Former Olympian reflects on pain and pride |

Former Olympian reflects on pain and pride

summit daily news
Summit Daily/Mark Fox

KEYSTONE – When 68-year-old Jana Hlavaty sits on her couch in Keystone watching the winter Olympics this week, she will feel a twinge of pain – not the kind of pain that’s inevitable as a body creeps toward 70, but the kind of pain a body half her age feels when it is pushed to the upper limits of human capability.

“I think most people watch it, and they see it as more glamorous,” Hlavaty said from her office at the Keystone Nordic Center, the day before Vancouver’s opening ceremony. “I see all the hard work, the lifting weights, improving balance, strapping on your heart monitor, the a.m. workouts, the p.m. workouts.”

Hlavaty’s deep empathy for the hard work of Olympic athletes comes from her own experience as a competitor on the U.S. Nordic Ski Team at the 1976 Games in Innsbruck, Austria. An endurance racer, she competed in the 5k, 10k, 20k and relay races. The experiences of being an Olympic athlete and all it took to get there instilled in her an unwavering dedication to a sport she still loves.

“It amazes me. I’ve been involved in skiing actively for 50 years, and my god, I’m still learning and I still enjoy it,” she said.

Hlavaty began Nordic skiing while attending college in her native country of what was then Czechoslovakia. She was a talented track-and-field athlete, but she had a professor whose husband was a national Nordic skiing champion. He recognized her talents and took her under his wing, so Hlavaty followed in his tracks, literally and figuratively.

“I ski exactly like him. And several instructors that I taught ski exactly like I do. That made me believe that for teaching children, I have to use my best instructors or myself. Children are such imitating little monkeys.”

Hlavaty continued skiing and studying, eventually competing for the Czech national team and earning her Ph. D. to become a professor of both European literature and physical education. In 1970, she traveled to the U.S. to visit an uncle. During her trip, she met an American man, fell in love, and got married, much to her mother’s chagrin.

“My mother was very disappointed. She told me, ‘You quit that relationship and come home!'”

In the U.S., skiing remained a large part of Hlavaty’s life and she competed against the top American Nordic skiers. As the 1976 Games approached, she dreamed of skiing with the U.S. team. She was nominated to participate about five months beforehand.

“I wanted it really badly. But my coach said, ‘Jana, you’re not going to be able to go to the Olympics – you’re not a citizen.'”

A flurry of letters, lobbying and phone calls expedited the citizenship process, and Hlavaty took the U.S. Oath of Allegiance on Jan. 2, 1976. She left for Austria as a member of the American Olympic team on Jan. 4.

“I was freshly made an American citizen, and I was extremely proud of it,” Hlavaty said.

The excitement of being part of the team was quickly overshadowed by the intense pressure of competing against the very best in the world.

“You almost don’t have fun, because you are so focused. You just want to be on the trail, inspecting every inch of it, seeing where there’s a possibility of passing somebody. When someone asks you to go to the opening ceremony, you almost think, ‘Oh, god! I would rather get rested for my race.'”

Hlavaty gave it her all in Innsbruck, and she skied well. Still, it wasn’t enough for a trip to the podium.

“You always hope something so great is going to happen. Then, when you don’t do as well as you hoped, it’s a disappointment. Participating is important, but winning is extremely important. Everyone who makes it to the Olympics is extremely competitive.”

Nevertheless, Hlavaty feels the experience gave her a rare sense of discipline and a competitive edge that stay with her even today. She still skis an hour a day during the winters and runs competitively during the summers. She directs the Keystone Nordic Center, which she founded more than 20 years ago.

And on any given winter day, she can be found with a gaggle of 6- and 7-year-olds, introducing them to the aches and pains of athletic progress.

“I’m pretty strict with them. And for the Summit County kids, I emphasize that you are mountain kids. Don’t be city kids. You’re cold? Go faster. You fell down? So what? Get back up and keep going.”

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