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Aerials skier Veronica Brenner walked into Silverthorne Collegiate Institute with her Olympic silver medal, and a story worth her weight in gold.

Brenner kicked off the national launch of The Esteem Team, a countrywide program of national athletes inspiring Canadian youth, with a tale of the daunting series of injuries and setbacks she had before taking to the air and landing on the medal podium at the Salt Lake City Olympics.

The 700 Toronto-area students listened in awe at how Brenner fought her way back during the 18 months before the Games -- torn knee ligaments and surgical reconstruction, learning how to walk again during six months of painful rehabilitation, only to suffer a shoulder dislocation when she resumed training. Then there was more rehabilitation, and training her jumps over water -- only to find when she got back on a snowy hill, she'd lost her confidence and broke down in tears.

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"I sucked. I looked at the jumps and I wanted to jump and enjoy it all, but all I could do was cry," Brenner said. It was then, Brenner said, that a team psychologist reminded her to go back to the simple mission she had formed when she first got hurt: To turn every obstacle into an opportunity, to get to the Olympic Games and land two clean jumps.

It was a plain and pure point of focus that helped her shut out the negatives and fears. The mission was boiled down, in a few words, to something she knew she could do, and do well. Something she was passionate about.

"I was a pretty ordinary person. Ten years ago, I could have been any one of you. I found something I loved, something I was good at. I chose to work at it and be the best I could be."

Obstacles will crop up, "but never, never, never stop dreaming."

The students also heard from speed-skating legend Gaetan Boucher, cyclist Curt Harnett, Olympic triathlete Isabelle Turcotte-Baird, gold-medal rower Alison Korn, wrestler and Esteem Team founder Chris Wilson and Paul DeVillers, the new Secretary of State For Amateur Sport.

DeVillers attended the Salt Lake City Games as a rookie, but was quickly baptized into the joys and trials of high-performance sport, from Canada's hockey golds and record medal haul, to judging and doping scandals that affected Canadians.

The stories and struggles are as much as part of the legacy as the medals and should be told to inspire young Canadians, DeVillers said.

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"Over the years we have the joys of winning and agony of defeat, but we have to involve them more than once every four years. We want to keep our current and former athletes in contact with young people," DeVillers said.

He said the federal government's focus on high-performance sport would now broaden to include wider participation in sport for Canada's youth. "We have to make a link with health and get young people involved in physical activities," he said.

Boucher said the Esteem Team, a national network of 80 Olympic, Paralympic and world-class athletes, is out to motivate youth in their lives beyond sport activities.

"It's not just excellence in sport we're talking about. Having a positive role model in your life is critical to being able to achieve your potential, whether in art, music, academics, sport or any other field."

Athletes faced challenges and choices and can help by passing on their lessons and examples.

"It really comes down to choices. Often, they're choices like whether or not you might smoke. These little choices add up. From my standpoint, I think it's a privilege to have the chance to make a difference in young peoples lives," Wilson said.

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More information on the program is available at the Internet site, http://www.esteemteam.com.

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