The third-grade students were seated around circular tables at one end of the school library, whispering, fidgeting and craning their necks.
“Is that her?”
“Move, I can’t see!”
When Alex Rigsby, a goaltender for the U.S. women’s hockey team, walked in, the room at Bren Mar Park Elementary in Alexandria was buzzing and the students struggled to stay in their seats. Rigsby, 25, had been mentoring the two third-grade classrooms this school year through a program called Classroom Champions, sending along videos and participating in live video chats, but Monday marked the first face-to-face encounter.
The students began peppering her with questions: How does it feel to win a championship? Were you nervous? What’s your favorite restaurant? Were you a hockey player when you were little? Have you ever been to Mexico? Where do you do the Olympics? I thought you had brown hair.
The unique relationship between Rigsby and the students had been mostly dependent on technology before Monday morning’s visit. Each month, Rigsby would send along a video for the students, in which she discussed a topic such as leadership, goal-setting or perseverance. She included challenges, and the Classroom Champions lessons were incorporated in the regular classroom curriculum.
The mentorship program is the brainchild of Steve Mesler, the three-time Olympic bobsledder who won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Games. He remembers visiting schools and walking out thinking, “If just one kid listened, that was worth it..”
“But then I started thinking, you know, we could do better than that,” Mesler explained recently.
Training and competition schedules don’t allow Olympic-caliber athletes to do much in-person one-on-one mentoring, but Mesler and his sister, Leigh Mesler Parise, worked on a curriculum where the athletes could still be an active presence for students, relying mostly on an Internet connection.
“Kids today build relationships through technology,” Mesler said. “We thought we could use that.”
In the past seven years, Classroom Champions has reached 19,000 students across the United States and Canada, utilizing athletes such as hurdler David Oliver, basketball player Sue Bird and figure skaters Meryl Davis and Charlie White — more than 80 Olympians and Paralympians in total. What Mesler quickly realized: The students responded to authenticity more than star power, and a personal connection helped the athletes drive home their messages.
“From our kids’ perspective, they feel a sense of ownership: This is my Olympian,” he said.
Rigsby, part of the world champion American team that will take aim at gold at the PyeongChang Winter Games next year, has been working with the two Alexandria classrooms and four more in the Phoenix area. Not every classroom gets to meet their athlete mentor face-to-face.
On Friday, teachers brought their two classrooms together to play Hangman, a game in which letters are slowly revealed and students guess the word or phrase. When students realized the mystery phrase — “Alex is coming to visit us” — there was a second of confusion before they all erupted into cheers.
The students had followed Rigsby from afar all year, responding to her challenges, listening to her stories. When Team USA won the world championships in April, the students watched clips and highlights on YouTube, and teacher Karen Couch often cited the young goaltender as an example in her daily lesson plans.
“I think that’s how you get the bang out of it,” Couch said. “‘Remember when we talked about this topic?’ In the third grade, sometimes it’s easy to get disappointed when you aren’t successful. But we have someone we can point to and say, ‘look at all the obstacles she overcame.’ It makes it a lot more meaningful for them.”
On Monday, Rigsby brought along her medals and rings for the students. They passed around her USA hockey jersey, too, and some even tried it on.
“That’s like a dress on you,” Rigsby laughed at one point.
“It’s so huge,” said a young boy named Jayden. “It could almost cover a house.”
The students read aloud letters they had written for their mentor, crystallizing a school year’s worth of lessons, goals and challenges.
Michelle wrote: “My new goal is to never give up, even when things are hard. Thank you so much for all you do.”
From Ashley: “Leadership helped me to let people go first, trust yourself, give credit to the person and don’t keep the credit to yourself because that’s being bossy.”
And Akif: “Healthy living made me be not sick and not tired. I was always tired and sick now I am not because I ate a lots of fruit. You made my life so much better.”
While the students were excited about their visitor, Rigsby was just as eager to meet the children. “I feel like I’ve gotten so much out of this, too,” she said. “It’s helped me grow more as a person and as an athlete — allowed me to reflect on my own goal-setting and the way I do things.”