When Canada’s Olympic athletes head into competition at the 2021 Summer Games in Tokyo, thousands of young Canadian will be cheering them on with extra enthusiasm.

That’s thanks to Olympic connections made in the classroom, as part of an international program that started in Calgary.

The program is called Classroom Champions, set up by Olympic bobsledder Steve Mesler.

Mesler competed in three Winter Games, winning a gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.

Mesler is originally from the U.S. and was part of the American Olympic team, but he’s lived in Calgary since 2003, while doing year-round training at Winsport, on the western outskirts of the city.

Mesler set up Classroom Champions in 2009, organizing in-person and virtual visits to schools by Olympians and other top-level athletes.

“The mission of the organization is to empower kids — socially, emotionally and academically,” Mesler said.

Educators say students gain significant benefits from the program.

“They see athletes teaching about perseverance, trying hard, setting goals and really working on yourself and how you can be a better person,” Grade 3 teacher Kelsey Fraser said.

“These are all values and teachings that these kids can take with them into their lives in the future.”

The program has grown significantly in recent years, with athletes now connecting with 100,000 students all over North America.

“Every single kid in Calgary should be learning from our Team Canada athletes,” Mesler said.

One of those athletes is Alysia Rissling, a bobsledder who competed at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Rissling has been participating in Classroom Champions for the past four years.

“(Students) can learn from my experiences and some of the mistakes and hard lessons I’ve had to learn and it can help them grow,” Rissling said.

“If anything, it just offers some hope and reassurance.”

Rissling is hoping to again represent Canada at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, already feeling like a winner as part of the Classroom Champions program.

“It really makes a difference,” Rissling said. “And I’m so proud to be a part of it.”

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