SALT LAKE CITY — With red, white and blue glitter streaked across her cheeks and a constant grin on her face, Shannon Bahrke knew but didn't care that the world underestimated her.
For the California native who'd nearly died from a staph infection two years earlier, being overlooked only fueled her resolve as she stood on at the top of that mogul course at Deer Valley, on Feb. 9, 2002, listening to the chants of U-S-A.
"I visualized (winning an Olympic medal) in my head about a million times," said the mogul skier, who won the first Olympic medal of the Salt Lake Games. "So no matter what anybody said, I thought, 'I'll show these guys who is going to win.' Leading up to the games, I had so much confidence. I'd won a World Cup a couple of months before. I knew I had a legitimate shot, and that was good enough for me."
That grit, that resolve, that determination came to define not just the athletes who won a record setting 34 medals exactly a decade ago this month, but the volunteers, fans and organizers of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games that wowed the world just five months after terrorists delivered an excruciating blow to the carefree American lifestyle with the Sept. 11 attacks that killed 2,819 people.
The athletes took center stage at the 2002 games from the very first moments as members of the 1980 Olympic hockey "Miracle on ice" team lit the Olympic cauldron during Opening Ceremonies on Feb. 8 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
And then day after day, U.S. athletes shocked the winter sports world and reminded this country that perseverance has always defined us, even at our darkest moments. Every discipline had set lofty goals, and it became clear most would be reached. First Bahrke won her silver medal and then hours later, speed skater Derek Parra won his first medal, a silver, in the 5,000 meters.
"It adds a little something extra special after Sept. 11th (terrorist attacks)," Bahrke said back then as she choked with emotion. "I know me winning a medal makes a lot of other Americans proud. I'm just really happy."
The Salt Lake Games had struggled with scandal in 1999 that caused a change in leadership. Then a scoring scandal rocked one of the Olympic Games' most popular events — figure skating. And throughout the games, security was on the minds of everyone — including competitors.
"I remember going to the jump site and seeing snipers hanging out in the trees," said aerialist Eric Bergoust, who won a gold medal in 1998, finished 12th in 2002, and who now coaches the U.S. aerial skiers in Lake Placid. "It was a weird feeling."
But in 16 days of competition, there would be no major problems and much praise for that atmosphere and energy. And it would be U.S. athletes, many of whom worked two jobs while training in their sport, who would provide some of the most inspiring storylines.
Often they were unlikely sports heroes, with one truth ringing out in the wake of the 2002 Games — America is no longer an also-ran when it comes to winter sports.
"I think having an Olympic Games in your home country, well, it's a couple of things," said USSA president Bill Marolt. "We had tremendous support, corporate support, fan support, donor support. And having those things gave us momentum as we went out of the games. It was a huge advantage in almost every respect. There is no question that 2002 was a big part of our long term ability to succeed."
By the time the 2010 Vancouver Games rolled around, 15 Olympians either moved to or were born and raised in Utah, while another 45 trained extensively in the state on facilities built for the games.
When Bahrke looks back at the 2002 Games, she is overwhelmed with not just her accomplishment but with what it came to mean.
"I can't believe it's 10 years ago," laughed Bahrke, who retired from mogul skiing after winning a bronze medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. She now lives in Salt Lake City and owns her own business, Silver Bean Coffee Company. "That's the first thing I think. But honestly, I really think (that moment) was such a turning point in my life. Achieving something like that is just incredible. To have it happen at 21 years old, it catapulted not only my life as a skier, but me as a person. You gain so much confidence. That was really the beginning of my journey, who I was as a person and as a skier."
Here's a rundown of some of the top performances by U.S. athletes in the 2002 Games
Kelly Clark. The day after Bahrke won the first U.S. medal, the 18-year-old Vermont native won the country's first gold in snowboarding. Ten years later, she is still competing, earning a bronze in Vancouver and winning an X Games gold just a few weeks ago.
Jim Shea, Jr. Skeleton's Shea tucked a photo of his gold-winning grandfather, Jack Shea, into his helmet and then sped down the track at the Utah Olympic Park to an Olympic Gold medal. Jack Shea had died in a car accident a few months earlier, and Jim wore his grandfather's gold medal onto the podium when he received his own. Ten years later he plans to attempt an Olympic comeback, but this time in bobsled.
Ross Powers. The soft-spoken snowboarder led the young American squad to an Olympic first — a podium sweep in snowboarding. Powers won gold with Danny Kass earning silver and JJ Thomas claiming bronze. Ten years later, he's still competing but has also used his wealth and platform to help other athletes by starting the Level Field Fund, which gives financial assistance to budding athletes.
Derek Parra. The first Mexican-American to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics, the humble Home Depot employee finished the games with two medals and a legion of fans. Ten years later he works at the Utah Olympic Oval where he won his medals, teaching youngsters the sport of speedskating.
Bode Miller. He won two silver medals, both in dramatic fashion in Alpine skiing. He became the first American man to win a medal in the combined event, and then he moved from seventh to second in the giant slalom. Ten years later he is still skiing for the U.S. Ski Team and remains one of its most successful and decorated skiers.
Apolo Anton Ohno. Competing in his first Olympic Games, Ohno became a heartthrob with his gutsy speedskating and charming way. He earned two medals (gold in 1,500 and silver in 1,000) but he was expected to win four. He emerged as one of the most popular athletes from the 2002 Games. Ten years later he's had an historic career earning more medals than any other winter sport athlete (8). He's currently taking time away from the sport and involving himself in business ventures, but friends said a 2014 Olympic run is not out of the question.Comment on this story
Sarah Hughes. The teenage powerhouse turned in a nearly flawless freeskate performance and bested Russian powerhouse Irina Slutskaya and skating icon Michelle Kwan to take the gold in figure skating. And like everything in figure skating in 2002, there was controversy. The Russians protested the result, but the judges' decision stood. A controversy involving Russian and Canadian pairs skaters, dubbed "Skategate" eventually led to sweeping changes in the way figure skaters are judged.
Joe Pack. The state's native son won a silver medal in his hometown in aerials. He promptly declared Park City football to be king and said he planned to celebrate by walking the streets of hometown thanking everyone for their support.
Tristan Gale. This New Mexico native became a testament to what the state could produce with the newly constructed Olympic Park in Park City. She moved to Salt Lake City to become a skeleton racer, and ended up earning a gold medal in the 2002 Games. Ten years later she lives in Reno, Nev., is married and attending college.Heady goes here