Swimming, cycling and running may seem like after-school activities, but for some students in the county, they're now part of a regular class.
Students in freshman physical education classes at Long Reach High School are a part of a pilot program, Learn2Tri, started this year in several county schools. In the middle of the day, students in the program spend their gym time running, cycling and swimming, the three components of a traditional triathlon.
It's all part of an effort to educate students first-hand on the experiences and lifestyle benefits of triathlons, and it's the first program of its kind in the Mid-Atlantic region, said Anne Johnson, director of Triathlon and Wellness Training with TriColumbia.
"Natural childhood activities we used to do seem rarer and rarer today," Johnson said at a kick-off event at the high school Dec. 15. "Triathlons motivate total body fitness, and it brings you a natural high."
The partnership between TriColumbia and the school system began in September, and physical education teachers at Long Reach began implementing the curriculum in November, said Amy Davis, a physical education teacher at the school. The program started slowly, with Davis encouraging students to run one lap around the track, then two. Then three and four.
"Running four laps, that was the hardest thing I think I've ever had to do," said Nicholas Henlon, 14. "I was so tired, but so proud. I had never thought of myself as a runner before."
Nicholas and his classmates reacted with shock the day they learned they would be running, cycling and swimming as part of their gym class. Alana Ratliffe, 14, remembered feeling dazed and Julia Miller, 14, was confused: Would students have to wear helmets as they biked?
Helmets were provided, as were 60 bicycles from Trek Bicycles, said Robert Vigorito, TriColumbia founder. Currently, those bikes are circulated among the six schools participating in Learn2Tri pilot program, but Vigorito said he's hoping to provide more.
Currently, students involved in Learn2Tri through their physical education classes travel to the Columbia Swim Center in Wilde Lake for pool time, which is donated, along with lifeguards. by the Columbia Association, Vigorito said. The Learn2Tri program has many sponsors, including the Horizon Foundation, Howard County General Hospital and Howard County Police. Several were on hand at the event last week to present the program with checks. CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield donated $25,000, and the McDonald's Family Restaurants of Greater Baltimore donated $10,000 to the program.
Freshman at Long Reach aren't the only ones benefiting from the partnership. Fourth-grade students at Hammond and Talbott Springs elementary schools, sixth-grade students at Burleigh Manor and Wilde Lake middle schools, and ninth-grade students at Glenelg High School are also part of the pilot program.
"We're always looking to encourage activeness, and this extends beyond the school day," Board of Education member Ellen Giles said. "This gives (students) the opportunity to see how they can make choices that are long-living. It's a lifetime sport."
Even though a triathlon is an individual sport, it still fosters teamwork, Vigorito said, and Davis's observations mirrored that: students in her class bonded, and friendships grew out of the runs and bike rides together.
"They learned to push each other, as well as support each other," Davis said.
That was evident in one of two duathlons of the day, in which students like Nicholas, Alana and Julia ran, cycled and ran again. Alana and Julia kept pace with one another, they said, and other students cheered them on, as they, too, cheered on their classmates.
"We all support each other," Julia said. "It was fun. It helps you bond with people around you, and that makes the experience enjoyable."
Her classmates even went so far as to call their experiences life-changing.
"At first, none of us were runners, and some of us couldn't swim," said Lacey Wiseman, 14. "We banded together, and we gave each other plenty of help. It was a big challenge for us, but we came through. We're more athletic, and we're more strong."