From USASwimming.org, Mike Gustafson:
Do you remember your first time meeting a sports hero? When you walked down the street and saw Tom Brady? Maybe you were a kid. Suddenly, up close and personal, your favorite sporting superstar looked somehow different.
More human. More approachable. More like you.
Every four years, television brings the world’s greatest sports event – the Olympic Games -- into our homes. Kids see Olympians and say, “That could be me.” But seeing sports heroes on TV is quite unlike seeing heroes in real life. Live interaction affects you. Positive interactions can be inspirational.
It can be a life changer.
Last weekend, at the Eric Namesnik Michigan Grand Prix, inner-city kids from Detroit had the opportunity to see Olympians up close and personal. Thirty-seven swimmers from the Detroit Tiger Sharks (a USA Swimming club) and the Detroit Rec. Dept. Swim Team saw swimmers like Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, and Natalie Coughlin in action.
“For me, it’s an adrenaline rush,” says Tiger Sharks head coach Larry Nunnery. “We’re closer than TV. These kids get to see swimming up-close.”
The subtext in this story is a business giving back to its community. Domino’s Pizza helped make this happen. Headquartered in Ann Arbor, Domino’s learned that Michael Phelps and others were coming to the neighborhood. They helped spearhead an effort: “Let’s get these kids to this meet.” Domino’s paid for admissions, and even gave the kids free pizza.
“In the preliminaries, some of the older kids get a chance to be timers,” Nunnery said. “They’re excited. They’re practically touching these Olympians.”
He added: “It’s inspiring.”
When I asked Coach Nunnery (who’s been coaching the Tiger Sharks since ’96) about the problems he faces to get minority kids into swimming, he talked about opportunity. “A lot of kids aren’t familiar with USA Swimming,” Nunnery said. “They’re familiar with the money-making sports. Football. Basketball.”
Scan any pool deck – you don’t see many minorities. But small initiatives like this one, getting these kids to local swim meets and letting them see National Teamers race and compete, is important.
“Swimming is a challenge,” Nunnery said. “I tell these kids that swimming is the hardest sport. It’s not the roughest. But the hardest. They respond when I tell them that.”
More efforts need to be made to get these kids, kids from urban environments, to swim meets. More corporations like Domino’s need to step up, give to their community, and embrace the positive effect meeting an Olympian can have on kids. After all, many people remember meeting a sports hero.
But what if you never get that opportunity in the first place?
Fortunately, a group of great kids had that very chance last weekend. The chance to see Olympic swimmers with their own eyes. The chance to meet them – to get pictures. The chance to see top-notch international swimming in their own backyard. What did Coach Nunnery hope these kids took away from the meet?
“I hope these kids realize the will, desire, and technique it takes to reach the Olympic level,” Nunnery said. “These swimmers give it their all. As coaches, we never want to hear, ‘I can’t.’ We want to hear, ‘I’ll try.’ You never know what can happen.”