Sherry Von Riesen’s job with the U.S. Olympic Committee means her life didn’t change much after her kids left home.
“I’m a mom of four kids, and I just came into another mom job.”
Technically, she’s the athlete services coordinator, but everyone knows her as the “mom” of hundreds of aspiring Olympians and Paralympians who come through the Colorado Springs training center. Her small office is blanketed with photos, thank-you notes, and wedding announcements from 20 years with her “Olympic kids.”
Some of them live year-round at the sprawling campus with sport-specific gyms and — naturally — an Olympic-sized pool. The athletes jet all over the globe to compete, and when they come back to their training home, Von Riesen looks out for them, making sure rooms are clean and finding misplaced passports.
Skeleton athlete Veronica Day adores Von Riesen. When she stopped by to say hello, Von Riesen asked about Day’s parents visiting and then told her to pick something out of a bowl.
“What’s this? A rock?” Day asked, reaching into a pile of small, smooth stones individually wrapped in plastic baggies with a strip of paper. Von Riesen has been giving out these rocks since the 2000 Sydney summer games. Each one is a piece of inspiration.
“I always say the rocks find them. Many of the athletes, it seems to be right on. Whatever rock they pick, that’s what they need, and they take them with ‘em,” she said.
Day’s motivational missive read, “Creation of power. Clarity in thinking and amplifies your energy and thought.” Day said she’d carry it down the skeleton track.
Being the sage of the training center isn’t in Von Riesen’s job description, but neither is saving them from their worst fears, and she did that, too, for fencer Jimmy Moody.
“This is how you know Sherry cares about you,” Moody said, thinking back to a time when he walking across campus to the cafeteria after a tough workout.
“Sherry ran down to stop me,” he said. Moody has what he calls “a very human aversion to clowns,” and on that particular day fast food mascot Ronald McDonald was visiting the training center. Von Riesen, knowing about Moody’s fear of clowns, intercepted him.
Through laughter, Moody remembered Von Riesen telling him, “‘Jimmy, don’t go in there!’”
“She saved my life. It was amazing.”
Moody guesses the team mom could write a few books of stories that she won’t share with a reporter, but Von Riesen will give some hints about her role as counselor and advisor.
“I’ve had a lot of them cry on my shoulder,” she said. “Right before the games, it gets very stressful. And I’ll tell the athletes to come in, shut the door, and they can lay it at my feet, yell and scream at me, stomp, do whatever they need to do, because I’m not taking it home.”
Von Riesen knows each athlete has their original parents, many of whom make big sacrifices for their sons and daughters to get to the Olympic stage. She also knows that not being their real mom could be an advantage.
“I’m not a coach or USOC, or their parents, and they don’t have a history with me. So sometimes they listen to me more.”
The advice she gives to athletes most often is to believe in themselves. And yet, Von Riesen can tell that some have the ultimate drive to win, like two-time gold medal speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno.
“I remember when Apolo said he would do “Dancing with the Stars,” and I said, ‘what a great commitment.’ And he said, ‘no, I’m going to win it,’” she said.
Same thing with 23-time gold medalist Michael Phelps.
“They don’t go out on the field of play without planning on winning,” Von Riesen added.
Ohno did take home the “Dancing with the Stars” trophy, but a lot of athletes won’t win at everything, whether it’s in South Korea or the next Olympics. Medals are great, Von Riesen says, “but they all will come away with something amazing.”
Von Riesen will be in South Korea for whatever happens to Team USA. After all, she’s their rock.
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