Theresa Roden

A Personal Transformation Inspires a New Program for Girls

I was an overweight kid who never felt athletic. I hated gym class and was always the last one picked for the kickball and volleyball games.  Although I loved to swim (I was in the water all the time) and rode a bike, I never thought of those activities as being athletic, they were just things I liked to do. In my mind, an athlete was something I would never become.

School Picture circa 1976
School Picture circa 1976

My Own Transformation

My husband and I love boating and we spend the summer months living on our boat on Block Island. One day, about fifteen years ago, I was on the beach and all these crazy people with numbers pinned on, came running along the sand. They were jumping over sand castles and people were cheering them on. It was the Block Island Triathlon. The energy of the runners and the crowd was infectious. I decided right then that I would participate in the triathlon next year. My enthusiasm convinced several friends to do this with me, and a group of four of us signed up for the race. We had no idea what we were doing.

The Block Island race is intense and really not for beginners. The race consists of a quarter mile swim in the ocean through the waves, twelve miles of biking through winding, hilly roads and a four-mile run in the sand. It was crazy, but it was my goal. We did research on the Internet to figure out what our training should be. We all bought swim caps and hit the pool. I remember swimming from one side to the other and gasping for breath the first time.

Training for this race created a fundamental shift in my thinking. In the past, when I was faced with a physical challenge, I would tell myself, “I can’t”. But this time, I was determined to do it. Part of the reason for my shift in attitude was I had previously started doing a lot of research and reading on the concept of looking from within. I was immersed in reading on spirituality, positive affirmations and how words have profound meaning. As a result, the triathlon training process occurred from the inside out and was a complete mind and body transformation.

In the past, any attempts at a new physical challenge would be sabotaged by an inner voice saying, “what are you doing, who do you think you are” and other negative thoughts. I knew if I allowed those thoughts to prevail, I would never reach my goal.  I had learned enough to change that, and for the first time in my life, the voice inside my head was kind and supportive.

Theresa approaching the FINISH LINE of her first triathlon, Block Island 2007
Theresa approaching the FINISH LINE of her first triathlon, Block Island 2007

Although I was slow, each day I got a little better and stronger. It turned out I was a strong swimmer and biker. I looked at my thick thighs and realized that my legs are my power and that I’m strong on the bike. It was a fundamental shift in how I viewed myself and the challenges I set for myself.

Race day came, and it was amazing. It fell on my mother’s birthday and the entire experience was surreal. I had a moment on the bike where I thought, I really did this. This is the day I’ve been thinking about and visualizing for a year, it’s finally here and I’m doing it. The run at high tide in the sand was miserable but I did it. I have a picture of myself running next to a young guy and then passing him. My sense of accomplishment was astounding, and I knew that if I could finish this, I could do anything.

Inspiring Others

After my first race, I became the pied piper of triathlons. The next year, about twenty people from my town participated in the Block Island race and several other local races. We started a small triathlon team and it felt good to be able to do this with other people I knew.

When my daughter was in 6th grade, I was thinking back to when I was her age and remembering how tough middle school was. I knew if I had experienced the self-change and positive affirmation at the age of 11 or 12, instead of in my 30s, I would have been spared a lot of anguish. I was out running one day and the idea for a pre-teen program came to me in a flash: to take a group of girls who don’t believe they’re athletes, give them all the support and training – mind, body, spirit – to make it possible, and see what happens. That’s where the idea for i-tri came from.

I presented my idea to the middle school social worker and she loved it! The school principal was supportive and committed. I dedicated myself to i-tri and wrote the curriculum in two weekends. What I came up with back then is still the core of what the program is today, almost ten years later.

After a selection process, we had twelve girls participating in our first group. It was the most rewarding effort I’ve ever been part of. We knew nothing, and we had nothing– no bikes, no facilities, no staff. We told the girls to trust us, and these wonderful girls were willing to try anything.  Sharon McCobb, our Athletic Director was experienced in training kids for triathlons. After devising a race and getting it approved. we begged, borrowed and stole (not really…) to get equipment.  I’ll never forget driving around town, collecting bikes that were donated or loaned through an appeal on Facebook! There were so many little, positive signs along the way. Things we had to have happen, just happened. We ended up with the exact number of bikes and helmets needed. We needed uniforms, and someone donated the amount of money necessary for the purchase! It was all meant to be and so special.

