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HEBER — Sixty-four highly talented sheepdogs are converging on Utah from around the world for an annual event that's grown far beyond what organizers ever expected. It's part of a lasting legacy from the 2002 Olympics.
A sheepdog named Tell is practicing for a great sport — dogs take charge of sheep to make them go where they're supposed to go. No, they're not talking about making it an Olympic event. But in Utah, it's a huge spectator sport.
It's the biggest sheepdog championship in the world, according to Mark Petersen, founder of the Soldier Hollow Classic.
Each year 25,000 people attend the Soldier Hollow Classic, making it far bigger than Petersen ever expected.
"I had big dreams, but I didn't expect that it would become what it's become," he said. "This is a great jewel that came off of the Olympics."
The event grew out of brainstorming sessions at the close of the Olympics 10 years ago: how could the Soldier Hollow venue continue to be useful after Olympic cross-country skiers were long gone?
Howard Peterson, executive director of the Soldier Hollow Legacy Foundation said, "That's the unfortunate legacy of so many Olympic sites. They have so many white elephants or the facility just is abandoned."
When the sheepdog trial was launched 10 years ago, audiences found there could be real suspense of watching the interplay between dogs and sheep. There is always the opportunity that something you don't expect will happen at a moment's notice, unlike any other dog event.
The event is also a hit with locals like Kay Probst, who grew up tending sheep.
"To me it brings back those fond memories I had as a kid growing up," he said. "The economy of the sheep to this valley was tremendous back in them days."
This will be Tell's second time in the competition. He'll be going up against what Mark Peterson calls the NBA of sheepdogs. Along with about 20 other annual events at Soldier Hollow, it will help pay the bills of the Olympic venue.
"We wanted to have a legacy where we paid our bills, and we do. We've been in the black every year," Peterson said.
That financial success could be a selling point if Utah ever gets serious again about pursuing the Olympics.
"While it's a very small surplus, we have had a surplus every year for the last 10 years," Peterson said.
The sheepdog competition begins Friday and last four days to Labor Day.