Here are some of the things that U.S. cross-country athlete Jorge Torres learned while competing in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing:
• The city's weather in August is so hot and humid that walking outside is like taking a bath.
• The Chinese people love U.S. basketball star Kobe Bryant.
• President Bush has read "Running With the Buffaloes," a book about the men's cross-country team at Torres' alma mater, the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Nothing could have prepared him for the moment he wore the U.S. Olympic team suit - designed by Ralph Lauren - and walked through Beijing's National Stadium with the likes of Bryant, LeBron James, Michael Phelps and the nearly 600 other athletes that represented the United States.
"It was one of the proudest moments of my life," Torres, 28, told an audience of about 550 students when he visited his former school, MacArthur Middle School in Prospect Heights, on Wednesday.
As it turned out, Torres placed a mere 25th in the 10,000 meter race, but after the disappointment of not making the cut for the 2004 Olympic team, being able to represent his country was reward enough, he said.
"I'm OK with it; it gave me a little bit of a taste for 2012," he said as the students cheered loudly.
When Torres first started running in middle school, the sport wasn't a passion but just something that got him attention, he said. It was his former coach Greg Fedyski who instilled in him the extra drive and motivation to make it to the top, he said.
After he won his first national cross-country title as a 6th grader, Fedyski told
him two things, Torres recalled: don't get a big head, and write down your goals. Torres sat down in the school gym and wrote down that he wanted to win a couple of state titles. That wasn't good enough for Fedyski.
"He said to me: 'Write down your short-term goals, your long-term goals, and goals beyond your imagination."
So he made the list longer, adding state and national titles at the high school and college levels, and making the 2008 U.S. Olympic team. The moral of his story? No goal is beyond reach, he said.
"You never know where you are going to get, what kind of talent you have, and what kinds of things life is going to throw at you," Torres told the students. "You have your whole future ahead of you, and it starts right here. You have to set goals in life."
Torres and his twin brother Edwardo were both runners at MacArthur and at Wheeling High School. They went on to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder. Edwardo Torres finished 11th at the 10,000 meters U.S. Olympic trials, and hopes to participate in the 2009 World Championships in Athletics in Berlin next summer.
"We feed off each other. It makes it so much easier when you are doing the exact same thing, getting up and working hard,"
Edwardo Torres said while his brother signed "Team Torres" T-shirts donated to the school by Reebok.
"There is a healthy rivalry between the two of us." The twins were both nice kids, said longtime MacArthur teacher Mary Ann Duderstadt, who also taught one of their older brothers.
"Jorge is a good guy; he has a good heart," she said. "He was silly, he was a typical middle school kid, but I never heard him saying a mean thing about any kid."
The students said they really liked hearing from someone who once was one of them and who has made it so far in life. Sixth grader Fernando Martinez, an avid soccer player, called the Olympian "pretty cool" and said he liked his positive message.
"He said you have to believe in your hopes and dreams. I think that's true," he said. "He was really inspiring," said 7th grader Elizabeth Smith, who is on the school's cross-country team and trains with coach Fedyski during the summer. "I liked how he talked about writing down goals. My dream is to make it to the Olympics too."