Gymnast Peter Vidmar inspired Americans across the country when he led the U.S. men's gymnastics team to its first-ever team gold medal during the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Nearly 30 years later, Vidmar remains in Olympic shape — and he continues to serve as an inspiration in the City of Angels.
Vidmar is among the 42 current and former Olympians who mentor students in Los Angeles-area schools each year as part of the nonprofit Ready, Set, Gold! (RSG) program, which educates fifth, seventh and ninth graders about the importance of eating right and being active.
The Olympians aren’t all talk. Each makes five visits during the year to his or her assigned school, helping students prepare for the Fitnessgram, California’s rigorous fitness exam. It’s not an easy test — students must perform exercises such as curl-ups, trunk lifts, push-ups, pull-ups and a one-mile run — but the Olympians create a special bond with students, helping them to succeed in ways they otherwise might not have.
“The kids really respond,” says Aileen Vartanian, RSG’s program manager. “The fact that [the Olympians] keep coming back really help the kids stay motivated and encouraged. They’re always looking to show off.”
RSG first launched in 2006 as a youth-focused charitable component of Los Angeles’s bid for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Even though Rio ended up as the host city for the games, organizers decided to continue the program with the purpose of addressing the then-growing problem of childhood obesity.
Now a public-private partnership between the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games, the Los Angeles Unified School District and Olympics sponsor Samsung, RSG reaches about 15,000 students per year. And with perhaps 1,000 current and former Olympians living in Southern California, organizers say RSG has the potential to continue its growth.
“Olympians as a group are among the most cooperative athletes out of any other athletes,” says Mark Meyers, RSG’s publicist. “They just seem more like real people out of any other group of athletes. They aren’t seven feet tall, they look like you and me. They are committed to giving back.”
At each school, physical education teachers and Olympians work together to ensure each session is structured to best help the students prepare for the Fitnessgram. Each Olympian, however, tailors visits to reflect his or her unique Olympic background. For example, Vidmar typically brings his medals along and shows off his gymnastics skills.
“He did a couple of things himself, like he did a handstand,” Bernadine Bednarz, RSG’s program director, recalls of Vidmar’s last site visit. “This is a guy in his 50s.”
Vidmar didn’t expect the students to do a handstand, however. “They did pushups, pull-ups, curl-ups. The next time the plan is to take a run around the track at the school,” Bednarz adds.
Bednarz notes that Paralympians also volunteer with RSG, inspiring students to succeed no matter what obstacles they might face. “I saw a Paralympian get out of his wheelchair and do 25 push-ups one day. The kids just had no excuses,” she says.
Olympians also take students out of their element. For example, boxer Henry Tillman, who won gold for the United States in the 1984 games, volunteers at the high school he attended. Along with helping them get ready for the Fitnessgram, Tillman offers students the opportunity to work out with him at his nearby boxing gym.
“Almost every time I’ve been there, after the class one or two kids have come up to him and said, ‘Hey, I’m interested in your boxing gym. Can I get your card?’” says Vartanian. “The fact that what an Olympian said resonated with them, and they decided to do something about it, I think means the most.”
RSG plans to join the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games in its expected bid for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games, which will officially launch in 2015. Meanwhile, the Olympians are especially enjoying their school visits this week, as the world watches the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
Some of those current athletes could become RSG mentors someday.
“A lot of them want to continue with the Olympic legacy after competing,” Vartanian says. “They get into it as much as the kids do.”
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