SPORTS - AUGUST 1995
At 12, John Azevedo thinks his dad is "cool." This unusual attitude for a near-teen may stem from the fact that John and his dad have an appointment every morning at 5:30. That's when they head to the Arcata Community Pool for a quick two-mile swim. Later they might bike a dozen or more miles before the younger Azevedo takes off for soccer practice.
This shared physical exercise, a bonding between parent and child, is something missing in many American families. Statisticians reported recently that teenagers today are heavier, eat more junk food and are in worse physical shape than ever before.
They also note that youngsters spend more time with Beavis and Butthead than they do with their own parents.
"I see other kids in my class who think Nintendo is a sport. That's all they talk about all day: 'Did you make it to level seven? Did you find the golden key?'
"They sit and watch television all day. I don't want to be like that. I want to be out there, always moving."
Azevedo's on Humboldt County's traveling soccer team, swims competitively and recently took first place in the Youth Triathlon in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho.
And last month, he and 250 local youths participated in the Humboldt Tri-Kids Triathlon.
Fine athletes already, these 4-foot-high, 80-pounders competed in the annual three-sport event at College of the Redwoods in Eureka. Building that ever-important self esteem, each child put out his or her best for the race.
"Every Tri-Kids finisher is a winner," race director Loren Azevedo announced. "And the emphasis is on winning by setting personal goals and accomplishing them, instead of beating everybody else in the race."
Azevedo, 43, an Arcata optometrist, father of John and two other children and a triathlete himself, is a cofounder of Humboldt County's Tri-Kids Triathlon.
"A friend of mine - Jason Hardi - and I were on a bike ride one day, and we started talking about triathlons," recalled Azevedo.
Inspired by the Iron Kids triathlons elsewhere, Azevedo and Hardi wanted to plan an event for children aged 7 to 14.
"The idea came from that, and of course from having our own kids."
Since it started in 1990, the Humboldt Tri-Kids Triathlon has become a popular local event. The number of participants has gone from 70 the first year to 250 this year.
One big reason for the event's local popularity is Mike Pigg, a local hero who's ranked as the top short course triathlete in the world. The Arcata High School graduate is the ideal model for many local young triathletes.
Triathlon is a series of three events designed to test physical endurance - swimming, biking and running.
"Swimming and biking are great for the upper body," Azevedo said. "And running is good for the lower body."
And the benefits, Azevedo said, are not just for kids.
"It's a family event, too. You see lots of moms and dads on the course yelling encouragement, supporting their kids. We estimate that children spend 10 to 200 hours with family and friends in preparation for the triathlon."
Triathlon is not for everybody, but in the past decade clubs, camps and training centers have sprung up all over the U.S.
"Few sports offer so ultimate a test of strength and ability as triathlon," said Azevedo. "And while the event is challenging, it's also extremely rewarding.
"At the Tri-Kids competition, every child is recognized. There are special awards for sportsmanship, and awards for first, second, and third place for each age and sex. Every kid goes home with a medal, flowers, water bottles and a T-shirt.
"After the event, these kids are proud of themselves. They're ready to conquer the world!"
For kids aged 7 to 10, the race begins with a 100-yard swim, followed by a three-mile bike ride and a half-mile run. Kids 11 to 14 must swim 200 yards, bike six miles, and run a mile. Race organizers stress the importance of proper training for such an event.
Creighton Brown was gearing up for Tri-Kids weeks before the event. Brown, 7, may be a novice, as green as garden spinach, but there's no doubt he's got the urge to race.
Since Creighton learned about the triathlon from a friend, life around the Brown home has been like living on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier: You stay out of the way and try not to get caught in the prop wash.
To prepare for the July 22 event, Creighton swam three times a week, and raced his brother, Brandon, 6, on the triathlon/obstacle course they constructed.
"First we hop on our bikes and ride down the road," Creighton explained. "Then we come back, hop on our Big Wheels, and go around the driveway. Twice. Then we jump off and run three times around the garden bed, sideways up the slope, and jump across the bridge. Then we run around a hill, crawl under the hammock, jump over our toys, around a tree, over a pile of rocks, and back to the start. The first one to give dad a high-five wins."
Swimming often can be the toughest challenge for young children.
"We try not to scare any of the kids who aren't good swimmers," Azevedo said. "You can float, hang on to the side of the pool, use a kick board - anything to get to the other side. I want to play down the competitive side of it."
That can be easier said than done, especially when it comes to triathletes like Carlos Jones.
Jones, age 9, has a thoroughly competitive soul. He plays football, soccer and tennis and competes in swimming, mountain biking, golf and running. He makes each sport his own, always assuming a key role, racing to the front, leading the others with ease and assurance.
"How can he do all those sports and still play football?" a bewildered football coach once asked his father.
"I don't force him to do anything," his father said. "But If he starts something, I tell him not to quit."
