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Making Kids’ Triathlon Dreams Come True at Challenge Daytona

These Florida triathletes were so inspired by the amazing work of Bernard Lyles that they invited him, three of his campers, and their families to come race Challenge Daytona.

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We all come across heartwarming stories about people doing great things in their community. But when Brendan Galbreath read about Bernard Lyles’ youth triathlon camp in Chicago, he decided he didn’t just want to read about it—he wanted to do something too.

“We ended up meeting him and we brainstormed,” said Galbreath. “Generosity changes everything.”

Galbreath and his friends, who are part of an informal training group (“the Pain Train”) where they live in Florida, decided to fly three of the kids from the youth camp, their parents, and Lyles down to Florida for the inaugural Challenge Daytona race.

But first Galbreath and Lyles had to settle on some criteria for picking which kids deserved to be rewarded for their hard work: they had to attend at least 80% of the summer workouts at Lyles’ youth camp, they had to have a positive coach’s recommendation, they had to complete the kids’ race at the Chicago Triathlon, and they had to write an essay about what they’ve learned and why Lyles is important to them and their community.

“Originally we said two kids, but three essays really jumped out at us,” said Galbreath. Lyles agreed, calling him up and saying we got to find a way to bring all three of these kids down to Daytona.

Those kids are Erick Smith, Theodore Morrison, and Netert Johnson, who all live on the south side of Chicago. And this weekend they’ll be tackling the challenging sprint race at Challenge Daytona, racing their bikes around the Daytona Speedway and hopefully adding another finisher’s medal to their growing collections.

All three of them started with Lyles’ youth program years ago, when they were very young—maybe technically too young. Since Netert and Theodore weren’t actually old enough for the program when they started, the joke among the parents is they were “seven years old for three years.”

Over 1,500 kids have gone through Lyles’ youth summer triathlon camp since he started it in 1992. Lyles, one of the first African-American triathletes to race at Kona, originally founded a Chicago chapter of Tri-Masters to simply bring more adults of color to the sport. But then, with a $10,000 grant from the Chicago Community Trust and the support of the Chicago State University President, he was able to hire two lifeguards, buy 10 bikes, and get started with 30 kids that first summer.

“There are lots of kids who need programming there,” he said.

The summer youth program has grown since then, offering camps for kids who otherwise might not have had options, who were economically disadvantaged or who lived in neighborhoods where there was violence and drugs. It was this program Galbreath and his friends read about.

For the kids, it’s about triathlon, but it’s also about learning life skills—being confident when no one else at the race looks like them, setting goals and taking steps to reach them. “I learned about different things I could do,” said Erick.

After skipping the summer program one year, because he wanted to hang out with friends instead, Erick now trains year-round: cyclocross in the winter snow and cross-country with his school in the fall. He joined another tri club too and raced the youth national championships in Cleveland this past year. Netert, who started with Lyles when she was just four, swims all year now too, with a club in Chicago. And Theodore, whose dad runs marathons and triathlons, did the IronKids race in Chattanooga this summer.

Theodore, his mom said, also has Asperger’s. The triathlon program has given him a chance to be healthy and social, to get used to stressful situations with lots of people, and to succeed simply by finishing. One of the great things about triathlon is you compete against yourself and are rewarded for getting to the finish line—whatever that takes.

“I just wanted to share the sport,” said Lyles. It’s not always easy to coach the kids, of course. Lyles joked one of them “fired” him after practice one day. But it’s worth it.

All staying in a house together on the water in Florida, the parents of the three kids are quick to point out Lyles is being modest. His summer camp isn’t just about bike skills or learning how to swim. It also includes nutritional information and motivational speakers. The kids were excited to meet Max Fennell, the first African-American pro triathlete, last summer.

Now they’re ready for the Challenge sprint race, though Theodore admits he’s a little nervous. It’ll be hard, he said, but that’s OK. Galbreath has rented bikes for the kids and the Challenge team has hooked up them up with VIP passes. Galbreath and the other “Pain Train” athletes are also going to swim alongside the kids, shadow them for their race.

And most importantly, Erick has his eyes on his post-race prize. He’s trying to convince his parents to let him do the Daytona Slingshot, a carnival ride on the beach boardwalk that flings you about 300 feet on a bungee cord at a 100 mph.

“Let’s have a great weekend,” said Galbreath. “It’s a reward for their hard work.”

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