Dominik Meichtry

World Fit Walk: "... really a great thing"

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.

No problem.

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.

Calm, strong, happy: Jessica Hardy

Some winter mornings in Los Angeles break warm and soft. This was not one of them. It had rained overnight, and there were fast clouds scudding overhead, and the thermometer said it was 49 degrees at 7:30 Thursday morning. The water in the USC pool was warm, as always, 80 degrees. But on the deck it was chilly and it was way early and now there were two solid hours of swimming to be done.

No one wants to know how hard you work in March. They just want to see the results come July, when the Olympic Games get underway in London. But this is when what happens this summer gets determined.

And perhaps no one is more determined than Jessica Hardy.

Four years ago, after the U.S. Trials, Jessica Hardy seemed on top of the swim world. She had qualified for the 2008 Beijing Games in four events: the 100-meter breaststroke, the 50 freestyle and two relays.

Then, though, she found out that she had tested positive for the banned substance clenbuterol.

Jessica and Dominik Meichtry, who went to grammar school in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and college at Berkeley and swims at the Olympics for the Swiss team -- his dad works in the airline business -- have been dating for six years now. She turns 25 this month; he is 27.

The day she found out, she called him; she was in Palo Alto, he in Berkeley; he borrowed a car from Dana Vollmer, another top-flight U.S. swimmer, and drove down to see Jessica; he was so distracted he got in a fender-bender. "It was just bad," he said.

They went to a hamburger place. They ordered. The food just sat there and got cold. He had to leave the next day, to go to a pre-Games training camp. He didn't know whether to go. Go, she said. He was so addled that he thought his flight leaving at 1 meant 1 in the afternoon; it had left 1 in the morning.

He explained the situation to the airport staff. They got him on another flight. He got to Singapore at 3 in the morning. Doping control officers, apparently suspicious, knowing his connection with Hardy, were there to meet him. "I was freaking out," he said.

Their phone bill that month, he said, was "skyrocketing." He said, "I remember one conversation between us was that I should swim," meaning at the Games. "She said I deserved to be there and I should swim for her, too, and be selfish about it.

"… She wanted me to do well and wanted something for the both of us."

He made the Olympic final in the 200 meters, finishing sixth.

Back home, meanwhile, Hardy was trying to sort out exactly what had happened. She and her team, including the immensely capable California-based lawyer Howard Jacobs, figured out that the clenbuterol had gotten into a dietary supplement she had been taking.

To make a long story short, the two-year suspension typical in even a first doping case was cut in half.

And then last year the International Olympic Committee announced that Hardy would be cleared to compete in London, assuming she qualifies at the U.S. Trials, which get underway in late June in Omaha.

The takeaway from all this: For sure Jessica Hardy tested positive. But she did not deliberately do anything wrong.

She is no cheater.

And in a weird way, getting suspended might have been the best thing to have ever happened to her.

"If you had asked me that in 2009," she said, "I would have punched you. I was so angry. But it has turned into that."

Because while she missed the 2008 Games -- perhaps 2012 is her time.

In her return to competition in 2009, she set three world records, two in the same race. That's angry.

"I started off being furious in my training because I was suspended. It was just -- train as hard as you can. I was doing too much too fast. It was just too much emotion. I felt like a bird in a cage when I should have been out soaring. It was almost reckless.

"Dave," meaning Dave Salo, at USC, the coach who has worked with Hardy for years now, "knew that was going to happen. So he only let me train two or three times in the water."

Over the years since, the trick has been to, as she put it, "find happiness."

She said, "I am doing well in both strokes in practice. I am extremely motivated. But not reckless. It's a calm motivation. When I am too motivated I spin out of control. I have too much explosiveness to hold the water. When I want things too much, it doesn't work. I have to be calm, strong and happy."

She added a moment later, "It's a mental thing. I am just really mentally strong. I want it. It has made me focus on the bigger picture than just now. Do I really want it and what does it mean to me?"

In the group she trains with at USC are, among others, Rebecca Soni and Yuliya Yefimova of Russia. At the 2011 swim world championships in Shanghai, they went 1-2-3 in the 50 breast: Hardy, Yefimova, Soni.

Of course the 50 is not an Olympic event. Soni is the Beijing 200 breast gold medalist and 100 silver medalist. Yefimona was just 16 in Beijing; she finished fourth there in the 100 and fifth in the 200.

Hardy is the world-record holder in the 100 breast. But she did not swim the event in Shanghai, taking as she put it, a "mental vacation" from it last year, part of the big-picture plan.

Which includes training at USC with a bunch of world-class men. Among them: Ricky Berens, who raced on the 800-meter free relay with Michael Phelps that won gold in Beijing and is, moreover, Soni's boyfriend; Dave Walters, who swam in the prelims in Beijing in that same relay and thus earned gold himself; and Ous Mellouli, the 1500 gold medalist in Beijing.

And, of course, Meichtry.

"What's really special about Jess," he said, while she listened, "is that any other person would have this anger inside them …

"It's a little scary for her competitors how calm she is. We obviously talk about London. Quite often. There are 140-something days left. But she really just takes one step at a time. She's not putting all this pressure on herself, saying, 'Oh, at the Trials everything has to go right.' That's what has changed. She has become a lot more calm person, a lot more grateful person over everything that has happened to her."

They looked at each other with obvious affection, a couple that had been through an enormous test of what each means to each other. She smiled at him. And he at her.

He said, "We make a great team."