Exceeding Expecations

Exceeding Expecations

Cherie Gruenfeld found success and happiness after walking away from a stellar career in corporate America. Today, after nine consecutive finishes, four wins and a 55-59 age group course record all in Hawaii, Gruenfeld’s giving back with an inner-city tri program for kids.

story and photos by John Segesta

It was a Sunday morning in 1986 and Cherie Gruenfeld was sitting in bed with husband Lee, drinking coffee and eating sticky buns. For the two busily traveling corporate captains, it was a small and deliberate miracle that they were in the same bed. The weekend rendezvous is all they typically had to share and at times, any neutral city would do. But on this particular day in March—the day of the first L.A. Marathon—they happened to be in their very own bed in Santa Monica, Calif. Coffee, companionship and sticky buns. Life, if for only this very moment, couldn’t have been better.

Thumbing through the paper, Gruenfeld read about the marathon. She was in her early 40s and, aside from tennis and skiing, she wasn’t highly active. Today, she remembers asking her husband if the event would be cancelled; it had rained the day before and the roads would be wet. “But I turned on the TV,” says Gruenfeld, “and there it was. I watched it wire to wire, fascinated by the whole thing.” The next day, she bought a pair of running shoes and a book for first-time marathoners. Her first run was 10 minutes. Five months later, well ahead of her one-year goal to run the next L.A. Marathon, Gruenfeld ran the Humboldt Redwoods Marathon in northern California in 3:26, qualified for and went on to run Boston in 3:23. Now its 15 years later and the evolution continues. On October 6, Gruenfeld, 57, will compete in the Hawaii Ironman with nine consecutive finishes, four wins, the 55 to 59 age group record of 11:58:29, set in 1999, and the official WTC distinction, women’s 2000 Age Grouper of the Year.

Reluctant Warrior

Gruenfeld’s introduction to triathlon was slow, almost reluctant. A widely known software marketing whiz, she traveled extensively but could always find room in her suitcase and schedule for a pair of running shoes. She had been running a couple of marathons a year—eventually posting a PR of 3:07 at the Twin Cities Marathon—when she was injured and looked toward biking, swimming and eventually the sport that combines it all with running. But after racing her first triathlon in 1990, the San Diego International, she was indifferent and still focused on pure running. “I thought it was fun,” she says of her first triathlon, “but it really didn’t capture my attention.”

Gruenfeld does much of her Ironman training in California’s Mojave Desert near her home in Palm Springs.

In October of ’91, she read an article in California’s Competitor magazine about the Ironman. The concept passed right through her and didn’t stick, and the magazine sat on the coffee table. Until her husband picked it up.
“The Ironman,” Lee remembers, “had always seemed to us an exotic, distant and somewhat unfathomable thing, undertaken only by psychopaths whose terrestrial origins were suspicious.” But something about that article changed his mind. His wife, he thought, could do this, and she could likely do it well.

At about the same time, both were tiring of their fast-paced careers. Enough was enough. “One night we met at an airport VIP club when I was heading out to Minnesota and she was flying back from Boston,” recalls Lee. “The absurdity of it hit us both, and we decided to do something about it.” Lee decided to resign his partnership at the prestigious management consulting firm Deloitte & Touche to take a crack at writing a book, and Gruenfeld, then vice president at the Artificial Intelligence Corporation, began considering whether a leave would allow her to do the Ironman. Six months of dedicated training, she had often told Lee, would do it. When Lee’s writing paid off big with a $1.2 million book deal, he issued the challenge. Gruenfeld didn’t hesitate, immediately resigned her position with AICorp, and presented her Kona objective to San Diego coach Ron Smith.

“How are you gonna get there?” Smith asked.

“Uh, on a plane,” Gruenfeld replied, unaware of the qualification process.
The two aimed for her to qualify with Ironman Canada, but Gruenfeld surprised herself by earning a Hawaii slot at Mike and Rob’s Triathlon, an event they had scheduled as a training race. True to the familiar tale, her Ironman in ’92 was to be a one-time event.

Aside from her nine Hawaii starts and finishes, Gruenfeld has done both Germany and New Zealand, and Ironman USA in Lake Placid, the latter event twice and once in 2001 with a record time of 12:08:10. She raced Germany in ’96, going 11:17 to successfully surmount her seemingly perennial 12-hour nemesis in Kona, a barrier she ultimately broke as well with her record-setting finish in ’99. The title in Hawaii was hers again in ’00, adding to her wins from ’94 and ’95. Gruenfeld has only DNF’d once, at a race in Bakersfield in ’94 when the handlebars fell off her bike. In the last two years, she’s won her age group in every race she’s ever started—sprint, Olympic, half, full.

But for Gruenfeld, Ironman is the game and every other event mere practice. And it’s a game she knows well. Her training is strict, but smart and specified, and her lifestyle pleasantly accommodating: She and Lee now split their time between two homes, one in the mountains and one in the desert, both near Palm Springs, Calif. Weeks are organized to include key workouts with plenty of rest in between and she doesn’t stray far from the plan: a long run, a long bike, a brick and regular time at the pool in the desert or the lake in the mountains. There are no junk miles, and there is also no time on the track—only an occasional fartlek run. Off-seasons are treated with active rest and cross training, including an occasional snowshoe race.

Giving Back

Before her career in industry, Gruenfeld spent nine years as a teacher, covering everything from elementary school to college-level computer science. A skilled public speaker, she motivated people in business, and now with her experience in Ironman, she motivates people in life. In all, she’s a natural leader: Set an example, and show others how to follow.

