Top age-grouper Cherie Gruenfeld shares triathlon with low-income kids

Cherie Gruenfeld
Top age-grouper Cherie Gruenfeld has found a new way to share her passion for triathlon — by helping train a group of low-income children for their first race.

Gruenfeld, who has won her age group multiple times at Ironman Hawaii and also holds age-group titles at Ironman USA and Roth, spoke in December at a program called Exceeding Expectations at Cypress Elementary School in Highland, Calif.

"The general theme of my talk to the kids was about setting goals and working to achieve these goals," Gruenfeld said. "Of course, I used my Ironman experience as the background for doing this. To conclude the talk I showed them a short video of me doing Kona."

Gruenfeld said when she went to the school to speak, she met with the teachers to talk about the possibility of some of the kids doing a little triathlon in a nearby town. The teachers liked the idea and arranged tryouts for the next week. Nearly 200 kids showed up, with 12 11- and 12-year-olds chosen to be trained.

"Every Saturday the teachers and one fantastic teacher's aide got in a van and drove around gathering the kids up," Gruenfeld said. "Those that lived nearby just showed up at the appointed time. We started weekly bike and run training with them and entered them in a local 5K for a training run."

Gruenfeld said she realized quickly that they needed money to get the program going and to keep it afloat, and the fund-raising began.

"The kids didn't have running shoes, biking equipment and certainly no means of paying entry fees," she said. "I wrote a letter and sent it out or handed it out to whomever I could find. People were wonderful and responded with cash. Race directors were happy to comp the kids into their races. We have now gone through three rounds of funding, and it will be an ongoing process."

The children were a big hit with the crowd at their first 5K, Gruenfeld said, and "they all ran a tough course beautifully." They even had enough energy to run with Gruenfeld as she wrapped up the last quarter-mile of a half-marathon she was running at the same race.

They completed their first triathlon in February as members of relay teams using swimmers Gruenfeld helped recruit — among them publisher and triathlon legend Bob Babbitt.

"None of these kids have spent any time in a pool and several, although living an hour from the ocean, have never seen the ocean," she said.

Their next adventure came at the Desert Triathlon in La Quinta, where race director Greg Klein offered to comp five teams into the race. This meant an overnight stay for the kids and some more hunting for swimmers who could do the open-water swim.

"One of the teachers has a son who is on a high school swim team," Gruenfeld said. "He got four of his swim-mates to join him and the five of them joined the teams. Three of our kids did both the bike and the run. It was a real adventure and the kids did fantastic, again thrilling the crowd with their grit and determination."

Now the children are enrolled in a local YMCA for swimming lessons and plan on doing a short race with a pool swim in June — and they'll do the entire race solo.

"One little guy has proclaimed that he intends to do an Ironman when he's 18, and he will," Gruenfeld said.

Gruenfeld said that while she provides the motivation and inspiration, "the real force that makes this all possible is the teachers. These folks will do anything for these kids."

Gruenfeld plans the training, works with the kids on the weekends, organizes the fund-raising and communicates with race directors.

"But without the teachers, what I do would go nowhere," she said.

In April, she had to tell the kids that the start of her competitive season was coming, and that she wouldn't be able to spend as much time training them for a while. But a young man Gruenfeld has been helping prepare for Wildflower has joined her in training the kids, and he's planning to assume more of the training duties from May to October.

"I'm nuts about these kids," Gruenfeld said. "I love seeing their eyes light up when they accomplish a goal."

She admits she's also shameless in asking for money for the cause. If you're interested in helping, you can mail a check to: Cypress Elementary School, c/o Ms. Jacque Irons, 26825 Cypress Street, Highland, CA 92346.

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