WRITTEN BY Laura Thompson
Peachy writer Laura Thompson recently caught up with Summer Sanders and Summer shared with us her thoughts on her busy life, her love of giving something in return and, of course, her experience as an Olympian.
Preparing to interview an Olympic Gold Medalist was exciting, an honor—and somewhat intimidating. But when speaking by phone with Summer, I realized that my jitters were for naught: She was open, generous and easy going as she offered her insights on marriage, children, sports, fitness, goal-setting and attainment. What could be more inspiring than hearing the story of her determination, tenacity and strength on the long road to Olympic glory? Sanders is, indeed, the very definition of inspiration.
The Roseville, California, native now calls Park City home. She lives with her husband, Eric Schlopy—a three-time member of the US Olympic Ski Team—and her two children: seven-year-old Skye and five-year-old Spider. Sanders’ daily family life includes carpools and sports practices; her “working” life includes traveling across the country seeking innovative fitness trends as well as traveling the world to report on international sporting and Olympic events.
The following is our extraordinary conversation.
PEACHY MAGAZINE: Tell me about your background, your Olympic aspirations as a child and the road to where you are today.
SUMMER SANDERS: I had the vision, the dream, to swim in the Olympics from a very young age. But I had always wanted to be on TV. I wanted to be an actor. I was very shy as a young girl, so my mother enrolled me in acting classes to help me come out of my shell. Once I did, I never went back. A friend and I used to make up our own sitcoms taping them on a tape recorder, which is hilarious to think about.
PM: How did you make the transition from student and Olympic athlete to TV commentator?
SS: I wanted to be on TV but I wasn’t handed a microphone just because I won a gold medal. From the start, right out of Stanford, I worked hard, traveled constantly and took every opportunity that I was given. Out of college, I moved to Los Angeles and then moved to Colorado for a bit. It was a place to put my things as I traveled from coast to coast. I then had the amazing opportunity to work on Inside Stuff. I love basketball and the NBA, so it was a terrific opportunity, but moving to New York City was a major culture shock for this Cali girl. It was a big shift but it also was a great professional opportunity. I soon learned how small New York is. Each borough is like its own country and even each 5 to 10 block neighborhood is like its own city. You start to see the same people and the neighborhood soon feels small and not so overwhelming. I met my husband on a blind date in New York City and once we married we moved to Park City. Moving frequently after college to pursue work opportunities taught me that I can live anywhere. This is something that I want my kids to understand. My husband and I make a point of showing our kids different places in the United States and around the world.
SS: I have always been curious about fitness, but a few years ago I had a wake-up call. A couple of years ago my husband asked me to help him move a cooler. I couldn’t do it. I was so weak. I was almost 40 and I wasn’t—overall—as fit as I wanted to be. This lead me to explore new ways of working out and soon my business partner and I started Find Your Fitness (a regular installment on the msn.com Healthy Living site) where I have tried new fitness trends. I tried and often failed.
PM: What was the hardest activity you have tried?
SS: With Find Your Fitness I have tried barre classes, spin classes, aerial yoga. The hardest thing I tried and failed at, but then grew to love, was stand-up paddleboard yoga. After living in Park City, paddleboarding back in California was amazing—fed my soul. Even when I fell, which was a lot, I loved it. I was also terrible at aerial yoga at Crunch in NYC. I can no longer stand flipping or spinning—too dizzy—I blame it on having children messing up my equilibrium.
PM: What was the feedback you received from viewers?
SS: The feedback I received from viewers was great. People felt inspired, not just because I tried and failed, but because it inspired them to try something new—and that we’re all in this together. I think Find Your Fitness demonstrated that even though I am an Olympic athlete, there are still things I need to work at. If you’re perfect at something you shouldn’t be doing it, you should do the things that are hard.
PM: Do you see this carry over to your family, your children specifically?
SS: This definitely carries over to my kids. They are willing to try new things whether it is something new to eat, a performance, a craft, or sport. Hopefully this will teach them to not be afraid to fail.
PM: Aside from being unafraid, or less afraid, to fail, is there something unique about Olympic athletes—an “X” factor? Something that pushes them that much farther, to work harder and to go for their goals without fear?
SS: Yes, I would say that there is something unique about Olympic athletes, swimmers in particular. The training and the time, it is consuming. A coach or a parent can only influence an athlete so much. With Olympic-level athletes something clicks that gives them the dedication and determination from within to work harder and push further.
PM: Will you talk about how you lever-age your platform as a world-class athlete to inspire others to get fit, get involved and give back?
SS: With Find Your Fitness we demonstrate that there is always something new to try or a new goal to attain, whether you have an Olympic gold medal or not. But the important thing is keep evolving and not being afraid to try.
PM: Which local organizations do you find inspirational?
