March 11 was a typical Wednesday afternoon at New York City's George Washington Education Complex. One by one, 20 teenage boys and girls filed into a studio, hopped onto stationary bikes, and warmed up for their after school "Cycling Smarts" spinning class. Just like with every session, two instructors with headset mics talked the kids through warm-up, as heart-pumping music blared through the speakers. But the big difference with that day's routine: tennis legend Monica Seles and former NBA star John Starks would be spinning with them.
Most of the kids weren't even born yet when Monica Seles won her nine Grand Slam titles. But the awe-inspired teens listened intently, as the Laureus World Sports Academy member addressed the class.
"I know you guys are training for a 100-mile bike ride," she said. "After seeing how focused you guys got once the music came on, I have no doubt you can do it."
Seles then thanked Laureus for introducing her and John Starks, a Laureus ambassador, to the "I Challenge Myself" project, which funds the Cycling Smarts program. Seles and the former New York Knicks player presented ICM founder Ana Reyes with a check for $25,000 as part of Laureus Sport for Good Foundation's ongoing support.
Cycling Smarts was born from an idea Reyes had after participating in the 2000 Boston-New York AIDS Ride, a three-day, 250-mile bike charity ride. "It was difficult, but so life changing," Reyes remembered. "You came back with a sense that you can do anything. I wanted to start a program that created the same experience."
Reyes grew up in the projects of south Bronx, a background similar to the Cycling Smarts enrollees, and she knew this would empower inner-city kids. After meeting with John Miottel, executive director for Laureus USA, the foundation granted ICM the seed money to rev up Cycling Smarts. "We got $60,000 to buy bikes and helmets; the second year, another $60,000. Laureus has been with us from the beginning. It's a natural fit. Their mission fits so well with our mission."
Laureus' profound mission is to use the power of sport as a means to bring people together. Taking part in one of the program's training sessions, Seles and Starks (his first time on a spinning bike) witnessed how much of an impact sport has had on the students of George Washington.
"It gives kids tools that they can carry far beyond the program," Seles says. "The kids are gaining so much self-confidence, discipline, leadership, perseverance. The effects are much wider than we realized, more than the kids even realize."
With obesity rates skyrocketing—the N.Y. State Department of Health reports that 30% of high school students in NYC are overweight and obese—Starks believes programs like Cycling Smarts couldn't have come at a better time.
"A lot of fitness programs are getting cut from schools, which is such a disservice to the students," says Starks. "This gives kids another avenue to incorporate fitness into their lives."
The 6'5" former baller, towering over the kids as he signed autographs, also added that Laureus and Cycling Smarts fostered all aspects of fitness — physical and mental.
"The kids are realizing that their mind is the most powerful weapon they have, and they can do anything with it," he said. "What the Laureus foundation promotes, it's not just about physical fitness, but also challenging yourself to do things you didn't think you were capable of."
Like training for and completing a one-day 100-mile ride in June. Reyes mentioned how many of the kids in the program had never even left their neighborhood of Washington Heights before. Now they're biking across the George Washington Bridge, and to NYC landmarks like Central Park and Coney Island. They're giving school presentations in front of class, with confidence they never knew they had. With the help of Laureus and Cycling Smarts, the students of George Washington Education Complex are going places . . . as far as their legs (and minds) will take them.