Jordan Mara, a former Arizona cross country and track and field runner, started running track as a wide-eyed, Canadian fifth grader. Seniors in high school shared the track with young Mara and sped by the novice at seemingly impossible speeds.
"I thought 'there's no way these are real humans' at the time," Mara said.
Eventually, Mara reached his last year of high school and was training at extraordinary speeds with some of the athletes he was once stupefied by.
The impact elite athletes have on children is profound. And we learn, the impact children have on the elite athlete is equally powerful. But elite athletes can become so caught up in enhancing their game that they miss out on these enlightening encounters with impressionable kids.
The University of Arizona track and field team created an event called Track and Field Day to reach out to the Tucson community and introduce elementary-aged children to a dynamic sport.
Track and Field Day was the brainchild of Mara, who was the Student-Athlete Advisory Council's president and a team captain of the track team his senior year in 2011. The event was the track team's way to give back during a week in which student-athletes from all sports serve the community. The week of outreach was dubbed Cats Give Back Week.
Courtney Anthony, assistant director of community relations, oversaw the week of outreach, which takes place during the first week of the spring semester.
"The whole goal is to make a statement and start the semester on a good note," Anthony said.
Cats Give Back Week just celebrated its third year, and it has accomplished Anthony's goal and more according to student-athlete participants.
Mara saw Track and Field Day as a "phenomenal opportunity" to make an impact.
"Growing up as an athlete you don't realize how many hours others have put into you without receiving anything in return," Mara said. So helping motivate kids get involved in sports and stay in school is an opportunity Mara views as paying forward the time others poured into him.
Some of the specific themes of Track and Field Day are physical fitness and explaining the many events that make up track and field. "But the main message is, ultimately athletes are students," Anthony said.
This message has resounding significance for kids interested in athletics or not. The message brings elite athletes back down to Earth, so kids don't think as Mara did – that elite athletes are immortal, invincible and certainly not something a fifth grader can become.
Anthony recently fell across a gymnastics poster she had received in second grade. The gymnasts on that poster had inspired her enough to hang on to that souvenir for more than 15 years.
Director of cross country and track and field, Fred Harvey, is a big proponent of community service for good reason.
"From my days of being a kid in an underprivileged area, if I didn't have somebody to step up and give me an opportunity, there's no telling where I would be at this point in my life," Harvey said. "It wasn't just a mom or a dad in your home, it was people outside of the home willing to put in time with little league baseball and Pop Warner football ."
This year Track and Field Day connected second graders to some of the best athletes in the world on a human level. The entire track team of 60 athletes divided the track and field events into five stations to explain their sport to the energetic bunch. Since the entire track and field team participated, there were enough athletes to work one on one with each kid.
By the end of the day, the second graders from Wildcat Elementary School (coincidentally chosen) had learned how to explode out of a starting block, launch a softball to mimic the javelin throw, and exchange relay batons with Arizona runners. But more significantly they learned that college athletes are real people they can interact with and strive to be like.
Harvey believes this day gives kids hope.
"Every kid in Tucson is not going to college but we if we can put as many as we can on our campus and show them they have a chance...if we get one additional person that makes that decision in their life, that's huge to me," Harvey said.
Track and field has an interesting composite of athletes, which was another lesson valuable to elementary athletes or kids who do not see athletic potential in themselves.
"We have 200-pound throwers and 110-pound distance runners," Mara said. "Regardless of your body makeup, track and field allows you to find your own event."
Track and field has a place for everyone and maybe it's this open-arms vibe that makes the group one of the most involved teams at the UA.
During the 2010-11 season, the men's and women's track and field programs had a combined total of 377 hours of service.
Is there more of a will to give back in the track athletes? Mara does not think so but theorizes that it's because track and field athletes are used to getting things done themselves.
"Track and field athletes are never given the limelight," Mara said. "We're not used to being pampered. The resources aren't always in place for us."
The track team is used to taking initiative and getting it done. They don't have an academic patrol that follows them to class to make sure they are present and meeting the minimum requirements to stay eligible.
During the 2010-11 school year, 46 Wildcat student-athletes were recognized for achieving a 3.0 or higher cumulative GPA and for logging 10 or more community service hours.
Nine of those student-athletes or 20 percent of those 46 were members of the cross country and track and field teams. That's an impressive number when you consider the 17 other sports teams on campus, some of which have no representatives on that list.
Harvey will not take credit for his pupils' community involvement. "But I try to do as many things as I can for them and for the community to try to lead by example," Harvey said.
Harvey seems to have had an impression and is proud of his student-athletes for developing Track and Field Day, which he says is "totally their baby."
The Track and Field Day is a service to children and student-athletes alike. The athletes have to verbalize and demonstrate the proper technique of their event, which is a fantastic learning tool and one of Harvey's favorite things about the team's service day.
"It can make them a much better athlete because they're teaching people the skills that I'm trying to emphasize with them," Harvey said.
Track and field skill reinforcement is wonderful but showing elementary-aged kids that you do not have to be a superhuman to make big things happen in life is something that these kids will never forget.
"It's community that shapes what we're going to be here in society," Harvey said. "A ton of highly intelligent, athletic, beautiful people can have a great influence on folks."