Olympic athletes take time to teach kids

February, 23, 2010
02/23/10
11:32
PM ET

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- When University of Texas quarterback Colt McCoy was in seventh grade, a speaker came to his middle school to talk about living a healthy lifestyle.

Kikkan Randall & Jessica MendozaCourtesy of Alyssa Roenigk Kikkan Randall and Jessica Mendoza cheered on young athletes Tuesday.

At the time, McCoy was drinking a six-pack of Dr Pepper a day. "Athletes do not drink soda," the speaker said to a room full of student athletes between the ages of 10 and 13. "Soda slows you down." The comment fell on mostly deaf ears. But McCoy felt like it was aimed directly at him. He wanted to be a great quarterback. And quarterbacks are athletes. So the next day, McCoy swore off the stuff. "I was 12, but I knew I wanted to play at the highest level," McCoy told me last fall. Since that day, he has never taken a sip of soda.

What does that story have to do with the Winter Olympics? A lot, actually. For the athletes here in Vancouver, the Olympics is more than just the fulfillment of a lifelong dream and the biggest competition stage of their lives. It is also a platform from which to influence young fans, to talk about the organizations they work with and to sell the messages they hope will be attached to their stories. Examples like McCoy's are proof that when the messages are packaged well, kids are willing to buy them.

And that's why, Monday afternoon, U.S. cross-country skiers Kikkan Randall and Andy Newell were spending their rest day between competition hanging with kids at an event held at the Spyder U.S. Ski team house in Whistler Village. Sponsored by the Century Council, a not-for-profit organization funded by distillers and aimed at eliminating drunk driving and underage drinking, Kid's Day was well worth the time away from training and race prep, Randall said.

"The Olympics is such a great platform for athletes to talk about the causes we care about, so I try to fit in any appearances I can," said Randall, who competes again Thursday in the 4x5km relay. "I love the message we're sending to these kids. Living healthy lifestyles is the key to doing what we do." Randall, who is from Anchorage, also works with a similar organization in her hometown called Healthy Futures, as well as Fast and Female, a group dedicated to helping teach young girls to feel empowered through playing sports.

"My aunt and uncle were Olympic cross-country skiers, and I latched on to them," Randall said. "When I was 5, I decided I wanted to go to the Olympics, and I had their example to follow. It's great to be that person for other kids."

Between stints spent signing autographs and talking with fans, Randall and Newell cheered on the kids while they played an interactive video game as part of the Council's Ask, Listen, Learn campaign, which teaches kids the dangers of alcohol abuse and encourages parents to talk to their children about drinking. USA Softball team captain Jessica Mendoza stopped by to play a few rounds of the game as well.

"All these kids want to be Olympians," Mendoza said. "And the question they ask most is, 'How do I do it?' I can tell them it's by staying away from alcohol and drugs and being healthy and active. This is the perfect time for them to absorb it all in."

And who better to tell them than an Olympian.

"When I was a kid, I met Bill Koch and he signed my skis," Newell says. "He was the only American to win an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing and meeting him made an impression on me. It gave me the motivation to keep skiing, because I could get there one day, too."

Even if it meant making great sacrifices. Like ditching the Dr Pepper.

Alyssa Roenigk

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com whose assignments covering action sports, Olympics and football have taken her to six continents and caused her to commit countless acts of recklessness. In 2012, she joined the X Games TV broadcast team and ordered additional pages for her passport. Follow her on Twitter at @espn_alyssa.
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