The International Day of Sport for Development and Peace — declared by the United Nations in 2013 — celebrates the power of sport to drive social change, community development and to foster peace and understanding. In honor of this initiative, which takes place annually on April 6, we’re highlighting six of the many Team USA Olympians and Paralympians who are using the power of sport to make the world a better place. Here’s what they’re doing and why.
1) LeBron James, Basketball
WHAT: In July 2018, the three-time Olympic medalist opened the doors on the I PROMISE School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. The school — which is supported by the LeBron James Family Foundation — welcomed 240 third- and fourth-graders who were randomly chosen based on their trailing academic performance. Because health and fitness are important to James, every child in the program is given a free breakfast, lunch and snack and access to a fitness trainer. Additionally they were gifted a free bike and helmet (as the NBA star remembers using his bike to explore and get around on the same streets). For every student that successfully completes the program, and graduates from high school, they will be provided a full ride to the University of Akron. By 2022 I PROMISE will be accepting students from grade one through eight.
WHY: The three-time Olympian is on a mission to help kids overcome what he faced as a low-income student growing up in Akron. Raised by a 16-year-old single mother who struggled financially, the two were constantly bouncing around from house to house. By the time James was in the fourth grade, he ended up missing 83 days of school. The athlete credits his academic success to the guidance he was given at school and the mentors who made sure the next year he didn’t miss a single day. Fifth grade was also the year he played organized basketball for the first time.
2) Elana Meyers Taylor, Bobsled
WHAT: Earlier this year the three-time Olympic medalist (who has been advocating for girls and women’s access to sports her whole career) was named the new president of the Women’s Sports Foundation. Founded in 1974 by tennis legend Billie Jean King, the goal of the foundation is to strengthen and expand opportunities for all girls and women in all sports. Meyers Taylor ¬ — who has been teaming up with the WSF since 2010 — succeeds freeskier Grete Eliassen and will serve a one-year term.
WHY: The three-time Olympian (who at one time also competed for USA Rugby) has been breaking down gender and race barriers since she started the sport of bobsled in 2007. Following the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010, Meyers Taylor moved to the pilot’s seat, and later became one of just a few female bobsled pilots in the world to race in the four-person event. In 2015 she made history, becoming the first woman to earn a spot on the U.S. national team competing with the men as a four-person bobsled pilot. She went on to become the first woman to win a medal in international competition in four-person and ended up winning the 2015 world championships in the women’s two-man event, the first U.S. woman in history to do so. Meyers Taylor is tied for the title of most decorated women’s bobsledder in Olympic history. She continues to fight for the addition of a four-woman event to the world cup and Olympic programs.
3) Michael Phelps, Swimming
WHAT: After returning home from the Olympic Games Beijing 2008, the now-most decorated Olympian of all time launched his Michael Phelps Foundation. In 2009, along with the help of Nemours’ KidsHealth he expanded his foundation’s program offerings to incorporate mental health lessons and activities through the program im (named after his signature event, the individual medley). It was developed to encourage healthy and active lifestyles for participants by offering water-safety courses, recreational pool activities and swim training — as well as health and wellness education. Last year they added an additional eight emotional health lessons into the curriculum. As a way to provide therapy to all, Phelps also partnered with TalkSpace, an online service that provides a licensed therapist for those going through tough times.
WHY: The five-time Olympian and 28-time medalist has been open about his own mental health issues. After the Olympic Games London 2012 — where he took home six medals — he admitted that he considered suicide. Two years later he was arrested for driving under the influence and went into a depression not wanting to leave his house or speak to anyone. Phelps said he wanted to be public about his struggles in an effort to take the stigma away and open the conversation. He went through a rehab and recovery process before earning six more medals at the Rio Games in 2106.
4) Kikkan Randall, Cross-Country Skiing
WHAT: The five-time Olympian is president of Fast and Female USA, which is a nonprofit focused on keeping girls in sport through supportive programming and mentoring from top-level female athletes. The organization’s goal in empowering young women is that they will stay involved in sports throughout their lives and eventually become the future leaders of Fast and Female.
WHY: As an Olympic athlete, Randall already knew firsthand the benefits of sport. But through racing on the world cup she became friends with the founder of Fast and Female, Chandra Crawford — an Olympic gold medalist cross-country skier from Canada — and quickly fell in love with the concept. And since the goal of the organization is to help girls discover how to make sports an integral part of their lives by introducing them to inspiring role models, the historic gold medalist is about as inspiring as they come. The first ever U.S. cross-country skiing gold medalist (along with her teammate Jessie Diggins) has racked up an impressive list of firsts, including: first U.S. woman to win a world cup event in 2008, first U.S. woman to earn a world championship medal in 2011, first U.S. woman to podium in the overall world cup sprint standings in 2011 (and first to top that podium in 2012), first U.S. cross-country athlete to win world championship gold (with Diggins) in 2013. And only four months after the only mother on the U.S. Olympic team in PyeongChang took that gold, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and continues to show women and fellow athletes what it means to stay positive and live a healthy and active lifestyle.
5) Nicky Nieves, Sitting Volleyball
WHAT: The owner and founder of Limitless People, Inc., an organization that started in 2018, is dedicated to exposing people to the game of volleyball through clinics and various community events. The nonprofit’s goal is to bring volleyball — sitting and standing — to all, no matter your race, physical ability, gender or financial situation.
WHY: The Paralympic gold medalist was born without her left hand, and no explanation as to why. But that didn’t stop her from doing things that might have been difficult for her: She learned how to tie her shoes at age 4, play the piano at age 6 and by 10 was excelling at volleyball, track and field and cheerleading. Nieves first dreamed up the idea for Limitless People years before it became a reality. When she was given the opportunity to work at a summer camp called Nuability Athletics, which teaches sport to children ages 5 to 18 with physical disabilities, the idea was born.
6) Mike Schultz, Para Snowboarding
WHAT: The 2018 Paralympian and two-time medalist started BioDapt, a company that designs and manufacturers prosthetics for amputees, including more than 100 wounded warriors and many Paralympic athletes. While half of his clients are veterans, he has supplied equipment to more than 12 different sports. Most of the U.S. team at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 used one of Schultz’s designs, as well as 16 total snowboarding athletes from seven different countries. Three-time Paralympic medalist Amy Purdy and two-time Paralympic champion Brenna Huckaby are among his fans.
WHY: “Monster” Mike Schultz came to start BioDapt the same way he became a professional snowboarder: by accident. Competing professionally as a snowmobile racer, Schultz had an injury in 2008 that resulted in the amputation of his left leg above the knee. Unable to find a prosthetic that he liked, and one that could withstand the impact of various sports, he decided to make his own. (Four months after his accident he was back on his dirt bike, and seven months after he competed in the Summer X Games.) Since skiing and snowboarding are big-time adaptive sports, he wanted to create prosthetics he could market to those athletes. In 2009 — in the name of research — he jumped on a snowboard for the first time in his life, which was also only one year after he lost his leg. Turns out he was pretty good.