CHARLESTON — What started out as a group of middle school aged boys staying active over the summer turned into much more in the past six weeks, the culmination of which turned this group into triathletes Saturday.
Among those fitness-minded folks also in attendance that day, the group, tentatively called the Mattoon Middle School triathlon team, took part in the first Mattoon Area Family Indoor Triathlon, which for many of these boys was their introduction to triathlons.
While not all of the team is in middle school, they all sit around the same age.
The team, who could in a sense be considered a motley crew of kids, banded together to train once every Sunday for six weeks ahead of the final event under the direction of Bob Zollmann, formerly a Mattoon Middle School custodian.
Zollmann, who is no stranger to triathlons having completed a few Iron Man Challenges himself, saw an opportunity for local middle-schoolers to focus their energies on something special, something a large majority of Americans have never done: triathlons.
For Zollamann, the drive to do this was simple.
"They need somebody," Zollman said of the age group and the individuals in the group.
And Zollmann along with his wife Chris Zollmann, other YMCA staff, and sponsors including Auto Truck and Farm Repair sought to be that somebody.
He said also that he saw few better avenues to connect to young individuals than through intense exercise.
"You can relieve stress, anger, frustration. It makes you goal-oriented," Bob added.
Bob knows first-hand the transformative and accomplished feeling completing a triathlon can give someone, and he said he wanted this group of boys, a few of which he said has had significant "struggles" in their life, to experience that.
The group originated from what was a summer-exercise program for middle school boys. Bob helped form what was called "Guy's Time" with the YMCA during the summer. The goal, he said, was to give those boys an outlet to do something constructive during those months.
"The interesting thing about middle school kids is...they have nowhere to go and nowhere to be over the summer," he said.
Eventually, the group petered out, but months later another idea came to Bob when the indoor event was announced: get these boys excited about completing a triathlon.
"When this came up, I thought, 'This is perfect,'" Zollmann said. "You don't have to buy anything. You don't have to buy a bike. You don't have to buy a helmet. You don't have to buy nothing. You just need some shoes and some shorts."
The indoor event consisted of a 10-minute swim in the YMCA's indoor lap pool, a 20-minute bike ride on their stationary cycling bikes, and a 15-minute walk or run on their treadmills.
And after training on each leg of the triathlon over the course of a couple of months, the group pushed through the YMCA's event huffing and puffing, in many cases smashing goals they made for themselves ahead of time.
Dakoda Wise, 13, was especially proud of his attempt. One of the first to signup for the training, Dakoda considered himself good at running and the like, but the swimming portion made him nervous.
"That was the thing I was most concerned about because I am bad at swimming," he said. "I am really happy with myself."
His goal was seven laps in the pool. He did 17.
Dakoda noted that he joined because he felt aerobic exercise was his niche early on. He saw the group as a good avenue to explore that.
Cephus Wright, 11, took a more casual approach to triathlon, noting his only goal was really to finish. Still, he said he enjoyed himself, however tiring it was.
He was especially proud of his laps in the pool.
For most of the team, swimming was the most daunting task.
Shaun Istre was most nervous about "passing out in the water," he jokingly said. Istre was not as involved during training, but one could not tell it on Saturday. Istre like the rest of the group trucked forward despite the growing weariness as they progressed.
This was possibly no more so the case than with Mac Spears, 12, who said for a good portion of swimming he waded through the pool with water up his nose and in his eyes.
"As I started off, water got in my glasses and in my nose, but I didn't want to stop, so I just kept on going with my eyes closed not breathing. I passed out in the water, but they said I never stopped," Mac said.
For Mac, the triathlon served as a means to get out of the house.
"Bob is a really good friend, and when he asked me if I wanted to do it, I was like 'I usually just sit around the house and do nothing, so I should probably do something,'" Mac said. "I like running. I like swimming. And, I used to ride my bike a lot — it is the combination of my childhood."
Chris, Bob's wife who played a big role in the training as well, was impressed by the night-and-day changes she saw in the boys in some cases.
"It was more of a playtime (during a practice)," she said. "Today, they put a lot more effort into it... We were blown away."
"It is just awesome to see them do that," Bob said. "They took to it."
Bob said they plan on regrouping to retrain for another triathlon or run later down the line. Saturday is not the end of it, he affirmed.