By Rory Carroll
AGOURA HILLS, Calif. (Reuters) - Students at two schools in Agoura Hills, California, that narrowly avoided being destroyed by a fierce wildfire received surprise visits this week from Olympic athletes who brought new sports equipment and delivered much needed cheer.
At the Yerba Buena Elementary School, which is surrounded by hillsides blackened by the Woolsey Fire, softball player Hannah August donned new catcher's gear and shared a laugh with members of the U.S. National Softball team.
"It means the world to us," she said. The sports equipment shed at her school, Agoura High, was destroyed in the fire.
"These are the girls and the people we look up to supporting us and surprising us to help us get through this tough time."
The Woolsey Fire ignited on Nov. 8 in the mountains above Malibu and torched some 96,949 acres across Los Angeles and Ventura counties before it was contained, destroying 1,643 structures and killing three.
The conflagration erupted one day after a U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran opened fire at a bar and dance hall in nearby Thousand Oaks, killing 12 people before taking his own life.
Students said it has been surreal to drive past burned-out houses and empty hillsides on their way to school every day.
Softball outfielder Janie Reed, an Orange County native and member of the U.S. National Team that has qualified to compete in Tokyo in 2020, said she leapt at the opportunity to join the group of eight past and future Olympians on Monday's visit.
"Living in Southern California and being familiar with all the heartache that's happening in Thousand Oaks lately, it's an awesome opportunity to uplift the kids here. Especially during Christmas and the holiday season," Reed said.
Freestyle skier David Wise told the students to take life lessons from the tragedy.
"Everyone in this room has had a hard time," the two-time Olympic gold medalist said at an assembly. "Those tough times don't have to define how you are going to act."
He said he struggled with personal loss in the run-up to February's Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
"(Losses) can make you stronger. They can make you tougher."
(Reporting by Rory Carroll; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Sonya Hepinstall)