Peter Vidmar walked into the gymnasium at Elizabeth Learning Center in Cudahy, just southeast of Los Angeles, and it was obvious it would take more than displaying three Olympic medals to impress a couple of hundred adolescents.
Vidmar, one of the golden boys on the men’s gymnastics team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, had brought with him a set of parallel bars, lower to the ground than normal. He hopped onto the bars, gripped them with his arms, and pointed his feet toward the roof into a V position. And held it.
That got the kids’ attention. The more he did, and spoke, the more riveted they became. He narrated a video of his stunning performance to win a gold medal on the pommel horse at the ’84 Games, his mouth open as wide as a wind tunnel when the score of 10.0 went up.
“It’s a fun way to get the kids to laugh at me because they don’t know who I am,” he said. “I’m just some old guy who walked in.”
Vidmar, 51, is among dozens of Olympians who regularly visit Los Angeles schools to inspire kids, and maybe cajole them, to perform well on the California Physical Fitness test. There are 42 Olympians who signed up this year for the program, called Ready, Set, Gold! With 800 or so former Olympians living in Southern California, the program is the only one of its kind in the country.
Vidmar is a native Angeleno who recently moved to San Clemente after living in Coto de Caza for years, and he is the group’s chairman. Other Orange County-based athletes include softball player Amanda Freed, the former Cypress star who helped Team USA win gold at the 2004 Athens Games; and Rami Zur, who advanced to the semifinals in canoeing at the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympics.
Vidmar is hardly an “old guy.” He’s still impossibly lean and he competes in triathlons. But he’s right: None of the kids at the 50 schools served by RSG this year (including 29 elementary schools) was alive when he and his teammates – including Mitch Gaylord, Tim Daggett and Bart Conner – beat the heavily favored Chinese team for the team gold.
What he can do, though, besides recount that thrilling summer is tell them what he learned on his long journey to 1984: No one gets good at something overnight; it takes hard work, a little bit at a time.
“You’ve got to practice mind over mattress,” he said. “Maybe every morning when you get up you’re gonna do some push-ups or some sit-ups, or before you go to bed. But when you get off the mattress or before you hit the mattress, you have to do something. And these kids, when before they could only do one push-up, all of a sudden, they can do three push-ups. And if they keep working on it, all of a sudden they can do seven, 10. And they realize, gee, it didn’t take that much effort. And so then you say, ‘How does that apply to the rest of your life?’ A little bit of effort here and there.”
The main mission of Ready, Set, Gold! is to get kids in shape. In California, this is quantified by the state-mandated Fitness Test, also known as the Fitnessgram. It involves six categories of fitness, and is given to fifth- seventh- and ninth-graders every year at this time (the deadline for the ninth-graders is April 5).
Results won’t be known until the fall. If the past is any guide, far too many children will fall short of passing the six basic skills, which measure aerobic capacity, body composition, abdominal strength, trunk-extension strength, upper-body strength and flexibility. Last year, Orange County students did relatively well, compared with the state average: Among fifth-graders, 32.8 percent met all six benchmarks, and 40.5 percent of seventh-graders and 44 percent of ninth-graders. In California, the averages were 25.2, 32.1 and 36.8, respectively.
But in Cudahy and other L.A.-area communities, there are socioeconomic challenges that go beyond how many push-ups someone can do. Cudahy, with less than 24,000 residents, is the second-smallest city in Los Angeles County, but it’s incredibly dense – about 19,000 people per square mile (compared with 6,600 for Anaheim).
The kids in the K-12 Elizabeth Learning Center already get attention from one Olympian – their Olympian. She’s Cathy Marino, who competed for the U.S. kayak team in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics. She’s in her fifth year with Ready, Set, Gold!, and in her fourth with the school. She’s from Huntington Beach, and she rode her motorcycle to school on the day Vidmar came for his special assembly.
“You bring not just a message of physical education but a message of possibilities,” she said.
The Elizabeth kids rolled out the red carpet for Vidmar, putting up a handmade sign with his name on it. Three girls practiced the national anthem, which they sang when the bleachers were full of classmates. Vidmar enlisted one shy volunteer, a seventh-grader named Darvin Castro, 13, to do some exercises with him. After proving his superb fitness and flexibility, Vidmar mercifully let Darvin sit back down and then mostly talked about fulfilling his Olympic dream.
Vidmar spoke of his father, John, who learned gymnastics on the rings at Muscle Beach in Santa Monica but got polio at age 29. It left him with a permanently withered left leg, but he didn’t sulk about it, not even one day when he came home bloodied after stumbling into a pothole.
“My father never complained about that,” Vidmar said. If he had a difficult gymnastics workout, “I didn’t feel I could complain about it, because I had to go home to that man every day,” he told the kids.
“I’ve always hesitated to share that over the years,” he said later, “but I’m more likely to share it now, because it did have a big impact on me. Kids have hardships they’re struggling with. My father was one who showed me what was possible. My guess is that a handful of these students are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a lot different than what I’m experiencing at home. I’ve got people around me who are great examples.'”
Adults in the gym said they’ve never heard a group of kids so quiet, so attentive for one of their presentations.
“If you don’t connect with them, you’re just losing them,” said Christine Berni-Ramos, the physical education teacher at Elizabeth.
RSG says schools that get visits from the Olympians have increased the number of students who pass the Fitnessgram by 40 percent. Since Marino, the former kayaker, has been working with Elizabeth, the school has gone from 11.4 percent of fifth-graders passing the test in 2010 to 17 percent in 2011 to 24.4 percent in 2012.
Marino is a vice president on the committee trying to bring the Summer Games to Los Angeles for the third time, in 2024. Vidmar, who is on that committee, as well as the chairman of the board of USA Gymnastics, said Ready, Set, Gold! was born out of L.A.’s failed bid to land the 2016 Olympics.
“Funding is the big issue,” Vidmar said. “We’d love to have the opportunity as an organization to go beyond the borders of L.A. Unified School District. … The largest fraternity of Olympians is here. In a way, we don’t have to recruit.”
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