For Clemens Crossing Elementary School rising fifth-grader Emily Erwin and her friends, participating in the sixth annual TriColumbia Kidz Triathlon on Sunday, July 21, was about more than receiving a medal at the finish line. It was about finding hope for cancer victims, like Emily's 19-year-old brother, Matt David, who was diagnosed with Leukemia earlier this year.
The children competed as part of community groups Team Matt and Andi's Army to raise money and awareness for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Andi's Army was started two years ago in memory of Columbia resident Jason Carlesi's sister, a former Army helicopter pilot who died of Leukemia in 2012 at age 43.
When David was diagnosed with the same disease in January while in college, his family — friends of the Carlesis — started Team Matt to help cancer patients in the community.
"I like the feeling of knowing I'm helping my brother," said Emily, who described Matt as "a very brave boy."
Both teams had tents set up at the event, where nearly 500 children, ages 7 to 15, swam in the Clemens Crossing Pool and ran and biked through the Hickory Ridge neighborhood and finished at Clemens Crossing Elementary School.
Emily and other team members sold concessions at the event to raise money. Carlesi said the kids come up with their own fundraising ideas, from running lemonade stands to selling food at swim meets.
"It's amazing how much the kids want to help. They have the ability and the energy to make the world a better place and we're trying to enable that," said Carlesi, who added that Andi's Army is trying to become a nonprofit organization.
In addition to Andi's Army and Team Matt, children at the Kidz Triathlon supported other causes, including the victims of the Boston Marathon. Participants of the triathlon also could fundraise for the Joanna M. Nicholay Melanoma Foundation.
Not only was the event important for these organizations, but it helped kids to realize that "winning is finishing," according to Linda Congedo, director of communications for TriColumbia.
She said TriColumbia wants kids to understand that fitness is fun and that activities like triathlons are not out of their reach.
Among the many proud parents congratulating their children at the finish line were Tim and Julie Rivenbark of Glenelg, who were there to support their eight-year-old daughter Kara and 10-year-old son Tyler.
The Rivenbanks said they both were track team members at the University of Maryland and continue to participate in competitions.
"We (as a family) do it as a way to stay fit, but also as a way to challenge ourselves outside of our normal comfort zone and to see what else we can accomplish," said Tim Rivenbark, who said he has finished two Ironman competitions and a marathon and whose wife also has completed many competitions.
Rivenbark said it is important for he and his wife to instill in their children the importance of self-challenge and encouraging others to expand their horizons.
Ansel Casper, 8, a rising third-grader at Waverly Elementary School, was able to test his limits when he faced an injury during the competition. Casper, a member of the Mini Cow Tri Club in Mt. Airy, won first place in his age group, but it did not come easy.
During the transition from the bike to the run, he took a wrong turn and slipped on a mat, causing him to land face-first on a metal pole. Even with a gash above his right eye, Casper led the pack to the finish line.
"I kept going so I could win first place," said Casper, who tried to get his friends involved in the sport last year by organizing exercises at recess and in his neighborhood. Casper said he was so focused on finishing the triathlon that he did not feel the pain until he was done.