John Underwood has advice for middle and high school students thinking about using drugs or alcohol.
"It's your brain, and you're going to use it for the rest of your life - don't trash it now," said Underwood, a former NCAA all-American distance runner, and trainer and coach for Olympic athletes.
On Tuesday, Underwood spoke to seventh and eighth grade students at Craig Middle School about the effects drugs and alcohol can have on an athlete's body.
Underwood, who lives in Lake Placid, N.Y., tours the country talking to schools and athletes about substance abuse.
Grand Futures Prevention Coalition, the Youth Wellness Initiative, Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association and the Moffat County School District sponsored the event.
Underwood said the students weren't just entering high school but entering a potentially hazardous time.
"From age 14 to 24 are the 10 most dangerous years of your lives," he said. "This is when accidents happen, this is when you will be tempted to do dangerous things, like drugs or alcohol."
Underwood, the master trainer for the New York public high school athletic association drug prevention program, said he has seen the negative effect alcohol can have on an athlete's body.
For the past eight years, Underwood has studied how substances can harm the brain.
"Athletes lose 14 days of training for one day of drinking," he said. "If you drink, you're ruining it, and throwing it all away."
Underwood, who founded the American Athletic Institute, said parents need to take an active role when it comes to their children and alcohol.
"There are things here to protect kids," Underwood said. "But, it's a problem that needs to be fixed by adults, for kids."
Matt Beckett, Moffat County Grand Futures director, said curbing alcohol abuse starts with limiting students' access to it.
"What we've been trying is having more environmental strategies," Beckett said. "Having protective factors, like offering kids alternative activities, doesn't remove the risk.
"Having policies like the athletic teams do - where it's 'If you drink, you lose these privileges' - works. Having alcohol compliance checks in convenience stores works. It may not be the most popular choice, but it works."
According to the Healthy Kids Colorado 2008 survey, 38 percent of 165 Craig Middle School seventh-graders have tried alcohol, and 52 percent of 134 CMS eighth-graders surveyed have had at least one alcoholic beverage.
According to the same survey, 73 percent of Moffat County High School ninth-graders have tried alcohol.
Substance abuse begins with a choice, Underwood said.
"The first step is trying it," he said to a room full of seventh graders. "Once they cross that line, they are placed on a path, and their use of alcohol or drugs just goes up and up.
"Statistics have shown that already, one-fifth of you have already tried alcohol. And four-tenths of students who have used alcohol before their 15th birthday become alcoholics."
The biggest factor in substance abuse is peer pressure, he said.
"Who you hang out with has everything to do with alcohol abuse," he said. "Even if you don't abuse drugs or alcohol, if you're hanging out with a group of kids that do, in a short amount of time you will, too."
Nicole Beckum, Craig Middle School seventh-grade math teacher, said the statistics were not shocking to her.
"Was the data surprising? No," Beckum said. "I've taught in the district for 10 years, and I've had two kids go through the school system, as well. I've known about it as they've grown up."
She said drug and alcohol abuse has been a problem for the community for a while.
"I've always sort of heard 'Who's doing what,' just from listening, so I know that it's an epidemic in the community," she said.
Beckum said a lot of the information still was new to her.
"The data that was surprising was from the athlete's perspective," she said. "The physical aspect - I didn't know how much alcohol affected an athlete's body."
Just giving students information isn't enough, Beckum said.
"I don't think some of the kids realize that the statistics are from their school - that it's the kids sitting around them," she said. "I think they see what we are trying to do - they see it, hear it, I'm just not sure they're internalizing it."
Beckum said a more personalized approach seems to be working with students.
"Starting this year, we've had focus classes, where it's a teacher and only six or seven students," she said. "One of the things they've been working on is talking about various challenges the students face.
"The reason why this approach works is because the students get to know each other. The teacher has a chance to connect with the students - something that doesn't always happen in a class with 25 students."
Underwood said keeping students focused is the key to avoiding drugs and alcohol.
"What's important to you? You'll be in high school soon, and then 12th grade, and then the real world," he said. "You need to find what's important to you and put everything in to it.
"If something is important to you, you need to focus on it - think about it, talk about it, write about it. Tell people you are going to do something great."
Ben Bulkeley can be reached at 875-1795 or firstname.lastname@example.org.