As luger Erin Hamlin led the denim-clad U.S. Olympians into PyeongChang Stadium in early February, the students of Stephanie Ticali’s class saw more than a flag-bearer and world-class athlete.
Ticali’s students saw their friend and Classroom Champions mentor inspire the country like Hamlin does for them each month.
Hamlin, bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor and luger Chris Mazdzer are just a few of the 100-plus Olympic, Paralympic and NFL athletes who have partnered with Classroom Champions to mentor underserved students across North and Central America. The program, started by Steve Mesler, a three-time Winter Olympian and four-man bobsled gold medalist at the 2010 Vancouver games, and his sister, Dr. Leigh Parise, has fostered relationships between athletes and more than 25,000 students since 2009.
The concept of giving students intangible tools to set and achieve goals in the classroom was conceived in 2009, shortly before Mesler achieved his highest goal on the bobsled track.
“I was on the phone with my sister, talking about the life I was having, how I was living the dream of a 10-year-old,” Mesler said. “She was getting her PhD in Education and teaching in Brooklyn, and we talked about the advantages we had growing up. She saw some kids in much worse environments, and we decided it would be very cool to reach these kids more consistently.”
About the Team USA Champ Chats
The theme of the chat will be goal-setting, but will also touch on topics such as teamwork, perseverance and friendship. Athletes will share their experiences and stories, followed by a Q&A. Students will be able to submit questions to the athletes ahead of time via Twitter using #CClivechats, and a select number of classrooms will engage directly with the athletes from their classroom during the live video chat. Learn more or register here.
While Mesler had spoken to schools several times, he felt like he was grasping at straws and only connecting with a student or two at each event. The siblings decided to create relationships with classrooms through athletes and the internet, thus finding the middle ground between rather impersonal public speaking events and the narrow swath of one-on-one mentorship.
“We wanted to start actual relationships and teach these kids how to create and maintain relationships,” Mesler said. “You can’t learn what these athletes know in a book, mentorship seems to be a much better way. There are a ton of programs that are a mile wide and an inch deep, we wanted to be just the opposite.”
At the time, Mesler was training for his final Olympics, which, between trips to Europe for competitions, consisted of two-a-day practices, eating nearly 7,000 calories today, taking strategic naps and undergoing weekly massage, acupuncture and chiropractic sessions. While Parise began building the curriculum for Classroom Champions, Mesler formed relationships with nine classrooms in the United States and Canada by sending videos and letters back and forth. In 2010, he brought his classrooms to the Vancouver games via Skype sessions as his team won the U.S.’s first bobsled gold medal in 62 years.
Mesler’s achievement brought attention to Classroom Champions and in its second year, with WNBA future hall-of-famer Sue Bird and Olympic hurdler David Oliver on hand, the volunteer program reached 625 students.
“We were building the plane as we were flying it,” Mesler said. “We didn’t even have a website, I was using Twitter and reaching out through friends I’d made on the Olympic team. I would just reach out to people I had heard good things about.”
By the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Classroom Champions had reached over 8,200 students and become a non-profit organization. In 2018, when Hamlin emerged from the tunnel at the opening ceremonies in PyeongChang, more than 25,000 students had connected with a Classroom Champions mentor.
“We make it simple and digestible yet effective for the athletes,” Mesler said. “Athletes like to see results, so we made sure to have metrics available to see what their results should be and give them something to strive for.”
Before winning the U.S.’s first luge medal at the PyeongChang games, Olympic sensation Chris Mazdzer approached Mesler about joining Classroom Champions, and even offered to find sponsors to pay his way in and bypass the list of 30 athletes waiting for funding to get involved.
Paralympic swimmer Sophia Herzog, after winning a silver medal in 100m breaststroke at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games, applied for Classroom Champions after hearing about it through fellow Paralympian Lex Gillette. Herzog, a dwarf athlete, said she didn’t have a mentor growing up in the small town of Fairplay, Colorado, and was enticed by the opportunity to be one for others.
