Village of Lannon — Lannon Elementary School students ages 5 to 11 sat in a rectangle formation on the shiny gymnasium floor of their school for more than 45 minutes, their attention completely captivated by the speaker in the center.
At 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday Jan. 25, three-time X Games medalist, Guinness World Record holder and BMX world champion Matt Wilhelm woke up to prep for his big performance in front of a crowd of these 330 elementary students.
Unlike his days of performing on America's Got Talent and competing worldwide, his life as a professional BMX rider has certainly changed.
Now, Wilhelm travels to more than 300 schools nationwide to tell students that all his notoriety almost never happened.
As a child, Wilhelm had severe asthma and was allergic to just about everything; he had a speech impediment, but said he was bullied for one attribute especially — his large ears.
He loved riding his bike, but was often excluded from the group of kids who did, too; he told the Lannon students when he was their age, he nearly gave up on biking forever because of this, but the simple kindness of one boy changed his life.
"Glen came up to me and said I could ride with him," Wilhelm said. "I was going to quit BMX altogether, and now I’m a national champion. I saw Glen this summer for the first time in 10 years and I asked him about it, and he doesn’t even remember. It was just a regular day at school for him. A small act can make a big difference and you never know how."
In between performing stunts on his bike that wowed the students, like jumping over Lannon Elementary School Principal Brian Balfany and climbing up a wall on his bike, he encouraged them to be kind and never give up on their dreams.
"You can be a hero, and let’s face it, now, especially, the world needs more heroes," Wilhelm said. "This is your world; it’s your school, so be somebody’s hero.”
Fourth-grade teacher Marianne Baker said she was amazed Wilhelm was able to keep 330 kids captivated for so long.
"I absolutely loved his message," Baker said. "It was a great visual presentation for what his abilities are. His message from going from last to first and not bullying — that’s such an important message for the kids to hear today, plus 45 minutes of holding these kids’ attention, especially the 5-year-olds, was just wonderful!”
Balfany said the event was planned to reward students for fundraising around $10,000 for the school and, most importantly, to remind the students' of the school's message.
"We always talk about Cardinal Pride, which is our character program here, and so we’re always looking for ways to engage kids above and beyond the school day," Balfany said. "Our fundraiser guy works with Matt (Wilhelm) and paid for half of this and offered us this opportunity. It was a way to reward kids for their work in the fundraiser in a cool way, but also to engage people in the school message. When you think all-encompassing, this event really captured it all.”
Wilhelm has been a motivational speaker for 12 years and has spoken at more than 2,000 schools nationwide; just last year, Wilhelm did 441 school shows across the country. He said he draws his high, positive energy from the kids.
"The kids keep me going," Wilhelm said. "The cool thing for me is even in fourth, fifth grade and especially in middle schools, they’ll find me online and tell me their story, so you get that feedback and know you’re making a difference.”