When Michelle Farrell’s mother enrolled her in gymnastics, she was just hoping that her spirited 5-year-old daughter would sleep through the night.
By 13, Farrell was competing at the elite level. At 15, she won a silver medal in the 1984 Olympic Games — held in her hometown of Los Angeles — which set in motion a 30-year career with the U.S. Olympic movement. Farrell has worked in organizational sport performance for both the U.S. Olympic Committee domestically and various international organizations, as well as a combined seven Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Now Farrell, who currently oversees athlete engagement for the U.S. Olympic City Task Force, is helping other Olympians and Paralympians share their stories through her work as an adviser with the upcoming U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum and Hall of Fame, which is slated to open in spring 2020.
“We always have that touch point every two years with an Olympic and Paralympic Games for spectators and viewers to watch those moments, and I think the museum has the opportunity to take a more robust look at the life of an athlete,” Farrell said. “Team USA belongs to everybody, every American, unlike a professional sports team that’s geographically based. It’s the only team that the whole country is a part of, and I’m hoping people can take pride in that.”
Farrell holds a bachelor’s degree in human nutrition from Arizona State University and a master’s degree in exercise science from UCCS. She sat down with the Business Journal this week to discuss the Olympic movement’s push toward inclusivity and athlete well-being, and the role the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum and Hall of Fame can play.
Had you always planned to continue your work with the Olympic movement?
With getting a degree in nutrition, I thought I was going to be in the sports nutrition space. For a while, I was coaching and did talks with gyms. I think it took me in a little bit of a different direction, but still in sports. For me, my experience of the Games had a great impact. I feel — like I think other athletes do — a bit of responsibility to carry on that experience.
… My journey as an athlete began very young. I was 15 and had a whole lifetime ahead of me, but I think that my Olympic experience has been instrumental in the other things that I’ve done in my field. … I worked with the city of Colorado Springs back in 2006 to build a wheelchair-accessible playground at Memorial Park. … My older daughter has spina bifida so she’s a wheelchair user. I think in some ways, when I look back on my experience, I wonder if it was preparation to do a project like that.
So is the recent name change to the Games to include the Paralympic movement especially important to you?
I think it’s fantastic. My older daughter plays wheelchair basketball at the University of Illinois [at Urbana-Champaign]. Growing up in Colorado Springs, she’s been able to be around those who are fairly big in the Paralympic movement, and she’s now living her dream of being able to play a collegiate sport, so we’re a little closer to the Paralympic movement in that regard.
… As the work we’re doing on the museum continues and as we get to know more about a lot of the Paralympic athletes — I feel like we have riches of information and stories to tell, especially from the Paralympic side. It’s exciting.
What were your initial thoughts when you were asked to be an adviser for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum and Hall of Fame?
I was excited because I think athletes love to talk about their experiences, and we have so many great athletes who have so many amazing stories to share about their journey. Oftentimes athletes will not talk so much about their performance, but about the journey and what it took to get there, and I think those stories have great touch points for everybody. The life experiences of athletes are universal for many people, and I think it’s nice for the museum to share those stories so visitors can connect even more so with athletes. Our hope is that, with the museum, we can inspire people to be their “Olympic best.” … You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to live the Olympic ideals, and I think the museum can convey not a sport experience, but a life experience.
Talk about your work as an adviser.
Right now, if I were to capture the main theme of the work that I’m doing, it’s athlete engagement. How do we continually work with athletes who’ve had an Olympic or Paralympic experience to make sure that we’re providing an authentic visitor experience? … We’re working in partnership with StoryCorps, the NPR program, on a project that is kind of an oral history of America, so we got the opportunity to record about 20 interviews with about 50 or so athletes. It was three days of just feeling energized, with not only capturing great and wonderful histories from these athletes, but then … once you get an athlete talking about their career, you can see that energy when they would come out of their interview, and then continue the conversation. … So if that’s just a glimpse of what we have the opportunity to do at the museum, I think we’re pretty excited about the future.
Why do you think Colorado Springs is a good place for this kind of institution?
It’s the home to the Olympic and Paralympic Committee. Roughly 25 national governing bodies call Colorado Springs home and headquarters, and we have many athletes who not only live and train here, but continue to live here after they’ve retired. We use a little term: “It’s the athlete next door.” You may not know who your neighbors are, but there could be a chance that you’ve got either a former resident athlete or an Olympic or Paralympic athlete in your neighborhood.
How have you seen the Olympic movement change?
There was a great shift back in the early 2000s that was very focused on supporting athletes and performance. I think we’re now in another phase of change and shifting priorities to athlete health and well-being. I’m happy to see that shift in momentum continue. A lot of people are using the term “athlete life cycle,” and I think the perspective back in the early 2000s was to really focus in on that sweet spot of making an Olympic team and competing at that level.
Honestly, the athlete life cycle is much more broad than that, and I’m very happy to see a shift in approach to look at what the environment is for athletes and for the sport — making sure that it’s safe, healthy and supportive. Not only giving the athletes the support they need when they’re competing at the highest level, but then what are we doing for athletes when their careers are starting to wind down and they make that transition from being an athlete to finding a job and career?
What role can the museum play in that life cycle?
The museum also fits a unique space in that cycle to help celebrate the legacy and history of athletes, which is important. … So many athletes have given so much of their life and their time, and often times when they’re finished with their career, there’s not a landing spot for them. … For an athlete to come to the museum and feel like, ‘Gosh, I was part of this wonderful experience and now we’re celebrating it here at the museum’ … can be a great part of that life cycle.