By Jennifer Garrett
When we Madisonians think about triathlons, we are liable to jump straight to Ironman, the grueling, inhuman swim-bike-run endurance event that comes to town late every summer. But that's only part of the picture.
The other part is far less intense, yet every bit as inspirational. The participants finish in minutes, not hours, and they don't have chiseled muscles and $5,000 bikes. Some of them can't really even swim, and a few of them still have training wheels. But give them a break—they're kids. And this group of little triathletes is getting bigger fast. According to USA Triathlon, there were 193 youth events in 2004. Last year there were 1,046.
One of those was Monona's Sawyer Crossen Memorial Triathlon, an annual June event that just wrapped up its fourth year. Started by Molly and P.J. Crossen to honor their son who died in infancy, Sawyer's Tri offers age-appropriate distances and heavily supported courses to ensure safety and success for the kids. For example, the event forgoes the open-water swimming usually associated with triathlons and instead opts for a pool filled with lifeguards and noodles.
Katie Hensel was a volunteer at the inaugural Sawyer's Tri in 2009. An Ironman veteran herself, Hensel knew what sense of accomplishment could come from completing a triathlon. "I recognize what it did for me," she says.
She also liked the idea of bringing the sport to kids while still in school rather than in college or later, when most triathletes discover it. So in 2010 she decided to quit her job at Epic and start Tri 4 Schools, a nonprofit that this year presented three kids' triathlons and two kids' mud runs.
"I'm just one person," she says, "[but] I hope to introduce these kids to three lifestyle sports that they can do wherever they go and at any age."
Hensel wanted to do more than just offer a sporting event, so she decided to use the triathlons to support local schools. So Hensel pounds the pavement and hits up area businesses—including Epic, her former employer—to sponsor events so that all registration fees can go back to the schools that participants attend. She rattles off an impressive list of businesses that contribute to her program. Culver's. St. Mary's. Waunakee Rotary. Dean. "It's really neat to see local businesses [invest in] what we're doing," Hensel says.
Because of the strong corporate support, seventy-five percent of registration fees goes straight back to participants' schools. The other twenty-five percent is divided among the five area schools with the highest proportion of students on free- or reduced-lunch aid. Schools can use the money as they wish as long as their investments support health, nutrition or fitness.
Like Hensel, board member Anna Reynolds is an Ironman veteran. The executive director of Friends of Henry Vilas Zoo says the school support was what drew her to Tri 4 Schools, but it was Hensel herself that really won Reynolds over. "Honestly, I think onehundred percent of the success is due to Katie," she says. "She's such a captivating, charismatic person. It is so obvious that she is passionate about what the organization is all about."
Jay Matthews, a physical education teacher at Lindbergh Elementary, is another believer. He took the $2,000 his school earned from two triathlons and replaced thirty-three pairs of rollerblades. While $2,000 might not seem like a huge sum of money, it dwarfs the school's annual $300–$400 physical education budget.
But more than the money, Matthews says the Tri 4 Schools event has become a community builder at school. Even his father-in-law pitches in by hauling bikes in his trailer.
Beyond that, it's just fun. "It's really amazing," Matthews says. "I didn't know kids would love it this much."