Michelle Lanz’s third-grade class gathered near the front office of New Holland Core Knowledge Academy on Wednesday morning.
Four students held open doors for a special visitor, and the rest of the class held up U.S. flags and handmade signs in anticipation.
“Ready?” one girl whispered. “1 ... 2 ... 3.”
“Good morning Steve!” the class yelled as Olympic bobsledder Steve Mesler walked through the entrance of the school.
Mesler, whose four-man team won gold during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, chose 10 classes from the U.S. as a part of a back-to-school project that allowed the students to follow his Olympic journey from training to the gold medal win. The children wrote letters and sent video messages, and Mesler sent back autographed posters and answered questions through a video chat.
On Wednesday, the entire school welcomed him by meeting for an assembly and showing a video of students who wished him good luck and told him to never give up his dreams.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Mesler asked the students. “Do you think I decided two weeks before the Olympics that I wanted to be an Olympian? A month before? No.”
Mesler encouraged the students to listen to their parents, teachers and coaches, who would lead them to their goals. He told them to work hard in school, attend college and pursue their dreams.
“I decided when I was 11 — not much older than you are now — that I wanted to be an athlete,” he said. “I’m 31 now, so 20 years after I decided that, I finally won the gold medal. It takes a long time, it really does.”
The Buffalo, N.Y., native then made his way to Lanz’s classroom to answer questions from his adopted class. Mesler told the students about traveling to the White House, storing the bobsled for the summer in Charlotte, N.C., and training on a daily basis.
“Are you the coolest person on the team?” Erick Niebela asked.
“Of course,” Mesler laughed. “Who else came down to hang out with you guys?”
“When you crash, does it hurt?” Alma Gonzalez asked.
“It really hurts. I’ve had cuts on my shoulder,” Mesler said. “When you hear that people crash, feel sorry for them because it’s no fun.”
With a gold and a bronze World Championship medal and 39 World Cup medals under his belt, Mesler always keeps the Olympic gold medal with him or in his backpack. He passed the medal around for the students to touch.
“Now I’m working to make this back-to-school project go big,” he said. “There’s zero education programming in the Olympic committee, and if the creed is to inspire the youth of the world, then what else is the Olympics about?”
Mesler said he got involved so that he could “do something to give back.”
“If someone had visited my classroom as a kid, what kind of impact would it have had on me?” said Mesler, who said he was inspired by the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta at age 17.
Mesler said he hopes to promote the program so a majority of Olympic athletes will adopt classes and build relationships.
“It’s not a random shift of visiting athletes. You really make a connection,” he said. “When you see the process and see what they learn, it’s amazing to see what the kids get out of it on their own.”