Olympic spirit lives amid flames

USOC staffers marvel over efforts of Colorado Spring populace helping those in danger

"It's Armageddon here.''

Patrick Sandusky tweet June 26

From his home at the ridge of the Rocky Mountains a few miles from Colorado's most destructive fire ever, Patrick Sandusky kept assuring his wife, Kate, that the flames never would reach their neighborhood as they watched their city burn.

But not even Sandusky, the U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman, fully believed his positive spin. The man who played a major role in the Chicago 2016 bid knew crisis firsthand: Sandusky was stuck on an underground train during the 2005 London tube bombings and stranded in 2010 when Icelandic ash stopped European travel.

This was worse. This was personal.

The Waldo Canyon wildfire spared Sandusky's house in Colorado Springs, Colo., but has destroyed at least 347 homes in its path and forced the evacuation of more than 30,000 residents in the city that houses the U.S. Olympic complex and USA Swimming headquarters. Neighborhoods vanished. News anchors cried. As of Saturday, two people had died.

"Very scary,'' said Sandusky, a native of Bourbonnais who played football at Northern Illinois. "It grew from something that looked like it would be easily contained to a raging inferno of epic proportions. I know that sounds a bit verbose but it was. It was extraordinary.''

Sandusky used the same word to describe the efforts of the 1,100 firefighters who are working 20-hour days and the USOC staff that has rallied to support 40 of its 200 employees forced from their homes. Beginning July 27, Americans will celebrate examples of indomitable will and unwavering perseverance that captivate us once every four years. But the Olympic spirit Sandusky promotes for a living is on national display in his hometown thanks to people whose face never will appear on the front of a cereal box.

As a result of that moxie, Sandusky believes the devastation will have minimal impact on USOC operations beyond the quarterly meeting canceled Thursday. Even if three USOC employees who lost their houses and dozens of other evacuees tend to their families first, as instructed, Sandusky anticipates the adversity uniting the staff.

"I think having people help their colleague up when they fall makes everybody feel more part of one team,'' Sandusky said. "I know that sounds corny, but you could really see it.''

He saw it in the daily deluge of USOC inter-office email offering displaced employees roofs over the heads of their family and pets. He saw it in the way the U.S. Olympic Training Center opened dorm rooms for as many as 100 evacuated families. He saw it in the way the 18 Olympic athletes on campus gave their time to kids no longer with bedrooms.

Generosity and gumption abound in Colorado's second-largest city, from hotels supplying discount rooms to neighbors taking in so many needy families that the shelter population stayed in the hundreds. Example: Barbara Reichert, a former Tribune sports copy editor and now the U.S. Figure Skating director of communications, credited the competitiveness of firefighters for saving her house — one of three still standing in her Mountain Shadows neighborhood.

"We have survivor's guilt but vow to be the cornerstones of rebuilding,'' Reichert said. "The Olympic city is unique and full of fight. This is difficult but nothing we cannot endure.''

Bob Condron, retired USOC media director, echoed that pride over the city he has lived in for 28 years. Condron spent the week volunteering at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Nebraska and monitoring events back home on his iPhone for colleagues clinging to hope. Not until late Thursday night did Condron discover his house, which his wife evacuated, survived.

For 48 hours Condron kept his spirits afloat watching swimmers.

"Through the darkness and despair, it brought a relief to see some guys realize their dream,'' Condron said. "The hard part is some people will be going to London shortly and won't have homes to come back to.''

Keith Bryant, a USOC spokesman, feared he would be one of those people when he hastily packed the family dog and three bags of valuables into his car Tuesday night and left home on the eastern edge of the evacuation zone. Driving through a "giant orange cloud of smoke,'' Bryant felt relieved his wife and kids were out of town while he spent a work week unlike any other.

The experience convinced Bryant he won't observe any greater resolve as Olympic Village press chief in London than he just witnessed.

"Obviously it has been tough to focus,'' Bryant said. "But everybody has banded together knowing we have a job to do but also making sure we take care of friends and colleagues affected by this.''

Not even an unquenchable fire can destroy what the Olympic flame represents.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh
 
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