OnCentral | Reporting on health and quality of life in South LA

SoCal Olympians mentor LA students to encourage fitness, health

A class of fifth graders prepares for their physical fitness exam.
A class of fifth graders prepares for their physical fitness exam.
Grant Slater/KPCC

While Olympians fight for the gold medal at prestigious international events, California kids are working to pass their own mandated fitness tests at schools throughout the state. These two groups come together in a program called Ready, Set, Gold!

The mentoring system brings together Olympians and Paralympians with Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) students to encourage kids to be healthy and physically active. It also helps prepare them for the California Fitnessgram, a standardized test that evaluates the physical fitness of 5th, 7th and 9th graders.

David Brinton is an Olympic cyclist who has been participating in the Ready, Set, Gold! program for five years. Earlier this month, he was at Hooper Avenue Elementary in South L.A. to cheer on students as they took their Fitnessgram test.

Brinton competed in the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul and still competes in professional events. When he's on the schoolyard, he's focused on encouraging kids to get out of their comfort zones.

"My message specifically out here is not about getting as many kids to pass this test as possible, but set personal bests and personal records," said Brinton.

In the Fitnessgram, kids are required to do push-ups, sit-ups, a mile run and other physical tests. In addition to preparing them for the test, Brinton said he uses his time with the students to encourage them to be physically active because every pro athlete has to start somewhere.

Ready, Set, Gold! began in 2006 as part of L.A.'s bid for the 2016 Olympics. The city didn't win the Olympics, but the program stuck and now has 42 Olympians working with students throughout Southern California.

Ready, Set, Gold! is a public-private partnership between the LAUSD and the Southern California Committee of Olympic Games (SCCOG) with financial contributions from Samsung. According to the organization's website, there are more than 800 Olympians and Paralympians in Southern California—which means there are many opportunities to expand the program.

“Southern California is a hot-bed for Olympians,” said the organization's publicist Mark Meyers.

He said that although the program could exist elsewhere, it wouldn't work to the extent it does in SoCal. 

And California kids need the help. According to 2011-2012 statistics from the California Department of Education, only 19 percent of LAUSD fifth graders passed all six portions of the Fitnessgram test.

While a majority were proficient at upper body and abdominal strength tests, it was the cardio that often posed the most problems for kids.

Ready, Set, Gold! was created in part to help tackle childhood obesity and diabetes while encouraging exercise and healthy choices. Although it's too early to know whether a few training sessions with an Olympian will alter the kids' physical fitness in the long run, Ready, Set, Gold! officials say their mentoring system is showing immediate results.

In 2009, a study found a 41 percent increase in the number of students scoring in the “healthy fitness zone” of the Fitnessgram, among the 29 LAUSD schools that have participated in the program for the previous three years.

Brinton said many students he's worked with have been especially enthusiastic in recent months after watching the Olympics last year and then getting to meet an Olympian in real life. This momentum may only continue as L.A. puts in its bid for the 2024 Olympics.