As we sit glued to our TVs watching the Rio 2016 Olympics, some members of the United family are watching the action a little closer. They have competed at the highest levels themselves and know well the incredible sacrifice and heart that it takes to represent their country. In fact, several of our employees are former athletes or have family members striving to make it to the Games.
Captain Dave Walters
Chicago based 777 Captain Dave Walters
“I still enjoy following the Games as a spectator. I know what those guys are going through and I can empathize with the journey that they have traveled to get there because I've been on that journey, too," said Chicago based 777 Captain Dave Walters, who qualified for the 1988 U.S. Olympic Team Trials as a marathoner. After watching the 1972 Olympics, he immediately knew it was something that he wanted to pursue and he dedicated two decades of his life to get there. Job changes in the early 1980s forced him to scale back his training, so Dave didn't attempt to qualify for the 1980 or 1984 Games. But finally, in 1986 he qualified for the 1988 Trials. “When I got my qualifying time I had a smile on my face for weeks. That's as close as most people ever get to The Olympics. Making it into the Trials meant that I could give it my best shot, and that's all that I wanted."
The Trial race took place in Jersey City, New Jersey in April 1988 on a brutal course full of hills. Out of 130 participants, only the top three racers would qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team. Dave was the 126th seed. “On top of everything, I had a fever that day – I was on the verge of catching a flu. But, in spite of that, I still managed to finish 36th, and I was honored to be there."
His Olympic experience was the culmination of a lifetime of focus, dedication, motivation and discipline. “Just to make it to the Trials was a dream come true. It put an exclamation point on my athletic career," Dave said.
Remarkably, Dave still adheres to that focus and discipline, running between eight and twelve miles every day. In fact, last year he achieved the triple crown, winning his age group in the Chicago, New York and Boston marathons. “I still get the same kick out of running that I did in the '80s. It's not quite the 'knife fight' that it used to be," he said laughing, “but it's still competitive and I enjoy that."
Captain Bruce Conner
Chicago based 747 Captain Bruce Conner
Pushing age 60, Chicago based 747 Captain Bruce Conner lives by a simple philosophy: try to do a little better today than you did yesterday. It's a philosophy that drives him in every aspect of his life and work, throughout his 31 years as a United pilot and his five decades as a world-class athlete.
“There's a common belief that as we get older, we get slower," Bruce said. “I want to break down that self-limiting mindset. It's more about having realistic goals." Bruce got into sports over 50 years ago as a gymnast alongside his brother, who would go on to become a three-time Olympian and two-time gold medalist in gymnastics. “After about two years, I realized that my little brother was a lot better than me, so I thought 'Maybe I'll find a different path,' and I turned my attention to speed skating."
That turned out to be a good choice. By the time he was a teenager, Bruce was a member of the U.S. National Team. In the fall of 1975 he traveled to Holland to train for the upcoming U.S. Olympic Team Trials for the 1976 Olympic Winter Games, but he experienced a setback. “I was skating well in Holland, but I was so motivated that I over-trained. By the time I went to the trials in December, my times were getting slower."
Bruce fell short at the trials and did not make the 1976 Team. It was a devastating blow and the disappointment subsequently led to him walk away from the sport. It wasn't until he reached his mid-twenties that he began to feel the pull of competition again, but in a slightly different way.
“I started running and competing in 5ks, 10ks, half marathons and triathlons," he said. “I really enjoyed it and it helped me maintain my fitness level. At age 40 I still competed in races, but I noticed that I was always just in the middle of the pack." That's when he decided to give skating one more shot.
He began commuting once a week between his home in Illinois to a rink in Milwaukee to train and participate in open races. When he made a trip to Calgary for a race at age 48, he realized, to his amazement, that he was faster than he had ever been. “When I got back home, I hired a coach and started taking it more seriously. Then I wondered if I could qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. I knew that if I skated a good race, I had a chance to be in the top 25 in the U.S."
He trained six days a week and qualified for the 2005 Trials with his times in the 500 and 1000 meter races. Four years later he did it again, with even faster qualifying times than he had previously skated. Bruce seemed to be getting better with age, and in 2013 he qualified for a fourth time – at age 57.
Bruce continues to compete and published a book called Faster as a Master, which details his life in speed skating and his philosophy of continual improvement.
First Officer Joe Oka and son Peyton Oka
Chicago based 777 First Officer Joe Oka
It only took Chicago based 777 First Officer Joe Oka 45 years to discover that he possessed a unique talent. Now, he's using that ability to help youngsters pursue their Olympic dreams.
More than a decade ago, Joe — who has been a United pilot for 21 years — became a backyard archery enthusiast after a friend gave him his first bow and arrow set. When a city ordinance in his hometown of Fort Mitchell, Kentucky threatened to ban archery in neighborhoods, Joe became embroiled in local politics to save his newfound sport. While doing so, he met the man who changed his sporting life: Darrell Pace.
