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US Olympic Spirit Award Recognizes Commitment, Excellence - 2002-02-20

U.S. skier Picabo Street and skater Apolo Ohno are among the nominees for the U.S. Olympic Spirit Award, announced Tuesday in Salt Lake City. The award honors an athlete's character as well as performance.

Former gold medallist swimmer John Naber says the Olympic Spirit Award is about more than winning. It's about the road to get there. He earned four gold medals and a silver at the 1976 Summer Olympics, and is on the Spirit Award nominating committee.

So is former Olympic figure skater Brian Boitano, who announced some of the 16 nominees suggested by U.S. fans. The fans voted at the Olympics and over the Internet.

"One of them you'll know is skier Picabo Street, who has overcome major knee injuries that for two years sidelined her," Boitano said. "So we consider that an incredible way of persevering and going toward her goals."

Another Spirit Award nominee is skater Todd Eldredge, a former U.S. national champion who has competed in three Olympics, never winning a medal.

Nominee Apolo Anton Ohno was involved in a mishap Saturday, as four skaters collided in the men's 1000 meter speed skating race. "Apolo Ohno, who was sort of going down the wrong path as young kid and sort of redirected his focus so that he could become an Olympic contender and be at the top of his sport in speed skating, and it was reflected in his race the other night, where he went down and still crossed the finish line," said Boitano.

After cutting himself with his skate, Apolo Ohno went on to earn a silver medal.

U.S. snowboarder Chris Klug is also a nominee. Klug won a bronze medal in Salt Lake City after undergoing a liver transplant a year-and-a-half ago.

Former Olympic luge competitor Bonnie Warner says the Spirit Award honors athletes who compete with heart. "It's not necessarily a medal-winning performance," she said. "Maybe it is. But it's the type of spirit that goes into that, that this award represents."

John Naber says the Olympic Spirit Award was started to honor U.S. athletes. He sometimes wishes others were included. "There's no question in my mind that Stephania Belmondo, the Italian cross-country skier whose ski pole broke and she continued along the path until someone handed her another one, and it was the wrong size," he added. "And she continued to struggle until somebody handed her the right one. And having given up 50 yards on the field, she chased them down, passed them and won the gold, that's a wonderful story. I wish she was an American so we could give her the award. Sadly, she's from Italy."

Male and female winners of the U.S. Olympic Spirit Awards will be announced at the end of the games. The awards will be presented in New York by the city's former mayor, Rudy Giuliani, next Tuesday.