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Super volunteers globetrot for Olympics

By A. Pawlowski, CNN
Ernie Peterson is volunteering for his third Olympics. This photo shows him during the 2006 games in Torino, Italy.
Ernie Peterson is volunteering for his third Olympics. This photo shows him during the 2006 games in Torino, Italy.
  • Super volunteers love working at the Olympics so much that they travel to do it over and over
  • About 25,000 volunteers are working in Vancouver; more than 77,000 people applied
  • Before Vancouver, Ernie Peterson also volunteered in Salt Lake City and in Torino, Italy
  • Doctor and interpreter also among volunteers with longtime Olympic experience

(CNN) -- Living just miles from Florida's Daytona Beach, Ernie Peterson had never seen a hockey game in his life when he volunteered for his first Winter Olympics.

By his third games, now under way in Vancouver, British Columbia, skating rinks and snowy mountains are as familiar to him as palm trees and the roar of the ocean.

Call Peterson a super volunteer -- part of an elite group of enthusiasts who love the Olympic experience so much that they travel across the country and the world to do it over and over.

"I was willing to shovel snow if that's what it took to become a volunteer," Peterson, 58, recalled telling officials at the first games he applied to, the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Are you in Vancouver? Share your experiences

He was offered a position, but the call came so late that there weren't any plane tickets available to Salt Lake City, so he and his wife flew to Las Vegas, Nevada, and drove the rest of the way -- about six hours.

In 2006, he splurged on a trans-Atlantic plane ticket and spent about $700 to squeeze into a small chalet with 12 other people for a month so he could volunteer at the Winter Games in Torino, Italy.

And last summer, he and his wife flew to Vancouver just to hunt for a place where he could stay during the 2010 games, where he is helping out with media relations and medals ceremonies in Whistler, the Alpine skiing venue. (A fellow Rotary Club member invited him to stay in a condo nearby.)

Now retired, Peterson used his vacation time to attend the events when he worked. He also estimates he has spent thousands of dollars to be part of the Olympic Games.

Ask him if it's been worth it, and he doesn't hesitate.

"Oh yeah, it was a bargain. ... I've never regretted one cent. Never," Peterson said. "I'm right there next to the Olympics -- the experience of a lifetime. I wouldn't trade that for anything."

Behind the Scenes blog: My experience in the Olympic volunteers club

Applications pour in

Peterson is one of 25,000 volunteers working at the games in Vancouver -- people from all walks of life assigned to do everything from taking tickets at events to driving athletes around town to helping out dignitaries gathered for the spectacle.

As in past Olympics, they get free uniforms, meal vouchers, official credentials and the chance to be part of history. Most pay for their own transportation and housing. The only compensation is the thrill of being there. Volunteers rewards come as memories, occasional free ticket

More than 77,000 people applied for the privilege of donating their time just to be close to the action and excitement, according to the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC).

"We are fortunate to have attracted a large and diverse application pool of people from around the world who are willing to volunteer for the Games," said Allen Vansen, vice president of workforce operations for VANOC.

The overwhelming majority this year -- 95 percent -- are from Canada, the host country. The rest come from the United States and dozens of other nations.

Treating elite athletes

Brian Krabak, a doctor of sports medicine from Seattle, Washington, has found Olympic volunteering so fulfilling that Vancouver will also be his third games. He previously offered his medical expertise in Salt Lake City in 2002 and at the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, in 2004.

"It combines my passion for sports medicine, which is what I love to do every day, and a passion for traveling and experiencing new lands and new cultures. That's what makes me tick," said Krabak, 42. He has already accomplished his goal of stepping on every continent, he added.

Treating athletes hurt during competition, Krabak has seen both the joy of those who were able to recover quickly and the despair of others whose Olympic dreams were dashed by their injuries. He also has some unexpected memories: Assigned to the swimming venue in Athens, Krabak was surprised by how violent water polo could be, he recalled.

He is now working in Whistler and adjusting to being in "bundled up" mode at an Olympics after getting used to catching some sun at his last games in Athens, Krabak said.

Interpreting a shouting match

Meanwhile, Sandy Suffoletta is adjusting to her first Olympics without horses. The Georgetown, Kentucky, resident volunteered at the equestrian venue at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, Georgia, and is now working at the main media center in Vancouver as part of language services.

Fluent in French and Spanish, she's among the volunteers who help interpret during news conferences and other occasions.

The experiences can be intense: Suffoletta found herself interpreting a shouting match between a French journalist and a groundskeeper during the Olympics in Atlanta. She has also escorted royalty, ridden in the back of an ambulance and seen the pure, raw joy of a competitor who has just won a medal.

"It's being a part of something that's so much bigger than yourself; being part of a longstanding tradition, history," said Suffoletta, 56. "It's fascinating to meet people from all over the world, and you work together to put on the best games that you can."

Suffoletta is already thinking it would be fun to volunteer at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England. Organizers estimate they will need up to 70,000 volunteers to make those games happen. Krabak also hopes he can be there, though he's now the father of 1½-year-old twins and says time will tell whether he'll be able to balance family with volunteering.

As for Peterson, he's already submitted his name for London 2012. It's a long way from Florida, but the Olympics beckon.