If you're like me, and lots of other people, you're completely enthralled with the Olympic Games happening right now in London. I find them amazing with many inspirational stories, aspirational athletes, tremendous accomplishments and huge excitement!
It might surprise you to learn that behind many of our athletes are people who are Making a Difference. From the official sports governing organizations that make it possible for today's athletes, and future athletes, to get the training that allows them to follow their dreams to the schools and communities that support training and travel, it truly takes a village of support to become one of the chosen who represents our country at the Olympics. And, in a wonderful turnabout, so many of these athletes pay it forward! They use the same dedication, commitment and "never say no" attitude that got them to the pinnacle of their sport to help others by working to make a difference for causes that are important and close to their own hearts.
Organizations SUPPORTED BY athletes (gold medal athletes, in fact)
Many of us have watched all-time swimming great Michael Phelps (who is competing in seven events in the current Olympics) during the past few days. He started The Michael Phelps Foundation in 2008 with a program for Boys & Girls Club members and Special Olympians to encourage health and fitness activities to empower kids through goal setting. The Foundation was created with the $1 million bonus Phelps won from sponsor Speedo for his record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics!! This is a shining example of someone giving back and Making A Difference!
US Women's soccer superstar Mia Hamm, through her foundation, raises awareness and funds for bone marrow disease research and helps transplant patients and their families who are going through the process of bone marrow transplants. Mia was moved to action after her brother, Garrett, died from complications associated with aplastic anemia. She is definitely Making A Difference!
And it is not only Summer Olympians who are giving back. Olympic ice skating champion Kristi Yamaguchi founded the to fund programs for children - supporting existing efforts that do things such as purchasing computers for an after-school mentoring program, giving underprivileged kids a shopping spree for back-to-school clothes, holding holiday parties at children's shelters and sending kids with disabilities to summer camp. Instead of creating their own programs that would compete for funding, the Always Dream Foundation supports programs that are already doing a good job and gives them more opportunities.
And even though the most decorated gymnastic (man or woman) in US history, Shannon Miller, is not competing in London, she still gives back. Her foundation focuses on fighting childhood obesity and supports thousands of kids ages 5 to 14 through a free in-school program that helps kids get physically active and gives them essential knowledge about nutrition. Shannon Miller is committed to Making A Difference!
A shining example of athletes giving back can be witnessed by legendary tennis star Billie Jean King who never was an Olympic athlete but coached the Olympic Tennis Teams in 1996 and 2000. In 1974 she founded the Women's Sports Foundation dedicated to advancing the lives of girls and women through sports and physical activity as well as fighting to make sure the hard-won gains of the past forty years aren't lost. The Foundation provides scholarships and grants, educates and advocates, and also provides funds for research and public awareness efforts that expand opportunities for women and girls. In 2000 they were awarded the International Olympic Committee's first Women in Sport Award for the Americas.
Another gold medalist, snowboarding master Shaun White, takes time off from his multi-sports career to do extensive charity work for a variety of organizations, including Summit on the Summit. This organization takes groups of people to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro (!) to raise awareness, support organizations and bring clean water to the more than 1 billion people on the planet who live without it.
These are just a few examples of athletes giving back and there are many more just like them - champions giving back and Making a Difference (M.A.D.). Some might say these athletes had it easy and that is why they are able to give back, or that they now make a lot of money and should do these types of things. I would argue that while it can be easy to criticize good works it is important to remember that each of these athletes has a story - many filled with great sacrifice made by them and their families. Some had heartache during their competing years; one only has to think of speed skater Dan Jansen learning moments before his race of his sister Jane's death from leukemia. But they do bounce back with amazing resilience and determination. It should be noted that after Dan's gold medal win years later in Lillehammer, Norway he founded the Dan Jansen Foundation to make a difference.
Here are just a few examples that might inspire something in you, too:
Organizations FOR athletes
In the same way that you and your community may rally around to raise funds to send your local softball team to a major tournament, America's athletes often don't get to the Olympics, or receive the training and support they need, without the help of many organizations and individuals. Since 1894 the US Olympic Committee provides financial support and special programs for athletes as well as coaching education programs in support of the American Olympic and Paralympic teams.
So what can you do? Here are five (5) ways you can celebrate the Olympic games - and begin Making a Difference:
1) Search the Internet for the governing body of an Olympic sport you love and learn about it; then donate to their programs to prepare athletes for the next Olympic games
2) Go to the website of your favorite athlete or sports team to find out about their causes and ways you can help; most sports teams and athletes are affiliated with a charity near and dear to them
3) Get moving -- you can honor the spirit of sport by being active yourself and raise money while you're doing it through charity walkathons, bikeathons or marathons
4) Show your support for our Olympians by flying the American flag during the Games
5) Watch the games! Athletes may compete for their country but the fans at home truly make a difference to them!
BONUS TIP: Organize an Olympic Style Fundraising Event! My sister-in-law, Danielle, and her friends are doing a wine tasting with each participant bringing wine from a particular country to taste. They will award a gold, silver and bronze medal to the top wines. I recommend adding a twist with each participant giving a $5 or $10 donation in order to "enter their wines" into the competition. The money raised could be donated to your favorite nonprofit, charity or cause! (You can also do this with other beverages and food ... or with a bake-off!)
The Olympic games are a standard of excellence that is made even worthier of acclaim by recognizing -- and being part of -- the great work athletes do in supporting people and organizations that need their help. You can, in your way, be part of the Olympic movement; just start Making A Difference (M.A.D.) today by implementing one of the ideas in this blog -- or one of your own. You are sure to be M.A.D.!
Follow Lisa M. Dietlin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lisadietlin