Carlos didn't quit when he crashed in the bike/run transition area of the 1993 Tri-Kids Triathlon and other kids began zipping past him.
"I slipped and fell on my bike," Carlos said. "My leg was bleeding. My dad told me to get up and run. He told me not to quit. I finished the race, just like he told me."
Carlos didn't quit at the Northern Off Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) race in Fieldbrook, even after 20 miles of rugged terrain and leg-fatiguing misery. And he didn't quit at the Redwood Swim Meet where he competed in eight events, won six first places, two seconds, and took home high-point swimmer.
A number of local Tri-Kids have gone on to compete in the larger Iron Kids events out of the area. At the 1994 Sacramento Iron Kids Triathlon, Humboldt County athletes won 10 out of a possible 48 medals. Two of those winners were Kelsey and Courtney Burman of Eureka.
T.S. Elliot may have measured his life in teaspoons, but for Kelsey and Courtney, miles and meters make a better yardstick. They swim, bike and run great distances daily.
"The Burman girls are really dedicated," Azevedo said. "Very impressive."
Kelsey, 13, and Courtney, 14, faced their share of skeptics when they started out in 1991. Then, in their first Tri-Kids Triathlon, both girls won their age groups and a trip to the Sacramento Iron Kids regional competition. At Sacramento, both girls took second place and won a trip to the Olympics of kids triathlon - the national championships. At Nationals, Kelsey took second in the nation and Courtney took fifth. When they rolled back into Humboldt County, skeptics were hard to find.
Recently both girls attended Jr. Olympics Triathlon Training Camp in Roswell, New Mexico.
"Camp was fun," Kelsey said. "We got up every day at 5:45 a.m., ran a mile warm-up and two miles of intervals. Then we biked 15 to 20 miles. At 7 a.m. we would swim about 2,000 yards.
"There was a Russian coach who taught us a lot and everyone asked me about Mike Pigg. I would tell them, Yeah, Mike Pigg lives up in Eureka, too ..." Kelsey giggled. "Actually, I've never met Mike Pigg."
"We did three sports a day for two weeks," said Courtney. "Then, at the end of the two weeks, we had a race."
The race, a qualifier for the World Championships in Mexico, was a 400-yard swim, an 8-mile bike, and a 2.5-mile run. That's twice the distance of the Tri-Kids Triathlon. Kelsey placed 11th overall (out of 23 girls) and won a berth on the U.S. Junior Triathlon team.
Her sister was not as lucky.
"Last year I was in better shape," Courtney admitted. "Next year I want to be more prepared for the race. I'm going to train more."
The New Mexico race was the first time Kelsey and Courtney (who are usually in different age groups) had to compete against one another.
"We were together on the swim," Courtney said. "It was an open-water course. She was out of the water two seconds before me. The bike section was a hilly 8-mile loop. That's where she dropped me.
"I don't like it when she beats me," Courtney said. But the sister in her added, "she trained hard to get where she is."
As for Kelsey, beating her older sister was "kind of weird," she said. "When I beat her she gets mad."
Courtney will not be entered in this year's Tri-Kids competition, but she will be standing by to see if Kelsey breaks her course record (34 minutes, 43 seconds).
Jennifer Laidlaw of McKinleyville won't be out to break any course records at the Tri-Kids race. She'll be busy enough just trying to avoid sweaty palms.
Jennifer, 9, said that in 1994 as she approached the starting line for her first Tri-Kids Triathlon, she came to within an inch of turning tail and running. Instead, she crossed her toes inside her sneakers and wandered through the crowd. When the gun went off, a change came over her.
"During the run section, Jennifer was tired," said her mother, Teresa. "She was running and stopping, running and stopping. Then she saw a competitor coming up behind her and she ran nonstop all the way in." .
While some children obviously will continue training their entire life, others go on to different activities, proud of their accomplishments and having gained knowledge of their own worth.
Take Jeff Munther, for example. Munther, 14, was a Tri-Kids champion, winning every year he competed. Now Jeff is taking some time off. He is tired of training.
Tired of training, yes, but according to his mother, Jeff is no candidate for teen burnout.
"He decided to step back from it all," Janet Munther said. "He still loves sports. He plays basketball, swims and does a lot of biking. And he still likes triathlon. He has a poster of Mike Pigg hanging in his bedroom. But his competitive streak has mellowed out."
"Jeff got a lot out of Tri-Kids," his mother said. "He's developed training habits that will carry over into the rest of his life. And, he realizes that by putting time and effort into a project, you can come out with big results and positive rewards."
It is tempting to look for something secret, a special thing that Tri-Kids organizers are doing that enables them to persuade so many young children to take up the sport.
There is no secret.
"Imagine yourself at 8," Azevedo said. "You're taking off by yourself down the road. Mom and dad are waiting for you at the transition area, screaming and yelling - cheering you all the way ..."
The North Coast Journal Table of Contents