“You can do this,” Ally Fishell whispered to her 10-year-old brother Christian as he trepidly entered the pool.
“Go Noah, go,” cheered supporters as he pedaled around the parking lot.
“Looking good Jamie,” shouted Robin Weissert as she watched her 8-year-old daughter run like the wind, lapping her competition.
These are typical words of encouragement heard at triathlons, but this event was different.
It was special-needs children’s time to try as the Spencer YMCA held the first triathlon of its kind in Bethel Park.
“These children are athletes, too, and they want to compete,” said Mike Lloyd, who is director of admission advancement for the Y.
During the inaugural My Turn To Tri, special-needs athletes swam, biked and ran. They racked up laps and points during each 15-minute segment.
All competitors had the opportunity to break the blue winner’s tape at a finish line festooned with yellow and white balloons.
In addition to participation medals, awards were distributed by former U.S. Marine Eric McElvenny to the athletes demonstrating characteristics such as grit, determination and courage. The Bethel Park resident lost his right leg when he stepped on an IED while serving in Afghanistan in 2011.
“I’m so proud of all of you,” McElvenny said during the post-race awards celebration. “Everybody went out and finished. Because you completed a triathlon, I am going to call you all triathletes.
“It’s hard. It’s fun. But, I saw a lot of smiles out there. I saw people getting tired on the run. I saw people getting tired on the bike and I saw some people a little scared to go swimming. But, I want to tell you that’s part of being a triathlete. It takes resilience. It takes courage.”
Just to enter the event took courage for some participants.
For example, Noah Troesch saw a flyer about the race while playing baseball in the Miracle League in Upper St. Clair. Troesch is austistic. He also has ADHD.
“Noah usually doesn’t sign up for anything,” said his mother, Kristin, who grew up in Bethel Park, but now lives in Baldwin. “He was very excited about this.”
Noah was so excited he actually trained for the race. He rode his bike up and down the street. When he rounded the block, he was so thrilled, he’d ask “how fast” did he go.
Now the family is elated children like Noah have a chance to compete.
“Noah would always see his brothers and sisters involved in activities and now there is something for him,” Kristin said. “I think it’s wonderful that he can look forward to things like this.
“Sports are a great outlet for people like Noah with special needs,” she added. “Sports give him hope and they motivate him.”
Christian Fishell, 10, used his sisters as motivation.
Ally, Gabrielle and Jillian have competed in triathlons in the past, including the Habitat For Humanity Series held in South and North parks.
Ally, 15, who is now in high school and runs cross country for Upper St. Clair, served as Christian’s buddy. She helped him train, running with him in the family’s backyard and monitoring his biking. She also swam with him at the Y.
Ally assisted Christian during every leg of the triathlon. By the end of the race, she was exhausted.
“I didn’t realize how much effort I was going to have to put into it,” she said. “It really was like doing my own triathlon.
“I really enjoyed helping everyone though and giving everyone the chance to have the same experience as a regular kid would,” Ally added. “It was very rewarding seeing everybody enjoy themselves and sharing the same experience that I have had.”
Kristine Fishell said her son has always wanted to compete in a triathlon, but could not because he has Down syndrome.
“This time it was his turn to try,” she said. “It was a day for him and other athletes like him to compete. This event gave each of the children the opportunity to feel as if they can achieve a goal and that they can feel special, too.”
Macee Peterson received the special treatment from McElvenny after she befriended him at the registration table. Peterson asked what happened to him.
He instinctively replied. “I have this fake leg. It’s called a prosthetic leg. Isn’t it pretty cool?” Noting it indeed was different, he added he sometimes tells people it’s his robot leg.
“Well that’s cool,” agreed Peterson, who has Down syndrome. “How about that.”
Macee proceeded to show McElvenny her pink bike and after her swim, he helped her prepare for the cycling portion of the race by securing the straps on her helmet.
Macee loves being active. She enjoys swimming in the family’s backyard pool and she loves to ride her bike. Macee also plays in the Miracle League.
“We are really excited that something like this actually exists for us,” said Macee’s mother, Meredith, who works at the Down Syndrome Center at Children’s Hospital. “It opens another venue for children like Macee to be active.
“This is huge,” Meredith added regarding the Y triathlon. “Kids love to be active. Macee has been looking forward to this. She has been excited for months.”
Even though the event started early, 7 a.m. Sunday morning, seven female students from Upper St. Clair High School were excited to take part in the triathlon. The rising sophomores were among the many volunteers helping to ensure the event ran smoothly. Several of them heard about the event because they had also volunteered at the YMCA’s Camp Aim, which serves special-needs students during the summer months.
Some, like Penny Yates, are cheerleaders.
Since USC has a special-needs cheer team, Yates volunteered to help with that and learned about the Y triathlon.
“I like getting involved with things like this because I like seeing kids have fun,” Yates said. “It’s really exciting to see the happiness on the children’s faces and seeing everybody have a good time. It’s really neat to see how they progress and get along together and have so much fun.”
According to Christian Fishell, the most fun was being finished.
As he ate a chocolate-iced cake doughnut, Fishell agreed the post-race food was the “best part” of the race. He added, the swimming was “hardest” as was the run but he had “liked” the biking.
“I will do this again,” he confirmed. “I had a lot of fun.”