Triathlon Magazine Canada - - T1 - BY LOREEN PINDERA

Call­ing all triath­letes: If you are any­where in the vicin­ity of Val­ley­field, Que., on Sept. 16, I in­vite you to join me in a one-of-a-kind re­lay race, le Défi 12 heures (The 12-Hour Chal­lenge).

The idea is to form teams of up to six peo­ple. Each per­son on the team takes a turn com­plet­ing a mini-sprint triathlon be­fore hand­ing off to a team­mate and you see how many triathlons you can com­plete as a team be­fore the 12-hour cut-off.

It sounds like a fun and kooky way to end the summer sea­son, but more than that, it’s a fundraiser for a great cause: get­ting kids, re­gard­less of their means or abil­ity, in­volved in our sport.

Ev­ery re­gion in Canada has some kind of triathlon pro­gram to en­cour­age young peo­ple to take up triathlon: At­lantic Canada, On­tario and B.C. have Kids of Steel; Saskatchewan’s YMCA or­ga­nizes Y Kids Tri. Triathlon Que­bec has 400 ac­tive mem­bers un­der the age of 18, with sports-études pro­grams in seven public high schools across the prov­ince, which per­mit promis­ing triath­letes to in­cor­po­rate train­ing time into their school sched­ule through­out the year.

How­ever, al­most with­out ex­cep­tion across Canada, the kids on the road bikes who al­ready own wet­suits and the rest of the pricey gear that goes with the sport are the chil­dren of triath­letes. They have watched their par­ents race since they were able to sit up in a back­pack and have been swim­ming and rid­ing a bike since they learned to walk.

They are ac­tive, healthy, en­thu­si­as­tic kids, but they are, for the most part, priv­i­leged chil­dren.

Eight years ago, Triathlon Que­bec de­cided to do some­thing to in­tro­duce chil­dren from all walks of life to the sport.

The fed­er­a­tion launched its triathlon sco­laire pro­gram, draft­ing a how-to man­ual for teach­ers that cov­ers the A-to-z of or­ga­niz­ing a triathlon and of­fer­ing lo­gis­ti­cal and ma­te­rial sup­port for ev­ery school event, any­where in the prov­ince.

“The idea is to pro­mote a healthy life­style,” says Is­abelle Creusot, the di­rec­tor of the pro­gram for Triathlon Que­bec. “Triathlon is a sim­ple, ac­ces­si­ble sport that in­volves three ac­tiv­i­ties that most peo­ple can do and that we think most peo­ple should be able to do: Chil­dren should learn how to swim and how to ride a bike, and they all can run.”

Creusot said in the be­gin­ning the pro­gram ap­pealed to teach­ers who al­ready had a cross-coun­try run­ning club at the school. Add a bik­ing com­po­nent and set up a tran­si­tion zone, and sud­denly you have a cross-duathlon and a lot more fun.

“We are well aware that most chil­dren who par­tic­i­pate won’t be­come life­long triath­letes,” Creusot said. “It’s about en­cour­ag­ing healthy habits: ac­tive trans­port, like rid­ing your bike, walk­ing or run­ning to school.… It’s about get­ting kids en­gaged in play.”

Word spread quickly, and the pro­gram has grown ex­po­nen­tially since 2009. Last year, 16,201 Que­bec stu­dents par­tic­i­pated in 56 school duathlons or triathlons, in­clud­ing nine win­ter triathlons that in­volved snowshoeing, skat­ing and ei­ther cross-coun­try ski­ing or an ob­sta­cle course.

Two-thirds of the triathlons were in el­e­men­tary schools and more than half were on the is­land of Mon­treal, which in­cludes many schools in un­der­priv­i­leged neigh­bour­hoods, where a great num­ber of stu­dents are new Cana­di­ans.

“Not ev­ery­one has a bike,” said Creusot. So last year, they turned to the Mon­treal Cana­di­ens Chil­dren’s Foun­da­tion, which gave the triathlon sco­laire pro­gram $30,000 to pur­chase bikes to dis­trib­ute to schools.

“We loan 15 bikes to a school for two years,” Creusot ex­plains. “The catch is, they have to use them, and they have to or­ga­nize a triathlon. We have 11 schools now, and we are look­ing to add more schools next year.”

The fed­er­a­tion has found a will­ing and able partner in OKÉ Triathlon, a Mon­treal-based spe­cialty store that’s al­ready deeply in­volved in the sport’s devel­op­ment in Que­bec.

“We jumped at this op­por­tu­nity be­cause it meets with all our core val­ues,” said the com­pany’s founder, François Bris­son. “It all starts when you are a kid: when you have good role mod­els and good life habits, you will make good choices that will stay with you for­ever.”

Bris­son and OKÉ Triathlon came up with the idea of the 12-hour chal­lenge. They hope to raise $50,000 to in­crease the fleet of bikes and al­low Triathlon Que­bec to of­fer lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port to more schools in the com­ing year.

“If we change the life of one kid, I think it’s mis­sion ac­com­plished,” says Bris­son.

Creusot wit­nessed just that this year, when Triathlon Que­bec lent 12 bi­cy­cles to a school in a dis­ad­van­taged neigh­bour­hood in Mon­treal’s Ver­dun bor­ough.

“There were two girls in Grade 6 who had never rid­den a bike,” she said. “So they hung back, they didn’t try out the bikes be­cause they didn’t want their friends to know they didn’t know how to ride.

“I came back two months later to help out with the school’s triathlon, and the girls were there. They did the whole triathlon, and you would never have known that two months ear­lier, they didn’t have a clue how to ride.

“Thanks to that school bike club, those two girls are now cy­clists. One of them said to me she had asked for a bike for Christ­mas, and she was re­ally hop­ing she would get one, as she had fallen in love with cy­cling.

“That one ex­pe­ri­ence re­ally made my sea­son. Those girls gave me a great gift.”

Loreen Pindera is an ed­i­tor with CBC News and triath­lete from Mon­treal.

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