By Caley Chelios
An especially tall third-grade girl stood beside the U.S. women’s volleyball team at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs one day in 2008. The little girl had always been embarrassed by her height but when she met the Olympians, a group of women that showed her the value in it, “she said ‘I’ll never be ashamed again,’” said USOC coordinator Sherry Von Riesen.
“That moment was a turning point for that young girl,” Von Riesen said. “From that day forward, it empowered her and no one could ever take that away from her. Working with athletes, I get to see the power in what they can change every day.”
The admiration is mutual. The elite athletes who reside at the training center may be surrounded by top-of-the-line equipment, nutritionists and performance trainers, but they get their inspiration from a woman they call “mom.”
For 18 years, Von Riesen has been the unofficial Olympic mom. At 70, Von Riesen can be found tucked away in her office at the OTC with her blonde bun, glasses and sweet-but-witty demeanor, always ready to listen and care for the more than 100 athlete-residents coping with the stresses of fulfilling their Olympic hopes while also balancing personal matters.
Von Riesen is a resident herself in the complex, so she’s never more then a few quick steps away. She’s no stranger to handling athletes of different ages and personalities from her own experience as a mother to her four kids.
Her dedication and involvement to her son’s gymnastics team when he was at High Country Gymnastics Academy in Colorado Springs, brought her into the gyms of the OTC, where she did marketing and fundraising for her son’s team and met the parents of Olympic hopefuls. It wasn’t long before OTC office staff and parents urged her to come work in the OTC offices.
“So my story is, I sold my house to to my kids and I ran away,” Von Riesen said. “I came down here about 15 years ago and started living on the complex.”
Von Riesen is never off the clock and when she’s not at her desk or walking around the OTC facilities joking and laughing with her “kids,” she’s planning community events for the athletes.
Katie Uhlaendar, a 31-year-old skeleton racer, said she spent her fair share of time in Von Riesen’s office when she trained in Colorado Springs.
“Sundays were the best,” Uhlaendar said. “We would all just sit around for hours and talk about life.”
Von Riesen pointed out “the little things” she does for the athletes, such as turning the heat off in their rooms if they forget when they leave for competition, bringing food to them when they’re sick, even sewing little buttons on their clothes and occasionally busting out the iron.
“You know, the mom stuff,” Von Riesen said. “There’s never a dull moment.”
Through her experiences living at the OTC, Von Riesen said she has found certain athletes keep her on her toes. The pentathletes have “more energy,” she said, and admit they like to tease her, though only in an effort to “make me stronger.”
“No matter what they say when they pick on me,” she said, “I always try to come back with something good.”
One high-energy pentathlete is Samantha Achterberg, a three-year resident at the OTC who spent her last six years training there. Achterberg said she admires Von Riesen for the “bubbly and kind person” she is, and how much she gives back to the OTC and many athletes that reside there.
In 2011, Achterberg needed surgery that forced her to miss a lot of competitions, leaving her, she said, to feel sad and stressed as her teammates moved ahead of her in training. Achterberg said she credits Von Riesen for reminding her of how important the things are to cherish in life.
“Sherry is one tough cookie,” Achterberg said. “I think for most athletes, we are constantly competing with others and ourselves, which can be destructive mentally, and Sherry helps give us the confidence to trust ourselves in the process.”
Von Riesen called her job “the best in the world.”
“They really keep me young and keep me believing,” Von Riesen said. “These athletes have a purpose. The Olympics can prove science wrong by believing in miracles.”