On the big day, an enthusiastic field of competitors showed up: 20 kids between the ages of 5 and 13. Given the wide age range -- and the fact that there wasn't enough pool space for everyone to swim at once -- Mary Jane stressed that the main point of the triathlon was to have fun. She told the kids simply to challenge themselves to finish each part. This directive didn't seem to dim the competitive fervor, but it did make it easier for the parents to emphasize safety over speed. After Mary Jane explained the rules, the racers lined up four at a time by the edge of the pool. The youngest and slowest swam first. Annie was in the second-to-last heat. Her strokes were long and graceful, and she was the third to emerge from the pool. She ran directly to her bike without a word. She was one of the first three kids to arrive at Diana's house, where another adult and I were handing out water. All three had the look of serious contenders. Annie didn't even acknowledge me. She just set down her bike and took off on the heels of the two boys.
By the time I reached the finish line, Annie was already chugging down a Gatorade. "Guess what, Mom?" she said. "I came in first." I couldn't help but feel proud. "You did?" I hugged her. "I'm so proud of you." I was proud of Samantha, too, who had finished in the middle of the pack. "Wow," she said, her face beaming and damp. "That was fun." The racers were delightfully sweaty and joyous. And the potluck dinner was a ton of fun, the perfect ending to the event. The triathlon had motivated the neighborhood kids to get active, and it cost nothing. It just took a little initiative and creative planning on Mary Jane's part, plus a few parents to cheer and guide their kids.
For Annie, the race had a bonus: it banished her fear of hills. In fact, she just rode a steep one the other day with friends. My girls will have many more hills to conquer in life. But if they face those challenges like the determined triathletes they are, they'll do just fine.
For a kids' triathlon that stays on course, follow Winnie's tips: Start small. The first year, we had just nine racers. For biking and running, choose routes with light traffic. Enlist at least one parent supervisor for each racer.
Winnie Yu lives with her family in Voorheesville, New York.