“She has inspired and cajoled dozens of people to enter the sport of triathlon,” her husband says. “Mostly bikers and runners, and most of them have stayed with it under her tutelage. She’s also taken a bunch of people from dead zero to Ironman, and thus far not one of her trainees has ever failed to finish. A few have qualified and gone on to do Kona.” Recently, Gruenfeld was honored as a Woman of the Year by Soroptomist International for her work with women athletes.

“She sees people as being bigger than they see themselves,” says Jacque Irons, a teacher at Cypress Elementary School near San Bernardino, Calif., where Gruenfeld was invited to speak last fall. “No matter where anyone is, she takes them from exactly where they’re at and moves them on.”

As part of her school program Exceeding Expectations, Irons invites motivational speakers to Cypress. After hearing of Gruenfeld through a friend who is a cyclist, Irons invited her to her school.

“After showing a video,” recalls Lee of an earlier such engagement, “she took them through an entire simulated Ironman. For the swim she had them all put on goggles, then crowd together and jostle each other while gargling salt water. Then they hopped onto a stationary bike, ate Powerbars and pedaled furiously while she blasted them with a big fan and hair dryers. They jogged in place for the run and drank Gatorade as she broke out light sticks and pinned them to their shirts, then she had them throw their hands up as they crossed the finished line.”

Encouraged by an enthusiastic reception at Cypress, Gruenfeld asked Irons about the possibility of getting the kids in a race. “These are kids from a really low socioeconomic environment,” says Gruenfeld, “kids that have never had opportunity presented to them before, so everything’s a gift to them.” So many expressed an interest that Irons was forced to hold tryouts. One 5k running race and two relay triathlons later, 15 Cypress kids now have a new outlook on life—much like Gruenfeld herself did after leaving corporate America.

Eleven-year old Emilio Holguin shows particular promise and is aiming for Kona one day. According to Irons, his promise and potential have transformed not just his family, but the entire community. “I love the community and I have been waiting and waiting for an opportunity like this to come along,” says Irons.

“I’m very hopeful that we can maintain it,” adds Gruenfeld, “so that these kids continue to have this opportunity in the future.”

Anyone wanting to donate used triathlon equipment can send donations to the kids at Cypress Elementary School. The group has a particular need for road bicycles that can fit 11- and 12-year olds, and cash donations are also gratefully accepted.

Cypress Elementary School
Exceeding Expectations Athletic Program
Care of:  Ms. Jacque Irons
26825 Cypress Street
Highland, CA  92346

First Youth Triathlon a Success

First Youth Triathlon a Success

Associate Editor

Some swam the six laps quickly, some struggled a bit, and some pulled themselves along on the lane ropes with a coach in the pool encouraging them. But every one of the kids finished the 150-yard swim at the YMCA pool, the final leg of the first annual Palisades Fourth of July youth triathlon. This was after the athletes completed a 5K bike ride starting and ending at the Palisades Recreation Center and a 1.1-mile run up to the Temescal Canyon pool.

“Every Finisher Is a Winner” said the red T-shirts worn by the entrants and volunteers in the triathlon. More than 60 kids (56 individual entrants and 3 relay teams), ages 5 to 15, entered the event and all of them finished in less than 50 minutes. From the first finisher to the last, the children were all cheered on, supported and encouraged every step of the way by parents, coaches, organizers and volunteers, many from the L.A. Triathlon Club.

The winners were Jose Lopez, who finished in 23:28 (after running the Palisades-Will Rogers 10K that morning), and Courtney Knapp, who completed the race in 25:29.

Knapp, 13, a student at Calvary Christian School, entered on a whim the day before the triathlon. “I’ve done 5Ks and a 10K, and I decided yesterday to do it,” she said. “I’m a junior lifeguard, and that helped me in swimming.” It was her first triathlon, but “I’ve done all the elements in different ways.”

Her favorite part was the running. “The hill on the bike part was pretty hard.”

Standing poolside after she completed the race, Knapp cheered the rest of the athletes as they finished their laps.

Lopez, also 13, is a member of the Cypress Exceeding Expectations Triathlon Club, a group of inner-city kids from San Bernardino that has been coached for two years by five-time Ironman world champion Cherie Gruenfeld. She brought 13 kids to participate.

Lopez will be entering eighth grade at Serrano Middle School in the fall. “I’ve done a lot of these,” he said. “But this one was the most fun because it was the shortest. We had to go to tryouts first and I made the team. But I did most of the training on my own.”

“I like the swimming part the best,” said Lopez, who plays basketball and soccer at school. “Sometimes it is the first thing you do, but here it was the last. I hope I can do this again next year.”

Exceeding Expectations Triathlon Club coach Cherie Gruenfeld helps one of her team members through his final laps (Rich Schmitt/ Staff Photographer)

The Exceeding Expectations Triathlon Club was born after Gruenfeld was invited to speak at Cypress Elementary School in Highland in December 2000. “I used my Ironman experience to talk about setting goals and the kids responded enthusiastically.” In fact, 200 kids expressed interest in running triathlons, so tryouts were held. Starting with 12 kids, the group now has 40 kids who compete in triathlons and other races regularly. “It teaches them to set a goal–and to know it’s going to be tough, but to keep going until it’s finished. It gives them a positive direction and an opportunity to see another side of life.” Gruenfeld started picking kids up at 4 a.m. on race day. Some of the young people saw the ocean for the first time driving to the Palisades.

