Few school events could produce the excitement level that bubbled at Oak Grove Elementary Friday morning when paralympian Lex Gillette, a world record-holding long jumper, spent half his day with students of Ashley Anderson’s third-grade class.
Gillette, a San Diego resident who lost his sight at the age of 8, was both a real-life hero and a beloved friend to students who have been getting to know him since school began last fall.
A paralympian since age 16, Gillette has won a slew of medals competing around the world. He broke the world record for long jumping in 2011 and took home a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Paralympics and a gold from the 2017 world championships.
On Friday morning, however, he was simply a cool guy named Lex with mad jumping skills who compared favorite sports teams and loves video games and dogs.
A mentor under the Canadian-based Classroom Champions (www.classroomchampions.org), pairing classrooms with world-class Olympic or Paralympic athlete mentors, Gillette began the school year as a mentor for Anderson’s class.
Students and mentors exchange monthly videos — and sometimes chat via Skype — about important topics such as goal-setting, perseverance, diversity and healthy living.
Gillette’s mantra, posted on a wall in Anderson’s classroom, is “no need for sight when you have a vision.”
Gillette, who mentors classrooms in Oregon, Texas, Indiana and New Jersey, said it was heartwarming to be so warmly received by a classroom filled with lots of familiar voices.
“By the time we get to the big day where I get to physically come and meet all the kids, you’ve already learned so much about them and spent so much time doing the videos and heard all their voices. To get to be here in person and have this experience kind of brings the relationship full circle,” he said.
While students were curious about Gillette being blind, they were equally as curious about important life topics such as favorite foods, preferred video-game characters and the all-important “cats vs. dogs” debate.
A 33-year-old North Carolina native, Gillette said being able to relate to the students and teach them not to be held back by challenges or obstacles is a big focus of the mentor program.
“The awesome thing about kids is that they’re able to look past the situations that people may go through, like my blindness or whatnot, and see that ... we’re all really just human beings and we have a lot of things in common even though some things might be different. To be able to talk about having dogs or video games or favorite foods or favorite teams … those are all things we can relate to,” he said.
“Of course, they’re always really curious about living life without being able to see, and that’s understandable. Kids ask some really great questions and really funny ones, too, so it’s fun to be able to share.”
Nine-year-old Damian Horton said Gillette showed students that “even if something is hard, you can still be awesome.”
“Lex Gillette has helped us to think about what to do when we were having a hard time. He tells us to be brave, responsible and make healthy choices,” said the boy. “And he tells us about working hard and standing up for yourself.”
Dayane Estrada, 8, said it was fun to meet Gillette after learning about him all year.
“He taught us to be a good person in the world and to never give up and to make good choices,” she said.
While students enjoyed their classroom chat with Lex, recess was the peak of Friday excitement. Students clad in light blue Classroom Champions T-shirts mobbed the athlete when he walked outside, his 6-foot-1 frame towering over the mostly 8- and 9-year-olds eagerly offering him all the basketballs they could gather.
“OK, let’s shoot some hoops,” Gillette agreed.
One by one, students helped Gillette find the basket by hitting the backboard of the basketball hoop.
“Do it again,” he’d say.
“Get really quiet so I can hear where it’s at.”
After a handful of “almost” baskets, the ball swished through the net as students erupted in cheers.
Anderson said Gillette’s visit and his school-year mentorship had been both memorable and inspiring for students.
“There are times they may not hear what their parents are saying or what their teachers are saying, but to remember that he cares about their choices is a big deal,” Anderson said.
“I’ve heard kids say, ‘What would Lex tell us to do about this or that?’ Or, ‘How would Lex handle that?’ It’s someone they look up to who helps them realize they can be brave and get through tough times.”
Gillette said the gratitude for the relationships built were a two-way street.
“I get just as much, if not more, out of it. The athlete life is fun and it’s something I’m proud of, but to be able to have this outlet and be able to give back to the kids … it means a lot,” he said.
“I started losing my sight when I was 8 years old, and I remember how important it was to have someone there who could encourage you and give you a lot of guidance and advice and help you overcome those challenges. To be able to step into that role and kind of repay what was given to you as a kid … it’s like my fee for occupying a space on Earth. Being able to give something back.
“So many people invested into me and poured their lives into me,” he added. “We all want our kids to have a really great future and to go out there and be successful in accomplishing whatever they decide to do.”
For more information about Gillette, see http://lexgillette.com/