Engage U.S. travelers return energized from U.S. Olympic Training Center visit

“Being in the presence of Olympic coaches and athletes was incredible. I even got to the see one of my favorite male gymnasts who has been to the past two Olympic Games! That was definitely a highlight for me. Training in the weight rooms many Olympians have trained in, eating in their dining hall and living in the dorms where they stay was such a surreal experience. We feel so lucky to have experienced this trip from the athletes’ point of view.”
— Megan Greenfield

Jennifer Cao is planning a career as either a physical therapist or a cardiac rehabilitation specialist.

No matter which path she chooses, however, the senior kinesiology major from Glendale Heights, Illinois, can deliver a powerful motivator to her future patients: personal knowledge of the determination of Olympians and Paralympians.

“Olympic athletes are training to be that 1 percent, to achieve what it will take to get that gold medal,” Cao says. “All of the faculty who spoke to us said the athletes all have different stories but all have the same goal – that 1 percent.”

Cao was one of a dozen select students from the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KNPE) who traveled in May to Colorado Springs, Colorado, thanks to the NIU College of Education’s Engage U.S. program.

Recently added to the Educate and Engage Program, it’s tailored to students who are not teacher-licensure candidates. Thanks to generous funding from donors to the college and the department, students paid almost nothing.

During four days and nights at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, the students toured world-class facilities, learned about U.S. Olympic operations, attended presentations given by athletic trainers and sport medicine.

Before they reached their main destination, they had the opportunity to visit the Nebraska Athletic Performance Laboratory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; while in Colorado Springs, the students also toured the U.S. Air Force Academy’s athletic facilities.

KNPE instructor Brandon Male, who supervised the travelers along with KNPE Assistant Professor Peter Chomentowski, says that many of students came home with “eyes open” and “a more clear direction” for life after graduation: “They’ve seen the very top of sport now,” he says.

“Educationally, this was the coolest experience I’ve ever had in my life – from start to finish. It was great to see the facilities and to meet the people, but the best part for me was getting to see the impact on my students,” says Male, organizer of the trip.

“Many of them began to put together drafts of plans and goals and things that they want to do, looking at new possibilities for internships, new possibilities for jobs,” he adds. “They called themselves ‘pioneers,’ because this was the first opportunity we’ve ever had to do this.”

At the Olympic Training Center, the NIU delegation toured and worked out in the facilities; heard presentations on sports performance, sports medicine and nutrition; and learned the history of Team USA, which included permission to handle gold medals and Olympic torches.

“We really got a hands-on experience dating back to the first modern Olympics,” Male says. “That had a huge impact on these students – an unbelievable impact. You get to see this thing you’ve only ever seen on television or read about in books, and here you’re getting to hold it.”

“In my time at NIU, I have never so proud and excited to be an NIU Huskie. I appreciated learning about my field in a classroom setting through the amazing instructors but gained a new perspective through this experience. I hope that the NIU KNPE department continues this program and allows other Huskies to experience what I have experienced. It is of vital importance for students to learn different perspectives in the area of kinesiology and connect with various kinesiology professionals.”
— Michael Belbis

For Megan Greenfield, who is pursuing a master’s degree in kinesiology and physical education with an emphasis in sport and exercise psychology, the trip taught lessons of accountability, flexibility and courage “to go out of your comfort zone.”

“It was unlike anything else I’ve ever done,” says Greenfield, who is from Crystal Lake, Illinois. “It was really cool to have an experience with students outside of the NIU classroom setting. It was really cool to go to another university. It was cool how a different university does things differently.”

Greenfield, who competed for NIU as a gymnast, is fascinated with “studying how the body moves and works, and keeping people healthy. That’s a big thing in my life: health, fitness and just helping others athletically or psychologically to get the most out of their lives.”

Visiting Colorado and Nebraska is opening professional doors, she adds. “It was really cool to make connections with some of the top people,” she says. “I’ve already been reaching out for internships opportunities there and asking them for advice.”

Recent graduate Michael Belbis, who earned his master’s degree in exercise physiology and fitness leadership this spring, jumped on the chance to participate in Engage U.S.

“Because I plan on going on to a Ph.D. program, I thought that seeing how elite athletes were made was a good way to further my toolbox of knowledge on sport performance,” says Belbis, a native of Burbank, Illinois.

He appreciated every opportunity to ask questions.

“Originally, I wanted to work in sport performance and work with athletes. More recently, in the past two years, I’ve wanted to have a more research-based career and to teach at the university level,” he says. “I was asking questions about how they do research, and to learn more about the equipment they use. Just that knowledge, and knowing about the technology out there, could help me with possibly creating a study.”

Cao, who switched her major to kinesiology from biological sciences in her sophomore year at NIU, also probed the Olympic Training Center brains for career advice.

“I wanted to see what my passion was all about, and there were so many interesting things to learn. What really helped me was asking a lot of questions,” Cao says.

“A lot of them told me to just find two things you really enjoy or to think about what you want to do in your career, to seek advice, to keep knocking on that door, and to bring that energy and passion to anything you do,” she adds. “It re-lit my own fires seeing how dedicated these people are. They are really goal-driven.”

“I always thought the Olympics were a big thing because of the athletes that are a part of it, but after learning the production behind it, I now understand that there is so much work to make one day happen that could decide if an athlete wins a gold medal or not. All these people we met were such inspiring hard workers … I want my future to be like that, where I love coming into my job every day. I am grateful that my experiences have expanded on this trip, and I hope that other students get the same chance I had.”
— Jennifer Cao

Not every moment was spent absorbing facts and knowledge, of course; a side trip to the Garden of the Gods gave the NIU travelers a chance to “get up on a mountain,” Male says.

Meanwhile, the group enjoyed the run of the Olympic facilities.

“Some of the other students and I were playing basketball one night,” Belbis says, “when a group of people came up and talked to us and said, ‘Wanna shoot around?’ Turned out they were Tae Kwon Do Olympians. We got to meet them and share a light pickup game.”

But the hands-on learning is what the students will remember most, Male says.

Other students on the trip were Kimberly Fields, Jacob Hurwitz, Aaron Mittman, Christopher Orange, Kenneth Riley, DeVonte Robinson, Christopher Triplett, Joseph Veljkovic and Nicholas Waite.

“It was great for them to hear about how these professionals currently with Team USA got there. Many of them were very surprised to find out that, not many years ago, these Team USA sports medicine professionals were recent college graduates looking for internships,” he says.

“They were looking for opportunities, which is no different than our NIU students. It really showed them anything is possible. You’ve just got to take a shot.”

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