Mother Daughter Retreat 2016

The girls’ first race was incredible, and they all agreed it couldn’t be a one-time thing: the program had to continue. This is our 9th season. It is still a middle school program; however, the girls can return when they’re in high school and continue as coaches. If they volunteer in their freshman year and then continue, we pay them a salary sophomore, junior and senior years.

We’ve Come So Far!

Ten years later, we have a real organization in place. After the first year, I realized that to apply for funding, we had to become a 501c3 nonprofit organization.  With no idea how to do any of this, I will be forever grateful to Juan Castro, the Director of the local YMCA.  We spent hours in his office while he so generously taught me what to do. Juan saw the value in what we were doing, the passion we all had, and he took the time to teach us the basics. After that, I became a sponge and took any workshop or seminar I could find, to learn so that I could do it right. i-tri has a board of eleven dedicated people, both athletes and business people. For the first four years, i-tri was a volunteer run program but now that we run a program for 140 girls we have a full time paid staff and my title has changed to Founder & Executive Director. We all work together, along with  the girls, to oversee the program and organization.

We’re now about to make the leap from a local project to, hopefully, a national and international program. The program is known as i-tri, but the actual name is Inspirational Triathlon Racing International. From day one, we were thinking big! Currently, we have programs in schools from Montauk to Mastic, Long Island. Next year we plan to add two large school districts to our roster of schools, so our numbers will double on a local level.

Race Day 2011 with Noely Martinez, Naomi Sanchez and daughter Abby
Race Day 2011 with Noely Martinez, Naomi Sanchez and daughter Abby

Raising the funding needed to run our program is an on-going activity. Currently, we’ve counted on local and corporate sponsorships for the races. As the program grows, we’ll be eligible for national grants. Our Outreach Coordinator has been working on an exciting national partnership with a well-known brand. There is a great deal of synergy between the brand and our program and I’m excited about the potential.

The unexpected continues to grace us. At a recent dinner with a local couple, at the end of the dinner, the gentleman asked me, “what are you ultimately trying to do with the program?” My response was I wanted the ability to allow any girl that would benefit from this to have the opportunity to participate. He immediately offered a $10,000 donation to help us get there. Several days later, his dinner partner called with the news that she would be matching his $10,000 donation! There is so much love and support for what we do and it’s the fuel that keeps us energized.

i-Tri Continues to Grow

We also just received this exciting news! i-tri has been nominated by USA Triathlon for the International Triathlon Union (ITU) Women’s Committee Award of Excellence! The award recognizes the achievements of a person or institution that has made an outstanding contribution to the participation of women in triathlon through the training of athletes, raising of awareness, administrative support or as a role model and source of inspiration for women and girls in the sport. i-Tri is the sole nominee from the United States for this prestigious award. The winner will be announced this September at the 2018 ITU Annual Congress in Gold Coast, Australia.

Besides the physical, emotional and mental benefits of our program, there is now evidence that there is academic benefit as well. Five years ago, a PhD candidate studied our girls to see if there was any impact on science achievement and attitude. It surprised me to even consider that connection since we don’t teach science. Incredibly, she found cognitive and reasoning skills, coordination and self-efficacy all improved. She was able to defend her thesis and show that being a participant of i-tri did result in an overall achievement in science. Based on these outcomes, we are designing an experiential STEM program that will be implemented next year.

I’ve loved every step of the evolution of i-tri. From the first moment on the beach in Block Island when I decided to train for a triathlon, I’ve had to push myself out of my comfort zone, but I love it all. Fundraising is still difficult– I’m not fully comfortable with it. I’ve never been a leader and I had to learn how to lead effectively. I am living the credo, “do something you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life”.

Links: http://itrigirls.org/


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