An Olympic Hero Everyone Should Resolve to Be Like

01/03/2011 11:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


To kick off the New Year, I wanted to share a story on a man that everyone should resolve to be like. Shortly after my retirement from aerial skiing, I was elected to the U.S. Olympic Committee's Athlete Advisory Council. At my very first meeting, I was fortunate to hear a special Olympic guest talk about a program he'd started to help the most disadvantaged children in the world.

He told us about a young girl so traumatized by seeing both her parents killed in the Rwandan genocide that she became mute. She had, in fact, hidden under their bodies so she wouldn't be killed herself. After being encouraged to take part in this Olympian's sports and activity programs, the young girl finally uttered her first words in two years: "Pass me the ball."

Upon hearing the heart-wrenching story, I immediately knew that I wanted to -- no, had to -- get involved. Since that day, I have become one of their most avid volunteers. I found that giving back to those in need has filled my life with much greater meaning.

There is a quote I like by Dr. Albert Schweitzer: "I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know--the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve." One person I know is happy is that Olympic hero who started this phenomenal, charitable organization, and who has become one of my closest friends, Johann Olav Koss...

Johann Koss's Story


(Story from When Turtles Fly: Secrets of Successful People Who Know How to Stick Their Necks Out)

I must have looked deep in thought, or as deep in thought as an 11 year old can, when my grandmother glanced up from her weeding to ask, "You have something on your mind, don't you?"

"Yes, I was thinking that someday I want to be an Olympic speedskating champion like my hero, Eric Heiden, I want to be a doctor like my parents and I want to help children in Africa."

I immediately knew I had confided in the right person when a knowing smile broke across her face. "Johann, of course! You can do anything you want to do!" she said simply. And with my grandmother's staunch support, I set out to pursue my passions.

14 years later, I was positioned to take hold of my first dream: becoming an Olympic champion. The Olympics in 1994 were in my home country, Norway. As I entered the Olympic stadium in Hamar, I wasn't the best athlete, and many had doubts about my ability to perform well. But I had something special working for me. I had a woman in the first row who believed in me following my passions just as much as I did. For the first time ever, my grandmother was going to see me skate.

With minutes to go before my first race, somehow I had a feeling of inner strength, and I knew that I would better all my past efforts and achieve my best ever result.

It happened. Breaking a world record, I clinched the gold, and the support of my country.

As I stood on the podium that I had dreamed about my entire life, a curious question popped into my head. Why me? Why did I win, given all the other incredible competitors out there? The reason had to be more than a grandmother who shared a belief in her grandson's dream.

The question led me to only one answer: because I wanted to make a difference in the world, and with all the media attention garnered from my success, I could.

I immediately knew what that difference had to be: hope in the lives of the children in Africa. Six months earlier, I'd been invited to Eritrea as an ambassador for Olympic Aid. Throughout the trip I saw the effects that 30 years of civil war had on the helpless children of the region, who never had a chance to just be kids. I remember seeing eight-year-old boys who stood in awe, admiring the posters and statues of the martyrs liberating their country. Eric Heiden was my hero, but for these young boys, it was soldiers dying in war.

As I was watching these children, my optimism returned when I saw them cheering for some teenage cyclists who were passing through the town. I was inspired to believe that change could happen. Maybe if these children were able to take part in a more positive activity such as sports, or find new role models in athlete heroes, then their dreams would not be of becoming soldiers.

My newfound optimism surged again after I met a small group of 12-year-old boys. One was especially popular, and I asked them why. They answered, "Because he has long sleeves." When he showed up, I saw what had earned him his idol status. The long sleeves on his shirt could be tied into a knot, making an impromptu soccer ball for them to play with. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to admire the one guy in town lucky enough to have a long-sleeved T-shirt. Again, I saw the hope that sports could bring these children, not just for their physical health, but for their mental and social well-being.

As I stood on an Olympic podium, I remembered those children standing on a mound of dirt, in awe of a boy with a long-sleeved T-shirt. I vowed in that moment that I would use my accomplishments to somehow help them. Looking around at all the media and fans that had suddenly become my friends, I figured I could use my newfound influence to encourage their support for the children. I made a statement to the press announcing that I was donating my entire prize money to Olympic Aid to help the children of Eritrea and Sarajevo. I appealed to my countrymen's "soft inside" and asked them to share in my mission by donating just one and a half dollars for each medal Norway won during these celebratory games.

There was a much greater force motivating all Norwegian athletes to win medals now. We now had the passion to help these children driving us. Even in competitions where we weren't expected to place, we knew winning a medal would make a profound difference -- and it was enough to propel us to the top of the world stage. By the close of the Olympic Games, Norway had won 26 medals and we had raised 18 million dollars for children affected by war.

Over the next six years, I traveled around the world and met countless kids suffering from war, poverty and disease. It came as a disturbing surprise to learn few of them had an opportunity to play; play was a luxury. By the year 2000, I could not accept this any longer. After the Sydney Olympics were over, I followed my passion and built an organization to establish sustainable sports opportunities for the most disadvantaged children around the world. We created sports and play programs that would mobilize children and enhance their healthy physical and psychosocial development and build stronger communities.

While developing this organization, I also kept true to my goal of becoming a doctor, attending med school and earning my medical degree in 1999. At that point I faced the dilemma of choosing which career path to take; otherwise, I would be doing each job only half as well as I could.

In the end, I chose to focus on my charitable work, and develop Right To Play. I realized the organization I dreamed of building could reach more children and affect more change than I ever could as a doctor. In too many troubled areas, no one took sport and play seriously for a child's development. I knew these disadvantaged kids needed someone promoting their holistic development and all the positive effects of sport and play.

Many disadvantaged children don't have the support of a grandma encouraging them to pursue their passions. They often don't even have a grandparent living...or a parent, for that matter. But they now have me and Right To Play in their corner, encouraging sport and play to make a difference in their lives.

Motivational Weight Management Tip

My experience of working with the Biggest Loser contestants and Symtrimics has inspired me to leave motivational diet, health, and wellness tips at the end of all of my blogs. These tools will be driven from the actual advice shared in my weekly motivational Transformation Talks. This week's tip: If tomorrow never came, would you be happy with the health and fitness path you were taking today? If not, change your routine now. NO one wants to live with regrets! It's a great question to ask yourself from time to time to make sure you can look back and be proud of your journey.