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With Classroom Champions, Students And Athletes Truly Connect

By Greg Bates | Sept. 02, 2014, 3:24 p.m. (ET)

Founder of Classroom Champions and gold medalist bobsledder Steve Mesler poses with Classroom Champions students.

As a three-time Olympic bobsledder, Steve Mesler made many appearances in classrooms speaking to kids.

He enjoyed reaching out to the next generation, but once he left a school, there was a good chance he’d never see any of those young students again. Mesler never knew if the kids took the message he shared with them to heart or if he was making a difference in their lives.

It was a flaw that Mesler found in the system.

“It’s like an athlete who gets to train and not get to find out the results,” said Mesler, who won a gold medal in four-man bobsled at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

Through his experiences, Mesler and his sister, Leigh, came up with a unique program. In 2009, the siblings founded Classroom Champions, a non-profit international organization that connects top performing athletes with students in high-need schools. The organization uses video lessons and live video chats to motivate students to recognize their potential, set goals and dream big, while educating them in the practical use of communications technology.

“It’s like 21st century pen pal and Big Brothers Big Sisters,” Mesler said. “It’s much more intimate and much more relationship-based than what online courses would be.”

There are 24 athlete mentors — all Olympians, Paralympians or Olympic/Paralympic hopefuls — for the 2014-15 school year. Each athlete adopts three to 10 classrooms per year in kindergarten to eighth grade from around the United States and Canada.

Each athlete mentor focuses on their own personal journey and teaches 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 at least once per month.

Athlete mentor and bronze medalist luger Erin Hamlin holds up the Classroom Champions flag with elementary school teacher Stephanie Ticali at the Best of U.S. awards on April 2, 2014. 

“I love being with children and working with them,” said Olympic luger Erin Hamlin, who is one of four athlete mentors in her third year with the program. “I’ve spoken to a lot of schools over the years, and (Mesler’s) idea behind it was spot-on and makes a lot of sense, so I was excited to jump on board.”

Classroom Champions has grown substantially in its five years since it launched in the 2009-10 school year. Mesler originally started the program as the lone athlete with nine classrooms. By 2012, the number increased to 25 classrooms. For the 2014-15 school year, Classroom Champions will have a presence in 120 schools across the United States and Canada and also has a partnership with the National Olympic Committee in Costa Rica.

In the United States alone, Classroom Champions has directly mentored 3,000 kids since its inception.

In order for a classroom to be considered for an athlete mentor, the school must be high needs or lower income, where 50 percent or more of the students must be eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. The teacher then has to apply and say why their classroom should be chosen. For a classroom that makes the initial cut, the teacher has to go through a couple rounds of answering questions such as, “How would you foresee implementing Classroom Champions?” And, “Why are your students good candidates for Classroom Champions?”

Once a classroom is selected, the athlete mentor starts working with the teacher to implement new lesson plans and subjects each month. The athlete mentor will send an introduction video to the class to relate with the students.

“We want kids to understand that Olympians are just like them,” Mesler said. “Quite honestly in society we put our Olympians up on these pedestals. And when you put somebody on a pedestal it means, ‘We can’t do that.’”

One time per month, the athlete mentor will send their classroom a two- to three-minute video with that month’s lesson. The athlete mentor will relate the subject to their lives, giving examples of what they do, and encouraging the kids and giving them a challenge.

Each athlete mentor also shoots to do two live chats per school year. Classroom Champions donates digital technology to the classrooms, including iPads and tablets. Last year, Hamlin Skyped with each of her classrooms separately in the winter and spring.

Athlete mentor and freestyle skier Emily Cook poses with Classroom Champions students on May 23, 2014. 

“It’s pretty amazing to see the even the slightest impact you can have on a kid,” said Hamlin, who is a three-time Olympian and in 2014 became first American singles luger to medal in the Winter Games, where she won bronze. “Last year I actually got to visit one of my classrooms and to see them so excited about the Olympics, have their attention and energy focused on something so positive was really exciting. They spent the entire year following my career and my season and learning all these things that maybe they wouldn’t have learned if an Olympic athlete wasn’t talking to them.”

The impact the athlete mentors have on the students they work with is phenomenal. According to metrics data collected by Classroom Champions, 84 percent of students say the program helped them do better in school.

“Our teachers tell us that kids are more enthusiastic in class when they’re doing Classroom Champions stuff, which means they’re participating more,” Mesler said. “If the students know they’re going to do Classroom Champions on certain days, some of the teachers tell us that their attendance is better because kids are more excited to participate.”

The kids start to get to know their athlete mentors and have a strong connection. According to Mesler, 82 percent of students say their athlete mentors are their friends.

“I remember right after I won my medal, I Skyped with a bunch of classrooms and I held up the medal in the view of my camera on the computer, and it was like a big wave of, ‘Wow,’” Hamlin said. “Everyone was so excited, it was cool feeling.

“Just seeing the impact and having a strong role model for them is really neat.”

Greg Bates is a freelance writer based in Green Bay, Wisconsin, who has covered Green Bay Packers games for a number of media outlets for the past seven seasons. He has been a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc., since 2012.

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Steve Mesler

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