On June 13, 2015, my five kids participated in the Grand Rapids Triathlon’s kids’ event: the Splash and Dash. I have four 11 year old daughters (that is another long story) and they did great. They participated in a kids triathlon a couple years ago, on a cold and rainy day, and had, amazingly, a good experience. However, for my son, who is autistic, this was his first race.
As the parent of an autistic child, I have been through countless episodes with Zachary in which he has a sudden, unexpected, unchangeable aversion to something that he normally enjoys. This can lead to screaming, flopping on the floor, or other challenging behaviors which can seem, to me, so contrary to logic. Well, my son has his own logic, and I have come a long way in learning about it. Sometimes, it is best to just not push when he decides he cannot do something, but this was an experience I really wanted to go well.
Zachary is 7 years old and has been taking swimming lessons for several years. Nonetheless, I was concerned that he would be unable to swim the required 50 meters for the race. So, before registering him, I contacted the race officials with my concerns. Their response was very helpful: “don’t worry, we’ll get him across the finish line.”
A few days later, I was contacted by another organizer of the race. He gave me his personal cell phone number and asked me about specific accommodations that Zachary would need to have a good experience. Aside from wanting Zachary to feel good about himself, I was also concerned that he would create a distraction that would take away from the enjoyment of other kids in the race. So, we discussed, in detail, how Zachary could swim a shorter distance, start in a different lane, and start before the other kids. After the swim I was hoping he could get some help finding the transition, putting on his socks and shoes, and starting the run. We expected that other kids would overtake him by the time he started the run and it would then be easy for him to follow along.
On the morning of the race, the kids were all excited, but especially Zachary. It was about a 45 minute drive to the race start and Zachary was singing the entire way. His sisters played on their phones…
Here is the crew before the race:
And the kids with me:
After the National Anthem (sung beautifully by a race participant), we all headed to the pool. Zachary was just stoked!
But…then it was time to get in the water. He panicked. My heart dropped. There were only about 20 kids participating, including mine, so we were not imposing upon a large group of people, and the race was not timed, so there was some flexibility. But I so wanted Zachary to have this experience. Triathlon has changed my life. I cannot say if any of my kids will become regular participants in triathlons, but I want them to understand and value the experience. A splash-and-dash, which is only a swim and run, is the simplest way for a child to experience a multisport event for the first time.
One of the lifeguards then got into the pool, and encouraged Zachary to get in with her. Everybody was cheering. He got in!!! Look at the smile on his face!
After the swim, Zachary was directed (escorted) to transition. Another volunteer helped him put on his socks and shoes. It didn’t appear that he would be able to navigate on his own, so a volunteer ran the entire route with him. Such nice people.
The pair made it around the course. I could see that he needed a lot of encouragement and redirection to reach the finish line. But look at the joy on his face as he finished!
As it turned out, Zachary finished before his sisters. It became his job to hold their “gold medals” to give to them as they crossed the finish:
Here are the girls as they finished. They all swam and ran pretty hard and complained (a lot) of being tired and, even, nauseated, at the end.
This was a nice, friendly, well-organized race. It was unfortunate that more kids did not participate. It was a cool morning (60 degrees) and had been raining, so the weather had something to do with participation.
This race was a nice experience for all my kids. I am particularly happy that my son was able to participate in a way that preserved his dignity as a human being and allowed him to experience the joy of athletic achievement.