Rod DeHaven ran the marathon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Now he's the track coach at South Dakota State. A few days ago, he got in his car, and drove three hours, along the two-lane road that is U.S. Highway 14, toward Pierre, the state capital, just so he could give a talk to 180 kids, ages 6 to 15, at the Pierre Indian Learning Center, an off-reservation boarding school for Native American students, about how he had come from a family of janitors and made something of himself and they could, too.
And they could start by just -- walking. That simple and yet that powerful.
"It was really a great thing," Dr. Veronica Pietz, the director of the school, said. "We've even got our little guys participating. Our teachers are participating. Everyone is participating. It's the first time we've ever done anything like this."
"This" is World Fit Walk -- an initiative pushed hard over the past four years in particular by Gary Hall Sr., the gold medal-winning swimmer from the 1970s, in response to two particular and obvious challenges:
One, speaking generally, 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.
Something has to be done.
Which leads directly to the second issue.
There are, roughly, 8,000 former U.S. Olympic alumni -- or, in the parlance they prefer, Olympians, an Olympic athlete being an Olympian now and forever. Aside from those who figured out how to make a living on Olympic fame, the vast majority are pretty much living life in Hometown USA. Most would love the chance to do something as Olympians.
As Olympians, it's logical to assume they could make for an incredibly powerful interest group. Assuming they could, in the first instance, form a coherent group. Which perhaps assumes further they could find a cause around which to rally.
"The most compelling problem this country faces is childhood obesity," Hall said. "And who better than Olympians to lead a healthier life?"
World Fit Walk is a simple concept. For 40 days, kids in elementary and middle school grades walk; the program also includes teachers, families and friends. Olympians and Paralympians "adopt" a particular school. Everyone tallies their miles. The whole thing is a national competition. It generates school spirit. There are prizes galore.
The program launched in South Florida in 2009 with two schools, Hall said.
In 2010 it began expanding around the country to 17 schools; in 2011, it grew to 42.
This year's program launched last week; it will reach 78 schools and roughly 30,000 kids in 18 states, Hall said. One sponsor, Platinum Performance, a California-based dietary supplement company, is already on board; another is expected shortly, he said.
"What are experts at? We are experts at training like crazy people," said Willie Banks, the celebrated 1980s triple jumper who is president of the U.S. Olympians Assn.
"If you go in and say, 'Everyone can walk and if you can't walk, everyone can push their chair, that's exercise.' Who better to ask you to do that than an Olympian or Paralympian. That's where our sweet spot is."
An added 2012 component: a series of 20 community walks held around the United States, organized and led by Olympians and Paralympians who make up the nation's 20 Olympians Alumni chapters. The first was held last week in Los Angeles; the last will be June 23 in Washington, D.C.; the goal is to reach 5,456 miles, the distance from L.A., the 1932 and 1984 Summer Games city, to London, which played host to the Games in 1908 and 1948 and will of course be the 2012 city.
The kids in World FIt Walk are clearly going to have help make up the fictional miles across the Atlantic to get to 5,456, it's pretty clear.
Last year, at South Gate Middle School near Los Angeles, more than 2,600 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders took part -- believed to be the most kids of any school anywhere in the country.
Dominik Meichtry, a Swiss swimmer who is now engaged to the American swimmer Jessica Hardy, is South Gate's "adopted" Olympian. He was there last year and is due back at school next week. Already, World Fit is reaching out to Olympians from other nations, too.
"No matter what nationalities we are -- at the end of the day, we share that same bond," Meichtry said.
Patricia Alvarez, the physical education director at South Gate, said of Meichtry's 2011 appearance, "They couldn't imagine meeting an Olympian. He brought a video in where he raced against [Michael Phelps] and he beat him … the kids were overwhelmed."
She also said, "The fact that an Olympian comes to our school, and motivates our kids, really helps the kids realize that it's about the health thing everyone talks about. It's more than just their PE teacher telling them, 'You have to be healthy.' It's about their life well-being."
Dave Johnson, the U.S. decathlon star from the 1990s who won bronze at the Barcelona Games, gave a talk last week at another Native American school, the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Ore.
He showed some of his old Dave and Dan Reebok commercials -- with 1996 decathlon gold medalist Dan O'Brien -- which, of course, the teachers remembered but not the kids. He talked, too, about how, at those 1992 Games, when he expected to win gold he ended up with a stress fracture in his left foot; he put on a shoe two sizes too big, laced it up tight, sucked it up and went out there and toughed it out for bronze.
"Usually," Johnson said, "you get 100 or 200 kids in a room like that, they're goofy. They were quiet. You could hear a pin drop."
DeHaven, halfway across the country, made the point that it surely doesn't have to be about winning a medal.
The vast majority of Olympic athletes don't. Nine of 10 athletes who march in the opening ceremony don't.
DeHaven, for instance, finished 15 minutes slower in the marathon in Sydney than he had in winning the U.S. Trials.
It doesn't matter.
"For Olympians," DeHaven said, "especially the ones who weren't medalists, which of course many of us aren't, the story I tell for anyone who will have me speak … I fell on my face. The kids in this situation -- they need to see that people who fall on their face, they need to see, look, I was able to get back up."
The kids that day at the Pierre Learning Center didn't much care that Rod DeHaven finished 69th at the 2000 Sydney Olympic marathon. They crowded around him for autographs like he was a hero.
Which he was.
He didn't ask for an appearance fee. He drove three hours there, and three hours back home through the great plains of South Dakota, to tell each and every one of those kids that they could make something of themselves, too.