Nearer My God to Three: Newlon?s mentoring has helped local kids take to the tri.
Nearer My God to Three: Newlon?s mentoring has helped local kids take to the tri. Credit: Charles Steck

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Tony Newlon spent the summer worrying about rivalries.

Newlon is the head coach of the triathlon camp at the Turkey Thicket Rec Center. That’s one of two such day camps now run, and run quite well, by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. The camps, which are free, train kids ages 9 to 14 in the triathlon mainstays: swimming, biking, and running—which happen to be mainstays of childhood summers.

The Kenilworth-Parkside Rec Center hosted the other group of newbie triathletes.

The dual-camp setup seemed a perfect place to build up a rivalry, particularly since the training schedule was geared toward a final face-off between the two camps in the second annual D.C. Kids Triathlon. That event was held Friday at Kenilworth.

After all, summer camps are all about the Us vs. Them: What would Meatballs have been without Bill Murray’s pep talks to Camp Northstar about trashing their nemeses from Camp Mohawk?

Newlon, being a competitive guy—he played basketball for Spingarn during the Michael Graham era of the early ’80s—surely wanted his kids to show up the Kenilworth kids at the season-ending event.

But when I went to visit him last month at Turkey Thicket during a morning camp session, I was surprised at how he kept stressing that the crosstown campers were “peers,” not rivals.

So I asked why. His answer was as sad as it was sincere: “We don’t want to start any beefs and have that get out of hand.”

Newlon told me that his training regimen factored in current events on the local landscape, meaning the kid-on-kid violence that’s grabbed attention in certain parts of the city.

Police and residents of besieged neighborhoods like Trinidad have said boys from one part of town are killing boys from another part of town just because they’re boys from another part of town.

“It’s crazy out there now,” he said. “You never know how they get started, so I just instilled in my kids that there is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We focus instead on having confidence in yourself, that you can do more than people say you can do or than you think you can do. This stuff [beefing] really happens. When you’re [a youth counselor] in D.C., you have to deal with more than athletics.”

This just in: D.C. ain’t a lot like Meatballs. Again, his campers are ages 9 to 14.

So when the campers from Turkey Thicket and Kenilworth joined up on Friday to compete in their triathlon—a 100-meter swim, a 5K bike ride, and a 2K cross-country run—counselors from the two camps kept pushing the non-rivalry theme. Campers from both outposts wore identical uniforms and kids were told to line up and wish one another well before any of the three heats, which were intentionally not organized according to camp affiliation, got started.

“Wish everybody luck!” Newlon yelled at his kids. “Everybody high-fives!”

Organizers and city officials could justifiably have spent the day high-fiving one another about the success of the camps.

D.C. isn’t wholly defined by its beefs. Turns out this is also a huge triathlon town. Chuck Brodsky, founder of the Nation’s Triathlon, says we’ve got the second-largest triathlon club in the country, with more than 10,000 members. (Austin, Texas, has the biggest.) In September, the 2008 Nation’s, a race Brodsky started just two years ago, will flaunt a field of more than 3,000.

The Nation’s Triathlon is an adults-only venture. But Brodsky approached the city after founding his race to push the concept that kids would take to triathletics if given the chance.

Brodsky says kids “7 or 8 years old” can withstand triathlon training and that he was so sold on his idea that he put up $25,000 of his own money to get the first triathlon camp going last year at Turkey Thicket, home of one of the city’s finest aquatic facilities. Brodsky’s foundation, AchieveDC, organized a group of sponsors to provide campers with everything they’d need to compete—including bikes, helmets, uniforms, and even designer water.

The city didn’t have to do much more than provide a venue.

“This is one of the partnerships that I love,” says Parks and Rec head Clark Ray, “because it costs the Department of Parks and Recreation absolutely nothing. Nothing! We have the space, and we’re looking for our great nonprofit partners to program at our space, and AchieveDC was right there last year.”

Thus was born what is billed as the first public youth triathlon camp in the country.

Ray says “more than 11,000” kids are enrolled at all city youth camps this summer, by far the largest enrollment ever. About 40 of them signed up for the triathlon camp this year, doubling the 2007 enrollment. That would be too many campers for Turkey Thicket.

Kenilworth-Parkside Rec Center had just added a state-of-the-art running track, the only public track not at a school, and already had a 25-meter pool, so Ray added a second triathlon camp and put it there.

Ray says the current tense climate in some city neighborhoods makes any sort of camp attractive to parents. But he said there’s more to his pushing the youth triathlon concept than just getting kids off the streets during the long, hot summer.

“It would be easy for us just to say, ‘Come off the street!’—to let DPR be a holding center or a babysitting service,” Ray says. “But this is far from that. This is about combining swimming, cycling, and running, giving the kids a chance to experience something that, more than likely, inner-city kids don’t get to experience, exposure to a new type of sporting event.”

Ray and Newlon both say that getting D.C. kids to swim well has been the biggest athletic challenge of the triathlon camps.

And the performances in the Kenilworth pool at the Kids Triathlon showed there’s still a long way to go: None of the competitors in the first of the three heats—the largest grouping in the event and the one stocked with the best athletes from both camps—finished the 100-yard swim without taking at least a few breaks.

One girl, later identified as a junior Olympics qualifier in track, merely ran through the water for all four laps in the 25-meter pool. Volunteers and family members nevertheless banged cowbells and shouted encouragement until she’d finished her aquatic jog.

But the kids’ competitive spirit was as obvious as any shortcomings in the pool. Despite temperatures in the 90s and the sort of humidity you’d expect in August, the kids pushed themselves like champs. When Christopher, an 11-year-old from the Turkey Thicket camp, finished his cross-country run and crossed the finish line first, Newlon was there waiting for him.

As the coach and other event officials jumped up and down around the winner and tried to hug him, the kid broke away from the celebration and threw up all over the track. Newlon couldn’t have looked prouder.