The group of at-risk youth, ages 8-14, are now seasoned athletes who ran either the Palisades 5K or 10K before participating in the triathlon. However, they don’t have anywhere to practice swimming. Gruenfeld hopped into the pool with some of the athletes, encouraging them as they pulled themselves along the ropes. Other coaches did the same with other young competitors as they headed for the finish line.

The triathlon was organized by Palisadian Deborah Hafford, herself an Ironman triathlete. It was co-sponsored by USA Youth Triathlon, of which Hafford is the founder and executive director, and the Palisades-Malibu YMCA. Amanda McPherson, a USA Triathlon-certified coach, worked with 25 young people who prepared for the race in an 8-week training program at the Y.

“I founded USA Youth Triathlon this year as a non-profit organization dedicated to giving children of all backgrounds and abilities access to this sport,” Hafford said. “Getting kids involved in sports and teaching them the benefits of physical fitness are vital to a child’s healthy development and self esteem. This event was the first effort in the development of this program.”

An athlete with triathlon in her blood was native Palisadian Lisa Weintraub, 12. This was the second triathlon for the Paul Revere student, who participated in the San Diego Triathlon two years ago.

Weintraub said she trained for the event with her family, primarily her father, Brian, who competed in Ironman competitions for over 20 years in Florida, Hawaii, California and Nice, France. “My dad and I rode the bike course together on weekends and I practiced swimming with him, too,” Weintraub said. “I thought the triathlon was really fun and I learned a lot. It was a really good experience.”

Savannah Schy, 8, a student at Village School, is a first-time triathlete and one of the participants in the training program. She was cheered on strongly from poolside at the finish and she overcame a bit of adversity at the start of the bike segment. “I got a bad start. My pedal got stuck and it was hard to go.”

Schy had learned about dealing with setbacks during the training program which met each Saturday afternoon for two hours. Two Saturdays ago, she recalled, “I was biking, I went over a speed bump and I fell, cut up my knee and chin.” She continued and placed second in the running race that day.

A special award was given out for best effort to Jasmine Neroes, 9, and best sportsmanship to 5-year-old Palisadian Joe Walker, the race’s youngest participant who was accompanied throughout the competition by his father.

About 15 children signed up the day of or the day before the race. In fact the race was so successful that Hafford said, “Next time, I’ll order more T-shirts.” She’d also like to place a race clock near the pool. The race clock was on a laptop and the time was then yelled out to the volunteers by the pool this year. But with all the yellers, screamers and cheerleaders standing around the pool, a race clock would make things easier.

Later in the day, 35 triathletes rode in the YMCA parade float.

(Sports Editor Steve Galluzzo contributed to this story.)

Celebrating 3 Hometown Heroes

Celebration to honor 3 ‘hometown heroes’

LLU Children’s Hospital to observe 10th anniversary at foundation gala

( By ANNETTE WELLS, Staff Writer )

LOMA LINDA – There’s a decade of operation to celebrate and a trio of heroes to salute this Sunday at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital Foundation’s 10th Annual Gala and Dinner.”We are thrilled, because this is the 10th year of operation for the Children’s Hospital and we are awarding three more people as Hometown Heroes,’ said Patti Cotton Pettis, executive director of the Children’s Hospital Foundation.

This year’s heroes are:

Joseph Rodriguez of Redlands, a trauma nurse in the emergency room at Loma Linda University Medical Center. He started the nonprofit Gang Reduction Intervention Team in 1996 after noticing a large number of injured youths coming through the emergency room doors. His goal was to get youth away from violence and to take responsibility for their actions.

The San Bernardino Juvenile Probation Department uses the team.

Cherie Gruenfeld of Blue Jay, who for the last three years has been ranked the world’s No. 1 female Ironman triathlete in her age group. She recently started Cypress Kids, a program designed to encourage at-risk children at Cypress Elementary School in San Bernardino to stay away from negative activities and participate in triathlons.

Dr. Carla Lidner Baum, a Riverside dentist. She recently partnered with Head Start to offer free screenings to children. For the program, she was awarded a two-year, $1.1 million grant, and because of its success, the program has received a second grant for $2.3 million over two years, officials said.

This Sunday’s event at Loma Linda University’s Drayson Center marks the seventh year that the foundation has recognized Hometown Heroes in the community who have made efforts to enrich the quality of life for children.

“These are people from the community who share our passion for children,’ Pettis said. “These heroes have distinguished themselves through their giving to improve the lives of children.

Last year’s dinner was attended by more than 900 people and raised $186,000 for programs at the hospital. This year’s collection will benefit the Loma Linda University Pediatric Diabetes Treatment Center, Pettis said.

The center, inside the Loma Linda University faculty offices, offers education to patients and their families on how to better manage the disease.

Two board-certified pediatric endocrinologists, a nurse practitioner, two diabetes nurse educators, two nutritionists, two case managers, a nurse for special projects and an administrative secretary make up the center’s staff, medical center officials said.

“For the last 10 years, and even before the hospital opened, we have been treating diabetic children,’ Pettis said. “It’s a team-centered effort where, instead of just going to the doctor, children and their families can have access to an assortment of services. A child can come see a doctor, a nurse and a nutritionist all at once.’

The idea behind the center is to give children who may not have health insurance an opportunity to get care beyond just a doctor, Pettis said.

