NEWPORT — As he made his way toward the finish line, tears streaming down his face and a group running alongside him, the young boy was noticeably spent. But soon enough, that feeling of exhaustion was lifted when the medal was placed around his neck and he received hugs and high-fives from friends and family members.
He officially was a triathlete.
Nearly 100 youngsters, ages 6 to 12, took part Sunday morning in the second annual Race4Chase triathlon at Fort Adams State Park. The event is the culmination of a six-week program at the Newport County YMCA inspired by Chase Kowalski, a 7-year-old boy who was killed in the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
Rebecca Kowalski, Chase’s mother, was on hand Sunday, snapping pictures of the participants as they made their way across the finish line. The idea for the program came about in the days after the tragedy at Sandy Hook, when Rebecca Kowalski said she saw a vision of Chase.
“He told me what we were going to do. He said, ‘Mom, we’re going to change the world,” Rebecca Kowalski said under sunny skies on the north lawn at the park. “I didn’t know what that meant, but a few days later at the Y, there was a program called the ‘Achieve Program’ that was losing funding that taught kids how to do triathlon. Chase was a triathlete, and I said, ‘OK, here it is. This is the direction we’re going to go in.’”
Race4Chase has grown from three programs in Connecticut to 25 in three states. Mike Miller, the CEO of the Newport County YMCA, got involved when he connected with friend Jim O’Rourke, CEO of the Waterbury YMCA in Connecticut.
“Just hearing Jim talk about it and what it’s doing for the kids, I just thought this would be good to bring to Rhode Island,” said Miller, adding that this event wouldn’t be possible without the large amount of sponsors and community partners, as well as the volunteers.
This is the second year Newport has taken part in the Race4Chase program, and Miller said twice as many youths signed up this year, including his 8-year-old son Cole. Additionally, all five YMCAs in Rhode Island participated in the event.
“We would like to continue to grow this,” Miller said.
The route Sunday consisted of a 1,000-yard swim, a two-mile bike and ¾-mile run, all around the grounds of Fort Adams. Volunteers were stationed at every turn and the transition areas, handing out water and cheering on the young athletes in the race.
When participants finished, they received medals they displayed proudly. Many still had enough energy to leap up and down inside a nearby bounce house, while others went to the awards tent, where they gathered in groups to talk about the race.
While the shootings at Sandy Hook have been politicized, Race4Chase is nothing but a positive experience for all involved, Kowalski said.
“This has nothing to do with politics or gun violence,” she said. “We don’t talk about the way Chase was taken so much, but we talk about who he was and what he was able to accomplish in seven years of life. With any of the political stuff, there is always negative connotation, and that won’t help me and my family heal. It won’t keep it positive. For me, everything is about staying positive and moving forward.”
For Kowalski, who was in Newport with husband, Stephen, and daughter Erin, race days are “bittersweet.”
“We do this to keep Chase’s spirit alive, and every kid that comes through [the finish line] is a little piece of Chase,” she said. “And that helps the healing process a little bit each time. It will never be fixed, but it keeps his legacy alive.”