By TAYLOR HARTZ
More than 200 children biked, swam, and ran their way across YMCA Camp Sloper this Saturday, in honor of Chase Kowalski, a 6-year-old victim of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shootings.
The statewide Race4Chase triathlon, sponsored by the Chase Michael Anthony Kowalski (CMAK) Foundation, began in 2013 as a way “to turn tragedy into triumph,” honor Kowalski’s memory, and continue his love of running, said his parents.
In its third year, the Race4Chase gave 250 children from eight local YMCA’s the chance to participate in a free six-week training program to prepare them for the Southington competition. The program aims to provide kids with swimming and cycling lessons, strength and flexibility training, and lessons in nutrition, health, and endurance under the guidance of their coaches.
“We’re growing the next generation,” said Chase’s mother, Rebecca Kowalski. “We want to promote family health and wellness. We want these kids to know that they are valued, and they are loved.”
The Kowalskis hope that by giving the athletes an environment with encouragement and support over the summer, and by bringing families together for the final event, core values will be strengthened in the 6-to-12 year olds, and further violence might be prevented.
YMCA Executive Director John Meyers said that the Kowalskis’ mission goes hand-in-hand with the values at the YMCA, and Camp Sloper’s focus on youth development.
“It’s giving kids a positive experience they can build on and continue on in their journey in life,” said Meyers.
Meyers called the event “moving and inspiring,” and he said that hearing Rebecca and Stephen Kowalski speak before the start of the race helped to “really ground us in why we’re here and remind us to honor Chase’s memory.”
Inspired by Chase’s love of competitive running, the event aims to teach the athletes endurance, healthy competition, and teamwork.
Chase ran his first 50-meter race at the age of two, and won his first triathlon at six-years-old. His passion for the sport “set the wheels in motion for us to take this tragedy and turn something positive out of it,” his mother said.
Jolene Miceli, Health and Wellness Class Coordinator at the Southington YMCA, said she saw the event bring the community together, and she watched the athletes grow both individually and as a team.
While some of Southington’s athletes were already experienced in competitive running, others had never ridden a bike or learned to swim. Miceli said the most rewarding part was watching six-year-old Evan Carnright, Southington, transform from gripping the side of the pool in fear, to racing through the lake on Saturday.
The lessons of strength and support were not lost on the young athletes.
When asked what his favorite part of the day was, Alex Dandrade, still panting and dripping with sweat, said he most enjoyed running because it was the most challenging.
“You had to really push yourself when you went up that hill,” said Dandrade.
Bartosz Giza said he was proud of himself for pushing through to the end of the competition when he heard his teammates cheering.
“When you cheer people on it makes them feel better and get stronger in everything they’re doing in a triathlon,” said Giza.
This year’s program provided 19 Southington residents with the unique opportunity to become a triathlete, with three hours of training each day spent “working together, communicating with each other, being part of a group, learning, reaching goals, being active, and just being kids,” said Karen DiGirolamo, Southington YMCA’s Health and Wellness Director.
After watching the hundreds of young athletes cross the finish line, YMCA staff, the Kowalski family, and the triathletes themselves were assured that the event promoted health and growth in both physical and mental development.
“If we as a community really come together and show kids that they’re appreciated and we care about them and their potential, hopefully that will alleviate tragedies in the future,” said Miceli.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Taylor Hartz, email her at THartz@SouthingtonObserver.com.