“We are committed to turning no child away,’ she said.

Gloria Loring, a singer, songwriter, actress, author and speaker, will act as master of ceremonies and entertainer at the gala.

Amazing kids come to Aptos

Amazing kids come to Aptos

Aug 24 2003


Gaylia Osterlund and Mike Bennett each saw NBC’s coverage of the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii in 2001, and both took particular notice of a feature on a group called the Cypress Kids.

They watched with great interest as the young triathlon competitors from low-income families in an area near San Bernardino were profiled. Neither had seen anything like the group of 8-15 year olds, started in December of 2000 by Cherie Gruenfeld, one of the top age-group triathletes in the world.

“I thought, ‘What a great lady. What a wonderful program,'” Bennett said.

“For a year and a half I couldn’t get it out of my head,” Osterlund, a Santa Cruz Triathlon Association board member, said.

Bennett, co-owner of By the Beach Productions, a Santa Cruz company that runs triathlons, quickly invited Gruenfeld and the Cypress Kids to compete in the SuperKid Triathlon, which his company runs. But the logistics and scheduling didn’t work, so the event took place without them.

But Sunday, at the invitation of Osterlund and the SCTA and with all expenses paid, three Cypress Kids will be among those competing in the By the Beach Duathlon in Aptos.

“My hat’s off to the Santa Cruz Triathlon Association for doing this,” Bennett said. “I think it’s awesome.”

“It is really fantastic what they are doing,” Gruenfeld, 59, a multiple winner at the Ironman World Championships, said earlier this week. “What they are doing is above and beyond what you would expect any club to do.”

Many others will also help out. By the Beach Productions is waiving its entry fees and people are writing checks for up to $1,000 or volunteering their time at the race. Coach Ian Moll agreed to give a free swim clinic to the boys, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk gave free all-day passes, the Seascape Sports Club offered unlimited use of its facilities. Wetsuit maker Orca donated wetsuits, while others donated shoes, goggles, bikes and more for the kids to use. Another man rented out his house with all the proceeds going to the Cypress Kids.

“The list just goes on and on and on,” Osterlund said of the many people coming together to volunteer their time. “It’s just been really, really special to watch.”

So what’s so special about the Cypress Kids? For one, few would expect these ethnically diverse kids from poor areas to show such a commitment. Many would expect them to quit in the face of hard work, but that doesn’t happen, Gruenfeld said.

“Every day (for them) is just a challenge to survive the day in the areas where they live. These are very tough kids,” she said. “I realized that with kids like this, because they are used to challenges, I could say run a mile or run three miles and they would do it.”

The challenge that does get in the way of their triathlon training comes more from their surroundings. Family members can suddenly take them away, which causes the Cypress Kids’ numbers to fluctuate. The program, which started shortly after Gruenfeld gave a speech in a program called “Exceeding Expectations” at Cypress Elementary School in Highland, began with about 15 kids and now ranges between 40 and 45.

Since then the program has grown steadily. It has received accolades from all around and has been the subject of print articles and television segments.

But this weekend’s all-expenses-paid trip to Aptos is a first. All three 13-year-old boys competing Sunday, who were chosen for their maturity, flew on an airplane for the first time Friday and are staying away from home and relatives for the first time in their lives.

“It will be wonderful to see these kids have this type of experience,” Gruenfeld said. “I think it will benefit them for the rest of their lives.”

Perhaps the only thing that’s been a disappointment for most involved is that Sunday’s race had to be changed from a triathlon to a duathlon due to concerns over poor water quality. Bennett had expected 300 for the triathlon, while only 120 had signed up for the duathlon as of Tuesday. Gruenfeld had hoped the kids would have a chance to swim because they are preparing for a race later this year that has a half-mile swim.

Still, they will have plenty to tackle. Along with race favorites such as Mike Erbe, the Cypress Kids will take off from Valencia School and Aptos and run 2.5 miles, then bike 18 miles, then run another 2.5 miles before they finish the sprint course. Others who choose to take on a less taxing challenge will compete in the short course, in which the distances are halved.

Bennett hopes that the Cypress Kids will have effects on Santa Cruz County that will last long after the last of them crosses the finish line Sunday.

“My hope is some folks in this community will say, ‘Wow, what a great program. Maybe there’s a way we can do this in Santa Cruz,'” he said.

Registration for the By the Beach Duathlon is available on race day. Registration and check-in begins at 6:30 a.m. Racers in the sprint course will start at 8:30 a.m., while those in the short course will begin at approximately 8:50 a.m.

Training Develops a Winning Attitude

Training Develops a Winning Attitude

A triathlete’s work with San Bernardino youths gives them athletic — and academic — motivation ( 01/21/2002 )


Emilio Holguin wants to be an ironman.

Mark Zaleski/The Press-Enterprise
Ironman competitor Cherie Grunfeld, on her bicycle, and her group of young athletes make their way around East Valley High School in Redlands. She has been helping them reach their goals in swimming, running and bicycling.

The 12-year-old Serrano Middle School student has given himself six years to get ready. At 18, he plans to be swimming, cycling and running in Kona, Hawaii, in what many consider to be the world’s toughest triathlon.

It might be easy to dismiss Emilio’s goal as a fantastic adolescent’s dream. After all, he lives in a blighted area of San Bernardino where many kids can’t even afford a pair of running shoes, let alone a racing bike.

