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Gillian Fealy always felt like an outsider who never quite fit in. As someone on the autism spectrum, she often struggled with social interactions and verbal communication. The exception was in team settings for sports, where she found connection, self-esteem, and confidence that carried her through her school years.
“But like so many of us, my sports career ended after high school. I felt like an outsider again,” Fealy recalled. It would be years before she rediscovered a sense of community through sports–this time, as a triathlete. “At the beginning, I connected with my new community on the pure fact that we all loved to swim, bike, and run. But as time went on, I began to realize that the triathlon community is a group of people who not only unconditionally support each other but actually celebrates each other’s unique abilities.”
Through triathlon, Fealy has encountered people from all different walks of life, brought together by the shared passion for doing epic things. These relationships have become some of the most important and meaningful in her life, and spurred her to find new connections with new people. “I realized I loved being inspired by others and focused my time on coaching and training others,” said Fealy.
This led to the formation of Live Grit SOARS, a youth development program in Chicago that helps young people in underserved communities access the power of multisport. The ultimate mission of Live Grit SOARS is to continue expand triathlon’s diverse community of athletes who overcome obstacles and achieve their goals.
“Swimming, biking, and running represent so much more than triathlons, especially in Chicago. They represent disparities in equitable access. They represent racial inequalities and the discrimination. They represent inequality in the distribution of resources across the different Chicago neighborhoods. Every child in Chicago should have the opportunity to ride a bike. Every child in Chicago should have access to swim lessons. But what we’ve found is that many of our youth have never been given these opportunities, and this is not okay. Live Grit SOARS is going to be a part of the solution and not be a part of the problem by saying it’s too difficult.”
Through Live Grit SOARS, Fealy hopes to give youth the same experience of belonging and empowerment that she has found in sport.
“Being on the autism spectrum, I’ve always had a lot of anxiety around and difficulty with verbal communication. This led to self-doubt around in my capabilities and what I was capable of achieving. Triathlons taught me that obstacles are not limits. They taught me that with passion and perseverance, nothing in unattainable. Before triathlons, I thought my anxiety and fear meant you shouldn’t do something. But triathlons have taught me that anxiety and fear are opportunities for growth. I do not think I would be where I am had I not become a triathlete.”