Haley Johnson: “Creating Those Right Connections”

Chelsea LittleJanuary 13, 2011
2010 Olympian Haley Johnson talking to kids at the Lake Placid Elementary School. Photo: Matt Young.

As the SuperTour heads to Lake Placid, the ski community can learn a lot if it just takes a minute to look around.

Two-time winter Olympic venue? Check.

A love of sports bordering on the insane? Check.

More snow than Rumford? Check.

But one of the best lessons might be about giving back to the community. Olympic biathlete Haley Johnson, who was born and raised in the Lake Placid area, returned to her hometown after stints at Bates College and the Maine Winter Sports Center. Johnson has been helping more kids get involved with skiing and biathlon in Lake Placid, as well as visiting an elementary school gym class to promote two causes she holds dear: healthy living and good nutrition for children.

Lake Placid gym teacher Matt Young has worked closely with Johnson in many of her projects.

“Haley is extremely unique in the sense she is an international level athlete that is intrinsically motivated to work with children to promote skiing,” Young told FasterSkier. “For example, last March she came here to school to ski on our field with the kids exactly seven hours off the plane from Vancouver. Needless to say I was impressed.

“Haley sees the big picture. Her experiences with the kids are about more than just her success, or her biathlon career. Every single time she comes in to school the kids walk away with a new or different idea about how skiing can contribute to a healthy lifestyle. Our ultimate goal is to promote lifelong physical activity.”

FasterSkier talked with Johnson in late December about her community work and how other athletes can do the best work on their chosen issues.

FasterSkier: How did you decide that working with school kids was going to be the best way to accomplish all of the things that you think are important?

Johnson skiing with kids in Lake Placid after the Vancouver Olympics. Photo: Matt Young.

Haley Johnson: It actually came from working with kids first, to develop some of those ideas.

I definitely attribute my time at the Maine Winter Sports Center with that, because there I really learned the value of socially responsible skiing.  I was there when MWSC was fairly new, and so I was part of some integral projects and programs which worked really hard to get schoolchildren involved in the local ski community – and get other community members involved, too. One of their strategies for when a big event, like a World Cup or Junior World Championships for biathlon would come to the County, was that they knew that it was hard to convince all the adults. But if they could spread the information to kids, then it was also a really easy way to teach people about these sports.

So it’s really as basic as that. I think I started to develop interests in kids and nutrition and the environment, and continued to stick with starting with kids first.

FS: So what are some of the things you’ve talked to them about in Lake Placid?

HJ: Right now I’m working with a fourth and a fifth grade gym class. This fall I was able to visit them a couple of times.

One time I was asked to talk about altitude training. I was in Canmore, Canada, which isn’t very high, but it’s kind of medium altitude for us and you can feel the difference a little bit. So the gym teacher wanted me to talk to them a little bit about that. But I realized that altitude training is not terribly exciting to talk about, and I also only had 15 minutes with each class. So I hammered out this little diagram on their whiteboard: I drew Canmore at something like 4500 feet, and Lake Placid is 1800 feet, and our highest mountain in the Adirondacks is just over 5000, and then Whiteface, which you can see right from town, is 4800. From their window they could see Little Whiteface, and Little Whiteface is basically the same elevation I was at in Canmore. So I gave them a local reference guide to be able to understand what I was talking about.

Playing in gym class. Photo: Matt Young.

And then, I tried not to go into training because I’d totally lose them. So the next thing I did was I had them do jumping jacks while only breathing through a straw. I stole that trick from Kate Whitcomb, who would do it with her kids when she was student teaching at Middlebury. And it worked perfectly – kids were turning red in the face, and they started to get that it’s a little bit different when you don’t have as much oxygen.

I used that to start talking about the youngest kid who has climbed Everest. And that really got them talking because the kid is only 13 I think, just a little older than them. So it started this great conversation about hiking the Adirondacks, and Everest, and I talked about the first blind man who climbed Everest, and all of these different challenges that it poses. And then the bell rang!