But Emilio is training under the eye of Cherie Gruenfeld, a Lake Arrowhead woman and veteran of 10 Hawaiian Ironman races, where she has won her age group division five times.

Evolution of a team

Gruenfeld is the coach of Cypress Exceeding Expectations. The team, which began with 12 eager athletes a little more than a year ago, has doubled in size. Volunteers run the program largely with donated equipment. They transport the kids from their homes to practices and events such as the YMCA Highland Run, which was held Sunday in Highland.

The team was featured during a brief profile of Gruenfeld that was part of NBC’s coverage of the Hawaiian Ironman competition in November. The program also is highlighted on the back of the latest Wheaties cereal box.

The team evolved out of one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for situations. Greunfeld came to Cypress Elementary in December 2000 at the request of friend Jacque Irons, who teaches second grade. Irons wanted the children to hear about goal-setting and commitment and to see where those things might take them. Gruenfeld thought she was giving an hour or two of her time in hopes of inspiring a few kids.

An athlete’s offer

She found herself impressed with the response.

“The kids were so excited and asked such good questions,” Gruenfeld said. “There was this little triathlon coming up and I said I would help any of them that wanted to do this.”

She expected three or four kids might be interested. Instead, 200 hands went up.

The school held tryouts and 12 students were chosen to be on the team. None of them knew how to swim and only a couple of them had bicycles, none of which were racing bikes.

Besides being surprised by the interest of the students, Gruenfeld soon began to realize that the commitment that lay ahead of her was more than she anticipated.

“I had no clue that these kids were so on their own,” she said. “I envisioned the parents bringing them somewhere to train on the weekends.”

She found out that if the kids were going to get anywhere, most were going to have to be picked up and dropped off at their doorsteps. On a recent Saturday morning it took an hour just to shuttle the kids and their bikes to Redlands East Valley High School for a training session. At morning events, Gruenfeld and other volunteers bring food so the young athletes get breakfast before they set out.

Donations and volunteers

Finding money for event entry fees and transportation costs also presented a challenge. But bikes were donated by the Redlands Bike Club, Inland Inferno Triathlon Club and individuals. Some race organizers have waived registration fees for the team. And donations have come in, including recent grants of $1,000 from TRW and $2,500 from General Mills. Bags of donated athletic clothes regularly show up at the school.

Gruenfeld has a core of four volunteers and calls in others when she can.

“There’s no way I could do this without these (volunteers), and I beg my triathlete friends to help me out with this.”

On a recent day, four additional volunteers showed up. The team was taking a practice run at a course it will compete on in a few weeks. With the team gathered before her, Gruenfeld explained the day’s training. A two-mile run, followed by a 10-mile bike ride. Finally, they’ll jump in the pool and do some swimming.

“After the run, the first thing you do, before you even touch your bike, is what?” she asks.

“Get your helmet on,” the kids chorus.

“You absolutely must stop at every corner,” she tells them. “If there’s a car there and it does the wrong thing, even if you’re right, who’s going to win? The car, right?”

Mark Zaleski/The Press-Enterprise
Cherie Grunfeld encourages Steven Martinez, 12, of San Bernardino before their three-mile run in preparation for an upcoming triathlon competition in Redlands.

‘More motivated’

Ralph Holguin, Emilio’s father, was elected team mechanic early on and says he’s happy to help out as much as he can. Very few parents attend the practices or the races, but Ralph and his wife Jeanetta Bolton are almost always on hand.

“It’s a fun thing for us to do,” Holguin said. “And I’m real proud of him.”

Their son’s success has rubbed off. Ralph Jr., 16, now is training and competing in the weekend events. He also is helping to train first-, second- and third-grade students at Cypress who want one day to be team members. And his cousin, who lives with the family, also has begun competing.

Bolton says she credits Emilio’s involvement with the team for much of his scholastic improvement in the past year. While he used to get C’s and D’s in class, Bolton says Emilio now comes home with A’s and B’s.

“He’s more motivated,” she said. “He’s into school more and his concentration is better.

“He wants to be like Cherie and do that Ironman,” she said. “I said I was going to stay behind him 100 percent.”

Cindy Haigler, a tutor at Cypress, said Emilio is not the only one whose success on the triathlon course has lapped over into his academic performance. She pointed out three other boys who have benefited.

“Their self-esteem is so high,” she said. Where before they were average students, now “they’re leaders in their classrooms. They think they’re little rock stars. It’s fun.”

Haigler is happy to see the students caught up in something she sees as significant.

“It gives them a lot of incentive and something to work toward,” she said. “I think it means a lot for their future. The ones that take advantage of that, it can change their lives.”

‘It’s been a miracle’

Irons said that when she invited Gruenfeld to speak at the school, that very hope was at the back of her mind.

“I’ve always wanted to find something to change this community,” she said, adding that she has tried other things in the past. “But this is it. It’s been a miracle to watch it take off like it has. I thought we’d have four or five kids, but it’s been incredible.”

She pointed to Emilio’s family as an ideal.

“That’s what the whole story’s about,” she said. “Now the family is connecting with their kids. Everybody’s thinking in another direction.”

Steven Martinez, 12, said he had never even heard of the Ironman race before he heard Gruenfeld speak.

“I thought that it was cool doing all those things,” he said. And he thought he could do them, too.

He recently had one of his best performances in Hemet’s Tinsel Triathlon.

“I got second place,” he said.

“First in your age group,” Gruenfeld reminded him.

