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Michael Granville, a California high school track and field legend, brings a lot to the party as an Honorary Board Member and the Gunn High School (Palo Alto) track and field coach. Our brutally honest Q&A explores the sometimes harrowing path Michael traveled from Bell Gardens in east L.A. to his current status.
Q: How did you first get into sports and fitness?
A: My dad was a big-time athlete in track and field. I started playing every sport…baseball, basketball. Every Thanksgiving there was a turkey shoot down at the local gym. They’d put five spots on the floor to shoot from for a minute, one point for a layup, two points for a corner shot, etc. The kid who scored the most points brought home a turkey. For three or four years that was a staple. It was like, ‘Mike’s gonna go out there and bring home the bacon,’ but it was actually turkey. That was pretty much my way of bringing turkey home for Thanksgiving.
At a baseball game in 1990, somebody in the stands noticed I was fast and said there was a club in West Valley, looking for an alternate for the relay, so they gave me a tryout. It took us about an hour-and-a-half to get from Bell Gardens to Canoga Park. They gave me a pair of spikes. I’d never had spikes before. I wore some cut-off sweats. Everybody got in the blocks. I didn’t know about blocks, so I just stood up.
Gun goes off, and the other kids get out first, but I passed them all up. I ended up running 11.99 seconds as a 12-year-old. The record at the time was 11.98, so they said, ‘You’re on the team.’ From that point on, the West Valley Eagles, we ended up winning the Jr. Olympics that year. I went on to break every national high school record in the 800, and I still hold the national record in the 800 meters, 22 years later, one minute and 46 seconds. I went on to UCLA and was a three-time All-American there and two-time NCAA Champion in the relays.
I moved up here to run track for Nike, a farm team based at Stanford, which has since moved on to become the Oregon Project. That’s pretty much my track background. Recently I was voted to the CIF’s Spring Sports All-Century Team as one of the top 100 high school athletes in California history from the last 100 years.
Recently my team captains from Gunn presented me with a surprise trip to Bell Gardens High School, my alma mater. They fund-raised, a group of 28 kids, boys and girls, and we took this trip down there, for the Bell Gardens Invitational. I was able to meet my old coach and give a speech. I told them my experience from my first day of high school. I was trying to prove to the coaches that I was a true athlete. I was running and didn’t see a mud-patch and in my new Macy’s jeans and button-up shirt, I just slid in the mud, total freshman boy experience, covered in mud. The coach was nice enough to give my track sweatsuit that day. So I told them how I went from mud to the top of the podium.
It was a humbling experience. I didn’t know this. It was a surprise, but they painted a mural of me in the gym, a 12-foot mural of one of my high school performances. It’s an amazing piece of art and an awestruck feeling to see yourself recognized in that fashion.
Q: Growing up in East LA, where at least some of that area is pretty rough, did you see yourself as being underserved?
A: Oh, yeah, definitely poor. My mom and dad instilled in us that they wouldn’t be able to pay for us to go to college, so we needed to get grades. I was a 3.99 GPA, coming out, and my sister was salutatorian. But we grew up on food stamps, section 8, very below the poverty line. My goal was to run out of the ghetto. We were so tight-knit as a family that we never really wanted, but we knew there were things out there that we didn’t have, especially once I started traveling with that track club and saw other kids’ houses. It was like ‘Whoa, look at this set-up.’
I’m the oldest of five siblings, and we were all always athletic, outside, playing and staying in shape. Thankfully I was fast enough to be sponsored onto that club, because they traveled, they went to Nebraska and AAUs and JOs, and a lot of time people don’t have that opportunity growing up. Running track was a way for me to maybe get a scholarship and maybe be able to go pro and help my family. I always had aspirations to use my athletic ability to help out my family.
My goal was to get out of Bell Gardens. Now my goal is to get back to Bell Gardens, to say, ‘Hey, these are the steps of getting yourself out of here and hopefully come back to be a role model.’
Q: What did your parents do for their livings?
A: They didn’t work. We were on government assistance. That’s how we survived. We were the kids that the fire department came to drop donations off for. We went to the lines to get the government cheese and the powdered milk and stuff to survive. I was a hungry kid, and I was happy to see the cheeses and the milks and the donations. I felt like there were people out there that I didn’t know who were helping our Christmas out, but deep down inside I was like, ‘I don’t want to live like this.’
Now I own my own business, G-Fit, Granville Fitness Boot Camp. It’s an outdoor fitness experience for adults of all ages and all fitness levels. Before that I worked for a company called Community Boot Camp. They gave me an hour a day. Then an instructor would leave, and they’d ask, ‘Michael, can you take another class?’
‘OK, there’s another opportunity here. You want to take that?’
Eventually, I became their first full-time worker. When the company dissipated, I was able to keep my clients. With the help of a CPA, who helped met get my LLC; and an artist, who helped me with the logo’ and lawyers who helped, four years later I can say I’m a thriving business.
Q: Can you talk a little about why Fit Kids matters to you?
A: I can relate to Fit Kids. Growing up in underprivileged areas, where you’re probably not getting the funding, and Navita telling me that some of these schools don’t have PE or any other kind of training, I understand how important it is to get out there and play. Even when I was growing up in poor neighborhoods, at least we had PE. I remember sweating every day. To see that that’s not an option at some of these schools, it’s heaven-sent for Fit Kids to offer this structured play and development of skills that might help them out when they get into junior high school and high school if they want to do a sport. So, I’m a big fan of Fit Kids. Once this cross country season is over, I am definitely willing to go help out with the training.
Q: What is your wish for Fit Kids’ future?
A: My wish is that we can get enough funding and donations to make it part of the curriculum at all kinds of schools. I’d like to see kids that can’t afford (other sports programs) have that catered to them at their whim. I want to see it overflowing with kids.
Q: Here are some rapid-fire questions. Do you have a quote that’s always motivated you?
A: Visualize victory. I got that from my dad. Run your race in your head and always see yourself winning. And I got that down into a quote, Visualize Victory.
Q: Any books or music or film that has inspired you?
A: All the “Rocky” movies. And Muhammad Ali is the most inspirational to me, his quotation, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”
Q: Any other messages you really want to get out there?
A: Make fitness a part of your life early. Life has its roller coasters, its ups and downs, and sometimes you want to work out and sometimes you don’t, but if you have a steady base of how to work out, it will help you as you get older. I tell my Gunn athletes, if you can win a championship, that’s fine. If you have fast times, and you PR, that’s fine. But what I want you guys to take is some kind of pattern of fitness that you can always fall back to. I want them to take the experience of team-building, of sweating together, laughing together, taking that bus trip together.