LOS ANGELES — Former three-time Olympic high-jumper Dwight Stones visits the students at South Gate High five times a year to talk – not so much about his life but more about theirs.
He tells the ninth-graders he is worried about their fatty-food diets that put them at risk of obesity, diabetes and other health problems. He says he is concerned about how little some of them exercise.
Stones, 60, of Foothill Ranch, Calif., made his first trip of this school year in November. About 100 students listened from the gymnasium’s bleachers, most teenagers looking restless, drifting in attention and wiggling anxiously in their physical education T-shirts and shorts.
Stones, a father of two, understands children. He knows he won’t get through to everyone. But he hopes to reach just one student with his message about the importance of a healthy diet and physical fitness.
It’s a leap, he knows, perhaps the most challenging leap for the still-fit, still-outspoken, 6-foot-5 man who earned Olympic bronze medals in 1972 and 1976, set three world records and won 19 national championships in his 16-year career.
“There’s a lot going against us here because we’re talking about teenagers, a culture and often economics,” Stones said after his talk at the school on a fast-food restaurant-lined Firestone Boulevard.
“Out in the stands, maybe there was one kid who rolled out of bed this morning and was ready to hear what I have to say. Maybe he changes his life.”
Maybe. That’s the goal.
Stones is among 39 former U.S. Olympians and two Paralympians who have adopted 52 Los Angeles-area middle and high schools this school year as part of Ready, Set, Gold!, a mentoring program to promote fitness, nutrition and healthy living habits.
RSG was originally pitched as a community-service project in the Los Angeles bid to land the 2016 Summer Olympics. When the Olympics were awarded to Rio, the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games still decided in Sept. 2006 to launch RSG, partnering with the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The program targets fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders at schools in most need of improving their results in the state-mandated Fitnessgram. That’s the six-part test of trunk lifts, 90-degree pushups, modified pullups or flexed-arm hangs, sit-and-reaches, shoulder stretches and 1-mile runs that measures a student’s flexibility, body composition and aerobic capacity.
The results haven’t been pretty.
“There is a need because we’re seeing so many kids become overweight and sick, and it’s dangerous,” said SCCOG program director Bernadine Bednarz.
“At the same time, we have so many Olympians here in Southern California who can serve as role models and help kids in their own backyards have healthier lives.”
Fifteen medalists are involved, including RSG chair and 1984 Olympic gold-winning gymnast Peter Vidmar. All receive a small stipend from the program, which is largely funded by worldwide Olympic sponsor Samsung.
Olympians range in age from 21-year-old Rena Wang (badminton) to 81-year-old Michael O’Hara (volleyball). Three participants – O’Hara and Chuck Nelson in volleyball and Ulis Williams of the gold-medal winning 4x400-meter relay team – competed as far back as the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
Twenty-two sports are represented, allowing some athletes to bring in velodrome-ready cycles, kayaks and badminton shuttlecocks to give students their first exposure to lesser-known events.
The students get a chance to do fitness workouts with the likes of Costa Mesa’s Mike O’Brien, who won the 1984 gold in the 1,500-meter freestyle; Huntington Beach’s Cathy Marino, who competed in canoeing in 1988 and 1992; Rancho Palos Verdes’ Merrill Moses, who played on the 2008 silver-medal winning in water polo team; and UCLA’s Annett Davis and Jenny Johnson-Jordan, who partnered for Olympic beach volleyball in 2000 and 2004.
Rami Zar, a three-time Olympian (2000, 2004, 2008) who lives in Costa Mesa, showed off a kayak at the Elizabeth Learning Center. Rod Oshita, who went to UC Irvine and the Olympics in 1984 and 1988, explained team handball to middle schoolers at Vista Academy.
Donna Mayhew, who competed in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics in the javelin, spoke at Ranchito Elementary and was asked by a fifth-grade girl, “How do I become an Olympian?”
Sports are merely the vehicle for the great lessons of having healthy, active lifestyles, being disciplined and setting goals. The motivation comes in the Olympians’ stories not just of athletic achievement but also their personal triumphs.
Paul Gonzales, the 1984 light-flyweight boxing gold medalist, adopted Mendez Learning Center. The Mexican-American tells students that he beat the odds, rising to Olympic stardom from a childhood in the East L.A. projects that were razed to build their school.
“Each year of the program, more kids are buying in, setting goals and seeing the results,” said Stones, who is in his sixth year with RSG, his fourth at South Gate. “You never know who’s listening.”
Bednarz reports that RSG schools have shown a marked improvement in Fitnessgram performance.
Meanwhile, Stones is proud to have reached at least one student.
Ingrid Ibarra, 17, was in the audience two years ago as a South Gate freshman. She had never heard of Stones before that day. She didn’t even know high jump was an Olympic event, much less one that would compel Stones to hurdle his body backward over a pole for a one-time American record of 7 feet, 8 inches.
“But I heard what he had to say,” said the junior, “and it affected me.”
Shortly after Stones’ first talk, Ingrid tried to join her school’s track team. After running half a lap on the 440-yard track, she had to stop. She buckled over, gasping for air, and knew she needed to get in shape.
She thought of her parents, both diabetic. Her father has heart disease. She kept on running, several times a week, lagging but training alongside the track team.
Ingrid also changed her diet, eliminating soft drinks and cutting out sugar five days a week.
“In two years, I’ve lost 50 pounds, and I can run the mile in under 10 minutes,” Ingrid told Stones. “I sleep better. I feel better, too. Thank you.”
Stones smiled, relishing a different kind of Olympic moment.