When I held my newborn son, I had many hopes and dreams for him, but competing in a triathlon by age seven was admittedly not one of them. My husband and I both did triathlons during our 20s and early 30s, but as the children, jobs, and moves keep coming, our ability and willingness to train and race waned. Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly I was at home all day every day with two very young, very active kids. We hiked, we biked, we swam, we did our best to stay out of the house and stay sane. Somewhere between the first pandemic summer and the second, my son asked to do a triathlon.
We are very fortunate to have a wonderful kids’ triathlon program in our small town, but the registration fee was somewhat hefty for a seven-year-old who changes his mind about his Halloween costume ten times before finally settling on something impossible on Oct. 30. After triple-checking that he was serious, I registered him eight weeks before the race.
His training consisted mostly of free play in the pool, bike rides with his dad, and walk-runs with me and our pandemic puppy. My husband explained transition and we even did one bike-run brick. Otherwise, we just let him play and enjoy the excitement of an upcoming race.
Two weeks before the race, my son panicked and wanted to back out of the triathlon, but we watched videos of the Olympic triathletes and reminded him that no one wins their first race. At this point, we helped our son set two goals: to finish, and to have fun.
The day of the race, we arrived early but not too early, got his gear set up, and grabbed free coffee from the parent stand. My son was shockingly calm and I worked hard to hide my own pre-race anxiety. He was unfazed as we set his gear up in transition, got his timing chip on his ankle, and inked his number and age on his arm and leg. My tummy bubbled and flipped as he stood in line to start the swim—at the back, based on his age—but he calmly listened to the race director and fixed his goggles. When the time came, he hopped in the pool for his swim and never once stopped, whined, cried, or gave up.
As I watched my child persevere through his very first athletic event, what struck me most was not his athletic performance but the lessons he learned by completing a triathlon.
While many American parents consider team sports for their children—basketball, soccer, football—I saw firsthand the amazing foundational lessons children can learn through individual sports like triathlon. By signing up and paying for the race, my son learned to believe in and be committed to himself even when he had moments of fear or regret. During the race, he learned to channel his nervousness into adrenaline and pushed his body in a way he never had before. When he finished, his pride in his hard work and perseverance shone on his face, and the confidence boost he gained from the competition is still evident in his demeanor today. He gained the sense of accomplishment of finishing something he committed to, was somewhat scared of, and did his best anyway. His age group win was just the cherry on top.
Even though triathlon is an individual sport, my son also learned about empathy and friendship on race day. He watched as some competitors finished their own races only to double back and run alongside their friends still out on the course. He watched the overall first and second place winners battle it out on the final 100 yards of the run and then embrace each other after the finish line. He helped me cheer on total strangers and then watched as, without exception, every family stayed to cheer for the very last person to cross the finish line.
The lessons learned that day were not just for the children. During a time of such extreme divisiveness in our country, a group of parents came together to cheer on every single child participating. There were no political parties or factions, just parents who wanted their kids to try something new and build self-esteem. Total strangers—other parents, volunteers, other kids—learned my son’s name and cheered him on throughout the race, and in turn, my son learned to cheer on anyone still competing because everyone running the race is one giant team. When my son was announced as the six-and-seven-year-old winner, another mom cheered as loudly as I did. And in the end, I learned a lesson in humility from my son—I was more enchanted by his age-group win than he was.
As an adult competitor, it’s easy to get bogged down in the minutia of training schedules, the best gear, nutrition, rankings, and on and on. Our kids are a great reminder of what makes triathlon one of the greatest sport: the people. Triathlon people are the best people, whether competing as adults or cheering on their kids.