Athletes who took to the world stage are volunteering to help LAUSD students improve state fitness exam scores

By Joe Piasecki

John Siciliano, a Paralympian mentoring Venice High School ninth graders as part of the ReadySetGold! program, shoots some hoops during a visit to the school in November

John Siciliano, a Paralympian mentoring Venice High School ninth graders as part of the ReadySetGold! program, shoots some hoops during a visit to the school in November

Not all of the Olympic action is happening in Sochi this week.

American Olympians of games past are hard at work as mentors in Los Angeles public schools, mentoring fifth-, seventh- and ninth-grade students on exercise, healthy living and goal-setting as they prepare to take state fitness exams.

Rada Owen, a Westchester resident who swam the 200-meter freestyle in the 2000 Sydney Games, is headed to nearby Westport Heights Elementary School today to cheer on fifth graders she’s coached for five visits over the past school year.

“I’m going to cheer them on while they’re running and doing pushups, said Owen, 35. “It’s pretty amazing to see how well they do when there’s an Olympian watching and cheering them on.”

How does she know? Last year she was a fitness mentor at another school and missed morning fitness tests due to a school scheduling error. When students retook the tests for her that afternoon, every single one posted better results, she said.

Owen and dozens of other local Olympians visit schools under the banner of ReadySetGold!, a program launched by the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games in 2006 as part of L.A.’s bid to host the 2016 Summer Games.

“We wanted something as part of the bid that could be a legacy for the community,” said Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games President David Simon. “It gives us the ability to reach kids, families, teachers and school administrators with a positive message about healthy habits.”

ReadySetGold!, which continues with funding by Samsung and other private-sector sponsors, would also be a part of a bid for the 2024 Games if the U.S. Olympic Committee clears L.A. to compete, Simon said.

Santa Monica resident Chuck Nelson, who played volleyball in the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, mentors about 100 fifth graders at Loyola Village Elementary in Westchester.

“I enjoy doing it. It’s fun to encourage them,” said Nelson, 80, who has since become a champion tennis player in senior tournaments run by the International Tennis Assoc. “The real purpose is teaching them to exercise, but at the same time they ask me a lot about how I got to the Olympics … what I think is important in my life that allowed me to do it.”

That kind of interaction is as much a key to the program’s success as the fitness training, said ReadySetGold! Program Director Bernadine Bednarz.

“I think it offers the value of someone who has accomplished a tremendous goal within a unique set of circumstances. There is an inspirational element. It’s about the process of setting goals, having meaning in your life, a long-term vision,” Bednarz said.

That message isn’t lost on John Siciliano, a Paralympian mentoring ninth graders at Venice High School as part of the ReadySetGold! program.

Siciliano, a Westchester resident, lost his right leg in an automobile crash at 22.

“The first thing I thought was that my life is over,” but that changed after he learned of the Paralympics, Siciliano said. “It gave me a lot of hope and inspiration. A unique aspect I bring to the [mentorship] program is more than physical fitness, it’s life experience.”

Other Westside schools have been receiving visits by Olympians under the program.

Michael O’Brien, a gold medal swimmer in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, visits Westchester Enriched Science Magnet.

Rod Oshita, a handball player who competed in both the 1984 Games and the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, volunteers at Vista Academy in Mar Vista.

“All of our athletes are real-life examples of how living an active and healthy lifestyle helped them to be successful in sport and in life. That’s the message we emphasize,” Bednarz said. “Not every Olympian in the Parade of Nations is going to get a medal, but each one has reached a level no one else has, which I think we forget sometimes.”

joe(at)argonautnews.com

Staff writer Gary Walker contributed to this story.