Text and photos by Colette Hopkins/edited by Jessica Michalosky

The lessons our children learn from our pros reach far beyond the confines of a race course. Our children witness what it means to put in the effort. To work hard and to be humble. To be determined. To deal with disappointment with grace. To reach beyond their limits and believe anything is possible.

Embrace Challenges…

As parents, we can only hope our children will do this as they traverse the unknowns of life. They will meet role models in everyday people like their teachers or coaches, or perhaps in people that seem more “unreachable,” such as athletes or public figures.

I was watching a video on the Kicker Endurance Training Facebook page and didn’t realize that my then 8 year-old daughter Linnea was peering over my shoulder. Canadian Pro Triathlete Heather Wurtele was describing her thoughts about the tough moments during an Ironman: “when it gets hard, there are those moments when you just need to push through. These moments are why you are out there.”

When the video finished, my daughter Linnea asked me to play it again. And again. And again the next day. We watched that video A LOT.

In the following months, these words resonated in our home. My husband and I are both age-group triathletes, and our kids witness our attempts to fit training, kids’ activities, work and family time into life. Since seeing Heather’s interview, my daughter often asked, “Mom, is it a hard one?” whenever I was preparing to head out for a training session. If I said yes, she grinned and said, “Don’t forget, that’s why you’re out there!” On the flip side, when she hopped out of the pool after swim club practice and I asked her how it was, she often replied that it was hard, “But it was still great Mom. Still doing it when it’s hard is why I’m out there.”

And Heather, like so many of our other Ironman Pros, is not just inspiring the next generation of triathletes. They are teaching our kids about life.

Heather Wurtele quickly became a household name, at least in our household. We checked out race stats online, scanned Facebook posts, and searched for new pictures on Instagram. On big race days, our little bouncing ginger alarm clock got us out of bed to watch race coverage in the wee hours of the morning. So one Friday night after a few glasses of red wine, I perused Team Wurtele’s website and found Heather’s email address. I sent Heather a message to relay how amazing it was that my child had latched on to this phrase: “What makes it hard is why you’re out there”. Unexpectedly, Heather replied: “The fact that she gets it; that she already knows that true satisfaction comes from doing things that challenge you, is super mega awesome!” I showed Linnea Heather’s response. Cue 8 year-old happy-dance freak-out #1.

In October 2016 when Heather DNF’d at the Ironman World Championships, our daughter was heartbroken for her. We had been watching the coverage, and Linnea immediately noticed when Heather’s name was no longer coming up in the telecaster’s comments. She had me frantically searching on the Ironman blog, chanting incessantly that something must be wrong. WHERE IS HEATHER?!?! When she learned that Heather had withdrawn due to mechanical issues on the bike, my daughter insisted on sending her a Facebook message–right now! I reminded her that Heather likely wouldn’t see it for some time, nor would she likely get a reply. Her message read: “I feel so bad for you. Stupid Bikes. I still think you’re the best.” Heather replied almost immediately (making my daughter throw me an instant you have no idea what you’re talking about look): “Thanks so much guys. It really means a lot, really.” You could feel her disappointment in the few kind words she sent Linnea.

  

A few weeks later, my daughter started working on an Identity Project at school. Not surprisingly, it was a tribute to triathlon. Her presentation included pictures of swim/bike/run and a list of her own accomplishments in the sport–she had raced 2 seasons of Kids of Steel Races. An entire side of the trifold presentation was dedicated to the “People I Admire”. Names included in that list were Jan Frodeno, Daniela Ryf, Miranda Carfrae, Brent McMahon and Heather Wurtele. Under Heather’s picture, it read “Heather Wurtele: 2nd place in the Ironman 70.3 World Championships 2015. She is from Canada. I actually talked to Heather on Facebook once”.

Then came the announcement that Heather Wurtele was coming back to Victoria to race the Ironman 70.3. There are no words to describe my daughter’s genuine excitement. Heck, there were no words to describe MY excitement. We created a video and sent it to Heather.  I sent the video off, and Heather immediately replied: “I can’t wait to hang out”. Hang out?!?!? Cue the 8 year-old’s happy-dance, freak-out #2.

The day before the 2015 Victoria 70.3, we made our way down to the race venue so our kids could participate in the Ironkids Fun Run. Within minutes of arriving on site, my daughter started to vibrate with excitement. She had spotted Heather sitting at a picnic table visiting with some friends. When we got to the table, she stood beside Heather for a few moments and didn’t say a single word. The normally talkative and boisterous girl was paralyzed and speechless. Even when Heather noticed her, all she could blurt out was a quiet “Hi”. When Heather broke into one of her giant grins and exclaimed “Linnea!!!! It’s so nice to FINALLY meet you!” I could tell my daughter was trying hard to stay calm and cool, but inside she was barely holding herself together.

Bright and early the following day, my daughter marched out the door and charged down the street to the bike course, carrying her handcrafted sign, her cowbell-ringing, little brother in tow. Her very simple message read:

“WHAT MAKES IT HARD IS WHY YOU’RE OUT THERE”

As Heather flew by on her bike amidst cheers and fanfare, she noticed my daughter and her sign. Heather laughed and gave a big thumbs-up as if to say “Well-played kiddo. Well played”.

We were able to witness Heather standing on the very top of the podium that afternoon. First place! After receiving her award, we all met to discuss the plan of action—that is, where was the closest place to go out for ice cream together. While we were making plans, Heather passed on her trophy to my daughter. She had signed it: “What makes it HARD is why you’re out there. Keep embracing challenges. XO Heather Wurtele”. The proceeding ice cream date was a sweet ending to an incredible weekend for one very fortunate little girl. 

Heather’s trophy now sits in my daughter’s room next to her own two triathlon trophies: three tokens of hard work and embracing challenges. Since meeting Heather, the requests about her whereabouts and race schedule are less frequent. My daughter still asks about Heather’s races, and she makes an effort to watch, but things have somewhat changed. Heather is no longer some fictional athlete out in Ironman-land that sits high on a pedestal. She is reachable, she is relatable, and she is real.

And Heather, like so many of our other Ironman Pros, is not just inspiring the next generation of triathletes. They are teaching our kids about life. The lessons our children learn from our pros reach far beyond the confines of a race course. Our children witness what it means to put in the effort. To work hard and to be humble. To be determined. To deal with disappointment with grace. To reach beyond their limits and believe anything is possible. To accept challenges. Because just as in Ironman racing as in life, what makes it hard (and overcoming those challenges) is what makes it truly great. 

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