by accounting firm Deloitte, the panel featured speakers Cullen Jones, winner of a 2008 gold medal in swimming; April Holmes, the world’s fastest female amputee; and Apolo Ohno, the most decorated American Winter Olympic athlete of all time.

Notre Dame was the first stop on a national tour that the athletes are taking with Deloitte.

Deloitte is the Official Professional Services Sponsor of the United States Olympic Committee.

The sponsorship is a part of Deloitte’s $50 million/3-year pro bono project to put the skills of its people to work for nonprofits.

Jim Jaeger, a 1983 Notre Dame alumnus and Deloitte Managing Partner of Talent, introduced the three Olympians.

“Deloitte is focused on excellence and service to clients and community,” Jaeger said. “That combined with the Olympics is a great fit.”

Jones spoke first, giving the audience a brief description of his background in swimming.

“I always had to work very hard at swimming. I was never a child prodigy [cough] Michael Phelps,” Jones said to audience laughter.

Jones’s mother enrolled him in swim lessons after he narrowly survived drowning at a local water park — a new hobby that earned him plenty of mockery on the playground.

“I was from the inner city, and being a kid that wore Speedos on the weekend put a target on my back,” Jones said.

In spite of the jibes, Jones went on to swim throughout high school and college. When he joined the Olympic team, he thought that the criticism was over — but that was before he went to his first Olympic meet.

“The French team was talking a lot of smack, saying ‘We’re going to crush these American Olympians,'” Jones said. “Then they stopped the meet because George Bush walked in the room. If that’s not a distraction, I don’t know what is.”

Despite the French team’s confidence, Jones said his years of work and effort paid off — “we beat the French team by one-hundredth of a second.”

Jones urged Notre Dame students to work toward their goals in spite of criticism, as he did.

Holmes said she had a great admiration for Notre Dame and was happy to be able to visit the campus.

“This is my first time on campus but I feel like I’ve been here before. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched Rudy,” she said. “Those folks at Notre Dame really like gold. I like gold too — just a different kind of gold. So I’m going to pass my gold medal around for all of you to look at.”

As the gold medal circulated through the audience, Holmes said she lost her leg in a train accident eight years ago, but today is the world’s fastest runner in the Paralympics.

“I want you to know what a gold medal feels like,” Holmes said. “So you can go and give it back to your communities. I didn’t win that medal by myself and so I pass it around everywhere I go. Be a gold medal winner; be a beacon of light in your communities.”

Ohno concluded the panel with his own story of success. Like the Notre Dame business students who attend the nation’s top-ranked business school according to BusinessWeek, Olympic athletes are ‘top-one-percenters’ who excel within their communities,” Ohno said.

“You’re all going to make it, you’re all going to be successful,” Ohno said. “But how are you going to give back to your communities?”

Like Jones and Holmes, Ohno urged his audience to not just pursue success as professionals, but to seek success as neighbors and good human beings.

“There’s no guarantee that you’ll be the next Warren Buffet, the next billionaire,” Ohno said. “But you can control how much effort you put in and how you impact the person next to you.”