Big triathlon had a small start

A dozen little girls were the first competitors in what is now the 1,500-racer Gold Nugget.

Anchorage Daily NewsMay 19, 2012 

Three decades ago, the Gold Nugget Triathlon got its start at Tryon and Marianne Wieland's Sand Lake home. "The transition area was our driveway," recalled Jennifer, one of the Wieland daughters.

Created in 1982 by moms who wanted to make sure girls got the same opportunities to play sports as boys, the first race featured about a dozen little girls, ages 9-11, who belonged to the Girls Club Running Team.

It survived what would have been a scandal on a bigger stage but instead is a fondly remembered anecdote -- the winner of the open-lake swim didn't swim, she jogged! -- and went on to become Alaska's biggest triathlon and the nation's oldest all-female triathlon.

"We swam close to the shore because some of the kids who did it couldn't swim," remembers Carrie Bjorn-Roli, daughter of Judy Sedwick, the woman who dreamed up the race. "We ran through Jennifer's yard and rode around in her neighborhood.

"We didn't have any idea it would turn into what it is now."

Sedwick, 64, said the kids swam close to shore so they could touch the bottom of the lake if they needed to. "And we had two little rowboats out there," poised to help if needed, she said.

Jennifer Schrage, 40, remembers a short swim, a bike ride of eight to 10 miles to Kincaid Park and back to her house -- "the bike trail was in place, so we went on the bike trail; I don't think McDonald's was at the corner yet, so there was not a lot of traffic there yet," she said. The run was about three miles, "to the Jewel Lake Carrs and back."

Striking a chord that reverberates more than 30 years later, Sedwick insisted on making the race as inclusive as possible. To that end, instead of an overall winner being recognized, awards were presented to the three winners of the swim, the bike and the run.

A minor hiccup: The girl who won the swim did not swim her way to victory. Schrage's memory is that the girl didn't know how to swim, so she jogged through the waist-deep water. Sedwick's memory is that the girl realized jogging was quicker than swimming, so she ran.

"I said, 'Nikki, you were supposed to swim,' and she said, 'But I can run faster. You taught me to run faster,' " Sedwick said. "And I said never mind. It's all about the doing."

CLOSE TO ITS ROOTS

It's all about the doing. That is the Gold Nugget Triathlon mantra.

From a dozen little girls in the original race to the 1,500 ranging in age from 9 to 79 who are signed up for Sunday's race at Bartlett High, the triathlon has never strayed far from its roots.

"Whenever I would go on the 'Norma Goodman Show' (on KTVA, Channel 11) and do those different things," Sedwick said, "I would always say, 'Most of you take your kids out to Spenard Lake or Goose Lake or Jewel Lake, so you can swim; if you have to stop, it's OK. We all ride our bikes on the bike trail and that's what it is, a bike ride. And most women like to shop, so we walk the malls; therefore, we can run.'

"We tried really hard to make it about your fitness, your accomplishment, your goals. I love (eight-time winner and defending champion) Shannon Donley to pieces but even she realizes this is about getting people into sports and fitness."

The Gold Nugget is one of three wildly popular all-women competitions in Anchorage. Each has its own distinct character -- the Ski for Women is the best costume party in town, the Alaska Run for Women is a bathed-in-pink fundraiser for breast cancer that sends a powerful message of hope and strength, and the Gold Nugget Triathlon is a life-changing event for the scores of girls and women inspired by the race to get active and fit.

Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Alaska women know how to swim because of the Gold Nugget.

"It seems like every year I hear stories of women who learned to swim just for the event," said Bjorn-Roli, 39, co-director of the swim portion of the race. "I love the super-fast racers, don't get me wrong, but what I love more is watching the women who swim a different stroke every length of the pool and hang on the side to rest, and then you see them get out of that pool and you know they conquered something.

"I love that part. I love that the race has kept its heart, which was to be for any woman who wanted to try to do something new and different and good for herself."

STARTING SMALL

The Gold Nugget's goal to be for Everywoman was established in the race that started it all, the one for the little girls of the Girls Club Running Club.

Sedwick started the club when she realized the disparity between the Boys Club and the Girls Club in Anchorage. One was well-funded and offered lots of activities. The other wasn't and didn't. Guess which was which.

In 1982, Title IX, the federal law requiring gender equity in publicly funded schools, was only a decade old. Many parts of the country still had huge disparities when it came to boys sports and girls sports.

Sedwick was a product of the pre-Title IX era, yet she never knew those disparities. She grew up in Alaska but attended high school at an all-girls Catholic boarding school in Arizona that offered lots of sports.

"I was very fortunate," she said. "They were very forward-thinking in sports, and because it was a boarding school, if you played sports you got off campus, so I played everything."

Field hockey, basketball, track, tennis, swimming -- Sedwick did it all. When she arrived at the University of Arizona as a freshman, she was shocked to learn few other girls had been given similar opportunities.

When she and her husband, Bill, began a family in Anchorage, "I made it my kind of job to go out and fund the Girls Club and get more programs involved," she said.

Along the way, she met Diane Barnett, a gymnastics coach, and the two worked together on establishing Girls Club programs.

One of them was the Girls Club Running Club. Its coach was Sedwick and its members included Schrage, Bjorn-Roli, Tracy (Middleton) Houser and Barnett's daughter Hetty, who all went on to distinguish themselves as high school athletes.

"I was at a point in my life," Sedwick said, "where I thought I might be an athlete -- of course I wasn't -- but I had been involved in watching triathlons and had done one and I thought, we ought to do one for the girls."

The idea took off, bolstered by a desire to teach the girls that their world had no limits.

"It was really all about trying to empower these young girls to believe they can do anything they try," Sedwick said. "Please don't call me a feminist but I really wanted them to grow up thinking they could do anything."

That's exactly what happened.

Said Bjorn-Roli: "I don't think I ever heard in my whole life 'Girls don't do that.' It would never cross my mind. There was no reason we couldn't try."

Said Schrage: "Judy and all the mothers, they never had a you-can't-do-something type of attitude. We always just did these things. I feel so fortunate. My whole life, I've never had that feeling of not being able to do something."

FOR WOMEN TOO

Soon enough the little girls had to learn to share. Their mothers wanted to race too. In 1984, the triathlon was reborn as the Gold Nugget Triathlon, a fundraiser for the Girls Club. It attracted more than 150 girls and women.

"It wasn't like doing an event at Jennifer's," Sedwick said. "It took much more funding that I anticipated."

Ellen Arvold, one of Sedwick's friends who later served as a board member and race director, owned a company called Webco, which became the Gold Nugget's first sponsor. Jerry Walton, the city's former Parks and Recreation director, helped organize things. Tom Besh and Guy Thibodeau, ski coaches at UAA at the time, offered their help.

This year marks the 29th edition of the Gold Nugget Triathlon. Organizers are calling it the 30th anniversary in a nod to the backyard event at the Wielands'.

Sedwick and Barnett still serve on the board of directors, although Sedwick said this will be her final year. It's time for the next generation to take over, she said.

Among those entrusted with the race's future are former Girls Club Running Team members Schrage, who joined the board of directors two years ago, and Bjorn-Roli, a longtime volunteer who is in her second year as the co-director of the swim.

Schrage, Bjorn-Roli and Houser will all race Sunday, while the memory of a fourth member of the old running team will be honored. Hetty Barnett Carlson, who was 10 when she raced in the original Girls Club, died last summer at age 39 in a plane crash that also killed her husband and two children. This year's race has been dedicated to her.


Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

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