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Co-teaching with Olympians: Interview with Classroom Champions Co-Founders

TeachHUB Interview


classroom champions interviewOlympic gold medalist Steve Mesler knows what it takes to be a champion.  After winning the first bobsled gold medal in 62 years for the U.S. at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, Steve wanted to give back to those who helped him succeed.

Realizing the importance his education and inspirational mentors had on his journey to success, Steve teamed up with his sister Leigh Mesler Parise, Ph.D., an enthusiastic educator, to support and inspire young students across the country.  Together, they created Classroom Champions.

In this exclusive TeachHUB interview, the Classroom Champions duo gave us the inside scoop on how their work brings together Olympic athletes with high needs schools.

Can you briefly explain what the Classroom Champions organization does?

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Leigh:  Classroom Champions connects Olympic athletes with students in high need schools to teach about goal setting, perseverance, and achievement.  Using advanced telecommunications technology, students and their Athlete Ambassadors communicate throughout the school year. Athlete Ambassadors are responsible for submitting a video message for their classes every month based on set themes, focused on teaching students about such topics as goal setting and giving back to the community, writing an occasional blog, and participating in live video chats with their students.

Participating classrooms also send monthly theme-based video messages to their athlete. The amazing teachers in the program work to regularly incorporate their athletes and Classroom Champions' themes into their teaching.  In doing so, they increase their students' motivation and enthusiasm about school and use their Athlete Ambassadors as role models who can teach their students about doing better in school and in life through the athletes' experiences on and off the field. 

This year, our participating classrooms are in LA, New York, Atlanta, Chicago and everywhere in between and they are in schools with an average of 82% of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch.

How did Classroom Champions come to be?

Co-teaching with Olympians: Interview with Classroom Champions Co-FoundersLeigh:  Classroom Champions was born out of a desire to share the hard work and dedication that goes into training for the Olympics with children.  When Steve was preparing for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, he wanted to show students that the Olympics wasn't just about the 2 weeks they saw on TV—we called this the Back to School Project because Steve's goal was to bring some of the Olympic ideals back into the classroom. 

I helped him get connected with 9 classrooms, communicated with the teachers throughout the school year, and provided support for incorporating the Olympics and Steve into their teaching.  We were thrilled to see how students, teachers, parents, and school leaders responded reporting that their students began setting more goals for themselves and were more engaged in school.

Classroom Champions then grew organically out of this experience after we saw the impact that being connected with an Olympian had on students.  We were excited to expand the program to more classrooms and recruit athletes training for the London 2012 Olympics.  We felt strongly that these athletes--with their incredible dedication and perseverance--could teach students skills that would reinforce and bring to life many of the ideals their teachers and parents hope to instill.

Who are some of the athletes? How did they get involved?

Steve:  We have a core group of seven Athlete Ambassadors, each of whom we have connected with 3-4 classrooms around the country.  They are amazing role models who have already worked incredibly hard to achieve success. They are now working harder than ever to reach higher heights come London 2012—all while sharing their experiences throughout this most important year of their lives with American students.

They are:

David Oliver - 2008 Olympic Silver Medalist, 110m hurdles

Sue Bird - 2004, 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist, Basketball

Jerome Singleton, Jr. - 2009 Paralympic Gold Medalist, Track and Field

Kim Vandenberg - 2008 Olympic Silver Medalist, Swimming

Mary Allison Milford - 2008 Paralympic Gold Medalist, Wheelchair Basketball

Giddeon Massie - 2004, 2008 Olympian - 16-time National Champion, Track Cycling

Natalie Burgener - 2008 Olympian - National Champion, Weightlifting

We also have multiple guest athletes who speak to each month’s theme.  Our guest athletes this year have included American Olympic Legends, including:

Jackie Joyner Kersee (Goal Setting theme)

Apolo Ohno (Community theme) and

Abby Wambach, the best women’s soccer player in the world (What Inspires Me theme). 

Coming up for January’s "Fair Play" theme, we have 2008 Olympic Decathlon Gold Medalist Bryan Clay,  the world’s greatest athlete! Kirsty Coventry, a 7-time Olympic medalist in swimming from Zimbabwe and an Olympic legend in her own country, will be sending in a video focused on respect, our February theme.  We’re really excited to have Olympic legends from around the world wanting to contribute!

The majority of the athletes that are involved have come from me simply asking them if they’d like to participate and give back to American students.  The athletes have been so great and worked so hard to make this the best possible experience for the students. It’s so thrilling for everyone at Classroom Champions to see happen.

What kind of activities or experiences do you and the other participating athletes create for the students?  How do you help teachers integrate them into the curriculum?

Steve:  The main experience is building the relationship between the Athlete Ambassadors and the students in their classrooms.  These kids are seeing and hearing from their Olympian or Paralympian every month.  The students are hearing their Olympian’s opinion on so many subjects that are important to succeeding and being the best person someone can be, not necessarily just the best athlete.  Thanks to Cisco’s donation of video and telepresence equipment, the teachers and athletes are well equipped to communicate with each other fairly seamlessly.

As the program grows and becomes better funded and sponsored, we will be able to provide greater technology to the schools and athletes that will enable better connections and support stronger teaching.  The potential of this program to teach the youth of America how to live like an Olympian at their most influential age is enormous and we can’t wait to see what happens when we have all the resources we need to make the program even stronger!

The students in the program look forward to receiving their Athlete Ambassador’s video every month and to sharing their own thoughts on the monthly theme with their athlete.  These students are learning how to live like an Olympian everyday and thanks to the teachers involved in the program, these lessons are reinforced almost every day in our classrooms.

