By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

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The dedication and athleticism on display during the Winter Olympics is awesome to watch, both as exhilarating entertainment and as a reminder of just how impossible these feats can seem for us mere mortals.

But a few of the U.S. Olympic Team’s veteran athletes say the passion for their sport began early and with their families – and that lifelong fitness for all of us can begin the same way. In fact, more Americans already could be getting a jumpstart. Participation in winter sports grew by 5 percent this past year, according to trade association statistics.

“For me it was a family activity, to enjoy the outdoors with my siblings, parents and friends,” said cross-country skier Andy Newell, competing in his fourth Olympics. The 34-year-old Shaftsbury, Vermont, native was on skis as soon as he could walk and eventually went to a “ski academy” high school.

Kikkan Randall, the most decorated skier on the U.S. cross-country team, is continuing the legacy of fitness her parents started when she was a toddler. Her son, Breck, who turns 2 in April, already is on skis.

“My parents were great. They introduced me to physical activity, sports, being outside a lot,” said 35-year-old Randall, who grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and is competing in her fifth Olympic Games. “My dad put me on skis the day after my first birthday, which officially, I think, was before I could walk.”

Both Randall and Newell have been credited with fostering new star skiers every season, helping to grow the U.S. cross-country team and boost its chances for a medal in PyeongChang, South Korea, where Opening Ceremonies on Friday kicked off the Games. A U.S. cross-country medal would be the first in more than 40 years, since Bill Koch earned silver in the 1976 Innsbruck Games.

Freestyle skier Shannon Bahrke Happe remembers those heady days of Olympic medals and pushing her body to the limit. She brought home the silver and bronze in 2002 and 2010.

“Everything we did had a purpose, and that purpose was to have the strength, to ski the moguls as fast as I could and with the best form, agility and quickness on the jumps,” said Happe, who retired in 2010. “Every single thing I did in the gym was directly related to what I wanted to do out on the hill, to reach my goal, my dream.”

Today, Happe’s exercise goals are entirely different. She runs a corporate motivational company and is the ski champion at Deer Valley Resort in Utah. She also just finished a children’s book, “Mommy, Why Is Your Hair Pink?” a riff on her pink locks and a way to inspire kids to find their own personal courage.

“Fitness changed completely,” said Happe, who is five months pregnant and has a 4-year-old daughter, Zoe. “Instead of having all the time in the day to do what I wanted and have fun, I would have one hour a day, and I had to make it count.”

She found a gym with childcare and even a class her daughter can attend. “It’s about teaching my daughter that it’s not something we just talk about,” she said. “It’s fun and can be done with friends. It’s a lifestyle thing.”

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Newell, who has worked on projects with schools to combat childhood obesity and encourage families to live healthier lifestyles, said cross-country skiing can be a fun, affordable option.

“People watch cross-country ski racing and see us cross the finish line and see us collapse on the ground and gasping for air because our muscles are burning,” he said. “I don’t think people should be discouraged by those types of images or maybe even the idea of what they have of cross-country skiing in the back of their mind.”

“If you can walk, you can cross-country ski,” Newell said. “And if you can run, you can cross-country ski even faster. And it’s just really enjoying the outdoors and enjoying that you can tackle any kind of terrain in front of you.”

Randall, who says this will be her last Olympics, is excited about exploring new challenges.

“I love being physically active every day. I love challenging myself, seeing how strong and fit I can become,” she said. “I think it’s definitely led me to be an Olympic athlete and be successful, but it’s also at the core of who I am.”

Randall also helps lead a nonprofit organization that encourages girls to stay in sports and is a Go Red For Women heart health ambassador in Anchorage, raising awareness about the leading killer of women to help them take actions to get healthier.

Finding internal motivation is the key to successfully pursuing a fit lifestyle, whether an Olympian or not, said Allison Reinhardt, a regional wellness director for Capital District YMCA, north of Albany, New York.

“Because once you find your dress size, then what?” said Reinhardt, who is involved with the American Heart Association’s BetterU, a 12-week heart-health improvement class.

“When you can tap into that intrinsic sense that says, ‘I want to exercise because it makes me sleep better and that helps me handle the rest of my life well, or it reduces stress, or I can keep up with my kids or my grandkids,’ … When you can tap into that, that’s a huge indicator of success and making fitness and health into a lifelong habit.”

Follow the U.S. Cross-Country Team in PyeongChang.

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