Emily Azevedo on write track

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Emily Azevedo, back, has her eyes on the prize in Sochi, and her heart with her pen pal program back home.

If Emily Azevedo had to guess which sport would take her to the Olympics, she would never have said bobsledding, let alone any winter sport. The brakeman is first and foremost a summer athlete.

The former competitive gymnast and 100-meter hurdler might have never switched gears (or seasons) if she hadn't been inspired by 2006 Olympic silver medalist and brakeman Valerie Fleming, who, similar to Azevedo, was a track star in college. Looking up to an Olympian changed her life, and now the 30-year-old Chico, Calif., native is looking to inspire others with a new Olympic mentoring program.

"Last summer, I started a pen pal program that connects kids from my local Boys & Girls Club to different athletes from the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs," said Azevedo, who's been volunteering at the club every summer since 2010.

Over the years, she and the kids have grown quite close, making it harder for her to leave every time to start her winter season. Tired of saying goodbye, she and teammate Greubel came up with a plan so they wouldn't have to. They created a four-week program to teach 20 kids how to hand-write different types of letters, including a business letter, a friendly letter and a thank-you note. They then had each kid send their letters to an athlete. On the last day of the program, the kids got to deliver their final letters to their pen pal in person at the Olympic Training Center, where they met for lunch.

@EmilyAzevedo

Azevedo says participating in her program -- in which athletes will get letters like the one above -- gives Olympians and hopefuls a good opportunity "to separate themselves from training all the time."

"The kids got a special ID pass with their name and photo. It was such an awesome day," she said. "Some of the kids were really able to find an outlet in these athletes. They expressed parts of their lives that were in trouble and got some advice. It was really touching to see it all happen. It made me want to keep it going."

Since then, she's been working with the Boys & Girls Club of America to expand the program to include more winter athletes and encourage the kids to write about their goals, hobbies and dreams. By last November, she already had 12 athletes, including herself, Greubel, 2010 Olympic bobsledding champion Curtis Tomasevicz and skeleton racer Matt Antoine, signed up to participate.

How do these elite athletes find time? "Sending one letter out every two weeks is totally manageable while you're competing and training. Writing a letter only takes 10 minutes. And it's a good opportunity for athletes to separate themselves from training all the time. Being able to connect with their community helps them understand the bigger picture as well," she said. What made it easier and more convenient this time around is that the extended program is now all on email.

Though she loves reading her letters and occasionally shares snapshots of them on Twitter, Azevedo's favorite didn't come addressed to her.

"A teenager named Mikey was pen pals with Paralympic swimmer Anna Johannes who shared with him how she lost her arm and was still able to accomplish great things. He wrote back to her how he wanted to be a NBA basketball player and while he recognized that it might be an impossible dream, he was inspired by her to pursue his dream it anyway.

"A lot of these kids come from really bad living situations," she said, "so to see that kind of inspiration was just ... wow, really impactful."

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