Kids ready for the late August event By Brad Spencer
Maria Elipas' kids are ready. They began preparing for the 12th Annual McDonald's Kids Triathlon last month. Three days a week, they swim, bike and run, gearing up for the big moment when they compete in a companion event to the popular Chicago Triathlon this month.
Mark Skwaski's ready. The 10-year-old from Norwood Park who was born without hands, large portions of his feet or, amazingly, self-pity, is now fully prepped for his third triathlon.
Skwaski and 29 other youthful athletes-only a few of whom are disabled-from Elipas' All Kids Can! training program have been coached on how to keep pace and how to make the transition from one event to the next without losing a step.
During training, River Park pool in Chicago served as Lake Michigan; some of the quieter streets of the city doubled for Simmons Drive, where the four-kilometer bike race will take place.
They're all ready for the race being held at Foster Avenue Beach in Chicago from Aug. 22-24. The 7-10 age group must swim 100 meters, bike four kilometers and run one kilometer. The 11-14 year-olds compete on a course that is double those distances. Both groups predict they will have plenty of stamina left over for the post-race pool party.
It's surprising enough to think kids can be triathletes but Elipas' program is unique in that it includes children with disabilities.
"That's what inspires the other kids in our program to learn that nothing is impossible," says Elipas, a Chicago Public Schools teacher and a personal trainer. "It's especially inspiring [for the kids] when they see a little kid their own age training alongside them who has no hands and only a small portion of his feet, and this kid is right next to them on the bike or running."
Elipas says her training program is specifically designed not only to prepare kids for the triathlon, but to build confidence and self-esteem and to promote responsibility.
"He likes the challenge," says Mark's father Jim, a Chicago firefighter. "Mark likes to prove to himself and others that he can do what everyone else can. He gets that satisfaction from training and being in the triathlon with other kids his age."
Skwaski isn't the only inspiring young athlete in Elipas' program. Tommy Carroll, from Glenview, is blind. The 10-year-old is a veteran triathlete. This event will be his third.
"He's remarkable in that he's fearless," says Elipas, who runs alongside Tommy as a guide during the one-kilometer run. Voice commands, she explains, keep him on track in the swimming portion and his father does the steering on a tandem bike.
"Usually blind runners run with a tether, but Tommy does not like that, so I always hold his left hand and guide him," says Elipas. "He makes everyone, the kids, the parents, just stop in their tracks, amazed by his ability."
Elipas is impressed with all the kids she coaches but she is amazed at the more challenged children.
"Kids with disabilities don't whine," she says flatly. "I've had great kids in my program, don't get me wrong. But I've never had a kid with a disability whine or cause problems. They seem to understand the value or the worth of what they are trying to accomplish."
Elipas started All Kids Can! in 2000 for a variety of reasons, but the most significant, she says, was to teach kids confidence and the importance of setting and accomplishing goals.
"It's very empowering for the children to accomplish something they trained so hard for," says Elipas, whose own children have participated in the training and competed in the triathlon. "It's a lifelong lesson that they need to understand. In order to accomplish anything worthwhile, it takes effort, dedication and work."
Skwaski says Mark and another son, Tom, 13, who participated in the training program last year, have learned more than just athletic skills.
"I've seen the change in their attitudes," he says. "Being a part of something like this gets them motivated. The program brings together a group of kids who are all striving for something. The camaraderie is something they look forward to, like the triathlon itself. Each kid wants the other kid to do well."
Elipas believes that having kids involved in something athletic other than Little League or a soccer program helps make them better coordinated and more adaptable to different sports.
"[A triathlon] allows a whole other dimension to youth sports," she says. "It gives kids an opportunity to experience what they love to do: running, swimming and biking. What could be better?"
For information on All Kids Can!, call (773) 728-3456.
-- Brad Spencer is the father of 8-month-old twin daughters, Sports Editor of the Wednesday Journal and a freelance writer based in Oak Park.
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