( By ERIC ANDERSON )
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.