“When our town banned archery, I tried to fight city hall," Joe said. “In the course of that, I started working with Darrell. One day he said to me 'You're pretty good. Why don't you try competition archery?' and that's when I started taking it seriously."
To understand why Darrell's encouragement was so important, you have to understand who Darrell Pace is and what he means to the archery community. Darrell was called the world's greatest archer during his years as a competitor in the 1970s and 1980s, winning individual gold medals at both the 1976 and the 1984 Olympic Games. In 2011, he was declared the Men's Archer for the 20th Century by the International Archery Federation.
From that point forward Joe trained and competed tirelessly, even turning his attention toward coaching and starting a varsity archery program at a high school in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. He worked out regularly at a local range and qualified for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials but said the experience taught him that archery at that level isn't a part-time hobby. “You really can't have a day job and compete with athletes of that caliber — for them, archery is their profession and their life." While he didn't make the U.S Olympic Team, he walked away from the trials with valuable insight that made him a much better coach.
As Joe's son Peyton grew older, he encouraged him to pick up a bow as well. Soon enough, Peyton was following in his dad's footsteps, winning the U.S. Nationals at age 11. Now Peyton is eyeing a spot on the U.S. National Team for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games . “He's working hard in his division," Joe said. “By the end of this year, he should be top 15 in the country."
It's been an interesting road for Joe and his family, hopefully one that ends up in Tokyo four years from now.
Captain Tom Connor and son Reed Connor
San Francisco based 787 Captain Tom Connor
We know the many miles that these competitors will have traveled by the time they touch down in Brazil, but perhaps no one knows that more so than San Francisco based 787 Captain Tom Connor. Tom has supported his son Reed, a distance runner, who competed for a spot on the U.S. Track and Field Team in Rio.
Tom and his wife Karla first noticed Reed's running abilities when they lived in Guam 20 years ago. At the time, he was only six years old but he was able to keep up with kids twice his age. “Part of the school curriculum was the President's Fitness Challenge, which included a running component. We watched all of the kids take off and when they came back around toward the finish line, Reed was right up front with the bigger kids. I thought he had cut through and I told him 'It's not okay to cut,' but he said 'Dad, I didn't. I ran the whole way.' I was shocked."
A few years later the Connor family moved to Houston where Reed continued his athletic endeavors on the basketball court. Then, a chance encounter with a track coach prior to his freshman year in high school changed all of that. “Reed was running with the basketball team, and Dan Green, head coach of the Woodlands High School track team noticed him. He told Reed 'If you run for me, everybody is going to know your name.'"
From that point on he excelled as a high school distance runner, culminating in a record-breaking run at the Nike Cross National Championship in 2008 After high school Reed competed for the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he achieved first-team All-Big Ten and All-American honors. Since graduating from UW, Reed continued running, averaging close to 100 miles each week, and qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Oregon. He ran a strong race in the 5000 meters but, unfortunately, fell just short of making the finals. Tom said that Reed was disappointed, but he was glad to have experienced the trials.
Reed's running career has taken the Connor family all over the country and the world. Thankfully, Tom is in the right business. “We couldn't have done it if I didn't work for United," said Tom. “We've been fortunate to have the chance to follow him around the world and cheer him on. Last year we were even able to go to Edinburgh, Scotland to watch him."
Canada's largest city spreads out along the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario, and it's a dynamic, multicultural and inclusive experience like almost no other place on earth. Not only is Toronto a thriving living city,it's also become one of the world's truly must-visit destinations. Regularly ranked as one of the greatest places to live, Toronto is the cultural center of the country and home to the biggest events, the most pro sports and the greatest concentration of theaters and restaurants.
Recent decades have seen regular multi-million-dollar upgrades to the city's public spaces, with a slew of great museums, iconic architecture and the redevelopment of the now glittering lakefront adding to the city's appeal.
Add in an ever-growing number of world-class hotels, upbeat nightlife that runs from dusk until dawn and a vibrant and diverse culinary scene influenced by the eclectic makeup of the city's people. Bright and bustling, cosmopolitan and cultured, unpredictable and energetic, Toronto has become one of the greatest cities on earth.
What you see and where you go will depend on the length of your stay. A week is good, longer is better. But even a long weekend will give you a taste of 'The Six' — one of the city's many nicknames, reworked recently as 'The 6ix' by one of its most famous sons, Drake.
However long you stay, you can't hope to see it all. So, consider what follows a starting point for your first visit…
City Hall, Toronto
The checklist sites
No visit to The Six can be considered complete without ticking off several of Toronto's true heavyweight sights. All of the following are in or within easy reach of the city's compact, walk-able and very vibrant center.
The CN Tower is unmissable in every sense, a vast freestanding spire that looks down upon the city and takes its place as one of the 'Seven Wonders of the Modern World'. Head up for the city's best 360-degree views, or get your heart racing on the EdgeWalk — a journey around the circumference of the tower's main pod, 116 stories high and tethered by a harness.
Back on solid ground, Ripley's Aquarium is almost right next door to the CN Tower and is home to 16,000 aquatic animals and the Dangerous Lagoon. A moving sidewalk that whisks you through a long tunnel surrounded by sharks and stingrays is guaranteed to make your heart race all over again.
Also close to the CN Tower is the Rogers Center, home to Canada's only baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays. Visit on game day for the full experience, or take the stadium tour to go behind the scenes and through closed doors.
In a city of so many museums and galleries, the Royal Ontario Museum stands out. Not just because it's home to a world-class collection of 13 million artworks, cultural objects and natural history specimens, but as much because it hosts exciting Friday night events that include dance, drink and top DJs.
Two other must ticks include the Art Gallery of Ontario, which houses 95,000 works of art and is free for visitors under 25, and the Hockey Hall of Fame, which taps into Canada's national obsession in stunning depth.
Art Gallery of Ontario
Casa Loma is a must-visit Gothic castle in the heart of the city. North America's only castle is filled with artworks and treasures from Canada and beyond, but its big pull is the network of hidden tunnels to explore as they stretch out beneath the city.
Toronto's multi-cultural makeup is visible all across the city but reflected best in its remarkable culinary scene (see Where to eat and drink). The city's 'fresh and local' mantra is perfectly showcased at St. Lawrence Market, one of the world's greatest food experiences. Pay it a visit and grab a peameal bacon sandwich — a Canadian staple invented in Toronto and now considered the city's signature dish.
St. Lawrence Market
Afterwards, walk off the calories by wandering the historic cobblestone and car-free Distillery District. Once a vast whiskey distillery and an important spot during prohibition, historians mention that even Al Capone would visit the Distillery to load alcohol destined for the States . This iconic landmark now distils creativity within the 19th century buildings now home to hip restaurants, bars, independent boutique stores, galleries and theaters. Visit in December for the Toronto Christmas Market.
Finally, don't even think about returning home without having had a picture taken with your head poking through an 'O' of the multicolored, 3D Toronto sign at City Hall — the most Insta-worthy location in a city of so many. You'll need to head there early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
If you stay long enough, take a ferry and hop across to Toronto Islands, a chain of 15 small islands in Lake Ontario just south of the mainland. They're home to beaches, a theme park and a breathtaking view of the city's skyline and will very happily fill a full day of your stay.
The bucket list
You absolutely cannot leave Toronto without having witnessed the power of the Niagara Falls and its hypnotic mist up close. Trying to visit the Falls from the States is a trip on its own, but it's almost non-optional when you're less than two hours away in Toronto. Take the trip, buy the T-shirt and tick off one of the world's must-see sights.
Explore like a local
Away from the sleek, gleaming towers of downtown lie many of Toronto's less obvious but no less essential attractions. West Queen West is Toronto's hippest neighborhood and artistic heart, a one-mile strip of very chic galleries, stores, restaurants and boutique hotels. Kensington Market is a fantastically chaotic neighborhood and perhaps the best example of the city's famous multiculturalism. It's not a market as the name implies, but a collection of independent shops, vintage boutiques, art spaces, cafés, bars and restaurants from every corner of the globe.
The Bata Shoe Museum is one of the city's quirkiest collections, an unexpectedly fascinating exhibit that retraces the 4,500-year history of footwear. And as you wander the city, you can't fail to notice that Toronto's walls are alive with graffiti. Take a free 90-minute walking tour through the back alleys of Queen Street West and down Graffiti Alley to gain a better understanding of the city's street art scene. If you visit during the sunnier months, escape the hustle by heading just east of the center to High Park, the green heart of the city where forests, walking trails, picnic spots and even a zoo await you. Ideal to unwind after a long day of urban adventures.
When to go With the sun shining, May through October is a great time to visit, but the city is alive through all four seasons. The Spring and Autumn months are ideal as the humidity and visitor numbers are lighter, while Toronto comes alive through the colder months through a wide array of winter celebrations. One of the most spectacular is the Aurora Winter Festival, a six-week celebration that sees the Ontario Place, West Island transformed into four mystical worlds. Whichever season you choose, plan to stay for at least five nights to get a true flavor of the city.
Toronto skyline view
Where to stay To be at the heart of most of the attractions you'll want to see, aim for downtown. One of the best options is the Marriott City Center, not only because it's located right next to the CN Tower but also because it's attached to the iconic Rogers Center where the Toronto Blue Jays play and countless concerts and popular events are held.
