Feb. 22, 2014 -- When U.S. luger Erin Hamlin cruised past the finish line at Sochi to earn her bronze medal, she gained national attention as the first American to take home a medal in the singles event since it began 50 years go.
But to a second-grade class of students at Fair Street Elementary in Gainesville, Ga., Hamlin was already a familiar face, and a mentor.
"They were so excited they were losing it," English teacher Michelle Daily said. "We only got to watch her in the first round and then we had that winter storm that cancelled school. But when we got back it was all they could talk about."
The students had come to know Hamlin through her multiple monthly visits to the classroom through a computer screen. She gave lectures on perseverance, fair play and goal setting and would meet directly with the class through online video chats.
"They've really been following me along on this journey," Hamlin said. "When I finally got that bronze medal and we had a Google Hangout session the week after, it felt great to hear them cheering. This is what I had been talking about with them since August."
Hamlin is just one of 21 full time Olympic and Paralympic athletes volunteering for the nonprofit group Classroom Champions. Each athlete "adopts" three to 10 classrooms from schools in districts with high poverty levels to work with for an entire year.
The program is currently serving 60 schools in the U.S., Canada and Costa Rica.
"We have consistently seen measurable qualitative and quantitative improvements in classroom performance, along with an increase in digital literacy," Classroom Champions president and CEO Steve Mesler said.
As a three-time Olympian, Mesler has a story similar to Hamlin's. He took home the first U.S. gold medal in bobsledding in 62 years at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
By then he had already enlisted his sister to help him start the Classroom Champions program, using some of the connections he had made at past Olympics to enlist fellow athletes looking to inspire younger generations.
"You'll see athletes go on school visits and sign some autographs, but most of the time they'll never see those kids again," Mesler said. "Olympians do mostly nothing but train in order to compete, and they want to see results. What this program offers athletes is a chance to repeatedly work with these kids through technology, and then they get to see the results."
Daily teaches in a school where about 88 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
"The impact that Erin has had on their lives is incredible," Daily said. "It exposes students to a real person and model that has overcome substantial struggles to achieve great things. They rejoice in her successes and even watch her failures and when she experiences bumps along the way."
Hamlin, 27, is familiar with hurdles. She was a favorite to medal in the 2010 Olympics after winning the 2009 world championship, but wound up finishing 16th.
"I try and relate the struggles I have had to what many of them are going through," Hamlin said. "I've been doing this for so long and it often felt like I wouldn't get to this point. They're still young enough to where if you can really reach them they can understand their circumstances don't have to hold them back."
"You see it in their faces, the desire to be better," Daily said.
She has been involved in the program since its inception five years ago. She said the athletes have even inspired her students to hold fundraisers and raise hundreds of dollars for construction projects in Rwanda and South Sudan.
Mesler said he's reaching out to more athletes and corporate sponsors every year, with a goal of putting athlete mentors like Hamlin in more than 1,000 classrooms across the world.
"Most people love Erin Hamlin now just because of what she did," Mesler said. "These kids love her for who she is."