EUGENE, Ore. — Maybe David Oliver wins the 110-meter hurdles here Saturday at the Prefontaine Classic against a stacked field. Doesn’t matter.
Perhaps Leo Manzano wins the Bowerman Mile against a loaded field here at the Pre. Again, doesn’t matter.
They’re both heroes already.
Quietly, David Oliver and Leo Manzano spent a half-hour Friday afternoon with about three dozen kids at the Eugene Family YMCA. The kids, ages 2 1/2 to 9, were awestruck to be in the presence of two guys who were, in fact, Olympians.
Asked to describe what an Olympian was, JJ Anderson, 9, said, “A professional player — the best of the best!”
Ryan Coplin, also 9, went even further: “A god!”
Oliver and Manzano are two of just some of the good guys — and gals — who make up the U.S. Olympic scene. Their appearance Friday at the Y was part of two distinct programs that get little attention but deserve more because, let’s face it, it’s the idea that little kids want to be just like David Oliver and Leo Manzano that keeps the entire Olympic enterprise going day after day, year after year, in these United States.
The U.S. Olympic Committee’s “Team for Tomorrow” initiative, launched in 2008, is now in its third cycle with 10 Olympic and Paralympic athletes and hopefuls. Among them: triathlete Gwen Jorgensen, swimmer Jessica Hardy, water polo player Tony Azevedo and Paralympic standouts Rudy Garcia-Tolson and Anjali Forber-Pratt. Volunteer time includes visits to hospitals, schools, YMCAs and other community institutions.
USA Track & Field’s “Win With Integrity” program dates back to 2004. It aims to stress the benefits of an active, healthy lifestyle and making decisions — on and off the field — with integrity.
Some of that was obviously a little much Friday for pre-schoolers. Sierra St. Johns, 5, was a little distracted because she lost a tooth (only her second!) while Oliver and Manzano were talking. To her credit, she didn’t make any fuss — just went out to the bathroom and came back clutching her prize in a bag for the tooth fairy to visit Friday night.
As Oliver, who does a lot of these reach-out programs, said in an interview, “It’s best at high-school age. You try. You may only reach one kid out of 100. But these are the future leaders of our world. If I can just tell them something positive, maybe it sinks in.”
A Howard University grad, Oliver said, “Look, I’m a good athlete. But I didn’t take the ‘student’ out of ‘student-athlete.’ The two go hand in hand. I did not to go school to be a professional athlete.”
Manzano struck much the same notes. He said, “For me, growing up I never saw a Hispanic role model. It’s important to show these kids they can anything want to do. Not just running. Anything.”
He said, “A lot of kids go home from a place like the Y, it might be kids like David Oliver or myself. My family couldn’t afford to buy me shoes or the best clothes. Sure, there were coaches or other people to look after me, who motivated me. And, lo and behold. I do feel very lucky.”
When it came to question and answer time, the kids wanted to know what these two gods liked to eat.
Oliver said he liked vegetables, steak, chicken and fish.
Everyone thought that was ok.
Manzano said he liked apples and broccoli.
Even gods, you know, can’t win at everything.
“My question,” Emma Nordahl, 7, wanted to know right after that, “is when is this gonna end?”