“Yeah,” Steven said, trying to suppress a smile.

That feeling of pride, Gruenfeld said, is what she hopes to give her athletes.

“These kids need an opportunity,” she said. “They wouldn’t have this without somebody, not necessarily me, but somebody helping them.”

Her goal is “to give as many kids as we can manage the opportunity to race,” she said. “Every time they go to a race, they see a world they didn’t know existed. When they get to the finish line, they’ve accomplished something. Every time they get that, I think they get the idea there’s more in life that they can do than they realized.”

Kids triathlon program expands

Kids triathlon program expands

Woman uses triathlons to keep kids on track

Top U.S. age-grouper Cherie Gruenfeld is sharing her passion for triathlon by helping train a group of low-income children.

It all started when Gruenfeld, who has won her age group multiple times at Ironman Hawaii and also holds age-group titles at Ironman USA and Roth, spoke at a program called Exceeding Expectations at Cypress Elementary School in Highland, Calif.

She used her Ironman experience to help illustrate her points about working to achieve goals. At the school, she spoke with some of the teachers about the possibility of some of the students doing a triathlon in a nearby town. Nearly 200 students showed up for tryouts, and twelve 11- and 12-year-olds were chosen to be trained.

Now, the program she began last year has expanded, and we asked her for an update. In her own words:

“Thanks to two corporate grants and many, many generous donations from ‘Friends of Cypress,’ we have been able to grow the team and now have 30 kids racing triathlons. When we go to running races, we’re taking around 40 kids.

“[Over the weekend] the team did the Redlands Tri. The race director is a real fan and supporter of the team and would happily have ‘comped’ them all into the race, but we felt that there was a better way, a way that would benefit everyone. We solicited ‘sponsors’ for the kids. The responsibility of a sponsor was to pay the entry fee for that athlete. People were wonderful and we quickly had sponsors for each of the kids and many of the sponsors were able to get more personally involved. One sponsor raced with her athlete. Several others bought equipment for their kids and/or bonded over the months before the race.

“Nearly half of the group was doing a triathlon for the first time, but they were helped along in their pre-race activities by those old veterans, and everyone made it to the start line in plenty of time.

“One difference in this race from earlier races is that we had eight families there watching their kids and two fathers acting as mechanics, getting all the bikes in working order. A year ago we had absolutely no parental involvement. In several cases the parents don’t speak English, but they understood the loud cheering from the crowd as being for their child.

“We also had three Cypress teachers, along with the two that run the program with me, there to support their students and each of the three made a point of telling me about individual kids and how their grades and behavior had changed since joining the team. It doesn’t get any better than this.

“They race in bright blue team shirts which make them easily identifiable as Cypress Kids. Having raced as a team for a year and with some very nice press they’ve received, they’ve become local celebrities of sorts. So we’ve been working on social skills that go along with that, such as writing thank-you letters, shaking hands, looking folks in the eye and introducing themselves.

“Some went home with medals for placing but all went home with a finisher’s medal and a huge sense on accomplishment. The big question being asked at the end of the day was, ‘When is the next race?'”

“If you’re interested in helping Gruenfeld and the Cypress Kids, you can contact EE.”

Age-groupers battle in Kona: a look at the results

The Omaha, Neb. resident went on to finish second in her age group behind perennial champion Cherie Gruenfeld of California. And this is what Phipps has to say of Gruenfeld: “She’s not only my chief rival, but she’s also one of my idols.”

As for Gruenfeld, she notched another win as well—her third in a row and fifth in Kona—in 12:46:29.

“The conditions were, as we all know, quite tough,” she said. “Although my bike was very long, I felt that I rode strong the entire time. I am very fortunate in that I have the desert nearby where I can train in heavy winds. When I train in the desert, I tell myself, ‘I’m preparing for Kona,’ and when I race in Kona, I tell myself, ‘I’ve done this in the desert.’”

Women 55-59 Defending champion Cherie Gruenfeld of the U.S. is back to defend her title for the third time. She owns the course record for this age-group, 11:58, which she set in 1999. She was also the first woman over 50 to go under 12 hours when she set that record. And she’s not done setting records-she set a course record at Ironman Lake Placid for her age group this year.


Past champion Cherie Gruenfeld captured the women’s 55-59 in 5:56, punctuating the victory with a 1:56 half-marathon. And her time would have made her the winner in the women’s 50-54 age group, too. Harriet Anderson, in the women’s 65-69, took victory with a 7:53. Both are regular age-group winners at the Hawaii Ironman.

Gruenfeld exceeds expectations

April 30, 2001, Highland, California (www.triathlonlive.com):

Top age-grouper Cherie Gruenfeld has found a new way to share her passion for triathlon—by helping train a group of low-income children for their first race.

Gruenfeld, who has won her age group multiple times at Ironman Hawaii and also holds age-group titles at Ironman USA and Roth, spoke in December at a program called Exceeding Expectations at Cypress Elementary School in Highland, Calif.

“The general theme of my talk to the kids was about setting goals and working to achieve these goals,” Gruenfeld said. “Of course, I used my Ironman experience as the background for doing this. To conclude the talk I showed them a short video of me doing Kona.”

Gruenfeld said when she went to the school to speak, she met with the teachers to talk about the possibility of some of the kids doing a little triathlon in a nearby town. The teachers liked the idea and arranged tryouts for the next week. Nearly 200 kids showed up, with twelve 11- and 12-year-olds chosen to be trained.

