I-Tri: Baby Steps Into Long Strides

‘Facing fear is what sets us apart’
Theresa Roden began I-Tri as a pilot program at the Springs School when her daughter, Abby, a junior at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, was 11. Susan Roden

Theresa Roden’s “transformation through triathlon” empowerment program for adolescent girls took its first steps at the Springs School in 2010, and now, on the verge of its 10th anniversary, I-Tri’s stride has greatly lengthened and strengthened.

It is her vision that I-Tri’s reach should extend well beyond the East End, in this country and abroad.

Roden was recently chosen from among numerous nominees worldwide as the winner of an award of excellence from the International Triathlon Union’s women’s committee. At the union’s world championships and congress in Australia, a convocation that drew representatives from 120 countries, Roden had a chance to share her vision.

To wit, that the confidence of hitherto-unathletic middle school-age girls soars and their reluctance to tackle athletic and academic challenges fades when exposed to the I-Tri model that mixes triathletic training in swimming, biking, and running with nutrition, fitness, and self-esteem sessions. 

The goal is to help participants triumph over self-doubt by training for and finishing a triathlon (300-yard swim, 7-mile bike, and 1.5-mile run in I-Tri’s case). Having done that, and having been buoyed by friendships with I-Tri teammates — some of whom they might not otherwise have befriended — it has been said that the girls have broken two major barriers to growth and success at a young age, and thus have come to know that they can do anything.

“I was in my 30s when I began doing triathlons myself,” Roden said last week. Her daughter, Abby, “was 6 then. I had the idea for I-Tri when she was 11 and just entering middle school. That’s when I remembered how tough adolescence is, and that if I’d learned at her age what I’d learned in my 30s through triathlon training, my life would have taken a much different path. . . . I never used to think of myself as an athlete, but I still remember how I felt when Steve Tarpinian said, before one of the Mighty Man triathlons in Sag Harbor began, ‘Okay, all athletes to the beach.’ He was talking about me — I was an athlete!”  

“It’s about overcoming fear,” I-Tri’s founder continued. “Some of our girls can’t swim, some can’t ride a bike when they begin, and even for proficient swimmers, getting into the water with a hundred others and swimming in open water is a daunting task.”

“Facing fear is what sets us apart. By overcoming fear you become stronger. Even in the classroom we’re giving them the tools to overcome fear, to achieve goals that at the beginning seem absolutely impossible, and the result is that they become transformed.”

And while triathloning is an individual sport, “we are a team, we support one another. At the end of the day, that’s what they take with them, not who was first, but that we all finished. And the most celebrated girls are always the last girls to finish; they are working so much harder. They’re not only applauded, but girls who finished way ahead of them run back a half-mile so they can run with them to the finish line. That’s what I-Tri is about.”

The program already exists in seven schools. Should the Riverhead middle school, one additional middle school in the William Floyd district, and Bridgehampton be added this year, as is planned, the I-Tri population will grow to around 150, said Roden. It began with eight — Abby Roden, Hana Islami, Alexa Berti, Alana Ellis, Karla Gomez, Kirsten Clarke, Kattie Fragola, and Kimberly Grullon. 

“They are 20, 21 now and continue to stay in touch. For our 10th anniversary we are planning some great events and hope to get all of our alums to share their stories.” 

As for going national, Roden said that Evan Harrel, a Montauk consultant, is working with the board and staff to develop a strategy. Roden is stepping into more of a C.E.O. role, though she’ll continue to oversee the Springs School group, where, because it was the first, her heart and soul is. 

It is a daunting venture, but one that at the same time is “incredibly exciting,” she said. “We’re pretty unique in what we do — we were recognized for that in Australia. It was great to hear representatives from other countries, Mexico in particular, say they were anxious for us to stay connected.”

The nonprofit recently received a $40,000 grant, its biggest ever, from the Heisman Foundation “to help us create a science of triathlon curriculum that will be integrated into everything we do,” the goal being to understand the physical forces at work and to maximize perfor­mance. “What better way to feel an inclined plane than to bike uphill? Or to experience the effect of drag than by swimming in a pool?”

I-Tri, she added, will be among the nonprofits benefiting from One Island Giving Day, an online fund-raiser, on Oct. 25. “This is our biggest fund-raiser of the year, our annual appeal. Our board is energized and we will be reaching out via email and social media to provide our girls with all the training and equipment they need to be successful in 2019.” Donations can be made through itrigirls.org.

Further concerning her vision, I-Tri’s founder said, “We can’t stop. We were picturing just the other day in a brainstorming session a girl living in a faraway country who doesn’t even know this is coming her way, or that some day, through I-Tri, her life will be changed.”