The Unique Extended Family of Kristi Richards

Just letting you know that I placed 5th here at the 2009 World Championships in Japan. I will have more confidence going into World Cup finals and into the Olympic season. I hope that all is well at home in Summerland. L’il Shred had fun watching today.*

The morning of a major freestyle moguls ski event, at the top of the mountain, among the world’s top athletes is often a small stuffed bear. It is surveying the course and posing for photographs. His name is L’il Shred and he is the constant companion of Olympian Kristi Richards and constant reminder of one particular school tucked away in the Okanagan Valley.

The unique relationship between Summerland Middle School (SMS) and Richards began four years ago. Richards asked principal Katie Hicks if she could come and meet the students, as part of an RBC Olympians program. Before a captivated audience at an assembly, Richards spoke of freestyle skiing, the life of an athlete and her road to the 2006 Olympic Winter Games.

It was the first of many visits, as Richards gravitated to the energy of students and staff and their Olympic passion. On days she would visit the school, everyone was decked out in red and white. “They have big, ridiculous signs made up, Go Kristi!” Richards laughed.

At Torino 2006, Richards finished seventh in moguls. Hanging in her dorm room there was a banner loaded with signatures from the school, as well as from residents of Summerland, B.C. – Richards’ hometown. “It was so motivational,” Richards said. “It means people are out there who care and believe in you. They kind of became my family.”

The next step was formal adoption. Richards, through the COC’s Adopt-an-Athlete program, was “adopted” by Summerland Middle School. Principal Hicks said that the skier contacted her immediately. “She wanted it to be more than just adopt an athlete,” Hicks said. “She wanted our whole school to travel the road to the Olympics.”

Enter L’il Shred. Richards wanted to bring a school mascot along with her, symbolic of the students coming with her. SMS, whose team name is the “Waves”, had no mascot so staff members created a bear with skis and poles, dressed in a Waves uniform. Students named the bear “Shred”, but since Shred proved too big to easily travel with, they created another bear for Richards. L’il Shred, by courier, reached Richards shortly thereafter.

L’il Shred waits in airports with Richards, does interviews with her, acts as a tourist with her, goes up chairlifts with her, even accompanies her during training runs and course inspections as Richards assesses angles and jumps. “He comes everywhere with me,” Richards said. “It keeps me connected to the kids. It gives me a reason do to what I do. I love to give back.”

Meanwhile, at SMS, bulletin boards and trophy cases are filled with photographs of Richards and L’il Shred, as well as equipment and apparel that Richards gave them. During the season, each Friday on the televised announcements (TV in every classroom), the school features a “Chill Zone” that shows photos of Richards and L’il Shred, news of her competitions and any e-mails that the skier has sent to them. Students time a loud cheer that echoes down the hallways when Richards is about to compete.

“It is so cool to have that close connection,” Richards said. “To have that kind of encouragement is very special.”

Richards wanted the “adoption” to focus more on the students than on her. So she helped create a program that gave back to the students so they could achieve their dreams. The “I Can Be” legacy fund was launched on April 30 at a spaghetti dinner in Summerland at which Richards spoke and met the mayor. The program helps fund scholarships to summer camp programs.

Hicks said the school follows Richards closely, and experiences the highs and lows right along with her. Students e-mail her motivational messages. “It’s an amazing thing that is happening and one our school is proud to be a part of,” Hicks said.

For Richards, what would happen if L’il Shred didn’t make the trip to a major competition?

“I’d feel lost,” said the skier. “He’s been with me through the thick and thin, good times and down times. And he represents the whole school too, so then I’m out three hundred and fifty kids.”

She paused before adding: “That’s a lot.”

* Excerpt of e-mail from Richards to Summerland Middle School