By Karen Price | Sept. 07, 2018, 2:06 p.m. (ET)


Sixth grade teacher Ella Maya knows the impact a world-class Olympic athlete can have as a mentor for students. 

At her school in Phoenix, Arizona, where she’s been participating in the Classroom Champions mentorship program for five years now, students still talk about when Olympic medalist Elana Meyers Taylor and her husband, 2018 Olympic alternate Nic Taylor actually visited their school and played basketball with them three years ago. One of her former students recently told her she was trying out for cheerleading in high school because Olympic volleyball medalist Heather Bown told the class four years ago that you have to be willing to try things that make you uncomfortable. 

“It stuck,” Maya said. “Then last year, Nic (Taylor) would tell them that on the bobsled team they always said, ‘Nails,’ because you have to be hard as nails and I’d hear the kids saying to each other, ‘Nails, man, nails, you can do this.’” 

Classroom Champions was founded by Olympic gold medalist bobsledder Steve Mesler for the purpose of connecting athletes and students at underserved schools in a way that could be sustained all year long. He mentored nine classes leading up to the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010. The following year he recruited a few more athletes, including basketball player Sue Bird and weightlifter Natalie Burgener, and they mentored 28 classes. By 2012 they were mentoring 730 students. 

This year, 42 Olympic and Paralympic athletes will mentor more than 10,000 students across the continent. 


A Classroom Champions student smiles for the camera.


While the growth of the program is impressive, its success is even more so. According to Classroom Champions, 94 percent of teachers reported that the program improved students’ grades, 85 percent reported it made them a better teacher and 100 percent said it helped their students’ resilience in the face of obstacles. They’ve also seen a 63 percent reduction in bullying in their classrooms compared to national averages of 25 percent, and 85 percent of teachers say they’ve seen improved attendance. 

Olympic silver medalist luger Chris Mazdzer is entering his second year of having a full class load as a mentor.

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One of the reasons the program is so successful, Mazdzer said, is because it is done using technology rather than in-person visits so the athletes and the kids can stay connected throughout the year and in the midst of the winter sports season.

“I’m probably on the road 200 days a year,” said Mazdzer, who said he received tons of letters from students wishing him luck before he became the first American man to win a singles medal in luge at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. “I’m leaving Salt Lake City Sept. 18 and I won’t come back until March except for my girlfriend’s birthday, but even then I have two days. That’s a lot of travel. So I’ve talked at schools but I can’t be there to really engage with the messaging and be someone kids can look up to. They hear the message once but there’s no way to really make actual change that way. That’s what’s amazing about Classroom Champions is I’m fully engaged with the kids for an entire year.”

Each month, athletes will film a video about a different topic, such as goal setting, diversity or teamwork. The athletes share their stories and then create challenges for the students based on that month’s lesson. Then throughout the month, the teachers will work with students on lessons based on the theme, they’ll post what they’ve done, and the mentors will see that and comment. Twice a year they do a live video chat.

Last year, for the theme about community, Mazdzer set a goal for fourth grade students he was mentoring at a school on an Army base to come together as a class and find a way to help out at the school for one hour. Later, the teacher told him one girl took the challenge to a whole other level and organized a base-wide toy drive with the help of several other students in the class.

“I was like, ‘That was based off my challenge? I’m connected to that?’” he said. “That was really impactful. I had no idea they were going to take it to that level.”

Maya said her students learn more from their mentors than just the monthly lessons. In a community that’s predominantly Mexican-American, many of her students had never heard of bobsled before Meyers Taylor. Not only are they learning about new sports but as their mentors post videos from their travels around the world they’re also learning about new countries and cultures. 

Then the lessons themselves are even more impactful coming from Olympians, she said.

“I think because it’s someone who’s not in their community, it’s someone different, and a lot of these kids are hungry for someone to look up to,” Maya said. “I can say, ‘I believe in you,’ but to hear it from an Olympian and an athlete who’s competed on this ridiculous level to say, ‘I believe in you and you can do it,’ is different.” 

This year the athlete who will be mentoring her class is four-time Paralympic medalist Lex Gillette, who’s a blind long jumper. This is their first time having a Paralympian as a mentor, and Maya said she’s thrilled about the lessons and examples he’ll be able to offer her students in terms of overcoming obstacles.

“Everybody doubts themselves,” she said. “If you have a disability not only do you have that doubt but other people might doubt you as well, but you can still come out on top. To teach that lesson to these kids from lower socio-economic areas, they have different obstacles but obstacles nonetheless. To teach them about overcoming them, not letting where you come from determine where you’re going, that it will take hard work and it won’t be easy and you’re going to fall but you have to get back up. … I think coming from a Paralympian it’s going to be such a strong message and I’m really excited. I have 33 students this year, so I need all the help I can get.”

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