"Kids spend so much time in and around school, it's the only place where some have a chance to develop an appreciation for a healthy lifestyle," says Katie Hensel, founder and executive director of Tri 4 Schools.
Tri 4 encourages healthy lifestyles by holding athletic events for kids while at the same time raising money for local schools' health and fitness programs. It's grown to include four annual races: triathlons in Middleton and Waunakee; a mud run; and a fun run. The group also piloted an after-school component, Exercise to Achievement, this past year in the Madison schools. Hensel hopes to expand it to other districts in 2015.
It all started with a Middleton Kids Triathlon in 2011. Tri 4 raised almost $10,000 for local schools' health and fitness programs that first year, almost double its goal. And Tri 4 exceeded the $100,000 donation mark last May.
"I wanted to bring in money for events and have it go right back out to schools," says Hensel.
Seventy-five percent of a participant's entry fee in an event goes back to his or her own school, while the other 25% goes to Dane County schools with the highest financial need and risk factors for childhood obesity. Schools put the money toward health and fitness expenses, which could be anything from buying P.E. equipment to starting a REAP program.
Hensel joined the UW-Madison's triathlete team after watching the first Ironman triathlon competition kick off in Madison. "I didn't know how to swim basically at all, and really hated running, but I was so inspired."
Eventually Hensel burned out on her corporate job and started volunteering at the Sawyer Crossen Memorial kids' triathlon in Monona. Soon after, she founded Tri 4.
For parents like Tina Miller, an avid runner whose kids have watched her in races, becoming an advocate for Tri 4 Schools was a given. Miller's son Jordan, 9, and daughter Maya, 7, have participated in numerous events with the program and soon will take part the upcoming Middleton Kids Triathlon on Aug. 16.
"I didn't even know what a triathlon was until I was a teenager and heard about it at the Olympics," says Miller. "I'm really proud of them for doing it at such a young age."
Miller and Sarah Bremer, also a runner and parent to triathletes Ben and Maddie, both 10, have helped boost Sauk Trail Elementary's participation to 21 kids.
"We're always looking for champions and advocates for schools, so it's pretty exciting when parents get involved," says Hensel. "It takes parents and teachers and everybody together to make it happen."
The fourth annual Middleton competition takes place at the Bauman Aquatic Center. The swimming segment is done in the pool; biking is done on neighborhood streets closed to traffic; and the run takes place on the grounds of nearby Middleton High School. The length of the loops varies depending on a child's age.
Here are some pointers if your kid is considering participating in a race:
- Look at the map of the course and walk/ride/drive it before the race with your child.
- Talk to a family whose child has participated in past races.
- Attend the pre-race talks during packet pickup.
"This all helped a lot with the transition area," says Bremer, referring to the switchover from the swimming to the biking segments and from biking to running. "That was totally unknown to us since we had never done a triathlon before."
Adaptive courses are available for all the races, allowing competitive opportunities for all kids.
On race day, a child's sense of accomplishment is the greatest reward. Maya Miller sums up how she felt about completing last year's triathlon: "Proud. Tired, too. Happy, though, because I finished it!"
Middleton Kids Triathlon