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At I-Tri, Girls Learn to Swim, Bike, Run—and Conquer the World

Training for these middle school students isn't just about covering the distance.

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At the beginning of the 2022 triathlon season, 150 middle school students in Long Island joined the I-tri girls triathlon team. 60 did not know how to swim; 24 did not know how to ride a bike. Yet all of them have earned a finisher’s medal at a super-sprint triathlon this year.

This may sound remarkable for a youth triathlon program, but it’s par for the course with I-tri, which has been bringing young girls into the sport since 2010, when East Hampton mom Theresa Roden got inspired by what she calls a “transformative experience” at her first triathlon:

“After a lifetime of considering myself non-athletic, I signed up for my first triathlon in my 30s,” Roden said. “My life changed in so many ways once I set my mind on completing that first race. I quickly realized that if I wanted to cross that finish line, I could not continue to berate myself the way I always had: you are too fat, you can’t do it, you are not good enough.

Roden decided to train more than just her body; she put her mind and spirit through a training program as well. Using positive affirmations, self-love, and visualization, Roden began to believe she could actually achieve her goal. When she crossed the finish line of her race, she knew she wanted others to experience the power of triathlon, too.

“As my daughter Abby was getting ready to go to middle school, I reflected on what a tough time of life that is, especially for girls, and I thought, ‘If I had learned all of this at her age, instead of waiting until I was in my 30’s, what a different experience I might have had.’”

Roden scheduled a meeting with the principal of Abby’s school and pitched him the idea of a girls’ triathlon program, giving them all of the training, equipment, love, and support necessary to complete a triathlon, free of charge. The idea was approved, and rapidly expanded from the inaugural class of 10 girls at one school to over 1,000 alumnae from 12 different schools.

(Photo: i-tri)

In I-tri, participants meet once a week after school for what the group calls “empowerment sessions,” where they learn about self-love, affirmations, and visualization. Those sessions are then followed by a fitness session where they take part in a variety of sports, be it yoga, kickboxing, or circuit training. Sport-specific training happens on the weekends, where group members meet up for swim workouts, bike rides, and runs. The program culminates with the Hamptons Youth Triathlon in July at Long Beach, in Sag Harbor, New York, where they complete a 300-yard open water swim, a 6-mile bike on open roads with designated bike lanes, and a 1.5-mile run to the finish line.

The secret to I-tri’s success is in the informed, holistic approach to child and adolescent development. Youth experts often say the best approach for training kids for a sport is to not train at all—that is, to simply be active and have fun. Instructors in the program are trained in developmentally-appropriate practices, both in sport instruction and in supporting the needs of young athletes. This past season, knowing the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has declared a “mental health crisis” in children and adolescents, I-tri trained staff in trauma-informed care and coaching to best support the athletes in the program.

Race day, then, is not just a finish line for covering set swim-bike-run distances, but the culmination of a transformative journey.

“Before the race, we circle up and power-pose for a minute,” Roden said. “Then we close our eyes, put our hands over our hearts, and repeat these affirmations: I am safe, I am strong, I am brave. I-tri!”

When the starting gun goes off, the girls race as individuals, but support each other on the course with high-fives and cheers. As each girl finishes the race, they join a line of those before her, making a bridge with their hands for the next finishers to run through. The girls who finished first will run back out on the course, find the final finishers, and run in together.

“There’s hardly a dry eye in the crowd,” Roden said. “The very last finisher, surrounded by over 100 of her teammates, who know just how hard she had to work to overcome fear and her own limiting thoughts to push through.”

The I-tri experience usually doesn’t end with race day. Many who complete the program in sixth grade return for seventh and eighth, serving as mentors to younger girls. When they reach high school, alumnae are invited to serve as assistant coaches, receiving free lifeguard training and paid employment.

“It’s an insurmountable task, training 150 middle school girls each year to do something they do not believe will be possible,” Roden said. “But our amazing board, staff, coaches and alums pull it off.”

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