SS: I have been a part of Running With Ed in Park City and I love it. This annual running race raises money for the K–12 public schools in Park City, particularly targeting art, music, science and sports. It is a terrific 30 to 40 mile (distance depending on the course each year) relay race. Some people run it alone, some students run it as a team, or parents run as a team. My friends and I have a great time but we take it seriously, passing the baton with precision. It is a ton of fun and each team raises tons of money. I love to be a part of this event and to have a direct impact on raising funds for my children’s public school education.
PM: Tell me more about Right To Play and other international philanthropic opportunities.
SS: Right To Play is an international organization with a mission to empower and educate children through sport and play to overcome the effects of conflict, poverty and disease in disadvantaged countries. I have been a Right To Play Ambassador for about 20 years. I have made two trips overseas with the program—first to Rwanda right after the genocide in 1995 and to Sierra Leone. Right To Play began as Olympic Aid in 1994, and it strives to positively impact the lives of children around the world through sport. This is an organization aimed at helping children that has figured it out.
I will never forget the smiles of the children who I met on my trips. They smile just like my kids smile and light up with confidence and acceptance when given an opportunity to learn. These children are given life lessons on the field, which can help them on the path to becoming a participating, upstanding member of their community.
PM: It’s hard to imagine your experiences, in Rwanda, specifically, so soon after the genocide.
SS: What Right To Play hopes to accomplish is to allow these children to feel human again after living through terrible things. It is hard to explain to people at home the experiences I had in Rwanda and Sierra Leone, but they were just was incredible. The children I met wanted to and were excited to join in Right To Play, and I had to match their spirit and their happiness. I have also been a UNICEF ambassador, raising funds for their programs. I have not been as active with UNICEF recently, but I fully believe in its programs and always want to do as much as I can for its relief efforts.
Q & A with Summer
PM: Who was your inspiration when you were a kid?
SS: My parents and my brother. Michael Jordan and Tracy Caulkins.
PM: What is your favorite memory of the 1992 Olympics?
SS: Driving into the Olympic Village and seeing the Olympic rings for the first time. We had been training in France for weeks. When we arrived in Barcelona and I saw the Olympic rings, I knew we were finally there, at the Olympics, and I let myself cry. I was so excited.
PM: Where do you keep your gold medals?
SS: I used to keep them in a sock drawer and then we taped a show at my house so they built a case where they could be displayed. But now they’re back in a drawer. If they’re in the drawer, I know where they are.
PM: Do you let your kids touch your medals or let others see them?
SS: Yes! I let everyone touch them. They have all sorts of dings and scratches but that’s fine with me. It gives them personality. For me to share them with my children or friends is to show them my journey and it allows the person holding the medal to have their own journey.
PM: In addition to winning the gold in 1992, what was the most interesting Olympic moment or story that you have witnessed?
SS: Cathy Freeman at the Sydney Olympics (in 2000). Track and field is so amazing. The stadium was huge and at the start flashbulbs flashed all over the stadium. To see what she accomplished was amazing.
PM: Who is the most impressive athlete you have ever met?
SS: That’s tough! In my day, I would say Michael Jordan. Jackie Joyner Kersee. There are so many amazing athletes.
PM: Where is your favorite pool?
SS: Indianapolis. Without a doubt. And seeing my name inscribed on that wall by the man in the tuxedo—watching him stencil my name on the wall was incredible.
PM: What is the scariest place that you have competed at or worked (commentated)?
SS: I wouldn’t necessarily say scary, but interesting: Estonia in 1989. That was a different time. Communism was just starting to crumble. I was in junior high school and it was my first big trip.
PM: What motto or words do you live by?
SS: Everything in moderation. Enjoy every day. Work hard, have fun, be accountable.
PM: Who or what inspires you?
SS: My kids. My friends. Kind moments shared from stranger to stranger.
PM: What makes your life abundant?
SS: My family.
For five years, hundreds of Park City residents of all ages have joined the Running With Ed effort, a 38-mile, 10-leg relay race that criss-crosses the Park City area. You can run as an individual or as members of teams. This past May, 850 runners, 400 walkers, 300 volunteers, and most of Park City came out to party and raise money for the Park City Education Foundation raising $157,000 Site Grant for the Park City School District.
Right to Play evolved from Olympic Aid, a program initiated at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. Founded in 2000 by three-time Olympic gold medal winning Norwegian speed skater Johann Olav Koss, Right To Play launched its first programs in 2001 in Ivory Coast and Angola with the mission to use sport and play to educate and empower children across the world. Right To Play now operates in more than 20 countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. In 2012, Right To Play reached one million children through its weekly programs. Right To Play is starting pilot programs in certain areas in the United States, the Bronx being one, where children need the same opportunity to learn and love to play.