I have to admit that I was disappointed with the attendance at the running clinic that I organized this past Friday. I really thought that more individuals would be excited to take advantage of the once in a lifetime opportunity. After all, how often is somebody offered personalized (and free) instruction for a Paralympic gold medalist? Whether it was scheduling conflicts or weather issues, the attendance was certainly lower than I had hoped.
Despite being more "intimate" than anticipated, everybody seemed to get a lot out of the experience. Athletes of all abilities, from novice to more experienced runners, participated and learned from one of the best. Always guarded about the egos of many athletes, Heinrich Popow surprised me. He could not have been kinder or more generous with his time and talents. He instinctively tailored his instruction to the level of each participant, and pushed and encouraged each individual to achieve more than they thought possible. Standing on the sidelines watching everybody evolve was simply remarkable!
Towards the end of the clinic, I asked Heinrich if I could get a picture with him for my blog. He smiled, and then went to retrieve his backpack. Inside the front pocket he pulled out his gold medal from the London games. I was flabbergasted that he would keep something so rare in such a casual location. When I asked if he felt safe walking around with his medal, he smiled and said, "It's okay. I'll be getting another in a few years."
By the time we had all posed with his medal, local school children were filing onto the track for their recess. Their presence was our cue to wrap things up, but Heinrich had other plans. He asked me if I thought that the kids would like to see his medal, too. After I assured him that they would be interested, he took off sprinting towards the teacher on the other side of the field.
Within moments of his introductions, he was being swarmed by all of the elementary students. He took time to answer all of their questions, and although he was under no obligation, he let them pose for photos. He even played soccer with a few of the boys. I'm sure that meeting him and seeing the Paralympic gold medal was the highlight for many of those students.
Each day, you never really know who you might be meeting, changing or even inspiring. I'm sure that Heinrich anticipated helping other amputees learn to run. After all, that is why he was coming to our intimate event. But I doubt that he knew that he was going to impress scores of school children.
Simply by sharing a few moments, I'm certain he changed many notions that these children might have held about individuals with disabilities. Although he is an above-knee amputee, he demonstrated that he could run, play soccer and achieve the pinnacle of his career. I have no doubt that many of these school children will be changed because of this brief encounter.