Ask any little kid to name his or her heroes. At least one is bound to be a high-profile athlete.
Sports heroes do seem to have it all - at least in the eyes of a child. Pro athletes have all the skills, they keep their cool in the clutch and they make things happen when they need to.
It wasn't until just recently, though, that I realized that other athletes, with much lower public profiles, might be some of the first role models these kids meet.
Case in point: During a recent beach vacation, my husband and I happened to park our chairs and towels near one of the lifeguard stands. In the few hours we sat on the beach, lost children presented themselves to the guard on the stand at about the rate of one every five to ten minutes.
That's a lot of lost kids, but the lifeguards dealt with them all - children sobbing so hard they could barely be understood, children who just looked irritated about misplacing their parents, and everything in between. And they did it with kindness, understanding and a sense of humor.
Each time, the guards would help the lost child climb up and sit in the chair with them to see if they could see their parents from that height. They'd radio the other guard towers and spread the word, and they'd talk with the kids - how old they were, whether they liked the beach, that sort of thing. And within a few minutes, a parent - sometimes crying uncontrollably, sometimes embarrassed or flustered - would arrive.
Every time, the kids would climb down from the tower and hug their parents like they'd just come back from the war. But the telling moment came as they were walking off. Every single one of those kids cast this backward glance of absolute starry-eyed awe up at the guard.
It occurred to me that a heck of a lot of kids were leaving the beach that day with a new hero to worship. And I'm pretty sure those lost-and-found children are the reason the small-size T-shirts and hats that say LIFEGUARD and the plastic whistles sell so well on the boardwalk. The kids recognized a friendly authority figure who was cool in the clutch and who made things happen when things needed to happen.
Local athletes - those who coach rec-level teams or after-school programs, or who teach P.E. - can have the same effect on little kids. As the people helping them learn a sport or master a skill, they may be some kids' first role models.
Those who volunteer with or work with kids in sports might not be fully aware of the impact they can have. But that day, as I sat on the beach, I saw exactly what good role models are capable of. I can only hope we all strive for that.