How to change the world with one simple act of kindness each day!

In 2008, a small group of individuals had this crazy idea to change the way we race by creating new experiences for individuals with disabilities. Each of us came to the table with our own story to tell. Mine went like this.

I turned 40 in October 2007. For the couple of years leading up to that, I wanted to do something epic to mark this celebration. A new neighbor and soon to become one of my best friends, Roland Ashby, had just completed an event know as an Ironman. I had no idea what that was except that it was some kind of triathlon that was gaining popularity amongst local athletes. Back in those days, not many athletes competed in Ironman events, so I thought “why not! Let’s see if I could still kick a** at 40”. I signed up in September 2006 for the 2007 Ironman Wisconsin. This was a whole year ahead of the event without me even knowing whether I could complete a total distance of 140.6 miles which included 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and 26.2 miles of running. With a 7am start and a midnight cutoff, I had to finish all of this in 17 hours! That sounded like an EPIC way to welcome 40!

Months of planning and training, including adding some local races as training events, finally brought me to race day – Sunday September 9, 2007. I was here for one purpose — to celebrate my birthday and to reach a huge goal. A few days leading up to the event, I ran into other athletes who had stories that inspired me. Like the athlete who was using their opportunity at this race to raise money for bikes for kids, or another athlete who was helping raise money to combat homelessness and hunger. I felt selfish to be so self-focused but realized that there was nothing I could do at the time. I needed to focus on my race, execute all steps as planned, and produce a memorable finish and that I did!

Once the high of doing something this epic began to fade, I spent the rest of that fall and winter thinking about what I could do to help someone or support some cause in my community. I belonged to one of the first triathlon teams in Grand Rapids – Village Bike Shop Tri Team. I approached club owner, an accomplished athlete, and good friend Wayne Brown to talk through some of these thoughts that I was having. I wondered if we could use our talents or skills as athletes to give back to our community in some way. Was there something that we could do to inspire the next generation of athletes? Could we do something with people who are not athletes to inspire them to get active? Maybe there was something we could do to help someone with a disability? Wayne was amused by my comments and shared that a few other individuals that he knew had been having similar thoughts, and that maybe we should all get together to see what we could come up with.

When like-minded individuals gather, amazing things can happen. We held our first meeting in the fall of 2007. The focus was narrowed down to helping someone with a disability experience a race event. There was a father/son team, Dick & Rick Hoyt (whom, at the time, I had not heard of) who were out there doing some form of racing. They had accomplished their first 5k in 1977 and then in 1989, they completed their first Ironman distance at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, HI. Now that was cool.

What kept crossing my mind was what if a person with a disability did not have a family member to train or race with them? What if we brought in other athletes from our tri team to help these individuals. How could we provide others with opportunities to race to anyone who wanted to race; and not limit racing to teens or young children. We knew we would need special equipment to accommodate different shapes and sizes of individuals. We knew we would need permission from the race directors. There was a lot to discover.

We finally left that meeting with some questions answered and some decisions made. We would use more than one athlete to help each person with a disability through a race. If individual athletes could complete a race distance on their own in a reasonable time, they should be able to share the load of racing with another individual with a disability with other similarly paced athletes. This effort would take a TEAM and the idea of myTEAM TRIUMPH was born.

Since we wanted this to be a celebration of the individual with the disability, we would register them for each event. We would have them wear the racing bib and timing chip; have them cross the finish line first; and award them the medal & race shirt! We would refer to them as CAPTAIN as they would get to command their race. The athletes who would help these Captains would be referred to as ANGELS. We created a mission statement, a vision, an operations manual and a race day protocol. We created “application forms” for the Captains and the Angels to be vetted and registered.

In March 2008, myTEAM TRIUMPH was incorporated. Wayne Brown, owner of Synergy Marketing Solutions, lead the branding design and created a website to serve as a resource to individuals who sought us out.

With my background as a physical therapist and my work with individuals with different disabilities, I was challenged to find suitable equipment that we could race with. Baby Joggers were popular at the time. We found out that they made a special needs jogger that could accommodate up to 200 pounds of weight with the stroller itself weighing about 30 pounds. We found these Cycletote bike carriers that could be pulled behind a bike. We spoke to some folks at the local West Marine to discuss boat or kayak options. We settled on an 8ft inflatable dinghy which could carry up to 400 pounds. This would be helpful just in case a Captain needed to ride with a guardian. We were able to secure funding to purchase three pieces of each equipment. We secured ropes to pull the boats and carabiners to attach the ropes to the boats. We had a volunteer sew a special harness that an Angel could wear. We would use a carabiner to attach the rope from the boat to the Angel harness. We got cushions to make the seating positions in the jogging stroller more comfortable. We got tools, tire pumps, spare parts and emergency medical kits which traveled with each team. When we ran out of funding, we used our own funds to make sure we have everything we needed to race.

On July 26, 2008 on the beautiful grounds of YMCA Camp Manitou-Lin, our first triathlon was finally closing in. TridelSol’s owner and race director, Wayne Brown, gave us entries to the Sprint Triathlon distance. On race day we lined up on the shores of Barlow Lake to start the swim. We were the first group of athletes to go off and for individuals with a disabilities, that was a rare occurrence as they typically have to wait for everyone else to get ahead of them. There were chants and cheers as we took off with hardly a dry eye in the crowd on the beach. Participants and spectators were the first to witness the first race with myTEAM TRIUMPH; a precursor to many races that followed. A fantastic celebration and awards presentation at the finish line brought the energy at the end of the event to a climax. That day, we not only changed the lives of two very special individuals, our Captains, we inspired many more!

2008 TRIDELSOL: Our first event as myTEAM TRIUMPH

For the rest of 2008 season, we went on to race at Reeds Lake Triathlon, Bridge Run and the Grand Rapids Marathon that fall. By 2009, word reached across the nation about the work we were doing in West Michigan. People wanted to know how they could recreate this in their local communities and we agreed to create myTEAM TRIUMPH as a National governance model with a goal to support the growth and development of local chapters. West Michigan had the first Chapter and we continued to fine-tune our process so it could be duplicated. As the West Michigan Chapter grew, we found ourselves participating in over 25 local events, creating 200+ opportunities for Captains to race using the help of 500+ Angels and 150+ Volunteers to make it happen.

In 2016, the West Michigan Chapter purchased TridelSol from Wayne and we have continued the tradition of putting on one of the area’s original triathlon events. What we lack in size and numbers, we by far make up for in passion and experience. We host the biggest field of Captains & Angels for triathlon sport. We use this event to push the envelope for racing with myTEAM TRIUMPH in not only raising funds but for also building awareness for what we do in West Michigan and across the nation.

Who would have known that by 2023, we would have 14 Chapters across the country. We continue with our mission to create more and more adventures for individuals with disabilities, but we have also made it our mission to inspire our communities to do just one simple act of kindness each day… and this is how we change the world!