Gary Hall Jr., an outspoken athlete who has never been shy about providing his opinion, thought he had heard it all when it came to questions about his record-setting swim career.


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Leave it to an elementary school student to catch the 10-time Olympic medalist off-guard.

Hall, who won five gold, three silver and two bronze medals as a U.S. Swimmer in the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Games, spoke to a group of about 100 students on April 16 at Los Olivos Elementary School. The presentation was in conjunction with the World Fit Foundation, a national non-profit that utilizes athletes to spread fitness and healthy living habits to school children across the country.

After a brief discussion with the children at Los Olivos, Hall began taking questions from the students, who passed around and got an up-close look at one of his gold medals from the 2004 Athens Olympics. After being asked about his Olympic experiences and if he had ever beaten Michael Phelps in a race – “Yes, I am one of the few people that can say I beat Michael Phelps” was his answer – a student caught him by surprise with a simple question: “What brand of swimsuit do you wear?”

Hall spent a few seconds trying to decide why the question was asked before just giving up and answering (he wears Arena, in case you were curious).

“That was one of the weirder questions I’ve gotten,” he said afterward with a laugh. While the discussion, which took part under a shielded overhang on a hot afternoon between the school’s playground and sports fields, was generally fun and laid back, Hall’s message was an important one. His father and fellow U.S. Olympian, Gary Hall Sr., helped start the World Fit Challenge to push forward the group’s mission to promote health and curb childhood obesity. Through the challenge, students chart their exercises and distances that they walked or ran and the results are tallied online – at the group’s site, www.worldfit.org – and ranked against other participating schools throughout the country.

Hall Jr. began his discussion by asking the kids to list the benefits of healthy eating and exercise. The responses included “You don’t get fat,” “You get stronger and more confident,” and “You live longer.” After the students ran out of responses, Hall informed the kids that they left out one of the most important reasons: because it’s fun. “That’s why we take part in sports,” he said.

Among other habits, Hall also encouraged the students to set goals for themselves and take the small steps to achieve those goals.

“Small steps take us to great places,” he told the crowd, referencing climbing a mountain. “If you take small steps and know what you want, exponential things can happen.”

Hall, who retired from competitive swimming in 2008 and now works as a consultant with Platinum Performance in Buellton, was joined by co-worker Erin Kelley, a dietician and nutritionist at Platinum Performance.

Kelley, introduced by Hall as an Olympian of nutrition, talked about the benefits of eating right and how food affects the body. She stressed the importance of breakfast and other healthy habits and how they can make you feel better throughout the day.

“It’s something you have to do regularly every day and it gets easier,” she said of proper nutrition.

Hall, who was diagnosed with Type I diabetes during the height of his swim career in 1999, has been an advocate for preventative healthcare and overall health for more than a decade. He said he’s enjoyed traveling to schools around the country with fellow Olympians and encouraging children through the World Fit program.

“All these Olympians who participate have an incredible story to tell,” he said. “There’s such a diverse range of backgrounds and upbringings and that’s what the premise of the program is built upon: Let’s activate these people in their home communities. If you’re going to organize and form a cohesive group among Olympians, what better focus than childhood obesity? These are experts in exercise.”

While Hall’s background and accomplishments are usually enough to earn the respect of the children he is speaking to, he admits that it’s nice to have the medals with him. He said he doesn’t often wear any of his Olympic jewelry – or even his Team USA gear – but the medals, which vary in size and weight depending on which year’s Games they are from, usually get a reaction from the audience.

“To hold a big chunk of gold the size of your fist is kind of neat,” he said. “And the kids do respond to it.”

willis@syvjournal.com