I breathed in the scent of drywall and polished hardwood as I walked into the empty gymnasium; each footstep made its own resounding echo across the basketball court and out to the bleachers. “The Den of the Lobos” was painted in black and orange along each white wall, accompanied by banners and plaques displaying the school’s sports records.
It was the first time I had set foot in a high school since graduating from own in 2008. I was preparing to present to all of the sports teams of Los Amigos High School on my experience as an elite athlete – I had to take a moment to get my bearings as to what it was like to be in a high school again. The gym in particular here in was very similar to the one I had used myself three years ago in Pennsylvania. Everything looked smaller and older and more worn than I remembered.
This plan to present had been hatched just a few days before I left for Kazakhstan. My friend and housemate, Lori, is a physical education teacher at Los Amigos; Lori herself is an Olympian who went to Barcelona in’92 for team handball. We had gotten to talking about the plight of athletics in public schools – and how that tends to carry over into other areas. She told me how sports aren’t available at the middle school level for Los Amigos.
“The kids aren’t encouraged to do sports” she explained. “And once they can play in high school, it’s difficult to keep that fire to play alive. No one tells them what they can achieve, that they can achieve.” Lori stressed the trickle down from athletics to academics, and how students’ ability to focus on sports tends to go hand in hand with focusing on school. Those that see the value in both with excel in both.
My aim was to impress upon these kids, by way of example, not just how awesome sports can be (everybody knows that, right?) but how important it is set goals.
The kids began to file in – over 200 of them – and take their seats on the floor. I had made sure to wear my garb from the PanAmerican Games – it’s the only stuff I own with the Olympic rings on it, and I figured it would make a statement. I sat on the floor among the students as Lori welcomed them in and introduced the “special guest.” I popped up when she said my name and pointed in my direction. I probably would have felt more impressive if I wasn’t about a foot shorter than everyone else in the audience.
We kicked off with a video called Dare to Dream which Lori got a while back as courtesy of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Cue dramatic soundtrack and inspiring sports cinematography. We used about three minutes of this to set the mood. Bingo.
I introduced myself and briefly explained track cycling. It’s Nascar for bikes except we don’t have brakes. We chase motorcycles and beat the crap out of each other as well as ourselves. I then proceeded to share my own story: how I got started; my journey over the past four years; recent competitions; a typical training day.
My God, there are a lot of kids here. I’ll be lucky if what I’m saying gets through to half of them.
The natural flow of the presentation went nicely into a question-and-answer session. Thank goodness; oddly enough, I hate talking about myself and was starting to get uncomfortable. Cool. Let’s see who’s been paying attention and who’s still curious. Hands crept up and bunches of questions bubbled out.
“What do you do to prepare for a competition? How do you get ready?”
Well, I try to keep calm and relaxed for as long as possible. Then, once at the line, I get really intense and ready to commit murders. “I’m a big fan of visualization. Study videos, get a mental plan of how you’re going to execute during race time or game time. Once you have a plan, just relax, maybe zone out to your ipod, and keep focused on what you’re going to do.”
“How did you manage to go to school and do cycling full-time?”
Dude, it was hard. It was 5 a.m.-to-11 p.m., two-workouts-and-eight-hours-of-classes kind of hard. Days-in-the-hurt-box, no-sleep kind of hard. But it was worth it. “It was all about time management. You work it out in your schedule, on a spreadsheet, how you’re going to fit in both. There’s not as much social time as you might want, but that’s part of the deal. And it’s important, that whole ‘school’ thing. No matter what happens, a degree is something that no one can take from you once you have it.”
“How do you stay motivated through all your training?”
Blind faith, sir, blind faith. I have to keep believing that if I put in the work now that I’m going to get where I want to be – whether that’s right now or four or five years from now. “It’s one part faith and one part toughness. You have to know that your training is going to pay off. That payoff is largely dependent on how you train. For every one day of practice that you feel good – fast, strong, fresh, whatever – there are going to be ten more practices where you just feel like crap. They hurt, but you need to get through them. You have to know that it’s those days, the hurt days, that make you accomplished. They make you better.”
About fifty kids lingered after I finished my presentation – the soccer, water polo, cross country, and track teams hung out and continued to ask me questions. I took photos, signed notebooks, and gave out hugs and high-fives.
Sweet, I made an impression! About fifty kids’ worth, actually. I should go back to school more often.