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When St. Jude Called, Olympic BMX Champ Connor Fields Had No Hesitation

By Karen Price | Sept. 13, 2016, 6:08 p.m. (ET)

Connor Fields (R) meets with a St. Jude Children's Research Hospital patient on Sept. 13, 2016 in Memphis, Tenn.

Connor Fields has, by his own admission, spent a lot more time in hospitals than the average person should.

You don’t get to be an Olympic champion in BMX racing without a lot of bumps, bruises and breaks along the way. A broken bone in his left hand this past spring kept him off the bike until June, in fact, and he won his Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro last month wearing a special brace. 

On Monday, however, Fields visited a hospital of a different kind and for a different purpose when he made a trip to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

“My philosophy as a pro athlete has always been to remember when you were the young kid who looked up to all these athletes and wanted to be one of those athletes,” said the 23-year-old from Plano, Texas, who connected with the hospital through a friend of a grandparent who serves on the St. Jude board of directors. “When they reached out and asked if I was willing to come for a visit after the Olympics I said, ‘Definitely.’

“I didn’t have to think about it. When you have an opportunity to make a positive impact, especially on children going through cancer, you do it, no questions asked.”

St. Jude has long played a pioneering role in researching and treating childhood cancer and is unique in that families are never billed for treatment, travel, housing or food. In the 50 years it’s been open, treatments founded at the hospital have helped bring the overall childhood cancer survival rate from just 20 percent to more than 80 percent.

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One of the things that stood out most to Fields during his tour of the hospital was how little it actually seemed like a hospital.

“Usually you go to a hospital and it’s depressing, it’s stuffy and you know you’re at a hospital,” he said. “In this instance they do everything in their power to make it not feel like a hospital. The rooms are painted and it’s colorful and everything’s happy and upbeat. It was really cool.”

Fields said one of the first people he met was the employee who was to be his tour guide, Joel, who was missing an arm. He learned that Joel had been a patient at St. Jude many years ago and had his arm amputated because of a rare form of cancer. It was a great “full circle” type of story, Fields said, and showed that the hospital isn’t just about making patients better but also taking care of the person.

After lunch, Fields got to spend time with three patients — one from Florida, one from Louisiana and another from India.

“We played Connect Four and Jenga,” he said. “It was really cool. Spending time with children is always fun because they have such good energy and these kids were no different. Yes, they have cancer and they’re going through hard stuff, but they’re still just kids.”

They all took turns wearing his medal. Although they were a little young to appreciate the significance of it, he said, they had no trouble appreciating the weight.

“They kept saying, ‘It’s so heavy!’” Fields said.

Fields hopes that one day, perhaps in 2020 or 2024, they’ll watch the Olympic Games and think back to the time they got to meet an Olympian and wear his gold medal around their necks. He also hopes that happy memories such as those will be more numerous than the bad ones when the children think back to their time at the hospital.

Fields said before he left the wheels were already turning as he thought of ways he can stay involved and help fundraise for St. Jude, perhaps through an event at his local BMX club.

“After being exposed to that and seeing how much good they’re doing, it really made me want to do my part,” he said. “I’m in a position where I can make a difference and maybe inspire some other people to put some good back into this world.”

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Connor Fields