“I went through some hardships in school and I want to let them know that everyone is faced with obstacles,” Herzog said. “I wanted to impart the importance and power of making good decisions.”
Herzog creates monthly videos and challenges for each of her five classes of Kindergarten, first and second graders. She said she spends about an hour filming each video before sending it to Classroom Champions to edit. She also chats with her classes via Google Plus.
“I live at the Olympic Training Center and train full time, and it’s so fun to get out of practice and hear from my kids and teachers,” Herzog said. “My day can get very monotonous, and they put a spark into it.”
Recently, in a response to her video about goal setting, Herzog received a book one of her classes in New York made titled We Didn’t Quit: A Book About Perseverance, in which one of her students wrote, “When I was seven I was making an art project with beads and it was frustrating because they spilled everywhere, but I didn’t give up and it turned out perfect.”
Herzog is training for the Pan Pacific games in Australia this year with the ultimate goal of making the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic games.
Based in West Allis, Wisconsin, Ticali is an elementary teacher in her sixth year working with Classroom Champions. She is paired with Hamlin for the second time.
Ticali said she discovered the program through Twitter, was one of the first 25 classrooms to sign up and can no longer imagine teaching without it.
“It’s an easy tie-in to character education and it just gives us a good framework,” Ticali said. “It’s even better personally. Erin is very down to earth and speaks to the class at their level. When we watch the videos, she has a challenge for them and she gets them motivated.”
Classroom Champions uses surveys at the beginning and end of each school year to track the progress of six randomly selected students in the areas of attendance, persistence, work completion, attitude toward school and friendship. The program has reported significant improvements in digital literacy, persistence and exercise habits. More than 90 percent of teachers reported a raise in attendance and a 63 percent reduction in bullying compared to the national average.
Ticali said that while the surveys consistently show overall improvement, she notices the program’s impact on a daily basis.
“I hear the kids use the language in the classroom,” Ticali said. “All of a sudden you hear them saying ‘perseverance’ and things like, ‘Well, Erin said this.’ That’s an informal way of knowing that things are sinking in.”
Her favorite Classroom Champions moment came during the 2014 Sochi games, the last time her class was paired with Hamlin.
“We were going over the results of each run Erin made and talking about how close the scores were,” Ticali said. “The next day the men were on, and I had a student – a girl – say, ‘I didn’t know boys could luge.’ ”
Long before Mesler founded Classroom Champions, or even toyed with the idea jumping in a bobsled, he was an All-City, All-State and All-American with a Division I track scholarship to the University of Florida.
At first, when coach Jerry Clayton compared him to track athlete turned Olympic bobsledder Rob Olesen, Mesler scoffed. However, a hamstring injury, followed by a series of ankle injuries and garnished with an elbow injury in 2000 that required Tommy John’s surgery all but derailed his five-year collegiate career, and 23-year-old Mesler found himself desperate for a way to continue his career.
“I was sitting in Florida, thinking my athletic career was over and I don’t know if it was the meds, but I decided to email the Olympic committee,” Mesler said. “I was pecking away on Yahoo! to find the OIC and ask about bobsled.”
In 2001, Mesler was invited to an Olympic combine camp in San Diego and on Oct. 4 he was whizzing down a bobsled track feeling the G-forces pull at his innards. Mesler was an alternate in the 2002 Winter Olympics, placed seventh in the 2006 games and part of the 2010 “Night Train” that won gold in Vancouver.
Mesler retired from bobsled after his gold medal run but has by no means slowed down. As president and CEO of Classroom Champions, much of his time is spent fundraising, partnering with corporations and supporting his team of teachers and athletes. He presents at conferences around the world, spreading his philosophy on the intersection of sports and education.
“Why are we talking to kids different than business leaders?” Mesler said. “They should get these skills early on and foster them throughout their lives. A lot of these kids don’t have adults around to teach them these things, so we fill that void.”