Teaching and promoting self-esteem and goals through sports is a way that many Olympians and Paralympians can give back to youth in their community. However, there are always those who go the extra mile and show the way.
This week, U.S. Olympians and Paralympians made up eight of 18 total athletes who were recognized for this dedication by the prestigious Foundation for Global Sports Development as 2014 Athletes in Excellence. The award recognizes that a lifetime of experience and achievement and a love of community can change the lives of less privileged youth both here and abroad.
The Foundation for Global Sports Development particularly looks at global access for all young people to sports — in areas of the world where the doors are often closed to girls, the disabled or the poor. All of the recipients were initially nominated anonymously by a colleague or organization.
Receiving the inaugural award and a $10,000 grant was both an honor and a surprise to the athletes.
Three of the recipients are directly involved with the non-profit organization Classroom Champions, including the organization’s co-founder and U.S. Olympic bobsled gold medalist Steve Mesler. Three-time U.S. Olympic freestyler skier Emily Cook and Canadian Olympic ice hockey and softball player Hayley Wickenheiser are athlete mentors for Classroom Champions and were nominated.
“I am extremely honored and proud to have two Classroom Champions mentors named to GSD’s Athletes in Excellence Award,” said Mesler, 36, who was nominated by the International Fair Play Committee. “One thing that shouldn’t go unnoticed is that Emily and Hayley were nominated for the award by the educators of the students they mentored over the course of last school year.”
Mesler, who founded Classroom Champions with his sister, was a part of the U.S. four-man bobsled team that broke a 62-year gold-medal drought in 2010. He said that the idea for Classroom Champions came while he was still competing and talking to youth.
“Initially, I would go into schools and talk to youth and then leave,” he said. “We wanted to forge relationships with teachers and kids and athletes. My Olympic medal helped me and helped my teammates, but literally thousands of kid’s lives have been changed by the work we do now. I will be donating my $10,000 in full to Classroom Champions to ensure more kids in more communities can have access to people who can teach them the process of excellence.”
Cook, 35, a three-time Olympian in aerial skiing (2006, 2010, 2014) retired from competition this past spring. She lives in Park City, Utah, but travels to schools with Classroom Champions and is also involved with Kids Play International and Right to Play. Nominated by teachers Andrea Wiggins and Valentyna Banner, she hopes to use her grant money to continue working with all these organizations.
“For me, it started locally, growing up as an athlete and wanting to expand that experience to others,” she said. “As an athlete mentor, I have been to Jordan, Rwanda, Tanzania, and seen severely disadvantaged youth. I have also worked with at-risk youth at schools lacking basic resources. I believe the point of these programs is to develop well-rounded children and teach them to strive for what they want to do in life.
“We help them set goals, teach respect and the importance of community and these are universal lessons. When a very well respected organization like GSD recognizes us it is really an honor.”
Candace Cable, 60, was also a recipient this year. She is a nine-time Paralympian who pioneered the sport of wheelchair racing and was an early competitor in adaptive skiing events. She has won eight gold medals.
“I am so surprised and honored to be among such prestigious athletes, Olympians and Paralympians,” she said on receiving her award. “The Foundation for Global Sports Development is doing a great deal to expand access to sports throughout the world. This recognition makes me realize that in my own way I am also making an impact.”
Using a wheelchair since 1975 after a car accident, Cable feels that sports has given her the chance to change the way people look at disability and in turn can inspire others to change what is possible in their own lives.
“One of the key things I believe in is one can become healthy again after a trauma,” she said. “Traumatic spinal cord injuries can affect the quality of life, and I don’t think that it should. We have come a long way, and the equipment, research and development for adaptive sports has evolved. I teach sit-down cross-country skiing and today we can include those with disabilities or injuries that still want to cross-country ski. People with and without disabilities can use it and participate together.”
Nominated by the U.S. Olympians and Paralympians Association, she works as a United Nations representative for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation as well as being an international speaker and motivator. She is the former director of Turning Point, a non-profit committed to opening up the outdoors to the disabled. She hopes to use her grant money to continue working with Turning Point and the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.
Cable was joined in receiving the award by fellow U.S. Paralympians Joe Delagrave and Angela Madsen. Delagrave, a 2012 wheelchair rugby bronze medalist, was nominated for his work as a United States Olympic Committee athlete ambassador and being a mentor to new spinal cord injury patients. 2012 Paralympic track and field medalist Madsen is a Ready, Set, Gold volunteer and founder of California Adaptive Rowing Program.
Also receiving the award is three-time Olympic freestyle aerial skier Tracy Evans, who is the founder of Kids Play International; two-time Olympic decathlon medalist Rafer Johnson, who founded California Special Olympics and is involved with multiple community outreach and humanitarian projects; and two-time Olympic fencer Tim Morehouse, who is the founder and CEO of Fencing in the Schools, as well as a Right to Play ambassador.
Two other Americans were also honored.
Tony Sanneh, a FIFA World Cup veteran and founder of The Sanneh Foundation that uses soccer as a catalyst to empower kids, improve lives and unite communities, was a winner and was nominated by the USOC’s Athlete Advisory Council. Dallen Stanford, a professional rugby player, rugby coach, and program manager for the youth nonprofit organization, Play Rugby USA, and ambassador for the Tackling Cancer Foundation, was also one of the recipients.
“The humanitarian efforts achieved by these impressive athletes are inspirational and deserving of the highest level of honor and recognition,” said GSD executive board member, David Ulich. “We are thrilled at the opportunity to give back to these athletes whose selfless activities embody all that GSD stands for,” added GSD executive board member, Dr. Steven Ungerleider.
Laurie Fullerton writes about sports and outdoors — particularly sailing — for a number of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.