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Like many aspiring triathletes, Dr. Alyse Kelly-Jones thought signing up for a race would be a good way to improve her health and have some “me time” in a busy lifestyle as a practicing OB/GYN and mother of three. But training for three sports in a jam-packed schedule seemed like a crazy–daresay impossible–proposition. Perhaps it was easier for people who were already athletic to some degree, Kelly-Jones reasoned, but not for people like her, who had no idea how to even get started in one sport, much less three.
Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling she needed to give it a try. Kelly-Jones signed up for a race, carved out small amounts of time each day to swim, bike, or run, and learned how to balance her personal goals with her professional and family responsibilities. Along the way, she learned that spending a little more time on herself each day made her a better wife, mother, co-worker, and doctor. And when she crossed the finish line of her first race, she earned a new title: triathlete.
The experience inspired Kelly-Jones to help other women gain the same benefits of triathlon she had experienced: a healthier body, increased self-confidence, and a overall better quality of life. Kelly-Jones experienced a profound shift in her self-concept when she began to refer to herself as an athlete, and she wanted to share that with others.
In 2006, she recruited 100 women who had never done a triathlon and partnered them with a group of her triathlon friends who served as mentors. Over 12 weeks, these first-time triathletes and mentors trained together and crossed the finish line at the women’s-only Ramblin’ Rose Sprint Triathlon in Huntersville, NC. These first-timers, now known as the Ramblin’ 100, were so euphoric, they decided to pay it forward by recruiting and mentoring new triathletes for the 2007 race. Tri It For Life was born, and the North Carolina triathlon scene was forever changed.
Today, more than 1200 alumnae out of five chapters in North Carolina have participated in Tri It For Life, averaging 150 new members and mentors a year. “We specialize in nurturing each woman’s goal of completing a triathlon by helping them break down barriers they often impose on themselves,” said Michelle Boyd, who serves as chair of the club’s membership committee. “We have athletes that do not know how to swim and some that do not know how to ride a bike.”
Regardless, all new Tri It For Life members, from the very first minute of each season’s kickoff event, are deliberately referred to as athletes. This is a conscious decision inspired by the founder, Kelly-Jones: “You should see the shock on their faces when we address them by this title,” says Boyd. “But by the end of the training, they are very comfortable with the title because they are athletes.”
So how do they get from hesitation to pride? Through mentorship. A band of volunteers – many of whom returning Tri It For Life athletes who want to share the inspiration and motivation they received – guide and encourage new triathletes at members-only swim clinics, bicycle rides and running opportunities. But building skills is only one component of the 12-week process:
“We’re not a training group, said Boyd. “Tri It For Life is not about whipping women into shape. Tri It For Life is a mentoring organization. It’s about the journey to fitness, to friendships, and to finding yourself.”
Alumnae Belinda Gaither experienced this firsthand in 2018 when she joined Tri It For Life after the unexpected death of her father. “My dad was an avid athlete and died in the gym while working out,” Gaither explained. “I thought I would complete the race in his memory–but I was so wrong. Within about three weeks of working with Tri It For Life, I discovered that I was not only getting stronger physically, but healing mentally.”
The key to her healing was the unconditional support she found in the mentors and fellow athletes. Whether she had a newbie question about fixing a flat tire or was just really missing her dad, she knew there was someone in the group who could give her the support she needed in the moment. “We all had our highs and lows, but the mentors never lost faith in us,” said Gaither. “They kept encouraging us and telling us we would be fine. Tri It For Life embodies the empowerment of women.”
After completing her first triathlon in Chapel Hill, Gaither returned to the Tri It For Life program the following year to mentor new athletes. “Not to sound cliché, but it truly is the gift that keeps on giving,” said Gaither. “I am forever grateful for stumbling upon these lovely ladies.”
Boyd said stories of empowerment and redemption are found across the span of Tri It For Life alumnae, and a point of pride for the organization: “There are lots of triathlon training clubs for women, but not many focus on mentoring and the journey to fitness, friendships, and finding yourself.”