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The Super Bowl might be a football game, but there’s no denying the commercial breaks are a sporting event of its own. 2020 was no exception, with brands duking it out for the title of “Best Ad Ever” through the use of celebrities, humor, talking animals, and inspirational storytelling. Also: Triathletes. Yes, you read that right – swim, bike, and run made an appearance between sacks and touchdowns, thanks to Facebook’s spotlight on the Alcatraz Triathletes group.
The commercial, which brings the stories of various unique Facebook groups to life, is meant to illustrate how Facebook helps people connect over shared interests (see it below). The common thread of the 14 featured groups is “rock”—as in rock music, rocking chairs, rocket ships, rock climbing, celebrity Chris Rock, and Sylvester Stallone’s iconic role as Rocky Balboa. In the case of the Alcatraz Triathletes group, it’s the triathlon’s swim inspired by escaping from “the rock,” or Alcatraz Island.
“Facebook let us know they were working on a video with a ‘rock’ theme,” explains group founder Christina Willis. “I told them all about my Facebook group and how we all began. In November, we got a call that we were selected and to get ready!”
The group was formed in 2015 when Willis, who had won a lottery spot for the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, was looking for training partners near her in Houston, Texas. “I was looking for a group to ask question and practice the cold swim. I met some folks in a Houston-area Facebook group, and we decided to start our own group to keep in touch and start prepping. We trained in the cold starting that January.”
What started as a handful of Houston triathletes quickly expanded as other Alcatraz-bound athletes began to seek out insight and advice as they prepared for the race, which features a jump off a ferry into cold waters, hilly and twisty bike sections, and a beach run up the infamous “sand ladder.”
“The Escape from Alcatraz is such a particular race, so finding a bunch of local friends to answer all your questions isn’t usually feasible,” explains Willis. “Facebook allowed people of all different experiences to find each other and get advice around nutrition, coaching, equipment, and race details. We learn about our sport through others.”
Within five years, the group has grown to more than 1,600 triathletes. In addition to facilitating the flow of information between new and veteran Alcatraz competitors, the group also fosters in-person meetups at the race each year, where triathletes from around the world gather to meet face-to-face in San Francisco.
It’s a Facebook success story, and one that reflects the company’s new dedication to the Groups feature on the website. “Groups are now at the heart of the experience just as much as your friends and family are,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the launch of the redesigned Facebook app in April 2019. The company has been pushing more aggressively into groups as people shy away from posting things publicly, instead opting for more intimate ways to connect with others.
Willis says she’s thrilled to be a part of the Super Bowl ad in support of social media as a way to build community. “I have found lifelong friends in our group, as well as other Facebook groups. I love hearing people’s stories and learning more about our sport.”