WELLS — Nine-year-old Isabella Bazata burst through the school door and sprinted to where her hero waited to sweep her into his arms. Her smile flashed brighter than the sun in Friday’s midday sky.
In the courtyard outside the entrance to Wells Elementary School, Ian Crocker lowered his 6-foot-4 frame so he and Isabella were at eye level. “It’s so good to finally meet you,” he said.
Seven weeks earlier, Isabella had brought Crocker to life in a presentation before her third-grade classmates. Now, the three-time Olympian with three gold medals in swimming was actually at her school, because Isabella had asked him to come.
Her assignment, to report on a famous Mainer, had required visuals. A poster and props perhaps. Isabella thought bigger: She would introduce the living and breathing Ian Crocker to her class. She had no idea how difficult it would be just to find him, let alone get him to her school.
Crocker grew up in Portland and graduated from Cheverus High School, but has lived in Austin, Texas, for much of the past 14 years. He last was in Maine in February 2012, for a Valentine’s Day Swim For Your Heart event at various public pools in the Portland area.
All third-graders at Wells Elementary School were assigned to give written and oral reports on famous Mainers. Isabella is in Michelle Boucher’s class, which turned its attention to Arctic explorers Robert E. Peary and Donald B. MacMillan, composer Robert Browne Hall and actor Patrick Dempsey, among others.
Seven of the 21 famous Mainers profiled by Ms. Boucher’s students were sports figures,, from distance runner Joan Benoit Samuelson to former major league baseball pitcher Bill Swift.
Isabella and Crocker were a match. She was born in 2004, the year Crocker won his second gold medal, in the Athens Olympics. She was only 4 when Crocker competed in his third and final Olympics, in Beijing, China, but the age difference didn’t matter to her. They’re both swimmers, kindred spirits.
Because Athens was the site of the first Olympiad, gold medal winners in 2004 were crowned with laurel wreaths. For her presentation, Isabella went to a florist and got supplies to make a laurel wreath.
On the morning of April 8, the date of her presentation, Isabella, who swims for the Titan Swim Club at the Sanford-Springvale YMCA, wore her competition swimsuit under her school clothes. Before a somewhat startled Ms. Boucher and classmates, she removed her clothes to reveal the swimsuit.
The only child of Jo-Ann and Jerry Bazata of Ogunquit, Isabella had spent weeks at her father’s computer searching for Crocker’s contact information. She had quickly learned that Crocker is a common name in New England.
“A lot of people were so nice (to Isabella),” said Jerry Bazata. “They tried to help. It became like six degrees of separation.”
The breakthrough came when Isabella discovered the Facebook page of Gail Crocker, Ian’s mom. A photo of Ian was posted, along with a note about his most recent Mutual of Omaha Breakout Swim Clinic. That led to a phone call to the marketing department at Mutual of Omaha.
Soon after, the phone rang at the Bazata house. The caller asked to speak with Isabella. It was Ian Crocker.
“He was wonderful with Isabella,” said Jo-Ann Bazata.
Crocker couldn’t be Isabella’s visual at her presentation on April 8. He was in Scotland earlier this spring for a clinic. And, in his job as an assistant coach with the University of Texas women’s swim team, he went with the team to a training facility in Colorado.
On Friday, Crocker more than made up for his absence from Isabella’s third-grade class. He spoke at a school assembly in the gym. Isabella, to her surprise, was asked to introduce him to the first-, second- and third-graders. Fourth-graders were at Wells Middle School for an orientation day.
Isabella mentioned Crocker’s gold medals, his attention deficit disorder and a swim school he had been involved with in Texas. She had no notes, and very little time to prepare in her mind what she wanted to say. She put herself back in her classroom and remembered what she said then.
“He’s also a brave person because he fought for his dream,” Isabella said.
Crocker ran with his cue.
“When I was in third grade, I had a dream. I saw the Olympics on television. I wanted to go. It took me 10 years, and that’s a long time.”
He realized his dream.
He didn’t talk down to his audience and he didn’t talk over their young heads. Crocker imagined himself being them. He talked about honesty and trustworthiness and respect, in their terms: “Do your parents trust you to make your bed in the morning and do your homework? That’s being trustworthy.
In the Olympics, he said, “It was my responsibility to represent my family, Maine and my country. Was I nervous? I was very nervous.”
Crocker had them hooked, along with their teachers and Marianne Horne, the school principal.
An hour before Crocker spoke, Horne wondered if he could connect with students so young.
When the assembly ended, the tall swimmer scooched down by the door so he could look at each of the dozens of students at their level to say goodbye and offer high-fives. Horne watched. A parent-teacher group had paid a nominal appearance fee of $400, she said. Wells Elementary School got its money’s worth and much more.
Sunday afternoon, Crocker will spend four hours with swimmers at the Sanford-Springvale YMCA, teaching and inspiring. Registration for the clinic is closed. Ian Crocker’s name made that certain.
After the clinic, Crocker will return to his home and wife in Austin. His goal is to become the head coach of the University of Texas women’s swim team. “I want to help others achieve their dreams, just like I did,” he said.
Isabella Bazata, all of 9 years old, has her inspiration. She can see herself in the 2024 Olympics. She thinks the Games could be in Boston. She has her dream.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: