‘Best new U.S. attraction:’ Olympic, Paralympic museum in Colorado Springs makes you feel like you’re at the Games

The Tokyo Olympic Games start on July 23 and the Paralympics start on Aug. 24. Fans can't be in Tokyo with the athletes. But, you can cheer them on from a stellar new Colorado Springs museum.
July 15, 2021

By Rick Ansorge for UCHealth

The colorful 40-foot LED video sail will catch your eye, but don’t forget to look up at the four observation platforms which extend into the atrium space. The highest one is the same distance from the floor as Bob Beamon’s Olympic record-setting long jump at the 1968 Summer Games. Photos by Jason O’Rear, courtesy of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs.

In the summer of 2020, the new U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs opened its doors to a world that had largely closed its doors.

Celebrate the Tokyo Summer Games with a free vaccine

When? Saturday, July 31 from noon to 2 p.m.

What? UCHealth medical providers will be offering free Pfizer vaccines to prevent COVID-19.

Where? On the plaza at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum, 200 S Sierra Madre St., Colorado Springs.

Who is eligible? Anyone ages 12 and older.

Fearful of COVID-19, most would-be visitors steered clear of the gleaming three-story Museum and its 60,000 square feet of exhibit space.

“With COVID-19, we were getting days when only about 150 people showed up,” says Laura Ryan, a three-time Olympic athlete and member of the Museum’s Guest Experience team.

But what a difference a year has made!

Now that three COVID-19 vaccines are widely available nationwide, and coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths have declined significantly, daily attendance has spiked to about 800.

As excitement builds for the July 23 start of the Tokyo Olympic Games, the Museum in downtown Colorado Springs is in the midst of “reopening” on the grand Olympic scale that its founders had originally envisioned.

Enjoy 2021 Tokyo Games at the Museum in Colorado Springs

From July 29 to Aug. 1, the Museum will host a free outdoor Tokyo Games Fan Fest where visitors can watch live Olympic coverage on a 50-foot screen. From now through Labor Day, indoor events and activities will include interactive sport demonstrations and opportunities to meet Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

“It’s good to see people,” says Ryan, a team handball player who competed at three Summer Games: Seoul, South Korea (1988), Barcelona, Spain (1992), and Atlanta, Georgia (1996). She also carried the Olympic Torch through Atlanta in 1996 and the Salt Lake City torch during the 2002 Winter Games.

Ryan and her teammates won gold medals at the 1987 and 1996 Pan American Games. But they fell just short of medaling at the Olympics, finishing fifth, sixth, and seventh, an outcome that still stings a little.

“I thought I’d get over it when I got older,” Ryan says with a laugh.

Laura Ryan playing handball in the Olymics
Laura Ryan, center, top, playing handball in the Olympics. Photo courtesy of Laura Ryan.

But her sojourns in the spotlight gave her a lifetime of great memories and a reason to encourage people from all walks of life to pursue their dreams – Olympic and otherwise – in their own passionate way.

A Wisconsin native, Ryan was a star basketball player at the University of Minnesota, becoming the first Golden Gopher to score 2,000 points in her collegiate career. In Colorado Springs, she worked for the U.S. Olympic Committee (now the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee) for 12 years where she served as associate director of the Paralympic Military Program.

After taking a break from the Olympic and Paralympic world, Ryan found that she missed the Olympic life and eagerly accepted an offer to join the Museum’s Guest Experience team.

UCHealth is the official health system of the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and UCHealth also has a new partnership with the museum.

Like Olympians and their trainers and medical teams, UCHealth providers are strong proponents for any sports or physical activities that get people out and moving.

During a recent sweltering summer day, Ryan escorted a first-time visitor through the museum in Colorado Springs and offered an insider’s tips on how best to enjoy the exhibits and interactive activities that have earned it rave reviews and a “Best New Attraction” award from USA Today.

Here are some of her favorite things to see and do at the US Olympic & Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs, including a few that might be easy to overlook.

Enjoy the world’s greatest waiting room

The Museum’s atrium isn’t just a place to kill time before your tour begins. It’s a world-class attraction in its own right.

US Olympic and Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs.
The exterior of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs. Photo by Jason O’Rear, courtesy of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum.

At the entrance is a 400-pound bronze sculpture – Olympus Within – which depicts a discus thrower in motion. Like the Museum’s taut aluminum façade, which has a dynamic pinwheel design, the sculpture epitomizes the grace and energy of Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

Created in 1984 by Olympic fencer Peter Schifrin, the sculpture includes the handprint of Nathan Perkins, a 1986 Paralympic discus thrower.

Inside the atrium, visitors awaiting the start of their tour can peruse the permanent new home of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame. It features four interactive digital pylons where you can learn the life stories of famous Olympians such as 1930s swimmer (and future Tarzan star) Johnny Weissmuller, boxer Muhammad Ali, and figure skater Peggy Fleming.

Although the colorful 40-foot LED video sail will definitely catch your eye, don’t forget to look up at the four observation platforms which extend into the atrium space. The highest one is the same distance from the floor as Bob Beamon’s Olympic record-setting long jump at the 1968 Summer Games: an incredible 29 feet and 2 ½ inches.

After craning your neck to see the platform from the ground level, you’ll get an added perspective when you look down from the top of the platform, which Ryan says “is just incredible.”

Race against Jesse Owens … and lose

The formal tour starts on the third floor at the Introduction to Olympism gallery, where you can see a complete collection of Olympic Torches, including the two carried by Ryan.

Olympian Laura Ryan carries the torch.
Laura Ryan carrying the Olympic torch. The new U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs contains two torches that Ryan carrried. Photo courtesy of Laura Ryan.

