Children Take a Run at Their Own Olympics

Times Staff Writer

President Ronald Reagan sent a personal message, regretting he couldn’t attend.

But two 1984 U.S. Olympic celebrities were on hand.

Scores of youngsters mobbed one of them, gold medalist swimmer Mike O’Brien, of Costa Mesa, as he stood on the playing field of San Joaquin Elementary School in Laguna Hills on Friday.

Next to O’Brien stood assistant U.S. Olympic swim coach Mark Schubert, of Mission Viejo’s famed Nadadores swim team.


Following a recorded version of the Olympic theme song and a grade-school-sized re-enactment of the Olympic torch run, Schubert faced the scores of schoolchildren, parents and teachers. “I now declare these Junior Olympic Games open,” he said.

Flood of Memories

Thus began San Joaquin Elementary’s colorful version of Olympic competition. Parents said the pee-wee games invariably brought back a flood of memories from last summer’s real thing in Los Angeles. Children also said the junior games brought back memories--but not in all cases. First-graders noted that last summer they were, after all, only 5. And last summer was a long time ago, they said.

For those older than 6, however, the school’s Junior Olympics was a fine morning of nostalgia.


Champion swimmer O’Brien, for instance, brought back memories of his gold-medal winning triumph in the 1,500-meter freestyle in Los Angeles. Now a freshman at USC majoring in political science, the lanky, 19-year-old O’Brien grinned good-naturedly as queues of little boys stood in open-mouthed awe of the real Olympic gold medal O’Brien let them examine.

“It’s good to be here today,” O’Brien told the crowd via a loudspeaker. “This reminds me of the Opening Ceremonies last summer. I want to wish you all the best of luck. Now do your best.”

The children boisterously responded to the challenge.

From foot races to basketball tosses, the tiny Olympians competed with singular determination.


For instance, 6-year-old Casey Simmons, who appeared to be the shortest of the first-grade contenders in the broad jump, approached the mark with a serious expression. Throwing his arms in front of him, he jumped. A cheer rang out from his classmates.

“Casey Simmons has won the long jump,” announced parent-judge Judith Schlam Barbosa, after measuring the distance.

Simmons’ eyes became saucer-like. He turned to a nearby reporter and slapped a high-five. “I’m Number One!” enthused the new champ.

Later, Barbosa said Simmons’ feat was particularly noteworthy. “Here was the smallest showing he could jump the farthest,” she said. “He showed that where there’s a will, there’s a way.”


A few feet away, Jacob Sentak, 7, a bandanna sportily tied around his head as a sweat band, coolly eyed the basketball toss. The object was to throw the ball into a large plastic waste barrel about 10 feet away.

Three Buckets in a Row

Sentak’s classmates and co-competitors were virtual models of Olympic gentlemanly support. “Ooohhh,” they groaned in unison each time the ball barely missed the barrel. “Yeaaa!” they cheered as the first-grader hit three buckets in a row.

Sentak had a smile and a brief summation of his three-in-a-row triumph: “It felt good.”


An early double-medalist was second-grader Paul McClanahan, 8. Shortly after winning his grade-division in the broad jump, young McClanahan loped effortlessly to win the 50-yard dash. In true Olympic style, the youngster tossed up his arms and threw out his chest as he crossed the finish line. Eat your heart out, Bruce Jenner.

Meanwhile, in a nearby corner of the field, little girls lined up for the basketball toss, broad jump and other events.

Some of the girls earlier had beamed with pride as they took part in the Opening Ceremonies. For instance, fifth-grader Su Kim, 11, held the American flag with several classmates. She was proud to have this patriotic role, she said, because “America means peace.”

‘It’s an Honor’


Debbie Polin, 10, also in the fifth grade, added: “It’s an honor. The American flag means freedom.”

And yet another U.S. flag bearer, Janel Asbury, 11, said: “America is one of the countries where you have freedom, and you can do almost anything you want to.”

Preceding the parade of flags was the torch run, and the little Olympians had a 1984 real-life peer to lead the way. Erik Steenblock, 10, who had been officially sponsored to run a kilometerin the 1984 Olympic relay, brought his official torch. As the haunting Olympic music played over the loudspeaker, Steenblock raised the torch and proudly ran around the school’s sports field.

Just like the Los Angeles games, almost everything went off smoothly.


San Joaquin Elementary Principal Larry Callison occasionally had to race to a location to keep games or parades on schedule. “I guess Peter Ueberroth could be doing this better,” said Callison. “But somebody said, ‘Hey, Peter Ueberroth had a couple of million dollars to work with.’ ”

‘Highlight of School Year’

The school’s 1985 games coordinator was second-grade teacher Denise Schuler. “This is the highlight of our school year,” she said. “Even President Reagan sent us a letter and a photograph of himself after we wrote and invited him.”

She pointed to Reagan’s letter, now proudly mounted inside the school. “Dear Girls and Boys,” the President wrote. “I was delighted to receive the kind invitation to visit your school. One of the greatest joys of being President is meeting with students from across our nation. Unfortunately, my schedule does not often permit me this pleasure.”


As the games picked up in fervor, smiles appeared to be the uniform of the day.

Parent-judge Barbosa, looking over the lively scene, said, “You know, it seems very real. Especially with people like Mike O’Brien actually being here. It brings back a lot of memories. This is really great, and it makes me think you could only find something like this in California.

“Especially in Orange County.”