NEW YORK -- When Ashley Wagner got out of bed in Paris the morning of her free skate at the Trophée Eric Bompard, she felt lousy. The reigning U.S. ladies’ figure skating champion had a head cold, complete with stuffy nose and aching body. Her program, which included six challenging triple jumps, was just a few hours away.
There was a lot on the line: a solid performance would ensure a trip to the ISU’s Grand Prix Final, to be held next month at the 2014 Olympic venue in Sochi, Russia. But one of the first things she did was film a video for the third-graders she has adopted as an athlete mentor for Classroom Champions.
“I competed in my short program last night, and I placed second,” she told them. “The difference between first and second is less than half a point. It is super close, so anything can happen. I fully intend on going out there and kicking butt in my long program so I can qualify for the final.”
Wagner did kick butt, performing a near-perfect program to defeat two up-and-coming Russian youngsters and take home gold. On her way back to her training home in Aliso Viejo, Calif., she had a three-day layover in New York City, where she appeared on NBC’s Today and skated at Rockefeller Center — and then took a detour to Staten Island’s PS 861 School of Civic Leadership, to meet two of her classes in person.
“Every month I film a video, and we Skype, Facebook and email, but this was just a great opportunity to reach out,” said Wagner, who also mentors classes in Denver; Gainesville, Ga.; and Whittier, Calif. “The idea is to let the kids get to know Olympic and Paralympic athletes and hopefuls, tell them about the hard work that goes into training and help them relate some of the lessons we’ve learned, to their own lives.”
Classroom Champions was founded by Steve Mesler, a three-time Olympic bobsledder and 2010 gold medalist, and his sister, Leigh Mesler Parise, an educator. A small pilot program in 2010 has grown to include 35 schools throughout the country, mentored by athletes including Wagner’s U.S. Figure Skating teammates, 2010 Olympic ice dance silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White; three-time Paralympic skier Stephani Victor; two-time Olympic luger Erin Hamlin; two-time Olympic freestyle skier Emily Cook; and Mesler’s fellow bobsledders, 2010 gold medalist Curt Tomasevicz and 2010 bronze medalist Elana Meyers.
“Classroom Champions aims to use Olympians and Paralympians as role models for success and goal setting while increasing students’ digital literacy,” Mesler said. “We target schools with at least 50 percent high-need students, as defined by U.S. government standards.”
Athlete mentors teach about the hard work of training, goal setting, competition and perseverance. Using video lessons and live video chats, students are engaged with their athlete mentor several times per month. The program supports teachers by helping them incorporate these activities into their curricula, focusing on writing, reading, geography, math, technology, goal setting and leadership.
“It’s pretty cool that a 21-year-old athlete, trying to make her first Olympic team, took time out during a big competition to do a video for kids, and then goes out and crushes it,” Mesler said. “Ashley is still young, still gaining experience, and filming a video doesn’t distract her. I tell athletes, this is an easy way you can give back.”
Nivia Ruokonen, teacher of two PS 861 classes, made sure her third-graders were well prepared for Wagner’s impromptu visit.
“I taped her performance [in Paris] over the weekend and played it in class,” Ruokonen said. “So when she walked in here, right after the Today show, they could ask specific questions.”
Hands shot up as soon as Wagner walked in. Don’t you get dizzy, doing all of those spins on the ice? (“Yes, but your body kind of gets used to it.”) Do you ever play video games? (“Not too much.”) Students performed a three-minute skit in Wagner’s honor; some gave her letters and poems.
“She was really, really good with the kids; she went with the program,” Ruokonen said with a laugh. “Her visit solidified a lot of the things we’ve discussed. They asked her what she did outside of skating, and she talked about the importance of exercise and how they could participate in sports. We connected it to the curriculum, and talked a bit about calories.”
So far, Wagner has filmed three videos for her classrooms, including how to use a goal-setting pyramid to help them achieve academic objectives. Ruokonen said the video tangibly improved her students’ math and reading skills.
“I let the kids judge for themselves what they needed to get better at, and how they were going to do it,” Ruokonen said. “Some wrote they would get up a little bit earlier, so they could read. Others wrote about how they needed to sound out their words more clearly.”
The visit not only inspired the kids; Mesler believes it also inspired Wagner, and the rest of the athlete mentors, to continue with the program.
“For an athlete to meet their classes and get face-to-face feedback, it makes them realize what kind of difference they are making,” Mesler said. “We’ll post links on our Facebook page, which all of the athletes are part of, and they’ll be able to see how the kids are listening and interacting with Ashley, and how everything they are doing is so worth it.”
Wagner’s sport may benefit as well.
“Because of Ashley, 64 kids in the middle of Staten Island are now huge figure skating fans,” Mesler said.
For more on Classroom Champions, click here.