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Local athletic programs target teens with Olympic dreams

In August, the U.S. Olympic Team dominated the international sports scene once again, this time at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Even with all of the controversy and disorganization going into the Games, these superstars returned home with a total of 121 medals – 46 of them gold.

In addition, they brought back for all sports enthusiasts a renewed energy and passion for sports.

As athletes who have been in the spotlight for years begin to retire, the U.S. is turning to younger athletes to carry the torch to the next games in Tokyo.

Colleges and club sports teams, including the athletic program of the University at Buffalo, are training this next generation of champions with increasing success.

UB track and field coach Vicki Mitchell believes that "the combination of experienced athletes and the very young, rising, future stars" was a major factor in the U.S. success in Rio.

Mitchell, who has been at UB for 18 years, points out that Buffalo is home to a growing athletics program that is "quickly being recognized as a real threat to the big schools. Our competitors know who we are and respect what we do," she says.

UB’s student-athlete program places special importance on "developing each individual athlete to his best potential, both in the classroom and on the field" and creating "an exceptional experience," she says.

For younger track and field athletes, Mitchell encourages them to join their high school teams, take advantage of USA Track and Field competitions held locally and nationally, and watch for "open track and field competitions" offered at numerous colleges.

Mitchell believes that the benefits from sports "are endless" and stresses that both academic and athletic success are necessary for a balanced college athletic career.

UB’s swimming and diving coach Andy Bashor agrees that the American athletes were "outstanding" and displayed "a lot of confidence" in Rio. He sees Ryan Murphy and Caeleb Dressel as rising stars who will continue American power in the pool.

In addition to these surging national swimmers, the UB swimming and diving program has seen "tremendous improvement and growth," according to Bashor, who is entering his 11th year with the team.

UB swimming "puts a lot of focus on the team," and the athletes are "like family," Bashor says. He sees the team’s time improvements and the university’s excellent quality of academics as reasons that the team continues to attract strong swimmers.

Younger kids interested in swimming are able to join both their school swim teams and local USA club swimming programs.

Western New York is home to very successful club swim teams, including Sweet Home Aquatics, the Clarence Swim Club and the Tonawanda Titans.

Like Mitchell, Bashor sees sports as a way for people of all ages to "learn how to commit to something, learn responsibility, and learn discipline." As the U.S. swimming team continues to rule the pool, the UB swimming and diving program is quickly growing and becoming a powerful team itself.

Shawn Burke, who has coached UB’s women’s soccer for eight years, feels that his team has built up a "reputation in Western New York" and has made itself "relevant on the national stage."

Burke credits both the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and Team Sweden for great performances in Rio. The American women, he says, "represented our nation well," but he believes "a lot of credit has to go to a well-run Swedish side for knocking them off."

Burke hopes his athletes come away with the knowledge that they "are getting a world-class education, becoming active members in the community, and working hard every day competing for championships."

UB’s student-athlete environment allows athletes to not only "find success on the field," but also to "grow as a person and truly have an impact on others."

Younger soccer players can benefit from "local clubs like Black Watch, WNY Flash and Empire United" that "offer a higher-level training environment and top level competition."

Participation in any athletic activities, according to Burke, teaches "the life lessons of dedication, teamwork, sacrifice, confidence, and so many more.

"The one thing we have in common is the game," says Burke, "and watching a team come together for a greater purpose than themselves is pretty special to witness."

Michael Sobol is a freshman at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute.


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