My 6-Year-Old Is a Triathlete, and My Biggest Inspiration

I've long been competing in triathlons, but seeing my young son participate is what's made me a better athlete and person.

The author and her child.
The author and her child. Photo: Courtesy of Kerry Gildea Beck

The hot morning sun beamed down on the rolling waves and sandpipers scurried away from the pumping music and booming sound of the bullhorn. A drone buzzed overhead circling like some space age seagull. I've finished dozens of races, marathons, and triathlons yet my heart pounded in a complete panic attack as I stood on the sand.

Why? My 6-year-old, decked out in the latest kiddo triathlon apparel with his neon orange swim cap and sleek teeny goggles, was getting ready to run into the surf. I wanted to stop him, hug him tight, and force him to just sit there and make sandcastles.

I know I'm the reason for this. I created this mini triathlete. I kept racing so he'd see me as strong with no idea how closely he had been paying attention. But there I was still worrying. How could I watch from shore as my heart ran into the Delaware Bay to do a 50-meter swim? Alone. I'm not one of those helicopter moms I told myself. He's a good swimmer. There are a lot of lifeguards. I can dolphin dive my way out to him in a split second if I have to.

Determination on his face, he was ready for his first kids' triathlon. We were in Cape May, New Jersey, and I was bunched in on the beach with the parent paparazzi. Phones were all in position to video as we watched the line of bobbing little swim caps in the waves. Casey sprinted to the water with zero fear, never looking back.

It was not lost on me that the next day I would take a 12-foot leap off the Cape May Ferry and swim to this same spot on shore at the start of the DelMoSports annual Escape the Cape Triathlon. I completely understand why my kid loves this. There was the person I was before the first time I jumped off that boat and there's the person after. But I know now it's not what I've taught him about racing that strikes me as unique. It's how I've learned to be a better athlete by watching him.

He sprinted out of the water and into the transition area where he put on his helmet, sneakers, and gloves and attempted what looked like a flying mount on his tiny Trek that still had training wheels for a one-mile bike followed by a half-mile run to the finish. My husband sweated it out at the bike turn around at the top of a hill because we weren't sure our kid could make it all the way. But he didn't let that hill stop him. He pedaled and pedaled yelling to his little fellow athletes all the way. "Let's go guys," he shouted. "We are all doing great and we've got this." Letting out a few "whoo-hoo's" he even cheered the bigger kids passing him.

The next day in my race I remembered that hill. It was brutally hot and DelMo is notorious for making racers tackle soft sand and dunes in the run segment. I secretly love it but my calves were screaming. I thought of Casey and channeled that little kid joy. I yelled support to everyone and even let out a few "whoo-hoo's." When it gets tough now I grab that gratefulness and try to pass it on.

Casey during a kid triathlon. Courtesy of Kerry Gildea Beck

Casey has also has taught me a thing or two about speed. At his spot in transition he has his towel, water bottle, snacks, stickers, and good luck doggie charm all meticulously lined up but he wastes no time. "Mommy, my T2 time is so much faster than yours," he said as we compared chip times. "Why do you take so long?" Good point. I try harder now to get that wetsuit off and go. Still can't do a flying mount though.

I had a rough swim in a recent Half Ironman. The tide worked against us for most of the 1.2-mile swim. I had about 500 meters to go in pure chop and felt very fatigued as my personal record time slipped away. Then I thought "get it together" and as Casey would say "super boost jet pack power." It's way more fun to swim with a pretend jet pack propelling you. He's also helped me to stop obsessing about cutoff times and enjoy the ride.

One thing all athletes know is meltdowns happen. Seconds before the start of an IronKids duathlon a younger kid accidentally bonked Casey on the head with a medal. He threw himself on the ground, sobbing that he couldn't possibly race now. I hugged him and told him it was OK if he wanted to pass. Then the bullhorn sounded the start and he leapt over me. "Mommy, I have to go," he yelled back. "I'm OK. I have to go race." Off he went and crushed it. I learned when the medal bonks you on the head, and at some point it will, get right back up.

I always love seeing my husband and Casey at the finish line of my races but there's something different and unexplainably better about being on the other side as Casey bolts through. A few minutes after his first Tri he and the other kids rocked out with their medals in a big bounce house on the grassy lawn with a snow cone next on their agenda. The seasoned superstars celebrated while their parents let out a collective sigh of relief.

Casey, a few races under his belt now, has moved up to the 7-year-old age group and is excited for the 2020 race season. Our family will head to Canada in June for my 70.3-mile Half Ironman where he wants to do his first international IronKids race. And we certainly plan to be back racing on the Jersey Shore joyfully running into the waves.

Kerry Gildea Beck is a recovered aerospace reporter in Washington, D.C., who spent time in the corporate world and now races triathlon with her kiddo and writes the occasional freelance piece.

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