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Former Olympian teaches fitness to South L.A. students

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Two-time Olympian Tasha Danvers has a boundless exuberance that is contagious. Students and faculty at 49th Street Elementary School can attest to that.

Danvers’ youthful appearance belies the 40 years she has been on this earth.

The former USC track and field star bounces and prances around the unforgiving cement pavement at the school like someone half her age as she barks out instructions to her wide-eyed, eager pupils. The fifth-grade students adapt to Danvers’ high energy as she whips them into the motion of physical activity.

She starts them off with two warm-up laps. Then it’s down to the business of doing fluid stretching before they engage in other exercise activities.

“This kind of thing I’ve done since I can remember, working with kids,” Danvers said. “I particularly have a love for this age group because they’re still so eager to learn and have fun, and I’m a big kid myself. I am originally from England, so when I was in England, I did a lot of things for academies. … This is just who I am, basically.”

That’s the nature of her appearance at the school, which she has done for the past couple of years. Push-ups, sit-ups, relay races and other activities grip the playground for 30 minutes or more as Danvers leads one group of fifth-graders after another in this near year-long preparation for the state’s mandated FitnessGram physical fitness evaluation.

Danvers’ goal, as well as other Olympians and Paralympians who are part of the Ready, Set, Gold! program, is to work with these students to help them pass their state physical fitness requirements. California students in the fifth, seventh and ninth grades are required to take the annual test.

“With this age group, I really just try to focus a lot on them having fun and understanding that exercise doesn’t have to be this drag,” Danvers said. “This generation has a different outlook on exercise. If it’s not with their thumbs or on the phone, something of that nature, some of them don’t want to participate in it.

“I am trying to show them that exercise doesn’t have to be this drill sergeant thing where you’re bored to tears and want to scratch your eyeballs out. It’s fun, it can be fun and it can be whatever you want to make it be.”

Former Olympian Tasha Danvers works on the sit-up form of a student at 49th Street Elementary School in South Los Angeles. Danvers is working with the students as they prepare to take the state physical fitness tests later this year. (Photo by Dennis J. Freeman)

The Ready, Set, Gold! program, which is in 55 Los Angeles Unified School District schools, was originally formed in 2006 to tackle childhood obesity and added as a bid to help the city in its quest to host the 2016 Olympics. While Los Angeles saw its bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games go to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, the good of the Ready, Set, Gold! program has not been lost.

The idea of promoting eating healthy, getting enough exercise and promoting overall wellness to young students is getting great traction through Olympians like Danvers, who won a bronze medal for England in the 400-meter hurdles in the 2008 Olympics at Beijing.

Maria Rosas, principal at 49th Elementary School, said what Danvers and the Ready, Set, Gold! program has done for her students is wonderful.

“I think that this program … in this community, is highly, highly important,” Rosas said. “We don’t have that many community services that offer sports that a lot of other communities that I’m familiar with have. Having Ready, Set, Gold! here really helps to teach children that they can be active, not just through playing sports in the park, but really just at home or with their parents.

“This here is an excellent role model for my students. Having an Olympian is just cherry on the top. We’ve been very lucky to have Tasha. Everyone we’ve had has been very engaging and very positive.”

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