“Every Saturday the teachers and one fantastic teacher’s aide got in a van and drove around gathering the kids up,” Gruenfeld said. “Those that lived nearby just showed up at the appointed time. We started weekly bike and run training with them and entered them in a local 5K for a training run.”

Gruenfeld said she realized quickly that they needed money to get the program going and to keep it afloat, and the fundraising began. “The kids didn’t have running shoes, biking equipment and certainly no means of paying entry fees,” she said. “I wrote a letter and sent it out or handed it out to whomever I could find. People were wonderful and responded with cash. Race directors were happy to comp the kids into their races. We have now gone through three rounds of funding, and it will be an ongoing process.”

The children were a big hit with the crowd at their first 5K, Gruenfeld said, and “they all ran a tough course beautifully.” They even had enough energy to run with Gruenfeld as she wrapped up the last quarter-mile of a half-marathon she was running at the same race.

They completed their first triathlon in February as members of relay teams using swimmers Gruenfeld helped recruit—among them publisher and triathlon legend Bob Babbitt. “None of these kids have spent any time in a pool and several, although living an hour from the ocean, have never seen the ocean,” she said.

Their next adventure came at the Desert Tri, where race director Greg Klein offered to comp five teams into the race. This meant an overnight stay for the kids and some more hunting for swimmers who could do the open-water swim.

“One of the teachers has a son who is on a high school swim team,” Gruenfeld said. “He got four of his swim-mates to join him and the five of them joined the teams. Three of our kids did both the bike and the run. It was a real adventure and the kids did fantastic, again thrilling the crowd with their grit and determination.”

Now the children are enrolled in a local YMCA for swimming lessons and plan on doing a short race with a pool swim in June—and they’ll do the entire race solo. “One little guy has proclaimed that he intends to do an Ironman when he’s 18, and he will,” Gruenfeld said.

Gruenfeld said that while she provides the motivation and inspiration, “the real force that makes this all possible is the teachers. These folks will do anything for these kids.” Gruenfeld plans the training, works with the kids on the weekends, organizes the fundraising and communicates with race directors. “But without the teachers what I do would go nowhere,” she said.

Earlier this month she had to tell the kids that start of her competitive season was coming and that she wouldn’t be able to spend as much time training them for a while. But a young man Gruenfeld has been helping prepare for Wildflower has joined her in training the kids, and he’s planning to assume more of the training duties from May to October.

“I’m nuts about these kids,” Gruenfeld said. “I love seeing their eyes light up when they accomplish a goal.” She admits she’s also shameless in asking for money for the cause. If you’re interested in helping, you can mail a check to: Cypress Elementary School, c/o Ms. Jacque Irons, 26825 Cypress Street, Highland, CA 92346.

Roeckert, Gruenfeld, take top IM age-group honors in La Jolla

February 14, 2001, La Jolla, California (www.triathlonlive.com):

Kai-Michael Roeckert was honored this past weekend at the Competitor Sports Awards as the Ironman Age-group Competitor of the year. The Tubingen-based teacher crossed the line in Kona in 9:01, first place in the 30-34 age group, ahead of countryman Alexander Lang. Roeckert was the 25-29 category winner last year in Kona.

He and his wife are expecting a child, and he therefore has an opportunity to take as much as two years off from his teaching job––but without pay. That allows him the time to train as a pro––should he decide to go in that direction––but not the finances. He’d have to secure sponsors first.

After spending a week in San Diego prior to the awards ceremony, Roeckert says he now understands why German stars like Jurgen Zack and Normann Stadler like to train here.

Cherie Gruenfeld rules the lava fields like few others (Missy LeStrange, in the audience to watch Gruenfeld win her honor, is one of the few who have a more impressive Kona record). Gruenfeld has won her age-group in Kona four times in the past six years. Pretty good, considering she only started triathlons in 1991.

Gruenfeld gave perhaps the most eloquent speech on a night replete with endurance stars like Khalid Kannouchi, Pablo Morales, and Scott Tinley. She won the Ironman Competitor Award for women.

Running for Their Lives

Running for Their Lives

Woman uses triathlons to keep kids on track ( 10:00 PM PDT on Sunday, May 14, 2006 )


Cherie Gruenfeld has been racing against the clock for many of her 61 years.

In the water, on a bike, on the pavement, Gruenfeld — a six-time winner of the Ironman World Championships in her age group – is used to snatching away seconds as she chases her dreams.

Mark Muckenfuss / The Press-Enterprise
Cherie Gruenfeld, left, pins a contestant number on Exceeding Expectations team member Isi Ibarra.

Six years ago, she started battling a different kind of clock, the one that ticks off the quarters and semesters that lead to high school graduation.

Gruenfeld, of Palm Desert, inserted herself into the lives of some fifth- and sixth-graders at San Bernardino’s Cypress Elementary School, offering them the chance to train and compete in age-group triathlons. She founded a program called Exceeding Expectations, providing equipment, training and even transportation for the students. Starting with 12 children, Gruenfeld now has a team of 30.

But it’s not quite what she envisioned.

She quickly found the needs of the mostly at-risk kids who joined the small team went far beyond a new pair of running shoes and a ridable bike. Many of them can barely swim and struggle through that leg of the race. They struggle even more, she says, in their day-to-day lives.

Many students came from families who did not place a high priority on education, Gruenfeld says, and they lived in an economically depressed area of east San Bernardino, in neighborhoods where it was often unsafe to be out on the streets.

