Olympians Giving Back: Summer Sanders

Feature by Chelsea Howard

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania, January 24. EVER wonder what Olympians do in "life after swimming"? Do they continue to find work around the pool or do they venture outside into the real world? Do they just lie around waiting for something to happen or do they do something that will change the lives of those they touch?

The truth is several Olympians have found a way to give back to the community that has taught them so much. It may be in small amounts by helping out here or there, or it may be through involvement in huge organizations.

Summer Sanders is one of those Olympians who is involved in helping younger generations learn what she has learned through her own experiences. She has certainly done her share of giving back to her community by helping children as they grow up and develop into aspiring individuals. She's known as a swimming legend, receiving four medals – two gold, a silver, and a bronze – from the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.

Sanders fell short of making the Olympic team in 1988 as a 15-year old.

"I was ahead for most of the race until the finish when two other girls passed me. The way reporters talked to me was as if my cat had just died, but it wasn't like that at all. I could taste what it was like going for an Olympic team, but at that time, I wasn't expecting to make the team," Sanders said. "That experience fueled my fire for the next four years as I trained towards making the 1992 Olympic team."

With high motivation and passion for the sport, Sanders qualified for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain as she set her mind towards reaching that goal.

"Swimming in Barcelona was a whirlwind. I experienced an extreme of every emotion. The experience was hard to comprehend as a 19 year-old since everything moved so fast that I didn't get to fully enjoy it. I was always thinking about what was up next and where I needed to be," Sanders said.

Sanders briefly retired in 1993, but attempted to comeback in 1996.

"I had a sponsorship and was hosting MTV, but a huge piece of the puzzle was missing. Something wasn't right. I woke up one morning and knew continuing training was something I needed to do. I needed to reconnect and challenge myself one last time," Sanders said.

When Sanders did not make the 1996 team, she was not overly disappointed.

"The experience acted as closure. It's what I needed to be able to appreciate the 1992 Olympics even more. I was reminded of how important the venue, teammates, and racing was to me," Sanders said.

After her comeback, she immediately jumped into building a television career and has been on many shows including The Today Show, Good Morning America, MTV, NBC, CBS, Rachael Ray, Celebrity Apprentice, and the host of Inside Stuff for the NBA and Figure it Out on Nickelodeon.

In addition to becoming a Television Personality, Sanders has become a part of many different associations and charities giving back to what has helped her become the character she is today.

Sanders has been helping out with Women's Sports Foundation, named as an ambassador for UNICEF in 1996, serves on the national advisory board of Positive Coaching Alliance, and has been a Right to Play ambassador since 1996, visiting several countries.

"Women's Sports Foundation is very important to me and every female athlete. My generation has to educate younger generations about Title IX and the opportunity it provides young women to pursue sports beyond high school. It's made to honor and equalize the hard work young girls give in sports. Without it, I wouldn't have been able to attend Stanford University on a scholarship, and I am so grateful to the generation before me that made that possible," Sanders said.

The other big foundation that Sanders is passionate about is The Right to Play. To raise money and awareness for this organization she joined the cast of the Food Network "Guy vs. Rachel: Celebrity Cook-off" television show. The vision statement of this organization is to create a healthier and safer world through the power of sport and play.

"We all have a common tie with the kids I work with through The Right to Play, which is the love of sports. We teach them so many life skills through games and sports such as conflict resolution, inclusion, leadership and health. Our motto is ‘Look after yourself. Look after one another.' It's amazing to see them love and learn first hand," Sanders said.

Sanders visited the children in Rwanda right after the 1994 genocide.

"I couldn't believe how high the spirits of these kids were after what had just happened. Their resilience was amazing. Being around these beautiful children who had seen such atrocity was very moving and inspiring," Sanders said.

Having the opportunity to teach these kids and be in this type of an environment was an honor for Sanders.

"Sometimes I feel I get more out of helping them than they do. These kids wanted to rebuild their community. I was empowered by their smile and it really lights you up on the inside to see their positivity under such conditions," she said.

Without swimming, Sanders would not have had the same opportunities to give back and help young children.

"I got a phone call from Johann Koss, an Olympic Speed Skater, in 1995 asking if I wanted to help with Right to Play. I was looking for some way to give back and knew this was the perfect fit. I was thrilled," Sanders said.

Sanders has used sports, particularly swimming, to continue educating what's important in not only an athlete, but also in a person.

"Through sports, one of the most important things I learned early on was accountability. I also learned about dealing with success and dealing with failure. But failures aren't really failures, they're opportunities to learn. You have control over the situation and can take your mistakes, work on them and improve," Sanders said.

Sanders also advises how important passion for the sport is in motivating athletes.

"You have to have passion for some aspect. My passion was working towards a goal. And, you have to figure out how to make the experience fun. I think every great athlete realizes, at some point, that natural talent only takes you so far. At some point you have to decide that you want to be great and that is when the real work begins. But it is also when the fun begins, when you get to dream of the Olympics and really go for it," Sanders said.

One phrase that Sanders was always reminded of while reaching her lofty goals came from her mother at bedtime.

"Every night my mom would say ‘Now remember, you can do anything you want to if you put your mind to it'. I always thought every kid was told that growing up, but later in life I realized that wasn't the case," Sanders said.

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