The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum is designed to be an immersive experience. Having a guide who can tell you what the night air felt like in Rio de Janeiro makes it even more so.
The museum, which opens to the public following a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday, counts Olympic and Paralympic athletes and hopefuls among its guest experience team.
Cheyenne Lewis, 23, is seeking a spot in Tokyo to compete in taekwondo. She attended the 2016 Rio Olympic Games as an alternate and uses that experience in her work at the museum.
An American woman hasn’t won gold since taekwondo became an official medal sport in 2000. That information might be on the label, past tense, if Lewis sees her own uniform or belt among the exhibits one day.
“For me, it’s personally inspiring because I would like to be one of the athletes that makes it in here,” Lewis said.
McKenna Geer, 24, was the first American woman to win a medal in shooting at a Paralympic Games in Rio, taking bronze. She is “currently in the process” of qualifying for Tokyo while also lending her expertise.
“Having an athlete that can go through and say, ‘Hey, I was here. I attended these Games. This is why this torch is important,’” Geer said, “Or ‘I’m a Paralympic athlete, check out these prosthetics and how they work’ ... I think it’s really exciting that we get to do that.”
Athletes have been involved with the museum since the early stages. Geer said she’d been connected to the project on and off since construction began.
According to many, that athlete involvement won’t end once it opens.
“It’s their museum, we’re just the stewards of it," museum CEO Chris Liedel said in May. “It’s our job, but it’s their legacy.”
They’re there in several capacities. John Register was among the Olympians and Paralympians who visited during opening week to detail his journey in front of the flag-covered prosthetic leg he wore as he took silver in the long jump at the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney.
He showed off the bite marks in his medal and described how he nearly, accidentally donated it to Goodwill.
Two-time Paralympic alpine skier Tyler Carter, 26, was living at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center when the opportunity arose to test out the unfinished exhibits. He’s been involved in one way or another since and is now on the guest experience team.
Carter finished 19th in the slalom in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and 27th in giant slalom four years later in Sochi, Russia. The 2022 Beijing Winter Paralympic Games represent a chance to rise.
“Beijing is hopefully going to be the point where we go and get everything together and I come home with some bling,” Carter said.
Carter is already aware he’ll have to dial back his time at the museum to focus on training. One would hope he has the most understanding employers.
“They’re willing to work a little bit with that,” Carter said.
“This is most importantly about the athletes. We just want to share their stories and messages with everyone.”