PEMBROKE — Two hundred and forty-two feet kicked, pedaled and ran across the finish line at Saturday’s Tri-Warriors Youth Triathlon.
The 121 participants, ages 6 to 15, made a record for the sixth annual event at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where the triathletes swam, rode bikes and jogged throughout campus.
“… When they cross that finish line and hear people cheering, my hope is that that does pass on to when they’re older — to know that literally anything they want to try, they’re going to be able to do,” said race Director Mike DeCinti.
The 6- to 10-year-old participants swam 50 yards before putting on their sneakers and helmets and biking three miles, followed by running or walking one mile. The 11- to 15-year-olds swam 100 yards, biked six miles and ran or walked two miles. Everybody got a medal and the top finishing boys and girls in each of four ages groups were presented with trophies by Robeson County native Ashton Locklear, who recently traveled to the Rio Olympics as an alternate on the U.S. women’s gymnastics team.
“I’m proud of all of you for trying hard and pushing yourself,” Locklear told the group.
The event was a sport for spectators too as parents raced around the course to catch a glimpse — and a photo — of their child in action.
Saturday’s event was a family affair for the MacDonalds. Twelve-year-old Charles Ann has participated in the Youth Triathlon since it began. Her sister, Sara Wallace, 10, took third in the girls’ 9-to-10 age group, and 6-year-old Anna Jason joined the race for the first time.
“I like the feeling when you finish and you know you did it,” said Charles Ann, a soccer player and rock climber who prepared by riding bicycles with her friends.
Ann MacDonald said their daughters see the event as a fun thing to do with friends. The family now lives in Fayetteville, but previously lived in Lumberton, so the Triathlon is “a bit of a homecoming,” Ann said.
“I’m a happy mom today that all my kids are blessed with good health and can participate,” she said.
Kearsay Lowry, 9, liked the biking leg of the race the best. She and her brother, 10-year-old Zaviar, both participated last year, and train every week on the UNCP track with their father.
“She does it for the fun and the exercise,” said their grandmother, Kimberly Chavis. “… I’m proud of them. I love it. It’s teaching them to be healthy. The earlier you teach them that, the better off they are.”
Jeremy Hall, 9, said the shiny, red and gold trophies are his favorite part of the Youth Triathlon. He added a third to his collection Saturday when he won first place for the boys’ 9-to-10 age group. Hall said it takes “hard work and focus” to get ready for the event. He’s been training since age 4 with the goal of one day running track in the Olympics.
First-time Tri-Warriors volunteer Sunny Harrell said her daughter is itching to join the fun. The 7-year-old already posts a workout-of-the-day schedule at home for the family.
Harrell is a school social worker and saw many of her students bright and early Saturday morning.
“There are a lot of smiles when they come through and people are cheering,” she said.
Those smiles keep volunteers and participants alike coming back year after year. Billie Jo Harris has volunteered for four years and looks forward to it every year. About 150 volunteers helped out Saturday, setting up cones and tape marking the running and biking lanes, directing children flying through the course, and helping them through the “transition area” where they switched to the next activity.
Also a fourth-year volunteer, Iris Locklear said the event promotes a culture of fitness in Robeson County.
“I want to see some changes on our community as far as our health … This is a good way to get kids involved because they’re the ones that will make a change,” she said.
DeCinti said it takes a certain kind of kid to be a triathlete.
“Triathlon is an individual sport. You are by yourself a lot. It takes a certain mentality. You’re whisked away and told to get in a pool and somehow get down there and come back, then you get on your bike and just go,” he said. “You’ve got to have that internal fortitude to do that.”
DeCinti said he’s honored people keep coming back for the race. While he would love for all 121 participants to become triathletes, seeing them smiling and enjoying the results of their hard work is enough.
“They may not call this exercise,” DeCinti said, “but we hope they realize exercise is fun and they can do more when they’re fit.”
Sarah Willets can be reached at 910-816-1974 or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.