Toronto Blue Jay stadium
Opt for a Stadium room and you'll look out onto the field. If you want to experience Toronto's non-stop nightlife, the Entertainment District is the place to be. If you're looking for a luxury experience, discover Canada's first St. Regis hotel in the heart of downtown.
Where to eat and drink Nowhere is Toronto's incredible diversity more evident than in its food scene — taste Toronto and you're tasting the world. The city is brimming with restaurants and cafés serving everything from high-end fine dining to comfort food from an informal neighborhood joint — plus every option imaginable in between.
For fine dining, consider Alo, Canis and Edulis. Book a table at Canoe, Lavelle, The One Eighty or 360 at the CN Tower and you're guaranteeing a view as spectacular as the food. Or experience the city's remarkable fusion food at DaiLo (French-Cantonese), El Catrin (Mexican-French) and the unexpected mashup of Rasta Pasta (Jamaican-Italian).
The above suggestions don't even scratch the surface of a food scene to rival any city on earth, with options to suit every taste and any budget.
How to get around Toronto is perfect to explore on foot or via a growing network of cycle routes. For a quicker journey, buy a Presto card to use the TTC, Toronto's subway, streetcar and bus system.
How to get there Fly into Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) with United and you're around 15 miles west of the city center. The most comfortable route in is via the Union Pearson Express, which runs every 15 minutes and gets you downtown in 25 minutes ($13).The TTC is a cheaper option at under $5, but it can take an hour and a half and involves a number of transfers, while a taxi will take around 30 minutes and cost $45.
United flies to Toronto from numerous U.S. cities including our Hub city locations. Book your trip via united.com or by downloading the United app.
Around the web
Following the devastating wildfires in Australia and powerful earthquakes that shook Puerto Rico last week, we're taking action to make a global impact through our international partnerships as well as nonprofit organizations Afya Foundation and ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency).
Helping Puerto Rico recover from earthquakes
Last week, Puerto Rico was hit with a 5.2 magnitude earthquake, following a 6.4 magnitude earthquake it experienced just days before. The island has been experiencing hundreds of smaller quakes during the past few weeks.
These earthquakes destroyed crucial infrastructure and left 4,000 people sleeping outside or in shelters after losing their homes. We've donated $50,000 to our partner charity organization Airlink and through them, we've helped transport disaster relief experts and medical supplies for residents, as well as tents and blankets for those who have lost their homes. Funding will go towards organizations within Airlink's partner network, which includes Habitat for Humanity, Mercy Corps and Americares, to help with relief efforts and long-term recovery.
Australian wildfire relief efforts
Our efforts to help Australia have inspired others to make their own positive impact. In addition to teaming up with Ellen DeGeneres to donate $250,000 and launching a fundraising campaign with GlobalGiving to benefit those impacted by the devastating wildfires in the country known for its open spaces and wildlife, our cargo team is helping to send more than 600 pounds of medical supplies to treat injured animals in the region.
Helping us send these supplies is the Afya Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that seeks to improve global health by collecting surplus medical supplies and delivering them to parts of the world where they are most needed. Through Airlink, the Afya Foundation will send more than $18,000 worth of materials that will be used to treat animals injured in the Australian fires.
These medical supplies will fly to Melbourne (MEL) and delivered to The Rescue Collective. This Australian organization is currently focused on treating the massive population of wildlife, such as koalas, kangaroos, and birds, that have had their habitats destroyed by the recent wildfires. The supplies being sent include wound dressings, gloves, catheters, syringes and other items that are unused but would otherwise be disposed of.
By working together, we can continue to make a global impact and help those affected by natural disasters to rebuild and restore their lives
Australia needs our help as wildfires continue to devastate the continent that's beloved by locals and travelers alike. In times like these, the world gets a little smaller and we all have a responsibility to do what we can.
On Monday, The Ellen DeGeneres Show announced a campaign to raise $5 million to aid in relief efforts. When we heard about Ellen's effort, we immediately reached out to see how we could help.
Today, we're committing $250,000 toward Ellen's campaign so we can offer support now and help with rebuilding. For more on The Ellen DeGeneres Show efforts and to donate yourself, you can visit www.gofundme.com/f/ellenaustraliafund
We're also matching donations made to the Australian Wildfire Relief Fund, created by GlobalGiving's Disaster Recovery Network. This fund will support immediate relief efforts for people impacted by the fires in the form of emergency supplies like food, water and medicine. Funds will also go toward long-term recovery assistance, helping residents recover and rebuild. United will match up to $50,000 USD in donations, and MileagePlus® members who donate $50 or more will receive up to 1,000 award miles from United. Donate to GlobalGiving.
Please note: Donations made toward GlobalGiving's fund are only eligible for the MileagePlus miles match.
In addition to helping with fundraising, we're staying in touch with our employees and customers in Australia. Together, we'll help keep Australia a beautiful place to live and visit in the years to come.