It was only 9:30 a.m. on this sunny July morning, but the parking lot pavement at Chapman School was already beginning to heat up.
Small beads of sweat could be seen on the forehead of Cheshire-Southington YMCA School Age Director Lisa Zaborowski, as she carefully placed plastic cones a few feet apart, a signal to the bicyclists who were about to embark on their daily training as to exactly where their mini-course would begin and end.
“This is the first day where the kids are going to get wet,” she said, with a smile.
Zaborowski is in her second year as director of Cheshire’s Race4Chase YMCA program, though she has been involved with the summer camp for the last four years. The six-week course trains children ages 6 to 12 for an age-appropriate triathlon to be held on July 31 at Camp Sloper in Southington.
The camp was held last year, despite the pandemic, but was a scaled-back version of its normal self. A limited number of participants were allowed to train for only three weeks, and the culminating triathlon didn’t allow for the usual raucous crowd of friends of family, who turn out to cheer not just their own loved ones, but all the participants.
“It’s such an exciting atmosphere,” said Zaborowski. “You have all the kids from the camps from all over Connecticut, and everyone there is pulling for each other. I can’t wait for the kids to experience it this year.”
On this particular Thursday, all 38 camp participants were about to practice for the first time transitioning from the swimming aspect of the triathlon to the biking portion, which entails changing into shorts, a shirt, and a helmet. Since there is no on-site pool at Chapman School — the participants practice their swimming skills on Friday of each week at the Southington YMCA — several volunteers were busy filling buckets with water, and then dumping the cold contents over the heads of the children, who, while wet, would have to run and get themselves into bike mode.
“We can never practice the full (triathlon) because we don’t have the pool (at Chapman), so the first time the kids actually do the whole thing is the day of the event,” said Zaborowski. “What we always tell the kids is that this is hard work. This is the training aspect of it, and the triathlon is the reward. It’s not about individual times. They can go, have fun, and feel that sense of accomplishment.”
The camp is run five days a week, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., rain or shine. The training starts off slow, with a first day of get-to-know-you activities, so as to introduce the participants to one another. Then, things ramp up from there, but always at a certain pace.
“That first week, we’re running. But we aren’t just running. We are doing relays, kickball, and other activities, so the kids are training, but they are having fun,” said Zaborowski.
All the young athletes start at different skill levels, and Zaborowski spoke of how gratifying it is to see a child who starts off needing training wheels riding on two wheels for approximately a mile at the end of the six weeks.
Joey Cannata, 20, who has been a coach with the Cheshire program for all four years of its existence, notices how the mindset of the participants changes as the weeks go by.
“You see many of them go from not wanting to be here to really loving being here,” said Cannata. “In that first week, they are asking why we are making them run so often. Then, just last week, we were running and some of the kids ran 8 miles total. They just didn’t want to stop.”
This will be Cannata’s last year as a coach at the camp, and he admits that his loyalty is based in the special mission of the program. Race4Chase is in reference to Chase Kowalski, a 7-year-old student who lost his life in the tragic mass shooting in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Kowalski, even at his young age, was an avid runner and completed his first triathlon the year before his tragic death.
“I’m at the age of my life where you start to think about what you want to do for the rest of it, and meaning is really important to me,” said Cannata. “That’s why I’ve continued to come back here year after year. If it was just another camp, I probably would have gone somewhere else, but this camp …”
That feeling is one he sees reflected in the participants, who even at their young ages understand what it means to honor Kowalski’s memory.
“This isn’t the easiest camp,” said Cannata. “The kids who keep coming back, they really love it and they want to be a part of a worthwhile cause. That’s what makes this whole experience meaningful.”
Cannata’s annual commitment isn’t the only testament to the popularity of the program. This year is the first in which volunteers have been recruited to help steer participants in the right direction, and Zaborowski explained that each of them is a former participant. “I had a few kids who are aging out of the program after this year already ask me about volunteering next year,” she said, with a smile.
Areeba Murtaza, 12, and Jonny Heavens, 13, are two of this year’s volunteers, and each is enjoying being on the other side of things.
“I really feel like this is a way for me to give back,” said Murtaza. “When I was (a participant), there were things I struggled with and the coaches really helped me. Now, I can help the kids if they are having any trouble.”
Heavens assists with the younger age group of participants and admits that being a volunteer has helped him learn how to aid the children as effectively as possible.
“You have to be flexible and you have to have patience,” said Heavens. “I just want to help all of them have a great experience.”
The triathlon will consist of a 1-mile run, a 1-mile bike ride, and a swim, the length of which is determined by the age of the participant. By week three, Zaborowski was excited to see the training ramping up, but knows that the payoff isn’t what times the children log, but what they’ve learned throughout the entire six weeks.
“Many of the kids come because they want to improve their biking or swimming (skills), but they end up learning so much more about themselves,” she said. “This program is about (them), the friendships they form, what they accomplish, and you can see them grow so much, despite it only being six weeks.”