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Former Olympian grants wishes to seniors

By Kristen Dahlgren, NBC News correspondent

UTAH BEACH, FRANCE -- Russell Taylor first set foot on Normandy's Utah Beach 68 years ago.  He was a 25-year-old in the Army Signal Corps, and decades later, he readily admits just how frightened he was. 

"Anyone who tells you they weren't scared... that's a lot of bull," said the feisty 94-year-old.

As he looked out across the beach, Taylor recalled coming ashore on the third day after D-day.

"It was a mess out there," he said. He remembered the friends who didn't make it. "It could have been me," said Taylor, but that beach was just the beginning of Taylor's story. 

As much as he lost on the beaches of Normandy, Taylor also found something in France that changed his life more than any war.  As the war was ending, Taylor went to work for General Dwight Eisenhower in Paris, and it was there that he met Odile Metzger, a young French interpreter. 

"Best thing I ever did," said Taylor as he looked at his wife of almost 67 years.  When asked what he would do if he could do anything in the world, Taylor said he wanted to renew his vows to Odile in the place that brought them together.

Russell and Odile never could have afforded or made the trip back to France by themselves at the ages of 94, but with the help of  the nonprofit Wish of a Lifetime, Taylor's wish came true.  

Wish of a Lifetime is the foundation of Jeremy Bloom, a young man who knows a thing or two about making dreams come true.  Bloom was an Olympic freestyle skier who competed in Salt Lake City in 2002 and Torino in 2006.  He was a three-time world champion in moguls.  After skiing in the Olympics, the gifted athlete -- who was also college football standout -- was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles and went on to play in the NFL.  He's now co-founder of Integrate, a booming marketing technology company, but his life's passion is granting wishes to seniors.

Bloom founded Jeremy Bloom's Wish of a Lifetime to honor his own grandmother, Donna Wheeler, a spry 86-year-old who inspired him growing up. It seems his philanthropic spirit comes from Wheeler as well. 

"It was just always something that was really important to us growing up," said Bloom. 

"Absolutely," added Wheeler as she smiled at the grandson she now calls her hero. 

In 2008, Bloom granted just four wishes. The first was to a woman who couldn't afford to see her daughter who was fighting ovarian cancer.  Bloom brought them together, and the organization grew from there.  Last year, through a partnership with Brookdale Senior Living, Wish of a Lifetime was able to grant over 400 wishes to seniors around the country, everything from seeing the Statue of Liberty, to skydiving.  For Bloom, however, it's about more than the bucket list.

"The larger purpose is to create awareness and really a movement that says these people are national treasures," he said. 

Bloom recalled a trip to Japan when he was a competitive skier.  He was on a crowded bus when an older woman got on. "Even the bus driver got out and took care of her and made sure that she had a seat before the bus even moved," Bloom said.  The moment resonated and Bloom thought of his own grandparents and how he wanted seniors to be treated in the United States. 

Through Wish of a Lifetime he hopes to transform attitudes toward the elderly, and he's already making a difference in their lives.  In a recent survey of wish recipients, 95 percent reported an improvement in happiness and 80 percent reported better physical health after they received their wish. 

"You know, I've won a lot of gold medals in skiing, and I've won a lot of football games throughout my football career, but nothing can even come close to the feeling that I get watching a senior get their wish granted," said Bloom.

So in a small, old church in France, Bloom recently beamed as he watched Russell and Odile renew their vows, and recommit to a love that started in the most trying of times. "I think it's a strong message to say that just because you are in your 80s, 90s and 100s does not mean that you cannot stop dreaming, does not mean that you shouldn't set goals and live out your dreams. Russ and Odile are living proof."

Learn more about Wish of a Lifetime by visiting their website at