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Triathletes making a difference – Orangeville group supports frontline workers

Swim, bike, run ... and sew

The Orangeville Women’s Triathlon Community (OWTC) is a diverse group who run, bike and swim together without the fuss of actually being a club. Members support each other and, when the spring COVID-19 lockdown kept them apart, they supported the protection of frontline healthcare workers.

Valerie Smith heard through another OWTC member that peopleCare Communities, a retirement and long term care organization based in Waterloo, Ont., was looking for volunteers to sew personal protective equipment gowns. So Smith put the word out to the members and got them organized.

“I was amazed at how everyone jumped in to help,” recalls Smith. “Some said, ‘I don’t know how to sew but I’ll try.’ And that’s what triathletes are like – sometimes it’s like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing exactly, but I’m doing it.’”

At a time when workouts and races were not allowed, it was great to help someone else. “All of a sudden, there was nothing – no swimming, running or biking. It was nice to be able to do something positive,” says Smith about the sewing project.

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She was the project organizer who drove to Waterloo and picked up fabric and patterns from peopleCare. Thread and other supplies were provided by OWTC members and shared among themselves. Their Facebook group had a whole stream of conversations just about the gowns so members could ask each other questions and share information.

There were 15 members who helped out: Sharon Clark, Judi Jamieson, Jennifer Sutoski, Rhonda Gerrits, Elizabeth Weaverbee, Jessica Ruth, Jodi McNeil, Susan McNeil, Cory Robb, Jiiva Somerville, Diane Hall, Colleen Price Bailey, Tracy Sousa McKinley, Maurning Mayzes and Valerie. One brought her 86-year-old mother, a professional seamstress, on board and others taught their daughters how to sew so they could help too.

OWTC sewed 150 gowns and Smith delivered them back to Waterloo in three batches. The folks at peopleCare were very grateful for the volunteers’ commitment during a challenging time when supply chains everywhere were hampered by lockdown restrictions.

Related: Triathletes stepping up and making a difference – John Yip

“It feels so small to us,” says Smith, downplaying their contribution a bit, “It was cool and we all enjoyed it.”

A thank you letter from peopleCare came to Smith along with a request to please get it to everyone who had helped. So Smith and her young daughters made copies of the letter, crafted special thank you bookmarks, and mailed a package out to each of the volunteers.

Just as the sewing group included a range of skills and experience, OWTC’s 50 to 60 active members are also diverse. The community supports each other in unique ways and Smith emphasizes that being a community, not a club, is very deliberate. It means not limiting potential members with costly fees, but there is much more to their philosophy.

Creating a triathlon group for women

The original idea came from Lisa Hogben back in 2012. “I had a goal to create a triathlon group for women to feel safe and comfortable, encouraged and part of a community,” she says. “I wanted to take the fear and intimidation out of doing a first triathlon, and of joining a triathlon club. What developed was far beyond my dreams. The kindness and love amongst these women have changed all our lives for the better.”

The community got going about five years ago and over 100 women have gone through their annual 12-week, Learn to Tri clinic that typically wraps up with participants competing in the annual Iron Girl triathlon. Smith says that the clinic is the most structured thing about the group, although the Saturday morning run is a regular feature.

They communicate mostly through Facebook about when and where folks will be cycling, running, or hiking and then others can choose to join in. Rental of a local pool is organized for workouts that can be modified to suit individual needs.

“It is not super structured and not coached,” says Smith. “Basically, someone posts when they’re going out and lets others know that if they want to come out too, they’ll be helped.”

Some of the women have coaches outside of OWTC and members’ experiences range from newbies to sprints to Ironman competitions. New members might be looking to compete in their first triathlon or just want to get off the couch.

“If you want to do something,” says Smith, “you’re going to find someone in the community who has done it and can help you.”

And that’s what Hogben had in mind.

“I wanted a platform for students to become leaders, offer encouragement, support, and friendship. I wanted a group where inclusivity is paramount, where the door is always open,” she says. “I wanted a place where one can tailor their goals to suit the stage in their life, to know that they can come and go as their life dictates and always be welcomed back.”

When the world entered a difficult stage last spring and everything came to a sudden halt, the philosophy of OWTC did a pivot to help others. After the gowns were done, some members went on to sew caps and masks for another organization. They all found it to be rewarding and as Smith says, “As much as you give out, you get back ten-fold.”

“My greatest joy has been to share my knowledge and experience with newcomers and encourage and inspire them to have fun, relax and just give it a try,” says Hogben.

She could not have predicted they would someday help protect frontline healthcare workers but it isn’t surprising that their philosophy of support rippled beyond their own community.

Helen Powers is a regular contributor to Triathlon Magazine Canada. This story originally appeared in the January, 2021 issue.