So I raced Jesse Owens the other day. Yes, that Jesse Owens. Winner of four gold medals at the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games. Hero of freedom and racial equality in the face of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. The track and field phenomenon who broke five world records in 45 minutes, and tied a sixth, at the Big Ten Championships in 1935. He was a blur in the lane to my right. He blew by me so fast I pulled up laughing and jogged across the finish line well behind him. But, yes, I was just happy to have the chance to line up against a legend like Owens — at least a digital simulation of him — at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum.
The interactive exhibit is just one of the ways the new museum brings alive the entire Olympic experience for everyone — and why it has been heralded across the nation as a must-visit destination. The latest accolade was being named the nation’s Best New Attraction of 2020 by USA Today. “The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum is a lighthouse to the world, not just our nation,” says CEO Chris Liedel. “The rock it happens to sit on is Colorado Springs.”
The museum is truly a local treasure and an inspiration, from its magnificent architecture to its personalized technology and forward-thinking accessibility to its emotional impact. Opening during a global pandemic has been a challenge, but it hasn’t changed the fact that the museum is a gem that every local should experience. If you haven’t made it yet, here’s what you can expect.
Stepping inside the museum is stepping inside the Olympic and Paralympic movement, and visitors are immediately greeted by a colorful montage of Olympians and Paralympians on the Atrium’s mesmerizing 40-foot LED video sail. Each visitor receives an RFID card, and the first stop is a check-in kiosk to select favorite sports, athletes and display preferences. “One of the fun things about the museum is taking advantage of modern digital technology that lets us customize your experience as you come through,” Liedel says.
At 96 points throughout the museum, the RFID technology automatically customizes what and how information is displayed and presented for you. The technology makes the museum especially accessible to people with disabilities or special needs. For example, visitors with hearing impairments can select open captioning or sign language presentations that will play automatically when they step up to a display. Those with visual impairments will find options including larger font sizes, higher contrast displays, text-to-speech screen readers and audio descriptions. And exhibits can be adjusted for those with sensory needs from disorders such as autism.
The entire museum also is ramped for easy wheelchair accessibility and a natural flow for all visitors. The tour begins with an elevator ride to the third floor, then spirals its way back down. “Probably the most interesting and most rewarding part of the museum is that it’s completely inclusive in our design structure and accessibility,” Liedel says. “We’ve gone beyond simple ADA compliance to ensure that an able-bodied or disabled individual travel the same path through the museum.”
All the options add to the site’s ability to make one museum a different experience for many—and to dig in as deeply as you want to go. “The museum has something for everyone, with the average visitor spending around an hour and 45 minutes touring the 12 interactive galleries,” says Tommy Schield, director of marketing and communications.
The museum layout follows the arc of an athlete’s journey. This begins with the history of the Games and progresses to athlete training and sport science, through an immersive Opening Ceremony and into large collections of memorabilia from both Summer and Winter Games. It presents the sociopolitical context of every modern Games, then takes you past a nearly complete collection of every Olympic and Paralympic medal. The tour then culminates with an inspirational film capturing some of the best moments of Team USA through the years and finishes on the podium of a medal ceremony.
“I think one of the most most impactful exhibits is the Parade of Nations,” says Michelle Duserre Farrell, vice president of athlete engagement and a silver medal-winning gymnast at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Stepping inside the 360-degree, multimedia presentation gives all the feels of being at the center of an Opening Ceremony. Many athletes, such as gymnasts and swimmers, are unable to participate in an Opening Ceremony due to their early competition schedules, Duserre Farrell says. And most Olympic and Paralympic athletes don’t medal, so walking in an Opening Ceremony is a pinnacle of celebration that lasts a lifetime.
“For the visitor, [the Parade of Nations] gives them a glimpse of what it might feel like to walk into the stadium,” Duserre Farrell says. “For the athlete, it’s a reflection for them on that pageantry of Opening Ceremony, and again, for just a brief moment, a bit of a feeling of what it was like or might have been like to walk in.”
One of my favorite areas is the Athlete Training gallery, where the rest of us can get into the action. This is where I raced Jesse Owens in a 30-meter dash. I ran another heat against wheelchair racer Gianfranco Ianotta. (I didn’t stand a chance against him either.) I also tried my hand at archery, skeleton, alpine skiing, sled hockey and goalball. “Throughout that gallery, you get the highlights of what it takes to be competitive and world-class,” Duserre Farrell says. “That’s where we can convey to visitors what it really takes to make it, and what those attributes are that are the differentiating factors for athletes.”
Duserre Farrell worked with more than 75 athletes to make sure the museum got things just right to capture and convey the Olympic and Paralympic experience authentically—for both visitors and athletes. In meeting with groups of athletes, she says three distinct themes emerged as priorities for conveying their stories: first moments of inspiration that sparked Olympic and Paralympic dreams, the extreme difficulty of making Team USA, and most memorable moments from the Games.
She points to The World Watches gallery, where a display wall allows you to select and watch videos that include highlights and the historical, political and cultural context surrounding every modern Games. “Those are the experiences that many visitors can relate to and think, ‘Gosh, I remember sitting and watching the Miracle on Ice’ or ‘I remember watching Atlanta when Muhammad Ali lit the cauldron,’” Duserre Farrell says. “For athletes, it was us sitting and watching our idols. It was those moments that sparked our desire.”
In the midst of all the interactive experiences, fans of good old-fashioned memorabilia won’t be disappointed. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum has about 460 artifacts on display. The complete sets of torches and medals are impressive to see up close, and it’s evident how both icons evolved into uniquely artistic representations of each host nation. There are plenty of other items to convey historic insight, technological advancement and personal touches. There’s a rustic track and field uniform worn by Eddie Tolan at the 1932 Los Angeles Games and the high-tech, star-spangled prosthetic leg that Paralympian runner John Register used in Sydney 2000. You’ll also find the bobsled used in Vancouver 2010 by the gold-medal-winning Team Night Train: pilot Steven Holcomb and crew Steve Langton, Justin Olsen and Curt Tomasevicz. Gymnastics fans will recognize Shannon Miller’s sparkly hair scrunchie from Atlanta 1996. Six-time medalist Bonnie Blair’s speed skates are there. And you don’t want to miss the Lake Placid scoreboard from the 1980 Miracle on Ice, located in the event space between the Summer and Winter Games galleries.
After all that, good luck leaving the the museum’s Theater dry-eyed after the final film. The 10-minute movie, produced by NBC, strings together some of the greatest stories and moments of Team USA history. It captures highs and lows and moments both human and seemingly superhuman. And it will send you on your way with a deeper appreciation of the athletes’ dedication as well as inspiration to step up your own game, be it athletic or not.
“Hopefully visitors leave feeling inspired to go be the best they can be,” Duserre Farrell says. “It may be in athletics. It may be in engineering, science, art, medicine. But we hope it will prompt visitors to be inspired to set their own goals and to strive to be their best. Sport is the backdrop, but the museum is about people. It’s about people who set goals, overcome obstacles and strive to be their very best.”
How to Head to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum
Monday-Friday: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Saturday: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Sunday: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Memberships: starting at $99
Watch for special free days and discounts for military, first responders, seniors and groups.
Here’s What’s Coming Up
Youth Sports Week, Jan. 5-10: free admission for all children wearing a youth sports jersey
First Responders Weekend, Jan. 16-17: free admission for law enforcement, fire services and emergency medical service providers
Library Weekend, Jan. 23-24: group rate admission for Pikes Peak Library District members
Details and Contact
Q&A: Christopher Liedel Gives an Update on the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum
The Greatest Olympic Story Never Told