Editor’s note: This story has been changed to add the name of K-Beach fourth grade teacher and decathlon co-organizer Darcy Marcou.
After a final summer month spent watching the Rio De Janeiro Olympics, Kalifornsky Beach Elementary’s 49 fourth graders returned to school with a decathalon of athletic events planned by fourth grade teachers Jason Daniels and Darcy Marcou.
“I wanted to get the kids to bond as fast as possible and really know what it is to work as a team this year,” Daniels said, explaining his goal for the games. “And I thought ‘The Olympics just happened this year.’ They are already familiar with the Olympics because they’ve been watching it. Why not have a decathlon?”
In 2012, the year of the previous Olympics in London, Daniels was an exchange teacher at a school in Australia. He said classes at his Australian school recognized the Olympics by holding competitions of their own, and this year he decided to import the idea.
“Really, what it’s doing is setting the tone for the rest of the year,” Daniels said. “This group has bonded with that familiar experience, and it’s going to make for a great year.”
The Olympic decathlon has ten events performed in two days: four footraces, long and high jumps, pole vaulting, discus and javelin throwing, and shot put.
The K-Beach 4th graders tossed a frisbee rather than a discus for distance and accuracy. Their other events don’t resemble the traditional decathlon, but were chosen by Daniels to exercise a mix of team and personal skill.
“Some of the events require them to use to use team work,” Daniels said. “Others require them to use individual responsibility and effort.”
Doing two events each day, the students started Monday with a kickball game, then competed in tug-of-war, soccer ball and basketball dribbling races, and a baton relay. On Friday they concluded with a second kickball game.
Asked what events had been favorites, Daniels named tug-of-war.
“It was girls against boys,” Daniels said. “The girls won, but in all fairness there’s more girls than boys. Actually, that came up as a real issue, a sticking point that created a real discussion. They talked about fairness. But then it turned into a talk about making the other team feel bad. Mostly, to be honest, it was the boys who had the problem because they had less kids. They were not saying kind things.”
The class followed every event with a discussion, Daniels said.
“What was difficult about it?” Daniels said, giving examples of questions he asked the students after events. “Was there any easy things about it? Did you encourage others? We make them think about what it was during that time, what helped us become a better team?”
Before heading out to the kickball field, the fourth graders chatted on Friday with a decathlete who has competed in larger venues. Bryan Clay — silver medalist in the 2004 Athens Olympics, gold medalist in Bejing in 2008, and world decathlon champion in the 2005 International Association of Athletics Federation competition — spoke to the class by Skype from California.
K-Beach Elementary behavioral interventionist Janae Van Slyke had gone to church with Clay’s wife in Washington. After learning about the fourth grade decathlon, she got in touch with Clay and invited him to Skype with the students.
Clay said it was possible for the fourth graders to do anything they dreamed of doing, using his own childhood in Hawaii as an example.
“The reason I know it’s possible for you is that I’ve been able to do it myself,” Clay said. “And if I can do it — coming from some of the same background as some of you and dealing with some of the same things you guys have to deal with — I know for a fact any of you can it as well.”
Clay said he had first wanted to become an Olympian after seeing the Olympics at the age of eight.
“I was watching the Olympics with my mom and dad, and I said ‘Mom, that’s what I want to do when I get older,’” Clay said. But I didn’t get started in track and field right away.”
Instead, he said his training was delayed until he was 12 because of financial problems and his parents’ divorce. A student asked Clay if he’d ever been in foster care. He hadn’t, but added “I’ve dealt with some crazy things.” Christianity and church support, he said, helped him through a difficult youth.
One girl asked why he’d wanted to be in the Olympics.
“I wanted to be in the Olympics because I loved the idea that you were down in the bottom of a stadium with thousands of thousands of people, and when you competed, they were all watching you,” Clay said. “I liked that attention of it, and if you won, you got a gold medal which was really cool, and you got to be on T.V. That was fun. And I thought it was really cool to be able to say you were one of the best in the world. I loved the idea of being the best in the world, so I went ahead and did that.”
The competition brought stress, too, Clay said.
“I had not just my family — because I had to put food on the table for my kids, that’s how I made money — but I had the college I went to (Azusa Pacific College in California) expecting me to win, the state of Hawaii and my parents were expecting me to win,” Clay said. “And not just them, but the entire United States was expecting me to win. The whole world expected me to win. You only get one chance every two years. If I didn’t win in 2008, I probably wouldn’t have another chance to win a gold medal.”
Asked if he was going to be in the next Olympics, 36 year old Clay — who did not compete in the Rio Olympics — said he’s retired from Olympic competition because he’s “getting old.” These days he works as a motivational speaker and promotes his philanthropic Bryan Clay Foundation, according to his website Bryanclay.com
“My body doesn’t quite recover the way it used to,” Clay said. “I’m probably as old as some of your parents.”
After the questions began to slow, Clay reached into a bag he was carrying and pulled out his gold medal from Bejing and silver medal from Athens. Some students gasped and applauded.
He turned the gold medal around to show it was backed with white jade (every host country customizes the reverse side of their medals). Displaying the front side, he gave the students a lesson in Greek mythology: the winged figure on pictured on the medal isn’t an angel — as some students guessed — but Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.
Thrilled as they were by Clay’s medals, the fourth graders won’t be getting any of their own from their decathlon.
“We talked about that,” Daniels said. “What are we getting out of this? Why are we doing it? The kids hopefully understand that the real medals — the real reward at the end — is we become better people.”
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.