Olympic athletes: The heart and soul of the Games, they put U.S. winter sports on the map — for good.

Published: Monday, Feb. 6 2012 10:00 p.m. MST

Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt flies through the air in the men's combined downhill event at Snowbasin Ski Resort during the 2002 Winter Olympics, where he won the gold medal.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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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.

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