Leigh:  As for helping teachers integrate these activities in the classroom, we shared lessons with teachers that they can use to introduce Classroom Champions and its ideals to their students before the start of the school year.  These lessons include learning about the program, having discussions about what it means to be a champion, and identifying individuals in and out of sports who represent the ideals of Classroom Champions.

Throughout the school year, we provide teachers with a platform to connect with their colleagues in the program and share lesson plans and ideas.  Additionally, we do our best to provide support around the monthly themes, including ideas for how they can help their students make personal connections to the program's themes.

Video from Olympian Natalie Burgener on Goal Setting

How will you build upon the upcoming Games to extend work with the students?

Steve:  Considering the Olympic Games take place during the summer when students are out of school, we plan to arrange viewing parties for the students at their schools so they can watch their Athlete Ambassador live their dream, together.

It’s also my personal hope that the Olympics themselves will help shine a light on the amazing work these athletes are doing and show athletes that it is very easy to give back if it’s done this way.  We only ask for a few minutes of the athlete’s time every month and they have the ability to not only impact the 800+ students in the program, but hundreds of thousands more in our country and across the world thanks to the ability to share their Olympian wisdom on the Classroom Champions website and with our content partners such as Universal Sports.

What results or stand-out experiences do you recall that show the impact of the Classroom Champions program?

Leigh:  There are two things that come to mind for this question: one related to Classroom Champions' impact on a student and one about its impact on a teacher.

First, about a month into the program, we received a truly inspirational email from one of our teachers.  She shared that one of her fifth grade students, who was often in trouble and had problems with violence as a fourth grader, was incredibly motivated by David adopting his class.  His teacher explained that the student’s mother said it's all he talks about at home and she was thrilled to report that he was no longer having trouble in school.  Having her thank us for helping this student "turn his life around" brought tears to my eyes because of how perfectly it exemplified that kind of impact we've dreamed of.

On a different note, I have received a number of emails from one of our veteran teachers that focused on the impact Classroom Champions has had on her teaching.  She feels that her participation in the program has substantially elevated her teaching by helping her focus on learning about and helping each of her students strive toward their goals.  This has then helped motivate her to improve her teaching, and allowed her to shift from being a teacher who used technology intermittently to incorporating it into her teaching on a daily basis.  She feels this will have a huge impact on her young students' digital literacy.

What do you think makes athletes so well-suited to motivate and help instruct students?

Leigh:  The athletes who volunteer to participate in Classroom Champions are truly special individuals.  They exemplify so many of the values we want our elementary and middle school students to learn about and model in their daily lives.

In order to represent their country in the Olympic Games, each one of these athletes has had to set countless goals, overcome failure, and find ways to succeed in their sport.  This journey has not been one about seeking fame or fortune, but purely about finding something they are good at and having the vision and the motivation to achieve their dreams.  By making personal connections with these athletes and having a front row seat to their trials and tribulations, perseverance, and achievement, students are motivated to embody these admirable qualities.  These athletes act as key role models who inspire students to dream big and be the best they can be across ALL areas of their lives.

How can teachers and schools get involved?

Leigh:  We will soon be accepting applications for next year's program.  Teachers in high need schools, or those in which at least 50% of the students are eligible to receive free or reduced price lunch, can share their information with us by filling out the Classroom Champions Information Form.  We will notify them as soon as our next application window opens.  While 3rd through 8th grade are our target grades, we will be accepting applications for early elementary grades as well.

Are there any all-star athletes on your ‘wish list’ for future Classroom Champions?

Steve:  At the end of the day, I am an Olympic fan.  After having been to three Olympic Games, I’ve had the honor of meeting some of the greatest athletes in our country’s history.

After London, we’ll shift the program to towards the 2014 Winter Olympic Games and we’ll be looking to involve more winter athletes—the athletes I’ve shared my Olympic teams with.  I’ll be reaching out to many of my friends who are amazing champions and great role models, including Lindsey Vonn, Apolo Ohno, and my former teammate Curt Tomasevicz. 


I’d also love to include more Olympic Legends, such as my childhood hero Dan O’Brien (who’s also a good friend) and people like Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen.  These legendary athletes have been through the ringer and came out living their dreams and there’s so many more out there that I couldn’t list them all! 


That being said, we’re so lucky to have the awesome athletes already involved and I couldn’t be happier with the great job they’re doing.


How did you get into bobsledding? (I’m assuming it wasn’t Cool Runnings).


Steve:  Haha- no, Cool Runnings was not my main inspiration, to say the least. 

I began bobsledding after a disappointing college career as a decathlete on the University of Florida Track and Field team.  I was hurt for 5 years in a row and couldn’t complete any of the full track and field seasons. After almost giving up on sports and my Olympic dreams completely, I decided to heed the advice of my former coach, Jerry Clayton, and give bobsled a try. 


I found success instantly and was able to turn my mindset around to become injury free and eventually help lead my team to the first Olympic Gold Medal in 4-man bobsledding in 62 years for the U.S.  At the time, I wasn’t sure if I could ever follow that with something I would be more proud of.  That said, as I watch Classroom Champions grow by leaps and bounds and I see the support the program has from so many people, I can’t help but think this little program my sister and I started when I was an athlete will be a much more enduring legacy than what I accomplished on a snowy day outside of Vancouver in 2010.

Learn more about Classroom Champions on their website or share your inspirational classroom guest speakers in the comments section.

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