DALLAS — When she’s on a pool deck, Natalie Coughlin has no nerves. Or if she does, she hides them well. After all, competing in two Olympics, in 11 events, she has won 11 medals, three gold.
On stage here Monday, flanked by other Olympic athletes and hopefuls, it was Coughlin’s privilege to introduce the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. Wouldn’t you know? Coughlin was not only nervous — she was, as she acknowledged at the microphone, stumbling a bit over her lines, “so nervous right now.”
It was fabulous. Natalie Coughlin, tough-as-nails Olympic medalist, “Dancing with the Stars” competitor, a regular person.
The First Lady, here to promote an initiative through her “Let’s Move!” campaign, couldn’t have been more gracious. “You have a lot of medals,” she said with a smile. “No need to shake.”
Mrs. Obama has a magnetism about her that is undeniable. She spoke from the stage about, among others, the gymnast John Orozco, who grew up in the Bronx, telling the story about how his parents used to drive him an hour or more out to gymnastics practice and then how he got a job at that same gym, giving his folks his first paycheck with instructions to apply it to the mortgage on the family home.
Before they had gone on stage, Orozco had met Mrs. Obama. “It was insane. Unreal,” he said. “She gave me such a tight hug.
“Coming from where I came from, the Bronx. I used to play in the street. In the dirt. Now I’m meeting the First Lady!”
Among the athletes behind her on stage was the 400-meter sprinter LaShawn Merritt. Four years ago, he had been invited to the White House for a special dinner before the 2008 Games, where he got to meet President and Mrs. Bush. A few weeks later, he won gold in Beijing.
Then, though, Merritt tested positive for a male-enhancement product and served a 21-month doping suspension. After that, in the interests of harmonizing doping rules across the world, the USOC actively took up his case. He’s now eligible to run in the U.S. Trials and, assuming he makes the 2012 team, in London.
LaShawn Merritt’s redemption became that much more complete on Monday. He may or may not win gold again in London. But he was there on stage with the First Lady of the United States, head held high.
“It’s been a road. My soul is light,” he said afterwards. “To be there with the First Lady is amazing.”
Mrs. Obama will lead the U.S. delegation to the 2012 Olympics. Any number of the athletes with whom she spoke Monday found it captivating just to be around her.
“Meeting the First Lady created extra buzz and extra motivation,” said Nastia Liukin, the gold medal-winning gymnast from 2008 who is on the comeback trail for 2012. “It’s go time from here on out.”
“I just got my citizenship last year and today I met the First Lady,” said badminton champion Tony Gunawan. “Now that’s not normal!”
The trick, of course, is to translate that buzz into action. This is where things get far more problematic.
Mrs. Obama’s intent is laudable. The idea, she said Monday, is to join with various national governing bodies to provide athletic programming to 1.7 million kids in 2012.
There’s no doubt that something has to be done. American kids are fat.
Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. the percentage of children aged 6 to 11 in the United States who were obese went from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 20 percent in 2008. Over the same time frame, the percentage of adolescents — ages 12 to 19 — categorized as obese jumped from 5 to 18 percent, according to the CDC.
The original idea, Mrs. Obama said, was to get 1 million young people involved. The NGBs stepped up and went beyond that, to 1.7 million.
USA Swimming, for instance, will enroll 530,000 new learn-to-swim kids in its “Make-a-Splash” program at more than 500 local pools.
As impressive as those numbers sound, the initiative Mrs. Obama announced Monday amounts only to the tip of the iceberg.
Here’s the reality:
The federal inter-agency forum on child and family statistics, childstats.gov, reports there are 76.1 million children in the United States. Of those 76.1 million, 50.4 million are ages 6 to 17 — essentially the target demographic for “Let’s Move.”
Doing the math: 1.7 million divided by 50.4 million equals 3.4 percent.
In plain English, that’s the percentage of American kids this initiative would reach.
To be equally plain, Mrs. Obama, the USOC and the NGBs involved are to be congratulated for the effort. She, too, is right when she suggests that seeing Natalie Coughlin or John Orozco or whoever it might be this summer in London might well be the spark that sets a new generation of young people “to pursue whatever dreams they hold in their hearts.”
But surely she knows, and everyone else in a position of authority does, too, that if we are going to be serious, really serious, about doing something genuinely meaningful about the obesity crisis confronting American kids, it’s going to take an across-the-board effort that goes far beyond a well-intentioned initiative reaching 3.4 percent of our young people.
As Natalie Coughlin said, and this came out loud and clear when she said this, “America’s youth are this country’s greatest asset.”