Sometimes you can go back. It just helps if you’ve recently won a silver medal.
Cheering kids and staff welcomed former student Lacey Nymeyer’s return to Richardson Elementary School on Friday, where the Olympic swimmer and medalist first whet her competitive appetite.
A procession of flags and handmade banners marched past a table heaped with NCAA and Olympic memorabilia, as students led the 70-minute event with an opening ceremony that replaced the Beijing festivities Nymeyer missed as her team trained.
When grades K through 6 had entered, the guest of honor took her seat: a silver throne.
Retired kindergarten teacher Jan Hansen was just one of several teachers on hand to greet their once curly-haired pupil.
“We knew she was going to do great things,” Hansen said. “We just had no idea that she was going to be an Olympic athlete.”
On assembly-room linoleum, 425 students — seated “Richardson-style,” as one teacher quipped — looked around wide-eyed as physical education teacher Brad Esker told them that, years ago, Nymeyer once sat where they did.
With glossed eyes, Esker, recalled how an 11-year-old Nymeyer told him she was “going to” swim in the Olympics.
The teacher then launched into a DVD retrospective of the swimmer’s youth, dubbed with the school motto: “Dare to Dream, Work to Achieve.”
That Nymeyer did, was Esker’s reward.
“It’s one of those experiences like a dream come true for a coach or teacher, to see a student come back and get all this attention that she deserves,” Esker said, later.
Students followed the montage by singing a tune called “Champion,” reworded by Richardson’s music teacher, before the touched Olympian took the podium.
“First off, that song was awesome!” she said.
Lights dimmed again as Nymeyer narrated a video of the U.S. team’s 4x100 relay performance in Beijing, with a laser pointer.
The room fixed in silent awe for three and a half minutes as Nymeyer’s crew knifed through the water — except for one kid who approached a teacher, asking to rinse his mouth after losing a tooth.
“You think it was loud in here? Try it at that Olympics!” Nymeyer said, after the lights returned and kids resumed cheering.
The swimmer was awarded the first ever “Roadruner Champion Medal,” while each student received Nymeyer’s pre-signed autograph.
Fifth-grader Martio Harriss asked Nymeyer what life skills enabled her to achieve the Olympic dream, during a question-and-answer session near the program’s finish, marked by overhead confetti-and-streamer cannons.
The medalist cited “hard work” and “focus.”
“I learned that you always follow your dreams,” Harriss said afterward. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from or who you are.”
The message Harriss gained was exactly what Richardson administrators hoped for, as principal Lyle Dunbar revealed the afternoon’s focus was a “teaching moment” to offer students tools for success.
Afterward in the teacher lounge, Nymeyer encountered a flood of teachers and guests, who unleashed their cameras at a cake-and-punch session.
Diane Weeks — a 28-year kindergarten teacher who “couldn’t fathom” the hours she and staff spent planning the afternoon — felt giddy in presence of her former student.
“It’s almost indescribable,” Weeks said. “I pinch myself and say ‘Oh my God, I had an Olympian in my academic seats.’”
Weeks said the kids were so excited that, days before, she’d heard students in restrooms singing, rehearsing their tune.
The enthusiasm certainly wasn’t lost on Nymeyer, and neither was the chance to balance her sports’ demands — students were amazed to hear she trained four to five hours a day on average — with living a normal kid’s life while at Richardson.
“Well, for me, athletics was fun,” Nymeyer said. “That’s something I wanted to do — I was really never pushed, because it was something I loved.”
That passion might become an ongoing gift as the swimmer nears graduation from the University of Arizona in May. Nymeyer said she’s given thought to applying her physical education major toward working with junior-level and high school swim programs.
“I want to come back and be in schools and be with kids and spark that same interest that I had in others,” Nymeyer said.