So that was one of the most recent full-on conversations. Other than that I try to just really connect with what I’m going through in my ski life. So for example I did talk to them about not making my original goal of the December World Cups, because I was curious about what they would say. So I posed it as a question. I said, it’s similar to when you don’t do so well on a test, so what do you do when you’re not so psyched, how do you feel and what do you do next? And they were awesome, they came out with such great answers, like yeah, I feel depressed, I feel sad, but then I try to learn from my mistakes and I study harder for the next one. It was great to see that the skills that they already had matched a life experience that I was going through, to show them that they already have what they need to tackle not just messing up on a test, but these other challenges later on in life.

And then I join them for whatever they are playing in gym, so it works out pretty well.

FS: After a session like that, what do you hope that the kids come away with?

HJ: I really enjoy getting their positive momentum going. Because one of the coolest things is seeing kids have that Eureka moment, where you see that they’re getting what you’re talking about. So I really want them to have that moment where they realize that they can do it, too. That’s one of the things that the gym teacher and I always try to hit home, that I came from the same place and did the same stuff, went to the same school, had the same teachers, and look what I’ve been able to do. There’s no reason that they can’t aspire to something as great later on in life, too. So just knowing that they can do it is kind of the main point.

Johnson with a young skier in Lake Placid. Photo: Matt Young.

FS: Obviously you’re not thinking of retiring any time soon, but do you think you’ll keep working with kids? It seems like it’s really rewarding for you.

HJ: Yeah, I would definitely like to keep working with them in meaningful ways. I don’t think I’ll teach. But I’m actually interested in working with some of the adaptive programs that are starting to pop up. I think that might be a neat way to keep working with the same interests and skill sets later on. Because I’ll never not ski! So I can combine those two.

FS: I know you’re interested in the environment, too. Are you also doing things in the community with climate change?

HJ: I’ve tried, but I admit that I don’t really have anything terribly exciting to report. It’s tough, because I would really like to. I try to keep in touch with the people who are being really influential in my community in terms of educating kids and the community about climate change and the environment. But I feel like I would spread myself too thin. That’s why I’m just working with one class, and one school, and one teacher. I really value the consistency of that connection. I don’t want to be a one-time hit or just have my name on a piece of paper involved with it. I’ve had to rein myself in a little bit and stay focused on one project where I know I can really follow through and stay connected.

FS: It’s obviously a big time commitment, and an energy commitment, but do you think it adds something to your life as an athlete and your training and motivation?

HJ: Oh, completely. There’s nothing better than talking to little kids about a mistake you made and how to fix it afterwards – they gave some of the best advice of just moving on and looking forward to the next opportunity. And when you hear it from such a clear perspective of a kid, it’s a pretty good reality check.

But no, I don’t see it taking away from me at all. If anything I’m grateful that some of these clubs and classrooms and communities and teachers have let me just jump in to what they’re doing and spread my ideas about teaching kids how to ski and enjoy living in a northern environment.

FS: I also wanted to hear about how you met Michelle Obama this summer.

HJ: Oh yeah! Well, I actually didn’t do anything. I did meet her, and I was so starstruck that I didn’t even introduce myself. All I could say was “it is very wonderful to meet you.” That was it, and then I got a hug from her.

FS: Lucky you!

HJ: Exactly.

I’m really interested in her program, Let’s Move, and I get little e-mail bulletins from them. I think it’s really interesting some of the improvement that they’ve been able to implement since she started the program in April. Simple things, like there was recently a nutrition act passed which enabled more federal money to go into school breakfast and lunch programs, where even a few cents helps tremendously with the quality of food that comes through the school systems. And then her initiatives to not only get kids moving but she’s connected with clubs like the Sierra Club, which had a Get Outside Day. So she’s really pulling together some of the national programs which already exist and put them under one umbrella to fulfill her goal of reducing childhood obesity in the next generation, because of what an epidemic and a crisis it’s become, not even just with kids but throughout our entire country.

All of that ties together with the things I’m really interested in. Maybe someday I’ll do something more with it, but right now I just kind of learn from it.

FS: What advice do you have for other athletes who want to make a difference in the community, no matter what their issue is that they are passionate about?

HJ: Probably the best thing is to keep it local and start from there first. I think creating your network is really important, and creating those right connections with the right people. And then the other thing is having those experiences yourself that really affirm what you’re doing, whether it’s a Bill Koch League lesson that you’re able to be a part of, or getting into a classroom. It’s important to seek out those moments that really give you the motivation to continue helping your local community.

Chelsea Little

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