Dozens of students from Mesa Verde Elementary School can now say they know what it feels like to hold an Olympic bronze medal.
On Feb. 27, Michael Bates, widely known for his accolades as a former University of Arizona athlete, 11-year veteran of the NFL, and Olympic sprinter, visited the very school district in which he was educated.
A graduate of Amphitheater High School, Bates shared more than his bronze medal with the students of Anne Wheaton’s physical education class at Mesa Verde. He also offered some advice and ran basic drills with them to help the students prepare for an upcoming track meet.
“I was real excited meeting Michael Bates,” said fourth-grader Chase Cassel. “It was really cool to see his medal and touch it – it was unbelievable.”
Cassel was one of many students who gladly accepted any advice he could get from the renowned athlete.
“I learned how to fire off hard and to use my hands (when running),” said Cassel.
In his time, Bates, who lives in Oro Valley and contributes regularly to the school athletic programs in the area, specialized in the 200-meter dash, accomplishing a personal best time of 20.01 seconds at the 1992 Olympic trials, where he beat out famous sprinter Carl Lewis to make the U.S. Olympic team. Bates would eventually place third in the Barcelona Olympics with a time of 20.38 to earn his bronze medal.
As an NFL player, Bates was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks, but spent the majority of his career playing for the Carolina Panthers, where he managed 9,110 total yards in kick returns and five kick-return touchdowns, just one shy of tying the NFL record.
“It’s great to be able to come out here and pass on my knowledge to these kids,” said Bates.
Given the extent of his accomplishments, it was an absolute blessing when school staff found out Bates had agreed to pay a visit.
“I think it’s really important to have some experts come and support the kids’ learning,” said Wheaton, who was referred to Bates by former Canyon Del Oro High School sprint coach LaTanya Sheffield, also a former track and field Olympian.
Sheffield regularly visited Mesa Verde’s physical education classes until she moved to California for occupational reasons.
“LaTanya referred me to Michael, and him being interested in youth and supporting fitness and having the expertise, we chatted on the phone and he made it out here,” said Wheaton.
As with Sheffield, Wheaton expects the impact of Bates’ visit to serve as a lasting inspiration to at least a few of her students.
“Out of this handful of 64 kids there will be one or two of them that, from this experience, you’ll see them running in high school and maybe even college,” she said. “It all starts right here. If you get them enthusiastic about it in elementary school, they will continue to pursue it throughout their lifetime.”
Despite his numerous achievements, Bates himself hasn’t forgotten what it felt like to look up to someone as a young man.
“I remember when I was a kid and former athletes would come speak, I’ve always told myself that is something I would do,” said Bates.
In addition to the basic track and field skills taught, Bates hopes another theme resounds with the students of Mesa Verde Elementary from the visit.
“Have fun,” said Bates. “If you find a love for track, get involved and stay active. Half these kids weren’t even born when I did what I did, but if I can reach them and get them happy and excited, that’s a great feeling. Maybe some of these kids will say, ‘I might want to run track because Michael Bates came and spoke with me.’ That’s what it’s all about.”