Steve Mesler was asked plenty of times during his bobsledding career to appear at schools and talk to kids about his experiences as an athlete chasing Olympic gold.
The talks were largely the same, as were the reactions of students.
"You hope that a couple kids listen," Mesler said. "And after a while I said, 'That's not good enough."'
So the now-retired gold medalist from the 2010 Vancouver Games set out to change that -- in a big way.
Mesler enlisted a slew of friends, including WNBA star Sue Bird, to help him with a project called Classroom Champions, which connects students from Grades 3-8 in what are described as high-need schools with athletes who get involved with their goal-setting and check in on the classes regularly. They're involved in about 27 classrooms around the country, with designs of making the program much bigger soon.
Their message is simple: Being champions in the classroom is just as important as being champions in sport, if not more so.
"We're going to have a lot of fun, set a lot of great goals and continue to be champions both inside the classroom and out," Bird told students in her introductory video.
Classroom Champions likes to describe what it does as being pen-pals for the 21st century, meaning the athletes typically communicate with their adopted classrooms by video conferencing or some similar method, and do so on a regular basis -- aiming for an entire school year.
"We did it because we thought it'd be fun," Mesler said. "My sister was studying for and now has her doctorate in educational policy, and we just thought it'd be cool. It's not Steve Mesler's Classroom Champions. I want it to be a sustainable program because I think it's a big enough idea that it can really do a lot of cool stuff."
The idea was hatched in 2009, and inadvertently got a huge boost a few months later when Mesler was part of the team that captured Olympic gold in four-man bobsledding, snapping a 62-year drought for the United States. Mesler has found that when approaching schools, sponsors, even fellow athletes and asking for help, the cache that comes with winning an Olympic title helps open some doors.
"I've made sure that I've been capitalizing on that while it still matters," Mesler said. "It gets you in the door, but if you don't have something to offer, it doesn't matter. Between me and my sister, who's the educational director for this, I think we lend this a fair amount of credibility in trying to pull something like this off."
Mesler and his sister, Leigh Mesler Parise, are the children of a pair of schoolteachers, which is one of the many reasons why this project is so personal for them. Mesler graduated with honors from the University of Florida, and even now, education remains a priority.
And that's also the case for the athlete ambassadors he works with, a list that includes Bird, Olympic cyclist Giddeon Massie, Paralympic gold medalist Jerome Singleton, Olympic swimming bronze medalist Kim Vandenberg, Olympic track bronze medalist David Oliver, wheelchair basketball gold medalist Mary Allison Milford and weightlifter Natalie Burgener.
"We never had anything like this when I was younger," Vandenberg told her classes. "I hope that I can teach you a few things that I've learned."
So far, the project is getting rave reviews.
Feedback from teachers, students and parents has not only been positive, but Mesler feels like progress is being made. It's daunting for teachers -- classes have to submit videos each month around a specific theme, and many of the classrooms weren't exactly tech-savvy before this program came along, so it's been a learning curve for the educators as well.
There's no arguing that what they're doing is far more effective than a quick one-time lecture with kids. And not only are they teaching kids how to win, but they're trying to teach them that it's OK to stumble along the way as well.
"We want these kids to understand athletic goals and personal goals," Mesler said. "We want these kids living and breathing with the athletes as they train, as they stumble, as they succeed, as they fall, as they rise, and try to get them to understand the whole process of succeeding."
On the Web: http://www.classroomchampions.com