Early in the morning of August 26, 2007, Sean Maloney zipped up his wetsuit, plunged into Lake Michigan, and swam nearly a mile in the choppy water alongside hundreds of people. He then hopped on a bike and rode 25 miles before running 6.2 miles through the city streets to complete the Chicago Triathlon.
Maloney was 10 years old.
But he was no phenom, groomed from an early age by overly ambitious parents to excel in multisport. Rather, he was a kid from the south side of Chicago who had just recently learned to swim before dipping his toes in the sport of triathlon. One who was simply out there because he wanted to try it, who was told by his coach that he could do anything he set his mind to–yes, even an Olympic-distance triathlon. One who had the support of a team who felt more like family.
That coach? Bernard Lyles. That team? Tri-Masters Sports Initiative, the now-legendary squad, which, since 1992, has been bringing athletes of color to the sport through a summer youth program.
“That was one of my proudest moments as a coach,” Lyles, 71, recently recalled of watching Maloney race. “They made this big deal about him being the youngest participant. His dad was so scared with his kid out there in the lake, but I knew he could do it. I just said, ‘Sean, you got this.’ It took him over four hours, but he knocked it out.”
For the past 28 years, Lyles has led the way for thousands of kids like Maloney to reach their own finish lines. After launching the Chicago chapter of Tri-Masters, Lyles has developed what Maloney described as a “rite of passage” that is about so much more than triathlon. Because while the seven-week summer camp introduces kids to the sport by teaching swimming, biking, and running, it also instills self-confidence, responsibility, and leadership skills that they can carry with them for the rest of their life.
Not to mention it’s kept kids off the streets–and out of trouble. That was Lyles’ initial hope when he launched Tri-Masters out of the University of Chicago in 1992 with the help of a $10,000 grant from the Chicago Community Trust and the support of the school president. He would use his passion for triathlon as a tool to show the youth in his neighborhood that there was a “whole lot more” to life than getting involved in drugs and gang activity. Like traveling. Racing. Seeing the world.
“I had so much fun in triathlon, I wanted to share it. But when I went to races, I didn’t see that many people, if any, who looked like me,” said Lyles, who got his start in the sport in 1983 and went on to become one of the first African-American triathletes to race in Kona. “I wanted to change that. And a youth program would be a great way to do that.”
From the get-go, Tri-Masters camp has thrived, perhaps because of Lyles’ reputation–with his easy laugh and jovial vibe, he makes even the hardest workouts seem fun. Or perhaps because he was able to comprise a staff of coaches who have diligently and patiently worked with the participants, many of whom do not know how to swim. Plenty of others come to camp not knowing how to ride a bike. But not for long. By the end of the session, nearly every camper is expected to complete a sprint triathlon.
“One year, we got 108 out of 160 kids to a triathlon in August,” Lyles said, bursting into laughter at the memory. “Imagine the look on a race director’s face when we show up with four busloads of kids ready to race. And their parents. We were the hit of the party.”
Indeed, Lyles was way ahead of the curve when it came to introducing triathlon to the younger generation–especially children of color. His work has set a precedent for many other programs in inner-city areas with the goal of promoting diversity in the sport, like the Red Hot Jalapeños, a squad of young Latino athletes that spun off from Tri-Masters.
Today, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Lyles is staying busy curating a new Tri-Masters website and reconnecting with his former athletes–some of whom have children he’s now coaching–to collect their testimonies as a way to encourage new participants to join as soon as activity can resume.
There are alumni like Ryan Hickman, who came to the program when she was 10 years old. “She could beat up on all the boys,” Lyles said of her running prowess. Already a swimmer, Hickman picked up the bike rather quickly and was soon competing at a high level, ultimately finishing second in the 19-and-under U.S. Triathlon Series Championships in 1999. But beyond her impressive skills as an athlete, Lyles remembers her laser-like career ambition. “She’d tell anyone she’d meet: ‘I’m going to be a doctor one day,’” he said.
Some 17 years after she graduated from the program, Hickman and Lyles met up in Kona, Hawaii, on the 40th anniversary of the Ironman World Championship. And sure enough, Hickman, now 37, had realized her childhood dream and became a sports medicine physician, working at Kona in the medical tent. While Lyles eschews taking any credit for Hickman’s success, she says otherwise. Calling him a “father figure [who was there] when my own was not,” Hickman has no doubt that Lyles and Tri-Masters provided her with a life-changing experience.
“It took a lot of hard work, dedication, self-discipline, and persistence to get where I am today,” Hickman said. “And I would like to think Tri-Masters helped contribute to those traits within me.”