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Julie and Katie Schmitz at the airport.

Julie (left) and Katie Schmitz at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport prior to catching their flight to Athens, Greece.

Sister act: U students volunteer in Athens

U students volunteer in Athens

By Pauline Oo

Published on August 25, 2004

One uniform and 13 free meals--that's what the International Olympic Council (IOC) is giving each Schmitz sister for helping out at the Olympic games in Athens. Everything else--airfare, lodging, daily transport expenses, and sporting event tickets--is up to them. But U of M students Julie and Katie Schmitz are not complaining. They would gladly empty their pockets again for the chance to be where they are today--in the thick of the greatest sporting event in the world.

Since August 14, the sisters have been part of the 2004 Olympics Spectator Services crew. They're working eight-hour shifts together outside the Helliniko Olympic Complex, the venue for the basketball preliminaries, baseball, softball, fencing, field hockey, and handball.

"... the volunteers from abroad are extremely important for infusing new energy and enthusiasm into the Olympics, because it has been exhausting for the Greek people and organizational committee to put on these games," says Julie Schmitz.

"We unfortunately don't get to be inside the stadiums and playing halls, but we're helping the Greek police officers with crowd control, and we're giving general information and directions to spectators," says Julie Schmitz, the older of the two sisters and a University senior majoring in kinesiology. Schmitz turned in an application to volunteer at the Olympics three years ago when she visited Athens on a study tour organized by the U's kinesiology department. All 12 students on the trip submitted an application, but Schmitz is the only one who stayed the course. Her sister, Katie, applied two years ago.

"My ultimate goal right now is to be the first female president of the IOC," says Julie. "But that [goal] may change as my life changes. However, [I do know for sure that] I would like to someday be involved with the Olympics, whether it be working at the U.S. Olympic Council offices in Colorado or at the IOC as an administrator, or even working to get the games in Minneapolis. So I'm looking at this experience [as a way] to get my foot in the door."

"We both have been spectators when our family went to the Atlanta [Olympic] Games, and so it's interesting for me to learn about the behind-the-scenes aspect of the Olympics and how much effort goes into them," she adds.

For her little sister, a U sophomore majoring in elementary education, volunteering in Athens was a chance for personal growth.

"I thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I would remember forever and that would impact my life for the future," says Katie. "[Anytime you travel to another country], you learn how to be more patient, especially with different cultural and language obstacles."

The sisters, who have rented an apartment just outside the center of Athens, are also learning Greek--courtesy of local residents. "Kate and I know nothing in Greek," admits the older Schmitz. "So it is a bit challenging at times. People mostly just laugh at us when we try to talk to them because we can't seem to catch on to the language yet."

More than 8,500 people were sent offer letters to participate as volunteers, according to the official 2004 Olympics Web site. In addition to an application form, the volunteers had to undergo a personal interview if they lived in Greece or complete a special questionnaire by mail if they lived abroad. A selection committee determined where and for how long they would volunteer.

"There are many volunteers from abroad working with us, but most of the volunteers are Greek or of Greek descent and know the Greek language," says Julie Schmitz. "One thing that was brought to our attention at training was that the volunteers from abroad are extremely important for infusing new energy and enthusiasm into the Olympics, because it has been exhausting for the Greek people and organizational committee to put on these games."

The sisters will complete their Olympic duty on August 26 and return to Minneapolis two days later. With their free time, they plan to catch some more events (they had bought tickets to the women's gymnastics preliminaries and team finals, the track and field preliminaries, and the U.S. women's basketball games) and snap some photographs of a few more "important sites" in Athens.

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