By Gabrielle Scheder-Bieschin | Dec. 18, 2017, 5:33 p.m. (ET)
Megan Bozek skates with the puck against Finland at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014 on Feb. 8, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.


SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Fans came out and cheered in full force for the U.S. women’s ice hockey game against Canada on Friday night. Team USA supporters waved their flags and chanted with pride as the athletes took the ice, but it quickly became obvious that one player in particular had her own cheering section. Every time Megan Bozek stepped on the ice, a wall of sound arose from section 106.

The source of that sound was more than 55 students from Shore Acres Elementary School in Bay Point, California, where Bozek serves as an athlete mentor for Classroom Champions. The program, founded in 2009 by U.S. Olympic bobsled gold medalist Steve Mesler, is a mentoring program that partners athletes with schools in underserved communities. The athletes teach students valuable lessons that apply to both sport and life.

Bozek, a 2014 Olympic silver medalist, joined the program this year, thanks to her teammate Alex Rigsby’s encouragement.

“I have been part of it since last year. When they asked if I knew anyone who might want to be part of it, I immediately put in Megan’s name,” Rigsby explained. “She’s just such a positive person, and she’s so good with little kids.”

A hard worker on and off the ice, Bozek applied to the program and partnered with the entire fifth grade student body at Shore Acres, along with several classrooms in Los Angeles. Through video lessons and live chats, each class connects with Bozek, building relationships and gaining a role model to help them throughout the school year.

Dressed in matching T-shirts and waving handmade signs, the fifth graders were excited to finally turn the tables and support the athlete who has made such an impact on them.

“It is really fun, and it’s really exciting that we got to be here, supporting her,” exclaimed student Maria Villagomez.

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For Villagomez and many of her classmates, the USA-Canada matchup was the first hockey game they had attended in person. Some had not seen one on TV either, and they were excited to learn more about the sport before the upcoming Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.

Yet beyond the introduction to a new sport, Bozek’s mentoring has gone much further.

For students and teachers alike, the major lesson Bozek has brought has been a focus on perseverance.

“There’s going to be bumps and bruises, there’s going to be triumphs, there’s going to be setbacks,” Bozek explained. “It’s about learning how to deal with that. It’s about realizing that their second family is their classroom, and my second family is my ice hockey team. We connected on that front, knowing that we both always have people surrounding us that are going to push us to be better.”

That lesson was not lost on the students.

“She gave us support, taught us to go for what we want, and go for our goals,” Villagomez said.

Bozek helped the class set specific goals earlier in the year, and Villagomez decided she was going to get better at reading.

When asked if her reading had improved since setting her goal, Villagomez nodded vigorously. “Yeah!” she exclaimed. “It’s more fun now, too.”

Teachers at Shore Acres have also noticed a difference in student achievement, thanks to Bozek’s involvement.

“Kids having someone to look up to – not just me, as a teacher – but having someone else to guide them and motivate them makes a big difference,” teacher Maria Martinez noted.

Principal Suleyma Moss immediately saw the value in working with Classroom Champions and Bozek. While many schools may choose one or two classrooms to work with a classroom mentor, Moss signed up all four of the school’s fifth grade classrooms.

“There’s a special thing about someone who is an Olympian – someone who was just a regular person, who worked really hard and, through focus and dedication, reached this goal,” she explained.  “That is what reaches our kids and makes them think, ‘I too can do that,’ whether it’s in academics or in life.”

Bozek will continue to partner with Shore Acres throughout the school year, sharing her story and mentoring the students as they continue their education. Friday night’s game may have ended in a loss for Team USA, but judging by the students’ enthusiasm, the experience was a win for all involved.