“I’m not comfortable with them out running or biking on their own,” she says.

Instead of trying to turn them into super athletes, such as herself, she decided she could use sport to spur success in the classroom and other areas of their lives. As she did, her focus began to shift. The kids she had taken on as a side project wiggled their way into her life and became like a family to her.

It used to be that she fit the Exceeding Expectations program around her personal training schedule. Now, she says, it’s the other way around.

Though she has no kids of her own, Gruenfeld says if she did, “I doubt I could love my own kids much more than I love these kids. They are the top priority now. This is my passion.”

The program got started almost on a dare. Gruenfeld had been invited to speak at Cypress by teacher Jacque Irons, who now is a program volunteer. After lecturing to the students about goal-setting, Gruenfeld offered to help prepare those that wanted to participate for an upcoming triathlon. She was shocked when 200 hands went up. Through tryouts, 12 students were picked.

Three of those kids are still on the team. Gruenfeld estimates that 60-65 youngsters have been involved in the program.

On a recent race morning, the alarm at Gruenfeld’s Palm Desert home went off at 3:45. She and her husband, Lee, along with a handful of parents and volunteers, arrived in Loma Linda at 6 a.m. with an equipment trailer and a group of sleepy kids ranging in age from 10 to 18. Most of the kids had to be picked up at their homes.

Bike tires were filled with air, helmets fitted and jersey numbers pinned on as the youngsters stretched and readied for the 5k run, 9-mile bike ride and 150-yard swim that made up the PossAbilities Triathlon. The Loma Linda University sponsored event is designed for disabled and able-bodied athletes.

This is just one of many triathlons of varying lengths that Gruenfeld’s crew will compete in during the year. The high point, she says, is the upcoming Tin Man Triathlon in San Bernardino on June 25.

Amy Kowalski, 32, of Yucaipa, teaches school in Colton and volunteers for Gruenfeld’s program. She calls Gruenfeld an inspiration and doesn’t mind falling out of bed pre-dawn on a Saturday in order to get kids to the starting line.

On this morning, she had picked up a kid who had never run more than a few hundred yards at a time before joining the team. Starting with 5K races, he worked his way up and recently completed a half marathon. He was wondering, she says, how far he could go.

“He was like, ‘Do you think I can do a marathon?’ ” Kowalski says. “And I’m like, ‘Of course you can.’ ”

The sense of success the team members get from pushing themselves to new levels, she says, is critical in their lives.

“Once you’ve felt that,” she says, “you can accomplish anything.”

Team member Nick Keller, 15, recently moved from Highland to Moreno Valley, but has stayed with the program he credits with his success in school.

“I lived a troubled childhood in a bad area,” Keller said. Being in Exceeding Expectations “showed me there are nice people out in the world. I met a lot of nice people that gave me many opportunities.”

Particularly in education.

As a sixth-grader, Nick says, “I never did my work. I was a back talker. I was suspended multiple times for yelling at the teacher and ditching school. When I got on the team, I don’t remember why, but I started doing my work and started improving.”

Ending his sophomore year, Keller says he is getting straight A’s in school. Gruenfeld, he says, checks on his progress every month.

“Cherie makes sure we have good grades,” says Mike Arbor, 16, of Highland. “If not, she works with us.”

Sometimes she gets through to the kids. Sometimes not. For every team member that makes it to a race, there are others who have fallen out of the program.

“I now understand that working with these kinds of kids, there’s going to be lots of disappointments,” she says.

Heartbreaking News

She was heartbroken last summer when one of her girls, age 15, told her she was pregnant. Not long after, a boy on the team told her his girlfriend was going to have a baby.

“But they’re both here today,” she said, watching kids come in at the end of the bike leg of the race, “and they’re both in school. So I call those successes.”

In fact, she points to the boy in question, Jose Orozco, as one of the stars of the program. Three years ago, on the way to a race, the boy stunned her, she says, by questioning the value of a high school diploma.

“He said, ‘Why would I graduate from high school?’ Nobody in his world did that,” Gruenfeld says. She helped convince him to stay in school.

“When, two years later, he graduated, it was a pretty exciting moment for all of us,” she said.

Fighting off the fatigue of being up much of the night with his five-week-old daughter, Orozco, 18, says being on the triathlon team has made the difference for him.

“Once I started this, it was easier with her,” he said. “She was always on my back about, ‘Do this. It’s good for you, for your life.’ ”

When Orozco graduated last year, Gruenfeld wasn’t done with him.

“She told me to go to college,” he says. “She told me she would help me at school and pay for my books.”

He’s now studying to become a medical assistant at San Bernardino’s Concord College.

The money for such assistance comes from corporate and private donors and Gruenfeld herself. Exceeding Expectations has an annual budget of about $25,000, Gruenfeld said.

“If I had more funds, it would translate to more time,” she said. “I could pay for some training. I feel bad about the situations I put them into with as little training as we do. Right now, they are racing and that’s it.”

But it’s the kids like Orozco that keep her committed.

“What keeps me enthused about it is any little thing the kids do,” Gruenfeld said. “A kid will call me and ask for help or I hear good news about some kid. It’s tiny little things.”

There also are big reasons that keep her going.

“It’s knowing that if somebody does not intervene in their lives, these kids simply don’t have a chance,” she said. Many of them, she adds, will never reach their goals, even with the help of the program.

“I believe my presence gives them some kind of a chance.”