Chelsea Yankees learn from Olympic medalist

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 11, 2002

The Chelsea Yankees aren’t having what you would call a &uot;banner year&uot; on the baseball diamond.

The Yankees are in last place in their division, ut this season may be the most rewarding so far.

When Olympic gold medalist Willie James Smith III, or just &uot;Willie&uot; to his friends, heard the Yankees were having a tough year, he volunteered to talk to members of the team about being winners.

Smith won gold at the 1984 Olympics in the 4×400-meter relay. But that’s just 44 seconds of the story (the amount of time it took Smith to claim the gold). The real story is in the 12 years leading up to the gold.

Sandy Watkins, mother of 9-year-old Yankee Jackson, said when she heard Smith had volunteered to talk to the children, she assumed he would talk to them about how to be a better baseball player.

&uot;I just figured he was going to give them a speech about playing better baseball and give them some running tips,&uot; Watkins said. &uot;What the children got was a lesson in life.&uot;

Smith became fascinated with running as a youngster in Long Island, N.Y. At an early age, he set himself the ultimate goal for a runner &045; winning the Olympic gold medal.

Smith ran track at Auburn University and made the Olympic team in 1976. For a time he was considered the world’s fastest human. He again made the Olympic team in 1980.

His dreams of a gold medal were put on hold as the United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

With determination to win a gold medal, Smith qualified for the U.S. team again in 1984 and saw his dream become reality, winning Olympic gold at the ripe old age of 28.

&uot;When you talk about dedication and perseverance, you talk about Willie Smith,&uot; Watkins said. &uot;He trained every day for 12 years to win his gold medal.

&uot;As he shared his story with our kids, he also relayed his method of goal setting and building a strong foundation. He emphasized practicing and working hard at your ‘thing’ &045; whether it be track, baseball or academics.&uot;

Although Smith’s talk had nothing to do with baseball, it had everything to do with character, discipline and hard work.

&uot;These nine baseball players hung on every word as Willie spoke and it didn’t seem to matter that he never talked about baseball, only of striving to do your best,&uot; Watkins said. &uot;Willie emphasized strength of body and strength of character.&uot;

As for the Yankees’ baseball team and the season they have had, Watkins said it is the best season so far.

&uot;If anyone had told me a few years ago that I would become a ‘baseball mom’, and like it, I would have said they had taken one too many fast balls to the head,&uot; Watkins said. &uot;Yet here I am and I think that youth baseball is the hottest ticket in town. I live in Chelsea, and in our small community, baseball rules.

&uot;This is our fourth season of baseball and by far the most rewarding,&uot; Watkins said. &uot;Not because of our record, but because of the friendships that we have made and the lessons we have learned along the way.&uot;

Watkins said it is people like Willie Smith who make a difference in the world.

&uot;Speaking as the mother of a 9-year-old, I appreciate someone like Willie Smith taking his time to try and make a difference in the life of a child,&uot; Watkins said.

&uot;In the long run, I sincerely believe that the Willie Smith’s of the world make a big difference. Thank you, ‘Willie’.&uot;