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A golden send-off for students

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WESTCHASE -

The theme of Westchase Elementary School’s fifth-grade banquet send-off — “Go For the Gold Into Middle School” — was brought to life on June 6.

Two U.S. Olympic gold medalists from Tampa — swimmer Brooke Bennett and baseball player Ty Griffin — made surprise appearances.

And naturally, that made for a solid-gold setting.

“The committee just did a great job,” principal Scott Weaver said. “It was a wonderful event.”

The school’s multipurpose room was transformed into a mini Olympic Village. On one wall, flags of nations from around the world were displayed. On another wall, the photos of each fifth-grader were spotlighted in the center of gold-medal artwork. Candy and fruit trays were arranged to resemble the Olympic rings. The food was catered by the Columbia Cafe.

Assistant principal Cori Pecararo, carrying an Olympic torch, led students into the room, which was decorated and assembled in top-secret fashion a day earlier.

But the biggest thrill was the appearance of Bennett, who won three gold medals during the 1996 and 2000 Summer Games, and Griffin, who was part of the gold medal-winning baseball team in 1988.

The theme was conceived by students last fall, shortly after the staging of the 2012 Games.

“We have the Olympic theme and we’re always talking about goal-setting,” Weaver told the students. “No one sets higher goals for themselves and works harder in training (than Olympic athletes). It’s just a lifestyle, and they set a great example for all of us.”

Bennett and Griffin shared some inspirational words.

Bennett said she remembered her last day of elementary school and felt “all grown-up, but also kind of nervous” as she entered middle school.

“There are so many opportunities in front of us,” Bennett said. “Some are challenging. Some are scary. Some are exciting. The challenge and what life has in front of you never, ever stops.

“Use this opportunity to celebrate all you have accomplished, but also use today to set the goals of what you might want to do during the next chapter of your life as you go into middle school.”

Griffin said he saw himself as he looked into the audience of fifth-graders.

Once, he had big dreams and just needed some encouragement.

“You have the opportunity to do anything in life,” said Griffin, now the head baseball coach at Tampa Catholic High School. “As I think back to fifth grade, if I would think about what might happen 35 years from then, being a draft pick out of high school, becoming an All-American at Georgia Tech, winning a silver medal in the Pan-American Games and a gold medal at the Olympics, becoming a first-round pick of the Chicago Cubs … never would I have thought all of that could happen for me.”

Griffin said he was excited to be part of an Olympic-themed event. He was even more excited when learning about the mascot of Westchase Elementary.

“Your mascot, Wizards, lends itself to this great occasion,” Griffin said. “Magic. Magical moments. This is a magical time in your life.

“I believe that everybody has the opportunity to make magical moments in their life. The difference is people like Brooke and myself find a way to make the magic happen more often than other people. You get up and work at it every day. You guys have PlayStation, TV, the Internet. You have to put that stuff down. Do you want this goal to happen? The magic doesn’t last very long.”

The elementary-school magic was displayed in a slide show, which featured the students in scenes from kindergarten through the fifth grade. That show was part of a DVD distributed to each student. There were laughs. There were tears.

But the theme remained true.

Everyone felt like a champion.

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