Passing the Torch – Olympians train with young hopefuls


Lets face it, it’s not every day we get to meet our personal heroes. The few people who we look up to, inspire us, and who we push ourselves to emulate in almost every way. For every one of us such a meeting would be a one in a million chance but to the lucky student athletes of three schools in San Diego, they truly did get a chance to meet their Stars. The true heroes of athletics and Olympian super stars, running in the Carlsbad 5000 just down the road.

The Carlsbad 5000 is famously known throughout the world as Southern California’s fastest and favourite 5k. Steeped in history, it has established itself over the years as the world’s premier 5000m road-race, and every year athletes travel from far and wide to compete and to add their names to the trophy.

This year, on the 29th anniversary of the race the elite athletes themselves gathered together to do something extra special. In the spirit of giving back to the community, five top athletes traveled to three local schools to talk and train with local students of athletics.

Bernard Lagat American record holder of the Carlsbad 5000

Bernard Lagat at the finish line of the Carlsbad 5000

This idea of connecting and inspiring the young athletes in the community is not a new one, and Matt Turnbull, elite athlete coordinator of the race, encouraged as many athletes to join in as possible.

“In the past we have had athletes visit schools and meet local youngsters who are running at junior Carlsbad.” He explained. “I think it’s important that athletes interact with all aspects of the community in which they are competing. We as organizers want to make them hero’s and they have opportunity to enrich students lives and give them a perspective on the sport no one else is able to provide.”

With that goal in mind, the athletes set off on Thursday afternoon three days before the race, to the Saint Augustine High School. Kenyan born American athlete Bernard Lagat – a 1500m silver medalist in the 2004 Olympics was very excited and looking forward to speaking with the kids. “I’m looking forward to seeing them and showing them my moves.”

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Brenda Martinez – 2013 IAAF World Championship 800m bronze medalist, joined us at the school’s track with her husband and coach whilst we waited for the show to start. Coach Jerry Downey approached, shaking the athletes’ hand and eagerly led them to a corner of the field where his runner’s were gathered. Bernard and Brenda stood and faced the crowd of enthusiastic students whilst they were introduced with a list of their achievements and goals.

With a sly smile, coach Jerry Downey asked the group “So! Are you guys ready to run?” The kids eagerly jumped up and followed Bernard and Brenda as they lead the kids in a lap around the track, followed by a series of warm ups, drills and stretches.

The kids threw themselves eagerly into everything the athletes instructed them to do, and all the while asking questions about the exercises and why they were beneficial. The session ended with the athletes signing autographs for the students and spending time having long one to one discussions.

The athletes’ made such an impression that as they left he track, some students raced after them asking for one last photo or one last autograph.

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Day two, Bernard and Brenda were joined by some of their fellow athletes at the Cathedral High School. Ethiopian Olympic medal winners, Dejen Gebremeskel – a 5000m silver medalist in the 2012 Olympics and reigning champion of the Carlsbad 5000 race, Tariku Bekele – 10,000m bronze medalist in the 2012 Olympics, and female athlete Gotytom Gebreslase, bronze medalist in the 5000m, African Championships 2012.

Together they stood up, and similar to the day before they gave a short presentation to the young athletes with time to answer some questions before leading them on a round of drills as coach Dan Geiger looked on.

Christine Cremer a young athlete from the school was very impressed with the visit. “The athletes were really down to earth and open to all of our questions… Getting to know and personally talk to them has inspired me to take my running career to the next level.” she said “Knowing that these elite athletes are just regular people, who had the same dreams and aspirations as my teammates and I, and got to the level they are at, is inspiring.”

Bernard, Brenda and Tariku kicked off the drills by leading the students on a lap of the track. On the last bend Bernard stepped it up and raced some of the young female athletes to the finish line, coasting to the end, he raised his arms up proclaiming, “I win!” to the students’ great amusement.

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Brenda demonstrated some of her favourite warm up routines, side running and high kicks which Bernard and Tariku took on with great enthusiasm, evoking giggles from the kids before they joined in.

As they wrapped up the session, the athletes lingered as long as they could to give the students some more time to ask one to one questions, sign the student’s athletics shirts and of course, pose for photos with their heroes.

“I loved talking to Brenda,” said Christine Cremer. “She encouraged us to always stay positive, not just in running, but in every aspect of our lives.”

Coach Dan Geiger was equally impressed with the athletes. “The athlete’s visit to our school was phenomenal,” he explained. “Listening to the top athletes in their sport served as a motivation, seeing and hearing how hard these top athletes work confirmed that nothing comes easy and that you need to put in the hard work if you want to see results.”

The last stop was the University of City High School. Bernard stepped up to once more introduce the athletes and opened up to any questions they might have.

They were full of advice and tips, which the kids listened to with rapt attention. Dejen and Tariku in particular explained how to approach a race mentally and what to do to keep you from getting nervous.

When the question was asked, “Do you listen to music before a race?” the athletes shook their heads no, and coach Jim yelled out “YES! My kind of people!” but Dejen raised his hand and said, “I do!” this prompted some laughter from the kids. Similarly when the question about using the gym came up, all the athletes shook their heads apart from Dejen who said, “Yes I like the gym, but I don’t do too much there”.

Dejen Gebremeskel winner of the Carlsbad 5000

Dejen Gebremeskel winner of the Carlsbad 5000

The differences in technique and personal preparation approaches had the students intrigued and prompted them to ask more searching questions.

The most interesting of which, was directed to Bernard Lagat. “How did you decide to become an American National?”

Bernard paused for a moment then answered. “To be honest the hardest part was convincing my father that it was a good idea. I had to sell it to him! He was afraid that I would never come back.” The kids laughed.

“This country has done so much for me, and given me opportunities that I would never have had in Kenya. I studied here on a scholarship paid for by US taxpayers, so I saw it as a chance to give something back to the country that helped me get to where I am today. So now when I race and win, I do it for America, and now I help to pass on my knowledge to young athletes to help them on their journey.”

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Coach Jim McCarthy “The kids just loved it! It gave them a real sense of confirmation about what they’re doing in the sport, all down to the small stuff in training. It was great to see that elite athletes think the same on the level, for example some of the tips that Brenda was talking about and her warm up sessions are identical to what they’re doing now. The kids are all already ambitious so their visit reinforced what was already there.”

When asked if it would benefit the students for the visit to be repeated next year he said “Oh yea. We want them back again. It’s not every day that the kids get to meet the Michael Jordan’s of their sport! ”

Dejen went on to win the Carlsbad 5000 race on Sunday, followed shortly by Bernard, who took home the American record holder for the race! Brenda ran a personal best on the road finishing fourth in the women’s race. It just goes to show that all their hard work and training techniques really pay off!

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