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Whiz Kids: Achieve Youth Triathlon Summer Camp

Kids from Tribury area and beyond spend summers at Waterbury YMCA.

With triathlons now topping the list as the fastest growing sport in the US, one group of local kids is jumping on the bandwagon early and will spend six weeks learning the ropes of the swim, bike, run combination to complete a real triathlon on August 6.

Under the direction of Southbury resident Susanne Navas and her coaching staff of triathletes, the ACHIEVE Kids Triathlon Summer Camp program is now in its second year at the Waterbury YMCA.

With 28 kids ranging from nine to 14, including about six from the Tribury area enrolled in the six-week camp, the program doubled from its inaugural year last summer.

The group of kids – some brand new to the sport and others returning from last year -- are spending five days a week from 9 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. in the pool, on the bikes and on the track or road running.

An otherwise grueling training schedule is tailor made for the kids and includes fun games like ultimate Frisbee and yoga sessions as well as basketball thrown in as cross training. They are learning about the benefits of exercise and, with breakfast and lunch as part of the camp, good nutrition as well.

Scarlett Broderick of Middlebury says the experience has taught her the importance of exercise and nutrition.

“The coaches make the training fun,” says Broderick who attended the camp last year as well. She adds that she is looking forward to the swimming and running legs of the race. The triathlon in August will be the third for this 12-year-old who’ll enter Memorial Middle School in the fall.

Jacqueline Navas, a Pomperaug Elementary School fifth grader, says she was inspired by her mom, Susanne’s feats as a triathlete, including Ironman races, and decided she wanted to give triathlons a try, too.

Through the ACHIEVE program, Navas says, “I learned I can do anything if I put my mind to it.” This is her second year in the program as well and she hopes to gain the ability over the next few weeks to run under a 10-minute mile.

The Waterbury Y’s ACHIEVE group will culminate their hard work at a USA Triathlon-sanctioned kids’ triathlon at Camp Mataucha in Watertown. The course will include a 100 yard swim, a three mile bike and a one mile trail run on Saturday August 6.

The ACHIEVE program is a Washington DC-based program that offers inner city kids, ages nine to 14 the opportunity to learn how to train for the swim, bike, run, and transitions of a triathlon in a free camp. The ACHIEVE program helps kids master the fundamentals of swimming, cycling, running, and triathlon racing, as well as the essentials of proper nutrition, stretching, strength-training, and flexibility. A major component of the ACHIEVE program is to expose kids to the many benefits that come from participation in endurance sports.

For the Waterbury program, in addition to the training for triathlon that includes laps in the Y pool, sessions in spinning on the stationary bikes and running on the track at the Waterbury facility or the road outside, all the equipment for the program and triathlon event was donated. The ACHIEVE organization donated 18 road bikes and swimsuits, swim caps and goggles for each participant, while the Waterbury Police Activity League donated helmets for each child who needs one.

According to coach Navas, the local ACHIEVE camp has also had donations from individuals who have generously offered to sponsor athletes, as well as a matching donation from Accenture along with a grant from the city of Waterbury.  

“Last year USA Triathlon, the governing organization, gave us a $10,000 grant to start the program.  This year they have given us a smaller grant, as we are now expected to do our own fundraising,” she explains.

Navas says that enrollment for the camp is on a first come-first served basis.  Last year's participants were given a week to register, and then it was opened it up to a broader pool.  Because there are only 18 bikes, the group is limited to 25-30 kids, and because they start the race in waves, they can share the bikes. There are currently 28 kids in the program and there are several on a waiting list.

“We would like to have more than one program in future years, as there is clearly a need for this, so fundraising will become a priority,” Navas says. “We are hoping that more area businesses, medical practices and individuals offer to sponsor ACHIEVE, since childhood obesity affects everyone, as does general lack of motivation.”

Traditionally, the ACHIEVE camps in other regions are in bigger cities and tend to be 100% from a more urban demographic, Navas says.  The Waterbury program is different, she explains and adds “we chose to include children from areas such as the Tribury area.  We believe that it's a great opportunity for children to thrive in a diverse setting and to learn to work together in spite of, and because of, their different backgrounds.”

Although many of the kids in the Waterbury program already have some experience in one or all of the three triathlon sports, like Broderick and Navas, not all do. Some have come to the camp never having ridden a bike or been in the water.

“Last year, we had kids who were homeschooled, kids who were in private schools, kids who had bounced around foster homes and were from unstable environments,” she explains. “We had stellar athletes and we had kids who were terrified of water and who didn't know how to ride a bike.” This year, she says, there are some who are just learning to swim and just learning to ride.

More than anything, Navas says ACHIEVE teaches kids that everyone is an athlete.  

“Everyone is capable of swimming, biking, running, strengthening, stretching,” she says, adding  that she and her four assistant coaches teach the kids that fitness is fun, and while it can be competitive, it is mostly about challenging yourself to set and reach new goals.

“This is a lesson which applies to everything in life, not just fitness,” Navas says. “Triathlon is a tool for teaching people greater lessons - the value of patience, perseverance, determination, pride, respect, humility, gratitude.”

This program, she explains, takes some kids who may otherwise have spent six weeks of their summer in front of a screen of some sort, and gives them the chance to learn to swim, or improve their swim stroke, learn to ride a road bike, as well as the chance to learn cycling safety, proper running technique and pacing.  

“They also learn tolerance and teamwork as they are spending an intense six weeks with children from very diverse backgrounds,” Navas says. “We teach them about the importance of healthy choices and positive attitude.”

While the likelihood that an ACHIEVE alumni will go off to attempt an Ironman might be slim Navas jokes, she says she does hope that with the bonus membership to USA Triathlon and a free subscription to a triathlon magazine for the camp participants, they will gain more exposure to the sport and continue with some part of it.

“Most of the kids haven't really had much, if any, exposure to the sport,” she says. “But several of them have joined swim teams and/or gone on to compete in other triathlons because of ACHIEVE - my daughter being one of them.”

Navas, an accomplished Ironman triathlete herself, says that a few of the camper’s parents have actually been motivated to embark on their own fitness program by watching their kids thrive in the ACHIEVE environment.

“They appreciate how much fun their kids are having,” she says.  “For children, most of their health-related choices are actually made by their parents - so we're hoping that by teaching the kids about the importance of healthy nutrition, sleep and exercise habits, we can also influence their parents.  A few of the parents are athletes or triathletes themselves (or aspire to be), and they love the fact we have a program that immerses their kids into the sport at such a young age.”

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