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Saturday, March 23, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Back-to-school time for gold medalist Jill Bakken

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

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What impressed students most, besides the gold medal, was how down-to-earth Jill Bakken is.

But then again, students at Lake Washington High School in Kirkland expected nothing different from someone who had walked these same halls as a student not too long ago.

Bakken, who with Vonetta Flowers won gold in the women's bobsled at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, was warmly welcomed by students, friends and teachers yesterday at Lake Washington, where she graduated in 1995.

If it hadn't been for the reporters and television cameras, she might have passed for a typical high-schooler.

"She looks like one of us," said senior Lindsey Van De Vander.

"She was just like I thought she'd be," said senior Chris Kanand.

Cheers exploded from the packed bleachers and the sea of students sitting on the floor when Bakken entered the gym, where a 30-foot banner that read "Welcome Jill Bakken. ... You make us proud" hung behind the podium.

"Whatever your dream, pursue it ... go for it, that's what it's all about," said Bakken, who admitted that speaking in front of the high-schoolers was more nerve-racking than being interviewed on television.

Bakken, 25, told the audience that her three years at Lake Washington were one of the best experiences of her life. She was a star on the basketball court and on the soccer field, ran track, was involved in student government and was homecoming queen.

Mayor Larry Springer was on hand to offer congratulations on behalf of the city, read a proclamation in Bakken's honor and present her with an official city of Kirkland hat and shirt.

After the assembly, a few dozen students hung around in groups for a chance to meet Bakken.

"She's awesome," exclaimed junior Matt Dessert, who'd already shaken Bakken's hand and was going back to get an autograph.

Though Bakken may have been nervous, her words came through loud and clear to some students.

"People say put your mind and heart into it," one student said. "Now we have a face to go with those words."

Angela Lo can be reached at 206- 464-3206 or alo@seattletimes.com.

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