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Volume 23 No. 8
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Simril, LA84 helping LA 2024 in bid to bring back Olympics

Renata Simril is using fun and games to bring the spirit of the Olympic Games to thousands of mostly inner-city kids in Southern California as the new head of the LA84 Foundation. She and her organization also are working to help the LA 2024 bid committee bring the Games back to Los Angeles.

Simril succeeded International Olympic Committee member Anita DeFrantz, who as founding CEO set the bar high. The nonprofit LA84 Foundation was created with 40 percent of the profit from the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles and has extended that legacy by helping millions of kids, a few of whom went on to become Olympians, enjoy after-school activities that might otherwise not have been available. Meanwhile, the $93 million endowment has grown to $150 million.

Renata Simril (right) with Olympian Sherri Howard
Photo by: LA84 FOUNDATION
“I don’t view it as a challenge. It’s an opportunity,” Simril said, with an eye toward the city’s bid for the 2024 Games. “We’re at a pivot point where the light’s focused on L.A. — the history and the future of the Olympic movement.”

She has trained for decades for this Olympic opportunity, even if she didn’t realize it at the time. Simril has been a U.S. Army military policewoman, a deputy mayor helping rebuild L.A. after the early 1990s riots, a real estate developer, a Dodgers executive, and Los Angeles Times chief of staff — not to mention wife and mother.

Simril credits sports for her career success after growing up in a middle-class household that she says today would be considered closer to the poverty line, just outside of L.A. in Carson, not far from StubHub Center. It gave her an outlet to channel her competitive spirit and taught her the perseverance that helped her “navigate up the career ladder,” especially in the military, where she carried heavy loads of ammunition as an M-60 gunner.

“I was the only woman police officer and it was that grit that got me to earn the respect of the soldiers in my platoon,” Simril recalled. “Being able to carry my weight and being physically fit and healthy and able to do that. I was a combat MP, so I spent half the time in garrison, patrolling like a police officer. The other half I spent in the field preparing war simulations. I was able to develop those skills through sport.”

Her unlikely combination of previous positions helped prepare her to run the low-profile yet active LA84. The organization directly funds or awards grants to programs providing thousands of Southern California youths with subsidized sports, better-trained coaches and improved venues, and, important in inner-city areas, works with schools to offer safe places to play.

“This is my dream job,” Simril said. “Our mission is ‘Life Ready Through Sport.’ It exemplifies the grit, the perseverance, the teamwork and dedication, learning how to win with grace and lose with dignity. It’s those life skills that help prepare young people for success whether it’s on or off the field.”

Quick Start

Taking that message to the area’s young people means a full calendar of outreach events. For example, the LA84 Foundation hosted 500 children at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on June 23 for Olympic Day. Participants could try archery, soccer, seated volleyball, gymnastics, badminton, rugby, fencing and rowing, all while learning about the history of the Olympics. They even ignited the Olympic flame in the cauldron to get the full Summer Games effect.

Earlier this year, Simril played host to 300 middle and high school students for a sneak preview of the film “Race,” about Olympian Jesse Owens. LA84 showed off Olympic torches from the 1936 Games, when Owens won four gold medals in Berlin, and the ’84 Games, and American Olympians Jamie Nieto and Sherri Howard spoke to the kids.

In an email to Simril, one school administrator said his students were moved to overcome their own adverse situations when Nieto told the group that if he hadn’t found track and field, he probably would be in jail.

Two-time Olympic bronze medalist Rusty Smith, the first Olympian who had benefited from an LA84 program, had a similar experience. He grew up in a “rough neighborhood” in Long Beach but says speedskating kept him out of trouble.

Smith couldn’t have afforded to skate if the fees for rink time and skate rental weren’t heavily subsidized by the Southern California Speedskating Association, an LA84 grantee.

He competed in three Winter Games and says the foundation set him up for success: LA84 “provided the sport that allowed me to learn life lessons: the dedication, hard work, perseverance and goal setting. … They’re the silent group in the back of a lot of programs.”

Venus and Serena Williams played tennis in the foundation’s early events and have each played in multiple Olympics. LA84 counts 10 Olympians as alumni of its grantee and sponsored programs.

Four-time gold medalist Janet Evans, also a former LA84 board member, said: “I consider myself a byproduct of the ’84 Games. They inspired me to train as hard as I did for the ’88 Games.” LA84 “gave me a platform to inspire youth, help get young kids involved,” she said.

LA84’s programs already affect thousands of youths, but Simril would like to expose more to the foundation’s Olympic memorabilia collection and its vast physical and digital assets at its Paul Ziffren Sports Resource Center, one the largest sports research libraries in North America.

“To bring out the memorabilia from ’36 and bringing out current and former Olympic athletes is part of our responsibility as the living legacy to keep that Olympic spirit alive,” Simril said.

Said Evans: “When you see a kid’s eyes light up when you show them an Olympic medal, there’s nothing quite like it.”

Another L.A. Games?

Los Angeles has an Olympic legacy stretching back to the 1932 Games, but it’s about much more than history. LA 2024 is leading the effort to bring the Summer Olympics back in 2024, and Simril sits on the group’s board of directors.

“We’re involved with the LA24 bid,” Simril said. “LA24 plus LA84 equals legacy squared.”

Simril added, “Legacy is very important to the IOC. They want to know what is the impact the Olympics can have on a host city in terms of preserving the Olympic ideals and introducing kids to the Olympic movement.”

Since Simril took the baton from DeFrantz in January, the LA84 Foundation has hosted international Greco-Roman wrestling at the Forum and USA Water Polo for the announcement of the 2016 women’s Olympic team.

And when the world turns its eyes to the Rio Games, LA84 will be ready. “We’re hosting a viewing reception on campus for the Aug. 5 opening ceremonies with LA24 bid committee members, [past] Olympic athletes and sponsors,” Simril said.

Evans, who’s also working to bring the Summer Games back to L.A. as part of the LA24 bid committee, says the LA84 legacy is in good hands, “Renata is the exact leadership the foundation needs to continue its legacy,” Evans said. “She’s forward-thinking and really understands youth sport and the Olympic movement.”

Asked about the future, Simril reflects on the dividends of the 1984 Games, and the Olympic flame still burning symbolically in the courtyard below her office.

“The [’24] bid is supported by the 30-year legacy from the last time we hosted the Olympic Games, in terms of the nearly 4 million kids we’ve served,” Simril said. “We have the opportunity, if we’re fortunate enough to get the Games, for LA84 to collaborate with LA24 on the next legacy and the impact we can have on youth and on preserving the Olympic ideals.”

Robert Gray is a writer in California.