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Gold medalist Conner visits Freedom Elementary

Gold medalist Bart Conner high-fives Freedom Elementary students as they leave the school’s gym following his presentation on Wednesday morning. Photos by Daniel Determan

West Fargo’s Freedom Elementary School played host to a renowned American gymnast on Wednesday morning.

Bart Conner, who won a gold medal for the United States in the 1984 Olympic Games, visited the school – along with TNT Kid’s Fitness, Dakota Medical Foundation (DMF), and United Way of Cass and Clay Counties – to talk to students about finding something they are passionate about and striving to excel at it.

“It’s really exciting – especially meeting with third- and fourth-graders – because my whole world changed when I was about 10 years old,” Conner said. “That is when I found gymnastics, and it connected me with a community and a passion in something that has defined everything I have done in my life.”

Conner displays his gymnastic abilities to the crowd of elementary students.

The Illinois native’s gymnastic abilities were noticed by his elementary physical education teacher. From there, he began training and competing locally. As a teenager, he competed in– and, often enough, won – several national junior competitions. Upon graduation, he joined the U.S. gymnastics team as the youngest member (18 years old) on the 1976 Olympic gymnastics team. He went on to compete in two more Olympic Games, winning a gold medal on the parallel bars in 1984.

Gymnastics has continued to be at the center of Conner’s life. As he owns the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy, edits International Gymnast magazine and sometimes serves as a gymnastics commentator. Even his personal life revolves around it, as he married Romanian gymnast and fellow gold medalist Nadia Comaneci in 1994.

Because his passion has affected his life in such a tremendous way, Conner travels the nation encouraging young students to find their passion and do the same.

“(Gymnastics) has defined what I do, who I married, and everything about my life,” Conner said. “It started right here at 10 years of age so it is fun to talk to these kids and hopefully inspire them to understand that when they watch a Michael Phelps or a Gabby Douglas, those athletes were just like them – regular kids in public schools. What made them different is they found something they loved and they worked hard.”

He also performed a handstand – to the awe of the elementary crowd – and helped a few students perform them as well.

Conner spoke to the students for roughly 15 minutes. He knows that elementary school students may not heed his words immediately, but hopes there will be a lasting effect from his message.

“I’m not sure they will remember what I said,” Conner said. “I’m sure they will tell their parents that a guy came to school and did a handstand. But I hope that over a long period of time… what I said will impact them.”

Along with his message of dedication to an individual’s passion, he encouraged the children to do everything in life with respect and acceptance. The motto of Freedom Elementary -- “It’s all about R.I.C.K.” (Respect, Inclusion, Compassion, Kindness) – is an expression Conner had never heard before, though he expressed its similarity to how he has lived his life.

“(The Olympics) is all about the world coming together and playing fair with respect, inclusion and acceptance,” Conner said. “That is really the message of olympianism that I hope resonates with kids. No matter what you do in life, do it with respect, inclusion, compassion and kindness.”