Baxter YMCA Tri Tornadoes

How would you describe a triathlon? Challenging? Medieval? Triumphant? All of the above?

Triathlons come in several distances from the short to the fast sprint to the Ironman – an all-day gut check of 140.6 miles. No matter the distance, they all start the same – an often chilly plunge into a lake, river or ocean, followed by biking, running and then that finish line, an unabashed, exuberant celebration of months or even years of hard work.

As Tri Tornadoes Coach, Todd Shellenberger says, “Triathlon is not world-changing, but it can be life-changing.”

The adult and kids Tri Tornadoes teams are based at the Baxter YMCA. Shellenberger started the kids’ team in 2008 and added the adult team to the mix in 2009. The two teams include a diverse group of athletes from 6 years old to 60-something. It’s often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but for the Tornadoes, a picture doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Everyone on the team looks ordinary – all ages, all sizes, all at different places in their development as athletes – but what they are doing is extraordinary. Time after time, they are facing down fears, overcoming obstacles, stepping out of their comfort zones and chasing their dreams.

What started out as a class to teach would-be triathletes the ropes and promote a healthy lifestyle is accomplishing that goal and more. For Brenna Macias, whose goal is to complete an Ironman before her 40th birthday, this is obvious. “The team has taught me that people can do much more than they think they can, and that by working together, we’re able to reach our goals.”

While a triathlon is an individual sport, preparing for it is a group effort. Alan Coppinger joined the team in 2011 to prepare for his first half Ironman race. “The Tornadoes made me feel welcome, and their enthusiasm was electric. We are almost like a second family and have accomplished many great things together.”

What has surprised Shellenberger, a two-time Ironman World Championship finisher, the most about his team? “I wassurprised when people started striking up friendships that extended outside of team practices. They have become friends, good friends that look out for each other. It’s not just an exercise class anymore. We spend a lot of time together working toward our individual goals, suffering through hard workouts, doing something we love. We have become invested in helping each other reach our goals – whether it’s finishing a first triathlon, qualifying for Nationals, living a healthy lifestyle or setting a good example for our kids. We are in this together.”

Jessica Thompson, a Greenwood High School graduate who is attending the University of Indianapolis, was looking for a way to stay fit and active. “The Tornadoes are great because there are so many different athletic abilities and goals. We all work together to be stronger and faster.”

Somehow the team has become something more – a home, an incubator of dreams, a chance to prove that anything is possible with hard work. Todd notes that for the Tornadoes, “Triathlon isn’t the ultimate objective; it is helping people see how much they can accomplish and helping them grow in their relationship with Christ. We see each other at our best and have, literally, picked each other off the ground when things don’t go as planned.”

Tornado Mark Rich jumped in with both feet and finished his first half Ironman this year. He enjoys pushing himself during team workouts. “The team spends a lot of time together. It is a fun, encouraging environment. There is room for all skill levels from beginner to expert, young and old – everyone is appreciated.”

When Brenna Macias joined the team, she was nervous. “My first couple of mornings, I wasn’t sure of myself, my fitness level, my ability to keep up – but everyone made it so easy. Getting up at 4:10 a.m. to train wouldn’t be possible without the support network the Tornadoes provide. I haven’t done an Ironman, but I have fulfilled a long time dream of competing in an XTerra Triathlon this year. I have been celebrated by the Tornadoes for my small personal victories and have been allowed to celebrate others’ victories – large and small. When the rest of the world thinks I’m crazy for doing what I love, I know the Tornadoes understand.”

Abbie McWilliams said what they all eventually learn: “Anything worth having requires sacrifice and commitment.” It also requires something else – people who believe in you, people who are willing to hold you accountable, lift you up, set the example and be a friend. People like the Tornadoes.