The collection goes back to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, the site of the first Olympic Torch relay and the scene where a young African American named Jesse Owens made history by becoming the first American track and field athlete to win four gold medals at a single Olympics,

Speaking of Owens, you can pit your running skills against his – virtually – during an interactive 30-meter dash at the Athlete Training gallery.

Don’t expect to win, though, unless you cheat. “When it says ‘go’, you go and Jesse goes,” Ryan says. “Even for fast runners, don’t blink or you will miss Jesse!”

The gallery’s other interactive sports demonstrations include alpine skiing, archery, goalball, skeleton, and sled hockey, all of which are Olympic and Paralympic events.

Join the Parade of Nations

Even if you’re only a casual fan of the Olympics, the Opening Ceremony and Parade of Nations is must-see TV.

At the Museum, a 360-degree multi-media simulation allows you to experience the thrill of entering an Olympic or Paralympic stadium alongside members of Team USA during the Parade of Nations.

For Ryan, the exhibit brings back vivid memories. During one Opening Ceremony, she walked alongside tennis star Chris Evert while a flock of doves circled overhead. The doves did what doves do, and Ryan was startled to see Evert using a Kleenex to wipe bird poop off of a teammate’s white skirt.

Doves are no longer released during the Opening Ceremony because they could fly into the flame of the cauldron.

During another Opening Ceremony, Ryan met the gregarious basketball star Charles Barkley, who was competing as a member of the first American Dream Team. A teammate snapped a picture of Barkley as he wrapped his arm around Ryan.

Interior photo showing people at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs
The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum in Colorado Spriings features four interactive digital pylons where you can learn the life stories of famous Olympians such as 1930s swimmer (and future Tarzan star) Johnny Weissmuller, boxer Muhammad Ali, and figure skater Peggy Fleming. Photo by Nic Lehoux, courtesy of the Olympic & Paralympic Museum.

For non-Olympians, the Parade of Nations display is as close as possible to the real thing, says Ryan: “Athletes are very competitive and train hard, but when we walk into the Opening Ceremony, the Olympic spirit is there. This is what the Olympics are all about.”

Experience a ‘tunnel vision’ between these two galleries

The Summer Games gallery and the Winter Games gallery contain a vast number of priceless artifacts and an interactive wall that offers detailed information about each Olympic and Paralympic sport.

A tunnel connects the two galleries.

“Don’t forget to look up!” Ryan says as we walk through the tunnel. Overhead, video screens show ski jumpers and snowboarders such as Shaun White zooming through the air at breathtaking speed.

Relive the ‘Miracle on Ice’

If you ask people to name their all-time favorite Olympic moment, the 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” in which the U.S. hockey team beat the highly favored USSR hockey team, is a likely answer.

More than 40 years after this historic upset, Ryan is still thrilled with the outcome.

“That wasn’t just sport,” she says. “So much was going on in the world.”

After exiting the tunnel connecting the Summer Games gallery and the Winter Games gallery, make a quick left turn into the Chapman Events Space, a hall often used for conferences and other events.

If the hall is open, you’ll see a significant “Miracle on Ice” memento: one of the original 850-pound black scoreboards from the Lake Placid Winter Games where the Americans beat the Soviets.

US Olympic and Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs.
The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs. Photo by Jason O’Rear, courtesy of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum.

The scoreboard is set to the precise moment when Team USA took a winning 4-3 lead with three seconds left on the clock, the moment when sportscaster Al Michaels made the comment which will probably be engraved on his tombstone: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

Converse with two artificially intelligent Olympians

In The World Watches gallery, the Museum documents the connection between the Olympics and world events.

Much of the content focuses on serious events. These include the protest by Black sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their black-gloved fists on the podium of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They also include the Munich massacre, during which 11 Israeli athletes and coaches and one German policeman were murdered by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September during the 1972 Summer Olympics

But the gallery also features some lighter moments such as the Wheaties Wall, which displays cereal boxes honoring 17 Olympians such as triathlete Bruce Jenner (also pictured now as Caitlyn Jenner), skier Lindsey Vonn, and swimmer Michael Phelps.

An entertaining interactive exhibit allows visitors to converse with Paralympic gold medalist Matt Scott (wheelchair basketball) and Olympic gold medalist Kikkan Randall (cross-country skiing). Through the magic of Artificial Intelligence, both athletes give thoughtful, detailed, and believable answers to any question.

It’s like you’re talking to them in your living room.

For the record, Scott’s favorite food is sushi.

Pose for an ‘action portrait’ by a world-famous artist

The Museum has a rotating gallery that currently features the vividly energetic art of LeRoy Neiman, who was the official Olympic painter for five Games starting in 1972.

In one corner of the exhibit is the Neimanizer, a device that produces abstract, Neimanesque action portraits of visitors posing as athletes in any sport they choose and in any color palette that tickles their fancy.

After leaving the Museum, visitors can digitally access and download the portrait along with other highlights of their visit.

Ryan is hopeful that the Museum experience will encourage many visitors to get more physically active.

“You cannot walk through the museum and not be inspired,” she says. “If you did really well at (virtual) archery, maybe you’ll want to try that.”

She also envisions a day when future Olympic and Paralympic medalists credit the Museum for sparking their dreams of sports glory when they first saw it as children.

“Everybody has to start at some point,” she says “Why not here?”

About the author

UCHealth is an innovative, nonprofit health system that delivers the highest quality medical care with an excellent patient experience. With 24,000 employees, UCHealth includes 12 acute-care full-service hospitals and hundreds of physicians across Colorado, southern Wyoming and western Nebraska. With University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus as its academic anchor and the only adult academic medical center in the region, UCHealth pushes the boundaries of medicine, providing advanced treatments and clinical trials and improving health through innovation.